“I went to the woods because
I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.”
— Thoreau —
I don’t remember much of my father’s funeral — when I think back on the day, the minutes seem to somehow unfurl into themselves, undulating in a strange blurred sea of formal black clothing and January white snow.
There are moments, though — the way my eyes seemed to lose focus when I stepped through the doors of the parlor room, the way the rows of folding chairs seemed to refract into infinite darkness as I approached his open casket, relatives lining the thin beige walls and the sound of their hushed exchanges fading into a muffled oblivion in my periphery as I stared vacantly at the artificial crease sculpted into his foreign looking mouth.
I remember the way my feet seemed to move on their own, ushering me from the leather seat of the car to the smooth, glossy wood of the front church pew, where I sobbed through mass and refused to take off his grey feathered cowboy hat. I think I wore that hat every day for a year after his funeral; It was the only thing that seemed to hold together the utterly, impossibly, immeasurable magnitude of debris my heart was left in — the only thing that seemed to fill the hauntingly subverted void behind my ribs where the memory of his voice just echoed, ghosted, endlessly.
I remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my soul that began to churn weeks before his heart even failed him. I couldn’t understand why or what it meant, but every time I looked into his hazel eyes I felt this strange sort of nostalgia — as if something in him was receding, and yet somehow also rising, casting an obscured shadow that kept darkening as it ascended, like a backward cascade of some dividing force, until that phone call, those two cataclysmic words that stole the air from my mother’s trembling lungs, brought it crashing down on me with the weight of the entire ocean;
I remember the bands of morning sunlight flickering through the blinds over my window and screaming for a deafening eternity into the folds of my bedsheets.
It’s been five years now. The pain of it isn’t as raw it used to be; I feel inside my own body again, eating and smiling and laughing feel natural again. I’m not free falling through dimensions inside dimensions inside dimensions of night-terrors every time I close my eyes anymore. All in all, I have managed to tape the demolished components of my human exterior back up into a conceivably normal and whole looking person again. But I still feel this ruthlessly unyielding ache burrowing deeper and deeper inside of me as the days turn to weeks and into months and years, and the reality of his death becomes more and more absolute. That this is my life, not a bad dream, and in his stark absence I will never hear the sound of his gentle voice calling me “sweet pea” ever again.
He was my teacher. My mentor. My guide. And it has been his words, his wisdom, his lessons that he made his ultimate goal in life to instill in me, that I follow like stars to navigate my way through the nebulous wake of his loss. I try to keep my feet on the ground, my eyes fixed on the horizon, push on, push harder, and follow where my heart calls, because I know that is what he would want me to do. But even as I continue to put one foot in front of the other, I still seem to subsist in some intangible half realm, enveloped in this shapeless far away feeling, stumbling through time, haphazardly groping for some semblance of direction, graceless, meandering, desperately trying to find my north like a vagrant lost in my own elusive existence.
But this is what I know:
Life is fleeting. We don’t get second chances. And there is no promise of tomorrow.
I think my biggest fear has become that split second between this world and the next, and looking back with regret instead of looking forward, satisfied, satiated, and ready for a new adventure. My father said once that we have no boundaries in life but those that we ourselves create, and I feel the weight of that sentence swelling in my bones more and more each year. I feel like I’ve been trying to shove myself into this puzzle that I just don’t fit into — sometimes I feel like I’ve been doing this my whole life. Trying to fill space that I can’t or needing more than what is there, my edges are too sharp or not sharp enough, always a dissonant note, never in harmony, never matching what is around me, never belonging. I try to rearrange myself, bend myself, stretch myself, fold myself, but eventually, inevitably, I snap and go catapulting into some outlying distance where I quietly recoil and retrace the years, searching for some hint, some clue, of just what the Hell is wrong with me.
I keep trying to fathom who and what I would be if all my walls came down and all my rifts were bridged, if I could see my life as limitless — what I would witness in the mirror, what would stir in my heart. My mind flies in circles, but I seem to orbit this one memory of the first time I drove cross country — the open road before me, miles and miles rolling out into the night in every direction around me, and the desert air sweeping against my skin through the open windows, kissing my soul with such intoxicating fervor that I just wanted to keep following the stars to that horizon forever, without roots, without a shadow, without gravity, untethered by time.
For as long as I can remember, my father was tormented with this fierce aversion to the “status quo.” He didn’t want to be a “cog in the wheel,” as he used to put it, and likened suits and ties and nine to fives to a catatonic kind of existence, a repressive encapsulation in some vacuous pre-conditioned closed circuit perpetually chasing after the dollar while all your latent creativity and potentiality falls to waste. The idea of it just went violently against every cell that constituted him. I think different people are just after different things; Some want wealth, some want power, fame, family, and they make choices that will best fulfill what they are seeking. But what if all you want is that open road, the deserts, the seas, shooting stars, the raw beauty of nature, the voice of the earth — what is that? Is that valid? If the soil beneath your feet and the sky above you is the only way you feel alive, connected, whole? He wanted to explore, create, push his limits, find his answers. He was a dreamer, through and through. It was just in his blood. And it’s in mine.
I understand now.
I remember the way he used to sit under the sun in his last year or so, lost in this contemplative stillness, like a caged wolf trying to make peace with his fate. Sometimes I wonder if that is what killed him in the end — that constant straddle between his truth and a world that turned in opposition to it, like a puzzle that it didn’t fit into, until it eventually hollowed him out and tore him apart. Sometimes I am terrified that I will have a similar fate.
Tomorrow would have been his seventieth birthday. I want to honor him by choosing once and for all to forget the puzzle and honor myself — to embrace my truth — to awaken what is dormant in me and finally live that life that is without boundary.
So here in my little corner of the digital universe, I dedicate this journey to him. And to the dreamers of this world, ever searching for the secrets in the stars; May we remain stubborn in our ways and have the courage to follow where our souls are called.
— Claire Elise