Everyone can’t be a lamplighter.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have an older sister.

She’ll be the one who stands beside you when you need support, and stand a bit in front of you when you need shielded, and even stand behind you when it’s your turn, your time, to take the lead.

She’ll help nudge you forward when you balk, at life, at love, at failure, at first tries and at finishes.

She’ll clap the loudest—and long after everyone else.

She’ll teach you how to braid hair and how to smudge your eye-liner just so and how to pick out the right lipstick to match your skin tone.  She’ll paint your nails.  She’ll do your make-up for special occasions, because she always does it better than you can.

You’ll look into her eyes, and you’ll see yourself beautiful.

Actually, you’ll learn that being beautiful is being yourself, because you watched her come into her own first, and when you’re ready, you’ll know how it’s done. Because she showed you, in one thousand little ways.

She showed you most everything you now know, really.

She’ll tell it to you like it is—tough love is, still, love.  Mostly, she’ll listen, and then she’ll say exactly what you need to hear in that moment, because she knows your ticks and rhythms and rocky emotional landscape almost better than you do.  She’ll cheer for you; she’ll cry with you; she’ll carry you, even if she already has a husband, kids, work, in-laws, and mortgage payments on her back, too.

(You might always envy her this:  her unbelievable strength and grit and devotion.)

She’ll call you at odd and inconvenient hours, and you’ll answer, even if you don’t really want to, because deep down there will always be a part of you that will always wants to talk to her, hear her, feel her energy from afar, enjoy her company for the brief and precious time she’s able to give it.

In youth, she’ll play with you, and during the teen years, she’ll play against you, and then in adulthood, finally, wonderfully, you’ll play as equals, neither more or less talented or capable, only coming to the board with different strengths, different scars from battles lost and won, and the best part is that now you get to share strategies.  You get to share everything, wholly, happily.

She’ll forever be where you began—because she was there, too, and really, she was as formative to your launch in life as your mother and father.  She’ll help teach you how to sit up, walk, talk, read, tie your shoes, brush your hair, climb a tree, ride a bike, dance, kiss a boy, recover from a broken heart, a cracked dream.

She’ll scoot over to make room in the bed for you when you wander in, shaken by night terrors.

She’ll hold your flowers on your wedding day; she’ll be one of the first pairs of arms to hold your new child.  She’ll sit in the kitchen with you until that second bottle of wine is empty, and the air is thick with your thoughts and worries, and the night is too close and dark, and you’re all rotted out, empty, and yet she won’t let you get up until you look her in the eye and she tells you how very loved you are, again and again.

You’ll believe her.  Because she’s your greatest truth.  She’s at your core, integral, buried deep, in such a way that sometimes where she ends and you start is unclear.

My sisters—they’re my home.  They’re my cornerstones, my mirrors.  They’re the arms that hold me and the hands that push me off the ledge of fears, and they’ve been this—my nest, and my sky—since I can remember.

They’re brave; they’re true.  They’re the most splendid women I know.  They both turned a year older in the last two months, and as I celebrated them each, I thought how much, now more than ever, I value them in my life.

Yes, I believe if you’re lucky, you’ll have an older sister.

If you’re really lucky, as in my case, then you’ll have not one, but two older (and, inevitably, wiser) sisters.

And they’ll be the echoes of your childhood, the promise of your future, and the champion of your daily efforts to be the most you can be—which is, in their sweet sisterly estimation, just perfect.

——————————————

Note:  The title to this post is from a poem called, Lit, in which the first two lines read: “Everyone can’t be a lamplighter.  Someone must be the lamp…”  Fitting, since my sisters are my lamps, my lighthouses, burning brightly, always.

It takes quite a woman.

I told my heartbreak story last night to a 24 year old who’s convinced she’s about to move in with the man she’ll marry—the same man who’s two years younger and who she met at a social club in college—and who’s about to apply to Harvard and New York University for her MBA (after just finishing her master’s degree in engineering last month) and who’s crisply and cleanly ironed out, with starch, the next 10 years of her education, career, marriage, and move from Hoboken to Boston’s Beacon Hill, before the much-anticipated and carefully mapped migration to Newton, Wellesley, or perhaps Lexington once that first bun is safely in the oven.  Good schools, you know.  They count.  From infancy apparently.

