When you lose someone your guts fall out.
But here’s something I never thought about until I lost three of the most important people in my life and my dog in one year, all while living overseas — dead people are everywhere. Ghosts know no borders.
There was an automatic movement that your hand made when it reached to dial her number, that it now only almost makes, knowing she won’t be on the other end of the call.
There are little bits of hair where you never fully washed that blanket. One big, whipping shake of the cloth and you almost hear the soft tumble of a hidden piece of dog food, long-since desiccated and ant-nibbled.
Looking for something in the garage and there, a notepad, “24th — Last Chemo.” All block letters. The unmistakable penmanship that doesn’t know only weeks are left.
The missing space, the unfinished movements, the hidden treasures abandoned by their former lovers — are there in all their unbelievably heavy emptiness. How can nothing weigh so much?
Memories haunt me, not only in the places they’ve been, but in visions of never-to-be futures that come seeping in from the place that I am. Loss makes me keen to see moments that never came to pass. My brain fills in visits that never happened, awe-striking sites that were never seen, new and strange foods never tried — laughed at, squirmed over, delighted in.
I’m sure this happens to people when they lose someone and go on living in the place where they all shared memories. I didn’t expect it would happen in the places my lost ones had never been.
Fisherman cast their lines on piers all over the world. And so, like a ghost, my stepdad is there, pointing and sharing even with no Japanese, because something connects all men who fish. But he was never here. God, he would have found it beautiful.
Running my hands along a piece of antique kimono, my mind tells me to call my grandmother. What incredible creations could she have made with this unique fabric? But she won’t hear that story of the treasure I found. She left before the memory could be made.
The biggest adventure of my grandfather’s life was the two years he spent in Germany just after World War II. He always related every one of my international stories to that time in his life — the freedom, the newness, the strange place. My heart aches for the connection he would have made with where I am now and where he once was and the laughter in his voice, “Aw, Sweetie, that reminds me, when I was in Germany…”
Whether intentional or accidental, we escape a lot in this lifestyle. Sometimes it’s not all that bad to be far away. It gets comfortable to not have to deal, to be able to bail or to say — “Oh, it’s just so far. Not this year.” But we also miss so much we never thought we’d have to miss — death, funerals, hospice, chemo. But whether we stay or go, they find us. Ghosts know no borders. By intention or accident, they find us.
But that works for us. Expats know how to deal with wandering. We know what it means to carry.
To pack it all inside, to take it out again, to look one more time. To remember whenever and wherever you need to, in the corners and crevices of past lives and right now, so that the memory can follow you everywhere — because you’re everywhere. And now the people you’ve lost are everywhere too.
It doesn’t make it all right. Your guts do indeed fall out with their passing. But pain has Band-Aids and wound care, and learning how to take your lost loves with you is yet another way to heal. What I’m saying is that I carry around a whole lot of suitcases. One of them holds her heart (and his heart and his heart and his heart) in it. When you’ve spent so much time with suitcases, you know how to get a whole lot of stuff in there.
This is an incredible blessing of the way in which we live. Neither our memories nor our grief are confined to one place.
And I can take all the memories with me. Just like the moon and the stars. Just like the Sun. My treasures. Hauled around from place to place. The same no matter where we go. For me, they’re not trapped where they passed, decomposing in the fertile Indiana soil or floating as ashes across the lake, baked by record temperatures, made soggy with April rain. I take them with me.
My travel companions. My beloved loss, my grief, my memories — my most flexible travel companions.