I went for a run today and wrote letters in my head. One of them was to you.
Do you remember when my sister and I would walk down to your house and you would read to us? Our jeans were too short, and probably a bit ripped, and our hands were tied together in little locked fists, and my sister’s red-headed braid brushed low against her waist and my brown one swish-swished back and forth with my constant exclamations that were as numerous as my freckles, and then we’d turn into your driveway and climb your half-finished stairs and you would open the door. Do you remember?
You used to play Dire Straits and Grateful Dead so loudly we could hear it clear over in our house, half a mile away, the sounds lifting over treetops. Sultans of Swing. I’m playing it now. Pure genius. You drank beer and spit chewing tobacco into old empty beer bottles. You hung from rooftops and fixed things. You were full of life and color.
We knew you were kind but I guess we didn’t really understand how kind; it was more just that you with your big sun personality and your big unfinished house and your Narnia series and your favorite book of all time, Islandia, that you loved so much you wrote and pitched a screenplay for it to the Tappan Wright family, and the entire house that was torn apart because you were rebuilding it so we had to watch carefully where we stepped…It meant there were no imperfections, not in your house. We could arrive with our wader jeans and our freckles and our innocence and you kept us safe. I’ve never known how to thank you for that, and so I wrote you this letter in my head today.
You’d open the door with a kind heart and welcome us into that one room that was finished, it was your bedroom but more what we’d call a tiny house these days, and it had a little fireplace in the corner that was always going strong, and a pot of coffee brewing on a tabletop. Your big auburn dog, giant of all giant golden retrievers, he of big noble head, would leap at us and place massive paws of nobility upon our shoulders. We would settle in and wait. Your dog would generously and with all the canine understanding in the world, allow me to lie on top of him. My sister would tuck herself somewhere against the pillows but eventually we’d both lay atop that giant beast and pull softly at his beautiful mane, and you would open the book and begin.
Today, Michael, I walked up my driveway and started my run after listening to part of a song. It had a few lines in it that I have been mulling over for a very long time, something to the effect of time heals all wounds. It’s a sentiment that I have always believed to be true, but some things are too difficult to fully forget, and some wounds are losses that are so deeply felt that we carry them with us forever, just like we carry our lost people. Do you understand, Michael, what I mean?
I started running slowly because I am babying my knee since I injured it last time, and haven’t been on a run in awhile, so I wanted to be thoughtful and make sure I could keep this one going this time. As I started my small cadence on our road in the way that a good warm-up always is, left-right-left-right, one foot in front of the other, I had all kinds of thoughts beginning to stir in my head.
(I’m reading Islandia for the 20th time, can you believe I gave it away and didn’t realize it would be nearly impossible to replace, a collector’s item? I just got a new copy in the mail. It is sheer delight to reread it. And so you are on my mind, you with your noble heart and noble dog and your unexpected gifts to me as a child.)
I thought about lots of things today on my run, Michael, and they arrived in pieces, as thoughts are wont to do. Sometimes it takes years to unlock something, and you never know what will do it. Sometimes it’s a song or a person or a time of year or a sudden incalculable wish to excavate yourself of everything because you’re busy forming a new chrysalis and it’s time to build different fat stores for the new journey ahead. I was wondering how long it might take to remove every bad part of the past until I remembered it takes seven years for people to completely replace all our cells; I’m nearly halfway there, Michael, please congratulate me.
Anyhow, Michael, I am rambling, but I don’t think you’ll mind. I remember you running with your Aslan dog, both of you so much younger than you are now, strong and free, running fast along the roads I cover now. I think I’m actually older than you were when you used to read to us, and isn’t that an interesting marker of time? Anyhow, I was rounding a bend on my run and I found myself crying. I’m not saying that as a request for sympathy, Michael. It was a crying that has been building for several years, not the kind of dramatic crying anyone might see from the road if they were passing by. It was quite acceptable and quiet, the tears. Because you knew my little 9-year-old self, I know you will understand what I mean when I say that. I never wanted to be a trouble to anyone.
Michael, it wasn’t until I was on the woodsy dirt paths by my harbor that I started to feel it—the tug of the chrysalis inside me, like a small soft caterpillar making its new life known, starting to thread its new journey with magic threads. If I were to try to explain that too carefully, I might just float away, so I will tell you instead that as I was writing my letter to you, an entire biological process was going on in my chest in which all of the parts of me that I wish to carry forward were being carefully curated into an infinitesimal package and wrapped in butterfly thread. Meanwhile, I don’t know when it began, but all of the history that I don’t want to carry with me started to unravel, like a sweater, and I ran and ran and the yarn left a long trail behind me. It all finally unraveled and fell to the ground and I ran lighter and happier, looking at the golden leaves. Still, I looked back as I was leaving and I saw the birds take it to their trees where they will reconstruct it into nests, like they always do, and they will reinstall it in my dreams and I shall awake tomorrow, as always, to revisit the reality once again.
Do you remember that amazing opening paragraph in A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway? In case you’ve forgotten I’ll put it here as I know you will love reading every word as much as I do, and also it will help explain what my footsteps felt like upon the path of autumn leaves by the river that leads to my harbor as I veered toward the road and started the next leg of my journey:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
One day several years ago, someone crumpled me up on a beach. Everything was torn up, bit by bit, and then my heart was pulled out softly and quietly and deliberately and sent on a high-arching journey out to the sea. Do you know how people drag bodies out to the center of a lake and drop them into the depths, pretending that their disappearance actually has any significance at all? As if they can actually disappear that way? As if spirits don’t know?
