Because a storm sweeps across the island on the day I am meant to leave, my departure is delayed. I spend two days perched on the edge of whatever must come next. Two days of bluster and white-capped seas and the whole world holding its breath to the count of electoral votes. On Wednesday, I board the ancient ferry clutching a handful of native flowers. I inch near a sublime sort of elation and toss the colorful weeds out the window. An island tradition, a promise to one day return. I inhale the possibilities with the last of the salt air but know I don’t really mean it. I convince myself I have found the courage to build a new life for us. But really, it is only that it has come time to leave. I watch the green-gray of the island fade from sight.
For two days, I drive past the fiery trees of a New England fall. I feel a longing for those white-clapboard houses and quaking aspens, everywhere an order that makes me want to believe in truth. The air is too warm for November but the sun gives me courage. I allow the radio dial to linger on the incoming election results. My life, the world, all spiraling toward a great unknown.
I pick up my daughter in Virginia. There is no homecoming, no home to come to except for her. The next morning, we leave for North Carolina. My brother’s farm has been sold. It is time to say a final goodbye. I am ready for it, ready to lay this last piece to rest.
As I near the smudge of the Asheville skyline, the peace of the island wears off. A hazy sort of dread settles over me. My grief had just begun to fold itself up, but in the opalescent dusk of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I feel it unfurl once more. I don’t think I want it to. But I also think I have to.
At the house, my brother’s dog follows me, room to room, and I know we are looking for the same thing. We reach his tool bench; she sniffs, paces anxiously, and sets to a low, pleading whine. Back and forth, nose to the ground, she gives herself over to her sorrow. The sound looses something in me. I want to take her in my arms, like a child, and explain that he will not be returning. But she already knows that, perhaps better than us all. She was in the room with him that night.
The knowledge does not stop the wanting.
Among the ruins of my brother’s life, I come face to face with something more than sorrow, some unaccountable rage I have kept at bay for the past ten months. Perhaps I cycled through the stages of grief in reverse order, having started with acceptance and worked my way back. Now the anger stands most profound.
It isn’t just that he died. It is everything that came after. It is the thing that no one tells you, the rolodex of memories suddenly unfolded, the spin spinning back through time. The way you drive to pick up cheerios and lettuce but in the silence of the red light remember that singular thing from all those years ago. And you wonder. Was that it? Was that the reason why?
I spent much of my time on the island tracing my life, my brother’s life, back to the roots of our separate and together existences. I packed the video of the day he was born and watched it. Over and over and over. I felt certain all the things I needed to know were present on that winter day 35 years ago. If we had been looking closely, we would have seen it, the end as clear as the beginning. I watched us gathered on that bed full of hope. I wanted to hold a movie slate in front of our faces, snap it shut and call “SCENE” before anyone could go any further. Before there was room to feel the rest of it.
I think this. I think I love my daughter but I hate everyone else. Or at least, I want to think I hate everyone else. I want to think I despise all those who aren’t down here in the dark with me. But what I understand more is that I am ashamed of my pain, ashamed to still not be quite ok. I feel open and exposed in the presence of others, forced to rise to the occasion, to smile and embrace the joy of life. I feel like an infectious disease, tainting the grace of the lives around me. I want to return to my island, keep myself quarantined away from the living. It feels gratuitous to be this way. Ten months out and still weeping. It’s all a matter of choice, really.
Here, my anxiety becomes tangled with my brother’s. The white-hot fear that springs through my gut when I think about the next steps of my life is the same white-hot fear that roils through me when I see that room, when I think about that night. I agonize over the swiftness of his decision, made too easy, too convenient, by the superfluous presence of that gun. Always present, always on his hip or nearby counter or bed stand. I want to understand that. Was it his Marine training, the desire to defend and protect, or something more sinister? Was it that he always needed to know he had an out? I think about it with a seething rage. A moment. A moment. A single living moment that might have, should have, otherwise just as easily passed.
I stand in that room. I need to allow the realness of it erase the magnified, monstrous version that looms in my imagination and dreams. I need to stare it in the face like the mythological beast of fairy tales, take away its power to haunt my sleep.
I feel the heave of nausea and cannot separate it from my own, cannot separate it from the endless line of decisions I must make. School districts and short-term rentals, long-term rentals and pet-sitters, career changes and holidays, my child in the midst of instability and change and grief. I want to wake and find it has all been decided for me. I want to lie down and sleep. I want to place my hands on either side of my brother’s face and ask him what it is that we should do. He and I. What should we do to make sense of all the things in the space between that day he was born and this right now moment?
I want to scream.
Before the island, I stayed at my friend Patricia’s house. Patricia, the one who told me to name the things I want, the one who inspired me to reach, to write, to get to the island, the one who unabashedly and wholeheartedly believes in love. In her kitchen is a long, wooden beam with the words Life Can Be Beautiful inscribed across it, a remnant from her mother’s New England house. A signia, a badge, a mark, a sign.
I chanted that phrase as I hiked across the nooks and crannies of the island. Life Can Be Beautiful, Life Can Be Beautiful, Life Can Be Beautiful. What is it, after all, this life? A choice? A decision? A moving forward toward a designated marker?
I know I need to choose something, anything. To move toward. But what is it I am supposed to want? A career? A house? To marry? What if I don’t want any of those things anymore? Perhaps I need only the willingness to subsist on breadcrumbs while I write. But what kind of a life would that be for my daughter? Four more years until college. I suppose, then, I must want those things for her. Would it teach her to lie? Would it teach her to want the same? Career? House? Marriage? Is that what makes a life?
I think this. I want to be a nomad. I want to wander nameless from land to land. I want the heavy, fragrant air of a Moroccan market to spill over me. I want to rush across the jewel-green hills of Ireland, let my bones freeze on an Alaskan tundra, dance sweat-laden through the night in Chile. I want to climb to the silence of the temples in the Himalayas. I want to hear the whisper of ancient secrets from the depths of Egyptian tombs. I want to sit in the cool lecture halls of the world’s oldest universities and listen to the most brilliant minds of my generation speak.
I want to gather my friends around my table, hear them talk of their children, watch their faces crinkle with the lines of life. I want to reach into this world and untangle some of the chaos, sew the seeds of justice and rightness. I want to hold the hands of those who mourn, feel the weighted brokenness of existence, sit with them in the silence of their pain. I want my daughter to know truth, compassion, mercy.
It is not that I want less of life. It is that I want more. So much more than I can fill in the 40-odd years that I have left. I want it all. The bitter and the sweet. The pain and the joy. The ugly and the beauty. I want it to matter.
I think all of this as I box the last of my brother’s belongings. Empty items that he never would have given a second thought to. Beautiful items. I think I am going to make a new home. I am going to make it beautiful.
I have found the courage now, here in the vestiges of my brother’s being. I am going to build a new life. I am going to fill it with pieces from the old and I am going to fill it with pieces that reach into the unimaginable space of knowing, of believing that love can be woven from thin air, from dust. I am going to believe that, when placed into the world, it will be enough. It will be spun from the grief, the pain, the love, the uncertainty, the hope, the truth, the anger. And all of it will be beautiful.