A life perfectly, precisely, and confidently planned.

I wanted to applaud.  I mean, truly, I was impressed.

At 24, I was making roughly $400 a week, looking forward to Stop & Shop specials, taking the metro to my nonprofit job, driving my laundry home to Pennsylvania most weekends, and still sorting out if I would forever be fated to end up with my high school boyfriend.  Despite not seeing him since we’d graduated, I believed then in that crinkled, rose-tinted idea of destiny.

When I was 24, I knew I was good with words and good on a dance floor on a Saturday night.  I knew I was petrified of relationships but desperate and anxious for a man to love me.  I knew I was hard-working and kind.  I knew I’d spend the rest of my life devoted to my parents and my family.  I knew my address wouldn’t last long in the stifling, sticky enclaves of Washington, DC.

But, I didn’t know a hell of a lot more than I did know.

Listening to my young colleague, I so badly wanted to tell her that the years ahead of her won’t unfold like the diligently orchestrated strategy she’s just built and implemented at a client.

Because you can’t anticipate the explosions, the messes, the deaths and the self-destructions of your 20s and even early 30s.  You’re unable to forecast adultery, deceptions, newfound passions, and those alluring and unexpected opportunities that rock the certainties you’ve stood upon for as long as you can remember.  You can’t calculate and control feelings.  You can’t anticipate that moment you’ll become so entirely undone that you don’t even recognize the strands of self billowing out behind you, catching the wind and drifting away before you can grab hold again.

And there’s no escaping any of it, of course.  There’s no preparation either, other than the slow, steady build of a reserve of good friends, good wine, self-confidence, humor,  and courage—the pillars that, like Rome, won’t fall down when everything else does.

The pillars that, years later, decades later, remain, however cracked, however faded.

I told this bright and eager young woman my heartbreak story tonight, and that time, those years, that one man, that part of me—it sounded so far away.  It sounded old.  And maybe that’s because even though my life has taken a radically different course than I’d ever imagined or hoped for, I’m making it work for me now, and I’m happy, fresh, acutely present and appreciative.

She studied me, and she crinkled her beautifully unwrinkled eyes, and said that it takes quite a woman to bounce back from such blows, such bleeding.

It takes quite a woman for many things:

Birthing a child, raising a good citizen of the world, burying a parent, contributing thoughtfully to society, giving generously, moving through the days mindfully and healthfully, constantly pushing against barriers and prejudices, supporting and nurturing partners and families and friends, learning, teaching, loving, loving always—even when the heart beats slow and heavy and weary, and those pillars you yearn to lean against stand oh so far away and out of reach.

I looked back at my young and bright-eyed friend, and I took her compliment for what it was: confirmation.

I am quite a woman.  (You—yes, you—are, too.)

And that I know.

The year my mother survived cancer.

In early July, when most people were preparing for Independence Day celebrations, my mother was coming out of surgery with one less physical piece of her womanhood.  I remember wondering how she would she feel without the small cavity that held me for nine months. It’s a bit strange to think of that part of her—the bowl from which life plucked three girls—being gone, given it’s the place in which I began.

It was all very fast and surreal.  In the span of five weeks, she became symptomatic, went to a doctor, endured a few procedures, learned she had cancer, underwent a hysterectomy, hobbled home with stitches across her stomach, and only days later, on a Monday afternoon, answered a phone call from her surgeon saying they got it all, pathology came back clear, caught it nice and early, no need for follow up treatment, have a great evening.  I watched my mother receive this news in the brightly sunlit back room of Stoneyway and then cry softly, for the first time, in all those weeks.

I couldn’t hug her because of the stitches and bruising, so I sat on the hardwood floor beside her legs, holding her cold hand, thanking a god I don’t usually believe in.

***

The afternoon my mother came home from the hospital, I had just driven in from Massachusetts, with my cat and my niece in tow, because my sister and brother in law were traveling across Italy for 10 days.  My mother arrived wearing red lipstick—she “can’t think without it”—and her short grey hair spiked, and if it weren’t for the extra heaviness around her middle and the purpling beneath her eyes, she looked the same.  We cushioned a rod-iron chair with pillows and placed her in the late-day sun.  My nephews chased each other across the lawn, screeching and laughing.  My father disappeared into the house.  Grace and I painted my mother’s nails, none of us commenting on the bandages from the IVs.

