You can go back in place, if not in time. I took a fantastic pilgrimage last weekend back to a couple of my lifelong homes. For a few hours, I stepped out of my wonderful present to reach back into my ever-present yesterdays.
I slipped out of the house solo just after dawn on a Saturday morning. I drove into Manhattan for a long run doing the downtown loop that I have done so many times before. New York City, in general, is a geography that I love and associate with the very best times of my life. The space was simultaneously the same as it ever was, and profoundly different. The same could describe me, of course.
I began by running north up to about 57th St. That’s where the running path (as it was) used to end in my day. All along the waters’ edge, there was lots of beautiful parkland where there had once been empty piers. The cracked concrete coastline had given way to skate parks, tennis courts and boat launches. I then came back down and around the southern tip of Manhattan. The Freedom Tower now stands like the center of the world at the top of Fulton Street. The towers are still missing. Not replaced – there are different good things there now. Swept up in the buzz of my always home, I could not help but cross the Brooklyn Bridge too. I finished up in my old neighborhood of Tribeca. The cheese and the knish guys are still selling their treats at the Farmers Market. The office building where I earned my first post-college paycheck is now a swanky condo. There’s progress all around and it’s enough just to keep up. I am trying to grow in more ways than just getting older.
I hopped back in my timeless Civic and breezed eastward into Queens. I went to see my Papa’s tombstone, set in place, for the very first time. It was a pre-culmination. It’s been weeks of remembering what it was like a year ago today (every day) as he began his cancer spiral. In early July, I remembered the bittersweet treat of Skyping him from Virginia to see how he was doing. Throughout July we went to the oncologist with him to help understand his options and just be present. In mid-month, we decided to go out to Shelter Island one weekend, buoyed by liver enzyme numbers that were finally decreasing – the positive news that we had been hoping for. We visited him on that Friday night to watch the Olympics – just a dad and his two sons. With so many things to talk about but not wanting to believe that there wouldn’t be many more Friday nights left - things went unsaid. It turned out to be our last Friday together.
I’ve been reluctant to “go there” sometimes. My journal from this time last year has been like a travelogue of emotions that I jump into and back out of like a frigid ocean. There are so many flimsy reasons not to “go there”, like ruining my mood ahead of a day with the kids (or whatever) - if I did. On some level, I feared a debilitating sadness – not being able to get back from “there”. That’s why physical places matter so much. Going there, to that hilltop in St. Mary’s Cemetery, all by myself, allowed me to go there. The tombstone made it realer than ever, for me. My dad’s death was no longer deniable – etched in stone as it is. As I sat on the grass, utterly spent, it sent me over a good edge. It was the best cry that I’ve had in a while.
Trying, sweating, avoiding, crying and sometimes getting there.