Because of the currents in Puget Sound, which are cyclical and monumental and unstoppable, my heart went on a journey all by itself without me. At the time I didn’t know what my heart was destined to do. I thought it was mine to keep in my chest. When I awoke everything was scattered on the beach—my bones were akimbo, my head was off somewhere to remain for several days until it righted itself upon my body, and my limbs were scattered hither and nil. But my heart, Michael, it went on its own arching destination into the current of Puget Sound, thrown by a strong fist, and meant to sink to the bottom of the sea. But it was the current that kept it alive and beating, and the coldness of the saltwater that caressed it and held it as a foreign entity, with some curiosity and a fair amount of respect, similar to how the United Nations is meant to operate, and my heart a queen in a red royal robe. I didn’t realize I had a visitor’s Visa, but the jellyfish had sent a memo, I guess. My heart was eventually eaten by the jellies that glow, moon jellies they’re called, the Aurelia aurita of the sea. When the jellyfish found my heart, they all gathered around. Mindless, lacking in a circulatory system or brain, they simply drifted along with the current, as did my heart, until we all collided and then they slowly feasted on me until I was gone, divided into various portions to the jellyfish.
What I didn’t realize is that a study in 2015 found that A. aurita are capable of lifecycle reversal where individuals grow younger instead of older, earning them the name of the “immortal jellyfish.” I didn’t know that, did you? As a child I used to stand both at the water’s edge and at my local aquarium and watch their amorphous bodies drift and alight, drift and alight, like small magical hot air balloons. When I first realized that my heart had been fed to them I thought it was quite horrifying. But, Michael, I became immortal, a part of the sea forever. And also did you know that the A. Aurita reproduce daily? In the past three years I have become an army. And if scientists decide to use the jellyfish to create an immortal serum for humans, I will be in the formula. So now you can see how it all plays out.
There will never be an end, Michael, but the point is—there will never be an end to my heart. It will live on out at sea forever and inside anyone who imbibes the maybe-medicine. Do you realize the significance of that? And whenever there is a storm at sea, my heart rises with the jellyfish and the tide and their radiance lights the sea and we can see everything. I became immortal and omniscient.
The story isn’t done yet, Michael, there’s more.
I feel like I need to state the problem as clearly as possible, but to do so would be too destructive to other people’s hearts. So I will write it this way and trust you will see how it is.
It sounds so oddly weird I guess it might even be boring to read this because maybe it doesn’t make sense and many people can’t handle the senselessness and lose interest, but I’ll tell you anyway. Not only was my heart removed but the vital connection to my heart was cut irreparably. I had to build a new one, but I was too tired and luckily I had help, Michael. We’re all children of the universe, we all benefit from help, but Saint Michael and Zeus were there that night after my grandma called them over to hold her hands and help me breathe through the night, and little did you know that she was a champion dancer, seamstress, and needlepoint aficionado, and when she saw my heart thrown into the current, she worked fast all night long with the help of the mermaids, stitching together everything with her angel wings and starlight and fire embers and a feather from the place where her wings meet at her angel bones and they hooked everything up with the help of cloud magic before I even awoke. I didn’t know they did all of this at the time, but sometimes when I put my hand to my chest I can feel my Grammy dancing there with her needlepoint and her flashing eyes, and I know I am protected through all of eternity.
Today I finished my run and went to a rocky beach. It wasn’t the same rocky beach where I lost my heart. This was a rocky beach where I used to play as a child. In fact, you used to take us there to slide down the mudslides. It was incredible. One day we, my sister and I, arrived to your house. Life at home was full of sadness at the time, the divorce was in process, and the silence made everything dark and stifling.
So when we arrived and you opened your door and saw how it was written all over our pale faces, you put on an extra show of bravery and golden light and said, “Hello, girls! Let’s turn those frowns upside down. It’s time to get dirty! Mud! We need mud!”
Do you know, Michael, that I have always (always, always, always) remembered that day when you took my sister and me to the mudslides? And we raced down them over and over and over, shouting and screaming with glee and shock that we could be allowed to get that dirty? You kept saying, “Up! Up again! We need more mud!” And up we’d go, clutching at weeds and branches and tired trees to get back up to the top and throw ourselves down again, sliding magnificently down the earth’s open arms. It was raining so hard but we were all laughing and my sister’s pale face lit up every time. If I can say thank you for myself that’s one thing, but thank you especially for the gift you gave my sister. She was the oldest, and she was tired, and I didn’t realize the weight I was putting on her to hold everything together.
Michael, do you know that the reason I love Narnia and Islandia is because of you? Do you know the reason I became a rower is because of all your stories of being an oarsman? Sometimes I think I would have been better suited to being a runner, light and fast as I was. My high school track coach kept timing me in P.E. and asking me to join the team, rather than pulling with all my might against the weight of the water, but I will never regret those days in the boat.
The snow was falling one day when you read to us about Aslan being sacrificed on the round table. I snuggled deeper into your Aslan dog and he just lay on his side and breathed a deep, aggrieved sigh right along with me as I cried. It had to happen, Aslan’s sacrifice, but we didn’t understand it at the time. It was too terrifying. All of the wild was watching, though, and as I write this I am reminded again that nothing is ever done in secret. There are no secrets. It is better to live as an open book, and you taught me that in your own way every time you opened the door to your wildly unfinished messy house and told us the tales of perfect imperfection while the talking animals gathered round us and held us close and you told us of immortal magic. And when Aslan roared he roared so loudly that all of the world shook.
Narnia gave me a key to the closet. I’ve never looked back. Islandia gave me a 1,000 page journey into a dramatic reverence for the earth. Rowing made me pull hard no matter the weather or my size. The mudslides made me laugh and remember. Your Aslan dog made me feel safe and loved. Sometimes people arrive for awhile just to show you what happiness can feel like. Thank you, Michael. I will never be able to thank you properly, but this is a start.