Later, it took my father and me 15 minutes to help my mother get up the staircase, and later still, I had to pull the shirt over her head and draw her pants down and hold her hand as she stepped into the shower.  I tucked the covers around her swollen belly, apologizing profusely each time she flinched in discomfort.  I worried at her pain.  That first night I stared for hours at the beams in the ceiling, terrified, and confused as to why I, the youngest, the childless, the baby of the family, was charged with this massive responsibility of caring for a four year old and a cancer survivor and a withdrawn father and a heart-tattered self.  How could I do it?

The next day, I tried to make my mother’s morning protein shake just as she liked it, with all the right measurements.  I shuffled nervously around the kitchen, burning Grace’s toast and spilling my cup of coffee.  All I could think was how clumsy and out of place I was in the one place I have always felt safest and closest to my mother.  At lunchtime, I couldn’t figure out how to light the new stove; I fretted at over-cooking the broccoli.  I berated myself silently for not knowing how to make a simple soup that my mother could get down and digest easily.

The days passed slowly, each one spent organizing activities and outings for Grace, helping my mother up and down the stairs and in and out of chairs.  I made meals, ran errands, tidied, drew baths and rubbed my mother’s back, ignored the rest of the world by receding into the deep trenches of Pennsylvania, of my family, and drove here, there, and everywhere across the Cumberland Valley in search of distraction, of anything to fill even just a few empty minutes of the day so that I didn’t have a moment to process how bizarre and alone I felt.

Cancer is a strange thing—in all its scariness, it brings out the greatest hope, too.  Because you don’t survive on pessimism, on giving up; you get through the days by leaning on a rock-solid belief in the good and in what’s present.  Because you know that’s ultimately all you have, regardless of the outcomes.

Each night, with Grace star-fished across most of the narrow bed and my 20-pound cat sprawled along the other half, I laid like a corpse between their warmth and deep breaths and waited for dawn.  I promised myself, during those sleepless stretches, that I would keep starting the days full of love, energy, compassion, and care for my parents, Grace, my far-away sisters.  No matter how I felt, I would play my mother: brave, relentless, focused, strong.  I would give, and give more—I would give all of my self if I had to, to keep us moving along together.

Practicing selflessness teaches you a thing or two.  When you stop focusing so much on the “me” and extend energies to others, the most incredible result happens: the “me” in you feels better, fuller, happier.

It’s a balance, of course, but I’ve learned that it becomes a lot easier to see how much you actually have, how deep your reserves truly are, when you’re actively giving to the people and world around you—even when, perhaps especially when, you think you’re incapable, when you think you’re empty.

***

We made it through the eight days, the whole motley crew of us, and I drove back to Massachusetts with a raging fever, a weary toddler, and an overflowing inbox at work.

After Grace and I picked my sister and brother in law up at the airport, and after they dropped me off at home, I left my bags sitting by my front door, filled up my cat’s food and water bowls, crawled beneath my covers, and literally did not come out for two days.

My mother was okay.  Grace was okay.  My family was all accounted for and alright.

I had spent every last ounce of my self.  And right then, there was nothing left.

***

I have thought of that week in Pennsylvania and the dozens of emotions tied to it many, many times this year.  When I’ve reflected, I’ve felt pride and relief.  I’ve felt rage, fear.  I’ve even felt silly, because what I did was not some great feat in the grand scheme of things.  I’ve felt a soul-shuddering sadness, coupled with a quiet joy.  I have thought a lot about my dear friends who have lost or are losing their parents to this terrible disease.

Mostly, though, I have thought about my mother.

Since her surgery—really, since March of 2014—my mother has lost more than 100 pounds.  “A whole person,” she jokingly says.

When people hear this, they want to know how or what’s her magic trick, and I want to laugh, because my mother’s weight loss is the result of, well, my mother.  When she chooses to devote herself to something, there is no stopping her.  She throws in all of her focus, hard work, diligence, and insatiable need to master what’s at hand.  I have watched it many times now, with knitting, painting, cooking, refinishing an entire 1780s farmhouse, sewing, landscaping, gardening, child-rearing, friendship.

