Anatomy of Longing
An insatiable need for freedom convinces me I can gain enough speed to propel into flight, so I start at the top of our gravel driveway and pedal my little legs as fast as I can, rainbow-colored beads on the spokes of my wheels creating a kind of music that builds with every rotation.
It’s just seconds later that I’m lying at the bottom with my heart pounding so hard I can hear it in my ears. If I look closely enough, I can see it pumping through several wounds as pain comes from places I didn’t know existed.
My screams are enough to alert the neighbors and I am rushed to my grandmother’s nearby house where she and my mother soak me in a warm tub, slowly pulling rocks and gravel from my wounded legs, blood tainting the water like a paintbrush swirled clean.
“That’s going to leave a nice scar,” my mother says.
I’m jolted awake at 5:28 a.m. and slowly roll over to kiss my sleeping dog who is curled in a little peanut shape at the foot of my bed. He barely opens his eyes half-way and closes them again with a sweet sigh.
I run my hand down the side of my leg trying to surmise if I’m awake or dreaming when I realize - it doesn’t matter. The body remembers.
I put my feet on the floor and slowly stand up as I start to feel something different in my bones. My body aches in unusual places and I’m feeling stiff in ways I never noticed before. I follow the same routine I have every morning for years: walk to the bathroom, brush my teeth, wash my face, put contacts in, apply makeup and fight my naturally-curly hair with a straightening iron.
In the short years he’s been gone, it’s become painfully clear that I am not immune to this disease of time. I’ve aged at an accelerated rate and my reflection is startling - new lines like roads to nowhere on my face, heaviness of grief weighing down my eyes. I have become lost within myself and the moments where I can see who I was before are few. It’s unclear whether I’m still grieving the loss of my father or loss of all that I knew to be true.
I get dressed, trudge downstairs, take out the dog and head out for another day in my cushy office.
I board the northbound train and take my seat up against the wall in the back. There’s something comforting about that wall, a feeling that in some way it protects me from anyone who may be glaring over my shoulder. Two stops later, a man gets on and sits down next to me. I notice his tall, lean body – the kind of body not subjected to early mornings at the gym or even a childhood on the field. His long fingers accompany hands with exposed veins in the perfect shape of a wishbone that travel all the way up his arm.
I become instantly fixated on him - the familiar shape of his fingernails, the visible Adam’s apple in his neck, his receding hairline. To anyone else, he looks like nothing more than average but to me, he is my father.
I feel the yearning bubble up in my stomach, the sheer need to see my daddy’s long, lean hands reach into his pocket for peanut M&Ms the way he did when I was a child. It’s an unrelenting hunger for something I can never have again and in the depths of this longing is where it’s easiest to confuse sugar and salt. The truth is that those hands were nothing but a memory even when he was still alive.
It feels as though the weight of my head could shatter the cold, hard window it’s pressed against, so I cradle it in my hand for some relief, feeling both thankful and resentful to have chosen this seat where I can cry in hiding.
I’m caught in an awkward space of wanting desperately to hide and to be seen but am struck by just how invisible I feel. I am surrounded by no less than 30 people, each with their head down scrolling mindlessly through some version of a feed while I sit here starving. Not one of them notices my tears.
I watch the people around me with envy and curiosity. I see them not seeing me. They have no idea how much pain I’m in, no idea how much I fantasize about their life or what it would be like if I ended mine.
I go on feeling isolated from a world I am very much a part of but allow myself to wonder for a moment what it would be like for someone to ask if I’m okay. Would I answer with the truth about the way my bones ache so badly with heartbreak it feels as though they could crumble to dust? Would they care that I don’t know if I can go on, if I can return to life the way it was before the end?
As unspoken words hang just under my skin like parasites eating away at every fiber of my being, I glare at the man’s hands next to me and imagine what it would feel like to hold one of them in mine.
