There are ghosts all around me. Long-dead loved ones mingle their energies with recently-deceased dreams and anticipations, pressing me to make the most of every day, every minute, every breath.
The last time I saw my Grandpa Ike, my mom’s father, it was 2009, sunny and cool in the suburb of Dallas, Texas, where he lived with my grandmother. Grandpa was in good health, still driving his oversized van to and from Wal-Mart and Sunday School and Rotary Club. He laughed in that slow, silent way that the elderly among us laugh as their lungs weaken and their vocal chords bow – but he was full of spunk and creativity and kindness. Damn, Grandpa was kind.
In an unrecognized foreshadowing over sandwiches and Diet Cokes, Grandpa told Mom and me, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t like the idea of missing anything fun. There’s so much life left to live.”
One month later, my Grandpa Ike was gone – his body, anyway. His spirit is here, always. It’s in my mom’s love for others and the way her whole body sighs when she hears music that sets her soul on fire. It’s in my lust for adventure and my tendency to read – out loud – every sign I pass on the highway. It’s in his two children, his six grandchildren, his nine great-grandchildren. It’s in the softness in my grandmother’s eyes when she recalls the life only she lived with him, the stories only she holds in her heart.
Nearly six years after Grandpa’s passing, I find myself freshly divorced, uncomfortably free, and unexpectedly in love. For an overthinking, highly sensitive extrovert, these days of uncertainty and adventure feel terrifying. It is my grandfather’s unwise wonderment that keeps me moving forward, holding determinedly to the course I’ve charted, balancing precariously between “devastated” and “okay,” insistently grasping at joy and rejecting anxiety.
I’m saying “yes” by rote, ad nauseam, grateful and relieved by each distraction. From my home in Atlanta to the beaches in Florida… to the bars in New Orleans… to the lakes of the Ozarks… to the wide, wide wild of Colorado and Wyoming and Montana… to the raging coastlines of Maine and Oregon… every plane ticket is permission to rebuild. Every packed suitcase is the past, bound and rafting me over the roughest waters and sharpest rocks.
“What about time to grieve?” a friend asked.
But that friend is not there with me, the mornings I find myself sobbing and gasping for breath in the Starbucks drive-through. Not there when the wrong song plays at the wrong time. Not there when I feel the least understood and the most unsupported. Not there when an item of clothing, a scrap of paper, a box of cereal conjures the ghosts of the dreams I once had, the assumptions that my life would be the one thing it will never be.
“There is no time to grieve,” I tell my friend. There is only time to weave the sorrow with the joy, to forge a trail through unexplored territories, laying down each night in the shade of this unfamiliar covering.
The wisdom that “we all die alone” has never rung truer – nor broader. I see it now, that we all live alone. Even within reach of warm embraces and steadying hands, we walk solo on every path, the imprints of our feet unshared as they are made. Two forces cannot occupy a single space. Two mouths cannot enjoy the same bite of food.
But you can sit in the chair beside me. You can let me hear your footsteps alongside mine.
Beside an immeasurable stretch of road through the endless plains of Montana, I found relics of yesterday. Rotting boards and rusted metal were inhabited by wiry mice and hesitant owls. Warm breath in cold emptiness. Persistent life among marching death. Insistent living among irrefutable dying.
Within the boundaries of Glacier National Park, mere miles from the Canadian border, I breathed lighter and deeper, eager to feel my lungs expand and know that I am here, among the living.
In the company of gangly, furry bodies I knelt in a windblown field to better know the thick lashes and warm gazes and soft clicks of a family of alpacas, their human keeper loving them like children, showing them off like flowers or framed photographs.
In the shadow of Paradise Valley, in sight of mountain ranges and rapid streams, I walked hard and purposefully. I invited blisters and sweat and exhaustion. I let an older woman in pink spandex tell me, “You can do this. The top is closer than you think.” I let myself believe it, and so it was true.
There are ghosts all around me. Lifeless expectations mingle with the wisdom of disembodied souls. Painful acceptance blossoms before the truth only an old man can speak, a man with a month left to live, a man with decades of joy buoying his aching bones and unwilling joints and tired heart.
I cannot stop now. There is so much life left to live.