My mother has always demonstrated that if you truly want and believe in something, you must buckle down, bite down, learn everything you can, try your damnedest, and—here’s the important part—don’t give up, regardless of any stumbles along the way.  She is one of the most loyal and steadfast women I know.  She is achingly, astonishingly true to who she is.  And she tries—she might be scared, but she always tries anyway.

During Thanksgiving, we got to talking about her cancer one morning.  It was hard but good to talk about, because it’s real.  That happened.  My mother had a piece of her cut out and won’t ever be the same as she was before. And in the days that followed, I became what my mother has always been for me:  solid, unflappable, reassuring, patient but persistent, loving, supportive, and above all, strong for everyone around me.  I gathered them, my family, into my arms, and I carried us forward in the way my mother taught her girls—with humor, good sense, determination, and an endless supply of hugs, kisses, and laughter.  And I won’t ever be the same because of that either.

When my grandmother died, I remember my mother saying how she’d lost her greatest cheerleader.  But she didn’t.  Because now, my sisters and I are like an entire bandstand section sitting on the bleachers lining my mother’s life.  We can’t stop complimenting her, praising her, helping her buy new clothes (rather, a whole new wardrobe), posting pictures, telling our friends, clapping at how beautiful she looks when she walks down the stairs, marveling at her thinning frame, her high cheekbones, her small shoulders, her narrowing hips.

During the Christmas holiday, I watched her practice vinyasa yoga beside me and listened to her strong, even breath more than to the teachers instructions.

When I hug her, she fits entirely within my tight embrace.

My mother, in her mid-60s, is happy, glowing, proud of herself, present, aware.

And all I can think is how, now, I can be her loudest cheerleader, her greatest fan.

***

At this turn of the year, how fitting, how right it is, that my mother is beginning 2015 as both a survivor and a woman who is embracing each day as a new opportunity to try, to practice healthy habits physically and emotionally, and to honor the distance covered but to keep making fresh goals to achieve.  She’s still giving herself to us, her family, but in entirely new ways.  She’s reminding me, her youngest daughter, how blessed I am.

Mostly, though, my mother is teaching me one, invaluable lesson:

The only thing that’s real and that matters is what’s happening right now, right here.

The love inside of me?  Spend it, all of it, daily, on whoever needs it most.  The energy inside of me?  Put it to good and productive use morning, noon, and night, at work or in friendships or on my yoga mat or in the saddle.  The hope inside of me?  Spread it; share it.  The broken, bankrupt heart I dragged into 2014?  She’s fully rebuilt, with freshly stocked reserves, because it’s not the cracks from back then that matter at all—it’s what I filled and continue to refill myself with that counts, that enables me to love completely again.

Because at day’s end, what and who you hold close and dear isn’t your past or your future, neither of which you have any control over anyway.

It’s your right now.  Here.  This.

And that’s better than surviving.  That’s living.

—————————————————————————

“And we can’t take back what is done, what is past / So fellers, lay down your fears / ‘Cause we can’t take back what is done, what is past / So let us start from here.”  — Damien Rice, “Trusty and True”

The road is the goal.

Yesterday, when I told my niece Grace that October, my most favorite month, is over, she sighed and crinkled her little brow, and said, “Ohh no, TT.”  Pause. “Well, it’ll come again next year!”

I do love children’s optimistic way of thinking.

After dropping her off, I drove back through Marblehead, eyeing the thinning trees, turning the heater up just a notch more to fend off the bite of the early morning chill.  Stuck at a stoplight, I watched rows of children shuffle down the sidewalk toward the elementary school, kicking through the leaves, drifted like rust-edged snow, and marching toward their day of learning.

I sat there thinking back through my month, marveling.

Because this was the October that one of my dearest and oldest friends gave birth to her first baby girl, a small and precious thing who, at three days old snuggled right into my awaiting arms and who at only two weeks old, held my gaze (and my fingers) with an intensity and focus and curiosity that could only come from her mother.  This friend and I have journeyed through sports, college, cities, road trips, relationships, heartbreak, distance, disappointment, death and its deep trench of sadness, love and marriage, and now I am watching her embark on a new and terrifying journey, and I am so proud of her and so excited for her and so terribly in love with this little person she’s brought into my world, during my most favorite month to boot.  Her daughter and I will be kindred spirits, I know.