I arrive to work and immediately head for the restroom where I discover that tears have streaked my face. I clean my mascara-stained cheeks and try covering up all remnants of grief, but there is no remedy for these eyes that look as though they haven’t slept in days. When others see me, they will know I’ve been crying and determine on their own what may be wrong. Not one of them will think it’s my father - he’s been dead for years now (if they even remember). I should be over it.
My calendar is piled with back-to-back meetings and the only importance I see in them is their welcome distraction from my thoughts. There is, however, one I am interested in – a “meet and greet” with an intern I am tasked with mentoring. I’ve felt for years that I was meant to help others, to make a difference in someone’s life. Perhaps this is my chance.
It’s 10:00 a.m. when he enters my office and we begin our casual conversation.
“What do you want to do when you’re finished with school?” I ask.
“My parents really encouraged me to think about law school,” he says. “What made you choose your career?”
Choose is such a strong word to use in this case, so much so that any potential answer I could give feels like a lie. I clear my throat so I don’t choke on the words as I spit them out.
“My father knew someone in the field who gave me my first opportunity.” I respond.
We continue our small talk for a bit before I wrap it up. The rest of my day is a blur, marked only by the seconds I count until I am able to stop this pretending.
Leaves are becoming themselves again and spring waters have washed away all that was dead. The fiery sun hangs low in the sky while warm and humid air rolls in, a soup mix of nostalgia and longing I can almost taste.
Feeling in need of nature’s healing power, I decide to embark on a hike. I enter the trail to a sweet smell of honeysuckle and inhale deeply, allowing the sweetness to enter my lungs and oxygen to permeate them for what feels like the first time since his death. I slowly release air from my newly-filled lungs and, in doing so, open the flood gates from within me as years of tears soak my face. Once again, pain comes from places I didn’t know existed and I fear I may never stop crying.
Attempting to regain composure, I continue on and try to take in every morsel of beauty I can find – a small patch of purple flowers, mud-laden areas that lead to a natural spring, the way the sun hangs at just the right angle where everything appears slightly more golden. I listen to the sound of birds chirping, some of which are drowned out by the still-near sound of cars passing by and find myself longing to be further away from them. I continue until I come across a fork where two paths converge.
In front of me is a tree with branches and vines so tangled it appears as a network of veins carrying blood throughout the human body except more chaotic, more random, less deliberate. Kind of like the events that led to his death. Kind of like the way my life has become one in which there is no clear understanding of where I am headed, filled with purely chaotic coincidence.
Some of the darkest truths lie in the secrets we keep from ourselves.
At the beginning of the trail, I told myself if I keep walking, the loop will eventually bring me back, but the thought creeps into my mind: what if I’m wrong? What if I don’t make it back?
What if I get lost out here all alone?
What if I want to?
We all have parts of our life we wish we could wake up from, moments of time when it feels as though pain has permeated parts we didn’t know existed, where screams echo into the abyss of loneliness, where we question what it all means and whether it’s all worth it.
But what I also know is this: as time went on, the scar on my leg from that day as a child slowly faded and the memory has become nothing but a story to tell. The desire for freedom, however, still lives deep within my soul. The pain from that day didn’t take away my longing to feel the wind like wild abandon through my hair. At 8 years old, I got back on that bike believing and hoping that I would be okay, instinctively knowing that it was worth the risk.
No one tells us that some loves will lead to loss so deep, it will feel like losing yourself at the bottom of a canyon with no escape. No one tells us that getting back on the bike can be terrifying, can make us feel as though we are pedaling for our life; but, what I’ve learned is that by slowly putting one foot in front of the other, I am gaining speed.
My hope is that one day soon, I will gain enough to fly out. Perhaps on that day, it will no longer be the grief in my eyes or the emptiness of my hands, but instead those wings - the ones I’ve been searching for since I was a child – that will give me the ultimate freedom with the knowledge that I fell, got back up, climbed back on, and fought like hell to soar.