Last year at this time I lived in a beautiful beach town in Baja, Mexico. Last winter meant swimming in the ocean, tacos at open air street stands, micheladas at dark little bars. Palm trees and pink and orange flowers as big as my head.
Last winter also contained all the tension and sadness of an unraveling marriage, the cold, complete realization that both the marriage and the move to Mexico were profound mistakes, mistakes for which I was responsible. I would walk my dogs to the beach alone (he never wanted to come along), and have the conversations in my head that I wasn’t able to have out loud with anyone. This is all wrong but how do I undo it? The undoing felt impossible. Even now, with all undone and burned to the ground, it still feels impossible.
I’d sit on a sand dune, look out at the sparkling Pacific. Sometimes there would be whales. I’d nearly always be the only one on the beach. The whales would leap into the air and I’d gasp, look around like “Are you kidding me? There’s no one else around to see this?” And I learned that things unshared can still be beautiful, though not as beautiful as when you have someone to share them with.
I would often cry, looking out at that ocean, horrified that my life could be so outwardly lovely and yet so deeply, so grossly wrong on the inside. I would imagine filling my pockets with rocks, filling my body with Nyquil and vodka, and walking out into the ocean until I drowned. The actual drowning part sounded painful and scary, so my mind glossed over it. I just wanted the ocean to erase me, to erase what I’d done, to do the hard work of undoing my mistakes for me so I didn’t have to. It was never a real option- half a second’s thought of my sister, my parents, was always enough to evaporate the thought as an impossible fantasy.
So my options remained, clear and stark and terrible: Stay in an unfixable marriage that makes you both miserable. Or leave. Burn it to the ground. Destroy something that shouldn’t be able to be destroyed.
In the end something happened that made the second option feel urgent and necessary, but the actual act of leaving a marriage, especially abruptly, and from another country, felt brutal. Like murder. I did it anyway. My pregnant sister flew to Mexico only a couple of days after heading back home from visiting me on the worst vacation ever. The two of us and my little dog Miles flew back to the States, holding hands on the plane and blinking back tears, much like we would in a church pew at a funeral three months later.
I spent the rest of the summer and early fall in Missouri, hiding out at my parents’ house. I watched a lot of Louie, wrote sad little short stories, clung to emails and calls with far-flung friends. I worked, grateful to have something practical to focus on. But mostly I hung out with my dad.
For most of the summer my mom was away in Ohio, taking care of my grandpa as he died in a hospital bed. My dad and I spent months together, the only time in my life I’d really spent time with just my dad. He’d come home from work, say “do you want to smoke a cigarette?” I don’t smoke, but I’d sit on the deck with him while he did, maybe I’d have a beer, and he’d tell me about his day. He was 60 and still worked 70 hours a week at a highly stressful job, a job involving making terrifyingly important decisions about things like terrorists all day.
We’d also talk about my life, how I was going to rebuild it. He helped me process my separation and divorce, told me over and over how proud he was that I’d done such a hard but necessary thing. He never offered unsolicited advice, never pushed me to talk when I didn’t feel like it. My dad and I shared a tendency to need to process things internally- sometimes for years- before we could talk about them out loud.
We’d make dark jokes, like we always did during weird times. We’d joke about whether or not 35 was too old to find a new husband, that I was lucky to look so young for my age, that I couldn’t technically be a spinster living in my parents’ basement because I’d already been married once (I googled it). We’d watch Impractical Jokers and cheesy ghost hunting shows, eat Girl Scout cookie thin mint ice cream. He’d watch football and try to explain it to me and I’d intentionally ask the most ridiculous questions until he, laughing, told me to shut up.
He taught me how to shoot a gun and he was as shocked as I was when I (gentle, afraid of violence, and with virtually no hand-eye coordination) turned out to be a naturally good shot, my hand steady and my aim precise. He couldn’t stop laughing in disbelief and pride.
I’d always loved my dad and we’d always gotten along well, but this summer he also became one of the best friends I’d ever had. His laugh, his blunt honesty, his belief that I was capable and strong even when I didn’t feel like it, the understanding between us that he could fix things for me if I ever needed him to but that letting me fix them myself was more important- these things bolstered me when nothing else did. By my 36th birthday in late October I felt calm, hopeful about my future, thanks in large part to my dad.
On November 1st he died, suddenly, of a heart attack. This blog is just my attempt to make sense of it all.