This was the October I sat atop a horse again.  Actually, I did more than that.  Freckles—an old and apple-bellied and sweet appaloosa—and I have walked and trotted and cantered now, and I remember so much, so much!  As I trotted past my trainer during my first lesson, she called out, “Do you remember how to ask for the lead?”, and before I could even answer her, I felt my legs squeezing and my arm giving a gentle pull and my heels digging into Freckles’ side and we were off, we were moving, the wind hard against my cheeks and the sweat dripping down my neck and the smile on my face as big and full and radiant as the morning breaking open above us.  Each time I’ve left the barn, covered in dust and horsehair, my boots caked in mud and straw clinging to my jodhpurs and my legs pure water, I have thanked myself for being brave and persistent enough to finally do this—to finally revisit a passion and past-time that once defined who I was, only to discover that I am still in love with it all, and the natural tendencies and ease I had around horses when I was a child haven’t left me, thankfully, as an adult.

This was the October I made my first autumnal drive to Pennsylvania in many years.  I drove whole stretches in silence, thinking back through previous journeys, passengers who kept me company, stops I made along the way, songs that buoyed me through the lonely and miserable stretches.  I yearned for home the entire seven hours, and when I arrived, I buried myself in my family for three wonderful days, fulfilling a homesickness I hadn’t even realized I’d been harboring.  When it came time to go, I left early, the cornfields still dark, my mother still fast asleep, and I watched the sun rise somewhere over eastern Pennsylvania, the clouds thrown about like sleep-crinkled pillows, tossed across a rumpled and brightening bed of sky.  I thought how beautiful my month is, no matter where I am.

This was the October I fell in love with love songs again, old and new.  Specifically, Vance Joy’s Georgia, Hozier’s Like Real People Do, Gaslight Anthem’s Break Your Heart, The Avett Brother’s If It’s the Beaches, Josh Ritter’s Change of Time, Matt Costa’s Astair, and the two kickers on repeat lately: The Sea, The Sea’s Restless Heart and Anna Ternheim’s The Longer the Waiting. Such aching and romantic sentiments—fitting for the month that always reminds me of those I once held dear and those I love still.

This was the October I dipped my toes into a vast new ocean at work, and although I don’t know if I’m ready to fully dive in, to immerse myself in waters so unfamiliar, to test my sea legs against an unknown current, I’m tremendously proud of myself for taking those first, few steps, for trying.  Really, that’s the hardest part anyway.

This was the October I ran into my past and was reminded of the philosophy I’ve adopted this year: It happened. That happened. And that’s all.  Think more of it, and you’re no longer living presently, and where’s the joy in that?

This was the October I celebrated a friend’s surprise 30th birthday in the exact place I celebrated mine nearly four years ago, recalling my own celebration with a profound fondness and appreciation.  This was the October I watched a childhood friend walk down the aisle.  This was the October I discovered that I can still be delightfully satiated by a dinner made up of nothing but rich cheeses, a good red wine, a loaf of buttery, crusty bread, a bowl of sweetly sticky dates, some slices of apple and pear, perfectly ripened, and the kind of conversation that pokes into the deeper corners of yourself, probing those inner recesses to understand and validate how you ended up here, as you are, with this heart and mind and soul.

This was the October I wrung myself out hour after hour on my yoga mat and found that the more I emptied my self, the fuller I really was. “Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom, life ceases to be a task and becomes natural and simple, in itself an ecstasy.”  I am on the road, and there’s no place I’d rather be.

This was the October of sunsets, of sailboats leaving the harbor, of loving hard again, of quiet walks through my town, of not missing him at all anymore, of poetry, of dappled sunlight and shortening days and cold evenings that sent me thrilled and shivering beneath heavy layers of down and wool, only to wake and greet each morning with an excited toss-off of the covers, a long stretch of the arms, and an eager exploration of all the day has in store.

It was a good month, a very good month—as October always is and, as Grace would likely say, always will be.

And I tried all my days.

Each October hits me with the surprise and delight of a new crush:  golden and perfect and positively teeming with promise.  It’s strange, I know—a time of year that signifies the slow wilting and quieting of nature is the very time of year I find most invigorating and new.

Because, somehow, annually, with the beginning of October, change starts scattering about my feet like the leaves skittering down the streets of this old town.  I feel it rustling about in my bones—that inevitable and exciting tilt of life.

