This past weekend I went to Hollister. It’s a ranching town about two hours south of San Francisco. Though I’ve hated the rain this winter, when I saw the impossibly emerald blanket tucked around every hillside and field, I forgave Mother Nature and then took a deep inhale of fresh crops and raw earthen sod.
Ranchland is a fairly new experience for me. After all, I grew up in suburban Philadelphia. But somehow, when I sat late at night in my friend’s cottage, my thoughts turned to home. More specifically they turned to a hole in my heart where home was. A hole dug six years ago. The hole that sits where my father used to be.
I know. I know. When you lose someone, they’re never really gone. The memories you have carry on forever. So, too, it is true with my father. He’s with me every day. And I’m probably more blessed than many in that my sense of him remains powerful – even all these years later.
But there are times when none of this matters because no matter what anyone tells you, the truth is that when someone dies they’re gone. Period. And even though memories are a spectacular thing, they don’t replace the person. They can’t.
So on this night, I miss my father. I come to a place like this where it’s so quiet and I can hear the crickets and I think about the nights … the warm spring and early summer nights in Philadelphia when we used to sit outside in after dinner looking at fireflies and smelling the velvet and silk aroma of lilac from the property next door. Wrapped around the sweetness was the rich, earthy texture of freshly cut grass with a whispering sheath of tobacco from my father’s cigar.
We’d sit in the dark with the crickets and the occasional buzz of a mosquito poking gently into the deep green silence. Lazy flashing specks hovering in the thick air, glow lights I’d capture in a jar to take inside. How disappointed I was when in the bright incandescence the brilliant glow faded to a pale shudder as the terrified fireflies gathered at the edges of the jar. Even now, sitting in the darkness so many decades later, I can hear daddy humming. No particular tune. Just a wordless melody that rose and fell breaking at moments as he paused reflecting on some thought that had blinked on and off … a firefly moment in his head.
I wonder what some of those thoughts were. I wish I’d asked him more questions. I don’t feel that I got to know him nearly enough and so I cling to the stories I know and the vivid memories that I recall – the early morning bike rides in Atlantic City during the summer. Those evenings we spent in the backyard with the fireflies. Winter barbecue nights with my father marching back and forth in front of the kitchen window at our house on Meadow Lane.
I was awake on this particular night, writing down these particular thoughts because I couldn’t sleep. I went to this ranch in Hollister to provide support to a friend who just lost his life partner – the person with whom he spent more than half of his life. For some reason these stories of my father came to mind. I felt as tears welled up in my eyes and then spilled over, burning a warm trail that cooled quickly in the night air.
Generally I’m not one who feels terribly lonely. Rather gregarious and blessed to be surrounded by wonderful friends and family, I live a life enviably filled with love and warmth. But thinking about Steve and his loss, and thinking about my father, in the dark I felt completely alone. In this moment, a thought that has long been in my head suddenly stood in stark relief against the dark night – a neon-inspired mental firefly of my own.
Life is too short and too precious to be spent behind emotional walls.
It might seem from what I’ve just said that I don’t exactly live in a fortress when it comes to personal connections, but the truth is that I – like so many other people – am no different when it comes to having an aversion to allowing for the truly deep commitment that must exist in a primary romantic life partner type relationship.
There have been several relationships in my life where I had thought I’d made the connection; but as I sat in the darkness I ran through each of them and reviewed the patterns my life had followed. I thought about the wounds from those failed relationships that had resulted in my building slightly wider and higher barricades from which I then had to emerge the next time around.
It was a sleepless night.
A fistful and a half of hours later, the morning broke in grayish gold and I found myself wrestling with the minor demons of a restless night’s sleep. My dreams had been scattered and though the images were gone, I had a sense that there were messages that I was supposed to remember.
It took about 8 more hours, a bit of exercise and then an exceedingly long soak in a hot tub, but finally my thoughts sorted. And thank goodness they did. Because the truth is that these issues of relationships, boundaries and connections have been roiling around in my brain for some time. The topic has flowed in and out of my writing – though most of the pieces sat half-finished in my “still pending” folder.
Until this week.
In fact, in the spirit of disclosure, several of the recent commentary pieces are dated by when I started writing them, but I’ve only just finished them this week. So if this is the first piece of mine you’re reading, I recommend checking out some of the previous entries. It will be pretty clear which ones I’m talking about.
But back to my point …
When I awakened on Easter morning at the ranch in Hollister, I thought that the ideas whirling about in my head were about what I had done wrong in my old relationships. I was wrong.
The thoughts in my head were about what I had done right.
It’s not that I hadn’t made mistakes. It was precisely the opposite. I had made mistakes, and each of those missteps meant that I hadn’t allowed a perceived failure to paralyze me and prevent my trying again.
Yes, I had allowed boundaries and walls to impede past relationships both by overstepping the lines of others and by using my own to keep people out. There also had been times when I failed to be truly authentic and open. But those lessons were learned, and it was time to move on.
The tears I shed that evening weren’t about feeling lonely, nor were they about regret. They were about saying goodbye.
At some point that evening in Hollister I said farewell to a part of me that, like a firefly seen in bright light, didn’t hold any particular mystery and was best freed from the jar and put back out into the night air.