The day of my 18th birthday can’t be beat. After a humiliating fiasco involving the police the previous night, I woke up ready for the day, my first full one in Edinburgh, Scotland. I recall that I wore some really unfortunate outfit (nu rave was in again, sue me), and Chris arrived at my hotel bright and early. He brought me a birthday card with a 1920s flapper on it (which I still have). I had bought him a bouquet of white daisies, just because he was cute. He brought with him 3 CDs as gifts: Wild Young Hearts by The Noisettes, Lungs by Florence & the Machine, and the self-titled Friendly Fires album. It’s impossible not to think of him whenever I hear these songs, especially that Noisettes album.
I’m listening to it now as my best friend and I drive the 2 hours north from Phoenix to Flagstaff. We’re going on a short camping trip in honor of Chris. It seems appropriate, considering that this is the last place we went together when we saw each other last, almost 3.5 years ago. We’re on the I-17 North, the same highway we drove on, on a short trip to stay with my friend Jess, the same friend we stayed with when he and I drove north.
After I got the news that Chris had died, I didn’t really know what to do with that information. We had never lived near each other, so I was used to not hearing from him for sometimes months at a time. In retrospect, we only saw each other in person 4 times over the course of our 13 years of knowing each other. Over those years we dated, broke up, dated again, broke up again, but between it all, the love remained. It was the kind of friendship where you could go for months without talking, only to pick up right where you left off. He was more than a friend, and more than an ex-boyfriend. He was something else entirely.
We had never gone camping together, but he was a fan of the outdoors so I thought a camping trip was fitting. Chris and I always said, from when we met, that we would be at each other’s funerals. I couldn’t be at the funeral service in Scotland, so I decided to do my own kind of service for him. It was important to me that I go with people who had also known Chris, my dear friends Hunter and Jess. Both of them had loved him, as everyone who had ever met him loved him. The night we set up camp, we busted out the beers and I placed a photo of Chris down under the stars. I sat between Hunter and Jess by the fire as I read a letter he had written to me while I was in Korea, the only handwritten letter of his that I still have. Then I read a letter I had written to him after his death. It was long, and at some points hard to get through, but they were things that needed to be said aloud. After all of those years, I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to him, which is something that I struggle with, so I read it aloud, hoping that somewhere he was listening to me.
If I had had a final talk with you, I don’t think I would have been able to say all of this. But I know what I would have said. I would have thanked you for being the greatest love of my life. For going through this world and showing me how to appreciate the quirks and differences of other people. For showing me what real, true, honest love for another human, without expectations, looks like. Thank you for all of your music, sad boy tunes included. Thank you for every single moment shared between us. Breakups, good times, bad times, and so much love that I can’t even begin to quantify it. It’s endless really. Thank you for loving me, despite my flaws. Thank you for everything, and I will always be with you, and you will always be with me. I love you.
A few cans of PBR helped me wash away the tears. Sitting with my friends around the campfire, crying, venting, laughing, was probably the most therapeutic thing I’ve done since Chris died. I think there is a reason humans create these rituals around major life events. Without them, they seem intangible. It’s hard to wrap your head, and your heart, around them. Sometimes I feel like if I just wish hard enough, that none of this will be true. I always snap out of that thought, disappointed that it will always be true. I left his picture, my letter, and a funeral bouquet I had made, out overnight under the clear sky. In the morning, we woke up and I gently put all of it into the fire, my version of a funeral pyre.
The rest of the activities for that day were part of a larger plan. Hunter and I drove up to the Grand Canyon, and stopped for photo ops of places Chris and I had stopped or gotten photos of. Being in the same places that he had physically been was painful, but mostly it made me feel nice. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I do think that while people may not physically be present anymore, they take on some other kind of life after they die – yours. I think that the people who knew and loved them are now charged with their life, and have a duty to live life in their memory. To honor them. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to a grieving friend:
You must continue his life inside of yours insofar as it was unfinished; his life has now passed onto yours. You, who quite truly knew him, can quite truly continue in his spirit and on his path. Make it the task of your mourning to explore what he had expected of you, had hoped for you, had wished to happen to you.
Someone once said that when people die, it’s best to think like a physicist. All of the atoms and particles that ever touched that person are still floating around in the universe, and they are touching you too. It’s what I like to call death particles. It’s what I think of when I touch his CDs or cards. It’s what I thought of at the Grand Canyon. If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, it can be hit or miss. Sometimes the vastness of it can’t be appreciated with your eyes; it can seem like one big matte painting. Other times, if you go at the right time of day, it can be truly breathtaking. It’s one of those places where you have to resist the urge to jump. I stood there, in a place where we had both been together, laughing and walking, sharing lunch together. I thought of the particles, and how some of his particles had to be there, right where he left them.
When Chris and I drove back from Flagstaff, we stopped at the Rock Springs Cafe in Rock Springs to try some of their pie (which claims to be the best in the state). He had the coconut cream, and I the chocolate cream. He ate half of it, and then promptly asked for us to go get something with vegetables because damn is it sweet. We sat there in that booth, and I remember thinking how handsome he was and how happy I felt just to sit there looking at him, seeing him smile. I snapped a quick photo of that moment.
Hunter and I stopped at the Rock Springs Cafe on our way home. When we walked in, I asked if I could choose my seat. I went straight to the same booth we had sat in, and sat where he had sat. By doing this, I had hoped to feel something. I did. I felt supremely melancholy. But in a weird way, it felt good to touch something he had touched, to be somewhere that he had been. When I sat there on that bench, I thought again of the particles, and how surely they had to be there still.
In Rock Springs, we were treated to a waitress that was everything you’d want in a roadside waitress. She was probably in her 60s and called herself Grandma Wendy. She had an arm covered in faded tattoos and the deepest blue eyes I had ever seen. She called me sugar – the same thing I used to call Chris. When she saw me all weepy at the table, she asked what was wrong. I told her that I had come here once with one of my best friends, and that he had died recently.
“Oh sweetie, it happens,” she said with an empathetic look in her eye, “I love you.” And she gave me a hug.
It’s these kinds of small incidents that make me a believer in the innate goodness of humans; that we shouldn’t be inherently scared of strangers. Sometimes you need to tell your truth to a stranger. I posted about my upcoming solo travels in an all-female solo traveler group that I’m a member of. I asked what others had done when faced with the loss of a loved one right before you go off out into the world with just yourself, no support. The outpouring of messages and kindness shocked me. Other women so easily shared their own stories of grief, loss, and heartache. For some, travel had helped them immensely to process their grief; others still found themselves only more fully immersed in heartache.
When I first planned this trip, I thought it would be a physical thing I could do that would make me feel okay with all of this. While it did give me some semblance of closure, I now know that grief will be chronic in some way, forever. I will always miss Chris. There will always be a piece of me missing, a place that my soulmate filled, that can never again be replaced. Some days will be fine, and other days will be great, and some will be horrendous, and that’s just going to be one aspect of my life now. Still, having his things near me, interacting with those particles, getting the matching tattoo we had always planned to get, comforts me some going forward. I will continue to write his name, to speak about him, to relish in him, for as long as I’ve got life to do so. I will always be with him, and he will always be with me.