It comes in jobs, friends, babies, exercise, interests, relationships, expectations, and hopes, and heartaches.  It comes in e-mails and phone calls, and sometimes, it comes in the lack of communication, in the silence.  It comes with the sudden and raw chill of the darkening mornings.  You realize change is at work.

This year, I am so ready for it.

I recently experienced what’s turned out to be a more-than-usual eye-opening yoga class that got me thinking about all this impending change even before October hit.  I was mindfully moving my sore, tired body through a rigorous and sticky class, and as we shifted into triangle, my teacher came up alongside me, placed her hands on my hips, and gently pushed me deeper into the pose.

“First, you need stability,” she began, talking out over my bent form to the class.

“And from stability,” she continued, her hands moving to the flat span of back between my shoulder blades, pressing them apart, “comes flexibility.”  My muscles shook, and my bones pressed tightly against my skin, and yet my teacher’s hands somehow stretched me further.

She then moved to stand in front of me as we flowed through high and low plank and upward dog, landing in downward facing dog.  I was turning her words over in my head when she placed her two palms to my lower back, sending my hips high and my heels down and my heart deep into my chest, and announced, loudly, clearly, “And from flexibility, comes the strength to change.”

In the weeks since that class, I have shared this idea with everyone from coworkers to dear friends:  First, you need stability; then, you can explore flexibility; and then, when you’re stable and agile, you’re brave and confident enough in your grounding, your strength, to make your own change.

My conversations have really just been efforts to test and validate this theory.  Because I think it’s a theory that’s a perfect frame to my life’s picture these days.

I come from a family that thrives on stability.  In our formative years, me and my sister’s lives played out smoothly and predictably thanks to well-worn routines, structure, traditions, rules, and schedules.  Everything then was a known and trusted certainty.  In many ways, many things still are when I step foot into that same house my parents bought nearly 40 years ago.  It’s no wonder that I feared and avoided and struggled through change for most of my young adulthood. Ironically, stability did not teach me flexibility then.  I was petrified of what I couldn’t predict, what I couldn’t fully understand.

The changes I did embrace, where I flexed a bit of my self, were all changes I actively chose:  a new job, a new city, a new friend or two, a new yoga studio. Change you can predict is easy.  You can prepare and map out back-up plans.  You can choose that precise moment when you go from stable to volatile, and you’ve already charted your course for how and when you’ll regain equilibrium.

I liked that kind of change.  That kind of change was fun.  And then life basically imploded on me back in 2011, and I spent years learning, for the first time in adulthood, how to stand still.  I learned stability is not something you are given:  it is something you build for yourself, slowly, thoughtfully, with purpose and determination.

This October, I know I’m there.  Feet firmly planted.  Eyes level.  Breath steady. Heart strong and sure and full—I am bankrupt no more.  I am home here in my seaside town.  I like where I work and what I do.  I am practicing my yoga.  I am loving those I want to love; I have said the good-byes I long needed to say.  I am giving, and I am doing a better job of taking.  I am reading provocative and engrossing books.  I am writing, steadily, even if I no longer always share it.  I am riding horses again.  I am helping to nurture and cherish children whose lives I am so proud to be a part of.

Life has measured itself generously into my palm, and I am cupping it gently, carefully.  I do not want to spill a drop.

And yet, this period of stability I’m now in is jarring.

After roughly four years of crushing change, upheaval, and disorder, I find I’m wrestling a bit with the calm reflection in my hand.  I’m find I’m very, very conscientious about and consumed with maintaining that delicate balance between restlessness and contentment, between staying on course and leaping off the edge, between satisfaction and want.

Because I can’t help but think:  so what now?  Where do I explore my flexibility further?  Where do I begin to stretch deeper and push a little bit harder?  How do I reach so that I ready myself for that next great change?

When I asked this of a dear friend of mine recently, she smiled at me lovingly.  She told me I have always been her 110% friend.  And she told me that maybe now is my time not to try so hard, so much, so all the time.  Maybe now is the time to just be, to relax, to revel in simply being here, in this space of life.

She’s right, you know.

It is October.  My favorite month has arrived.  Autumn is afire across my town and my heart.  And I am happy.

—————————————————————————————

Post script

When I was a freshman in college, I experienced my first New England fall and promptly fell in love.  I was a bit in love with a boy back then, too, and I wrote him a poem that I sent across the 1,000 miles between us, a poem that isn’t all that good or grand.  But, I treasure it, even now—because I wrote it for that boy, and for the girl I was then, and for that first New England October.  It’s called October Comes.

I was listening to a lot of Counting Crows back then, too, and their new album is fantastic, particularly this gem (which, admittedly, inspired the “And I tried all my days” title).

I did it.

It was on my last walk down Topsail’s flat and bare beach that I realized I am, finally, fully, healed from the heartbreak that gutted me nearly two years ago.

This was the year that I walked—and ran—that beach for miles on end, day after day, looking out over the dunes, littered with shells of my past.  Life is not meant to be haunted, but I do not mind arriving in Topsail each summer and seeing the tides have, yet again, tossed up sea-weathered fragments of my hurts and hopes and losses from the past 20 years.  I can pick them up, rub them between my thumb and finger and remember:  the sand grating like the stubble of his chin, the crack of shell curved like your smile, the stone smooth as my nephew’s cheek, warm as my niece’s body curled into mine.

I don’t mind the past here.

Because I made it.  I did it.  I saw him, in the most unexpected time and place, and I was okay.  Merely days later, I saw everything so clearly—that we are a thing of another time, and that I will always appreciate the man he was to me then, and that I have moved forward and healed.  I am happy.

Those years, those shards of my heart that I did not glue back in, are now another collection of memories scattered along Topsail’s shore.

I left them there, with the gulls soaring overhead like kites, and my heels hitting the sand like fists hitting dough, kneading, working, and the waves breaking so relentlessly that you wonder how the sea can heal a soul at all.

And when I finally arrived home, flushed from the sun and the salt spray, I could see from where I stood on the beach that my family was awake.  I knew I’d climb the steps of the house and find the coffee brewed and the kids tumbling underfoot and the countertops sticky with peach juice and my baby niece babbling and swinging her little fists like flags, alerting us all that another good day has arrived—

—-and we are lucky, so very lucky, to spend it in one another’s shade, here, on this small, sacred island, settled against one long arm of the ocean, sun-kissed, and bathed in love.

You get three great loves in your lifetime.

The pressure on the plane was likely the only thing holding me to my seat, given every time I looked up, my eyes were in direct line with the thinning hair of the man who wrecked my heart and who I haven’t seen since we parted on a cold, icy Boston street corner nearly two years ago.

I kept thinking each time my gaze leveled with his head: “He has more grays and less waves.”

The irony is that I have thought of this man—and the countless events, pieces of gossip, longings, songs, wonderings, worries, and joys that I’ve wanted to share with him—at least 10,000 times.  (Less lately, of course, because the longer someone is out of your life, the less they know, and thus, the less painful and strange it becomes not to share every last little thing.)  I could fill whole days with the conversations I’d wished we’d had.   And there we were, at a loss for anything but pleasantries and clipped answers.

What a missed opportunity!  For years, I envisioned us airborne toward Ireland or Greece or Costa Rica or Topsail, North Carolina, whole continents and oceans passing beneath us.  Now, we’re trapped on a fully booked, four-hour flight to Dallas, with thousands of miles of time to connect, to share what’s happened and changed, to wrap ourselves tightly in the exciting pleasure of one another’s company.

Instead, we did as we’ve always done when faced with the unpleasant: ignore, avoid, separate, and opt for the safety of silence.

It’s amusing—and perplexing—to see how little changes even with the passing of such time.

In my latest imagined renditions of how we’d crash back into each other’s lives, we did not meet.  Rather, we began tentative communication via a short e-mail or text message, or, perhaps, more romantically, through a letter sent by way of the road and postmen and mailboxes.  I merely hoped for words, in print.  Rarely did I think of actually seeing him.

And yet—before I went to stand in line at the gate and wound up standing directly in front of where he was sitting, I did think I’d glimpsed him earlier, as I waited for my coffee and stared off down the airport terminal, eyes burning and limbs shaking with exhaustion.  I caught sight of a tall man, wiry like him, dark-haired like him, loose-limbed and yet stiffly awkward like him.  I thought his name.  And then I turned my head and went back to waiting.

It was always like this, though: me seeing him, wanting him, imagining him from far away, and waiting.

I still remember the first time we saw one another: I rounded the corner into a hallway, headed down to an office for a last interview at the organization that eventually turned him and me into coworkers, and there he stood, hands on either side of a doorway, lanky and lit by the afternoon sun streaming through the windows facing M Street.  Our eyes met from a distance.  My heart knocked against my ribs.  The light crackled across his face.  I accepted the job 30 minutes later.

Our evolution from coworker to friend to the undefinable thing we ended up as was like many other evolutions: natural yet deliberate, complicated, and surprising.  Of course, from the get-go, I wanted to leap into every corner of his life and sit cross-legged there, witness to and participant in the daily doings of his existence.  But, we took our time.  He wisely stayed at a distance, at least at first.  In the lower recesses of my self, in that quiet and kept place, I always knew I’d love him, and he must have known that, too.   Over the years, we both moved, we both changed jobs, we both lost and gained friends, we traveled, we hurt the other, we aged.  We prioritized time together; we bared fears and unhappiness; we had a few random but great adventures; we made each other laugh, and we gave each other grounding amid the growing instability around us.  All that passed between us deepened, richened, grew big and heavy.

At our peak, we loved hard and messily, entangled in a destructive adoration and need.  We pushed boundaries, we tested one another’s patience, we asked for too much.  We took—and then took more.

We did this, for years.

I gathered and saved every word, every touch, every morsel of hope thrown my way, and I hoarded it, knowing the inevitable end drew only nearer and nearer.

And the inevitable end did come.  After a fateful weekend spent in Montreal, we met at a loud bar in Boston, had our first truly honest, cut-to-the-core conversation, and there, my heart broke, cleanly, predictably.

I spent the better part of 18 months content with my bankrupt heart, sorting through the promises worth keeping, refusing advances, and considering new contracts worth exploring.  Recovery is a very private, very personal exercise that one must keep at, day after day after day.

I think I did my mother proud.  I have stayed her strong and brave and true daughter.  I have tried very hard not to doubt my decisions.

But, there he sat, a mere two feet away from me, and I felt nothing but sickness and elation and confusion.  I wanted to say so many things.  I wanted to tell him how I have missed him, how I have hated him, how I have yearned for his advice and companionship.  I wanted to tell him he’s a coward.  I wanted to ask him if he’s happy, if he thinks of me, too.  I wanted us to laugh, say, “What are the fucking odds!” and then agree to stay in touch, even if that’s a terrible idea, even if I swore I’d never establish contact with him ever again and have kept that promise all this time.

Mostly, simply, I wanted to hold his hand.

We are fools to believe that we can ever completely rid ourselves of the ones who we loved best, who bore so deep and so completely into the very seed of our being and our understanding of self.  I shed him from my life, yes.  But, from me?  From my heart?  The past is the past, but the past is also the make-up of who you are.  Should you take scissors to it?  How do you cut out the very experiences that helped shape you?  Can I truly cut him out of me completely?  Upon seeing him, I wonder if I ever will.

We are older, sure.  Wiser?  I’d like to think so.  And yet, as we sat on the tarmac, before we had even taken flight, my heart thundering and his hands running uneasily across the back of his neck, he turned and said, with a grin, “I don’t normally imbibe on these early flights, but…I don’t know about you—I could really use a drink right now.”  We laughed.  He turned away.  The wheels screeched as we rose off the ground and into the sky, the sun sharp and bright through the windows.  All I could think was whether it would be totally insane to book a hotel room, change my flight, and not fly out until tomorrow, just so I could suggest we go get that drink and catch up.  Just so I could rest within his company, for at least a little while.

Yes, of course it would be.

Love is its own form of insanity, is it not?

Yet, we carry on, even within its mad trappings.  Somehow, we carry on.

You must know that I write this in the sparking immediacy of the moment.  In time, mere days, distance will create the necessary chill, the firm reprimand of reality.   I’ll remember why we ended and everything I have learned since.  Friends will reassure me that I have “moved on” and “let go.”  I’ll go out; I’ll have fun.  I’ll take all of this to my yoga mat and work, hard, to work him out of me again.  I’ll focus on what’s present, what’s real, instead of what I dream.

I understand now that this is one of the bittersweet benefits of true love, and of true heartbreak:  You learn your limit—and you learn your depths.

Better still, you learn your vast and tremendous reserves that, unlike him, will never leave you.