As summer vacation approached in the last weeks of school, when books were returned and grades were due and the countdown until graduation turned into single digits, I felt triggered.
Kenneth and I used to look forward to summer vacation together. We had our teacher routines and an internal clock that knew without a calendar that the end was near. At the end of the semester we spent our minimum days doing something together, like go to the movies. I remember spending many lunch times in the weeks leading up to our freedom grousing over how many days we had left until the last day of school and complaining about how tired we were. We brainstormed the things we would do with our free time and all of this was part of the fun–the anticipation, the fatigue, the complaining, the expectations–it was what you did in that time and space between you and your finish line, when time sometimes slowed to a painful crawl.
Summer was a promise.
Lazy mornings to run along the lagoon in weather-perfect Long Beach, carefree days of matinee showings with only two other people in the theater and lingering mornings that turned into lunch on 2nd Street and maybe early evening drinks at a favorite bar before stumbling home a few blocks and watching a movie without a looming alarm clock to tell us where to go and what to do. There were road trips to northern California. BBQs in the backyard. Summer concerts in the park with wine and crackers and cheese and friends. Later it would be camping and spending time with our kids. Garden reboots and household projects. Our annual trip to the county fair and summer bucket lists to entertain our little ones.
It didn’t matter that inevitably we would get sick of each other. It was always about the sweet promise of something better.
Kenneth died a month before summer vacation, six weeks before we were supposed to get on an airplane together and travel to Berlin and Paris. We had spent many months planning and dreaming about this trip. He used to tell me about that one time he went to Berlin with his two friends, and how they went to a gothic club that was in a castle with a moat, and he wanted to take us there so we could see it. I remember putting on the black gown that year and attending the graduation ceremony without him. I remember going on that trip, feeling the searing pain of being forced to do one more big thing without his companionship. The pain of unfulfilled promises.
His death was like going through a doorway of no return, when there is your life before and the one after. One-way only. Once you pass through the threshold, there is no going back.
We go through many of these doorways.
I remember that moment right before I got my tattoo, when the tattoo artist asked if I was ready to begin. The permanency of a tattoo weighed on my mind, but it wasn’t going to be as permanent as the reason why I was getting it. Kenneth’s words from his journal, in his handwriting, etched onto my forearm.
As ready as I was on the day that I got married, when I was about to sign my name on a legal document that would change the direction of my life in ways I could never completely understand. Or as ready as I was on the day that I gave birth for the first time, when motherhood would stop feeling like just an idea locked inside of my swollen belly and about to get real in the most life-altering and permanent way.
In the momentum of moving through a doorway, there is a feeling of an invisible hand pushing us through–one we can not stop in that half-a-second moment when it hits us right in the gut with the realization that we cannot undo what is about to happen.
It’s scary as hell, facing the unknown of what is on the other side of the doorway. The anticipation of change, sometimes big, sometimes unwanted.
Going through a doorway of no return certainly has a strong sense of finality attached to it. Finality induces fear; we are scared of what we can not change. Death–our ultimate finality–is perhaps the biggest source of our fear. What happens when something ends? We don’t always know, and that makes us feel uneasy.
It’s the fears that can obscure our ability to see what is on the other side: more doors. More doorways to go through. There are closed doors, yes, but more importantly there are an infinite number of open doors waiting for us to see them.
Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
I still get uneasy when summer approaches. A school year compartmentalizes a teacher’s time with semesters and bell schedules and hourly periods and grading periods and such. Summer vacation denotes the end of a year and begins the build-up of anticipation for an impending new one. This was my third summer without Kenneth, and I still wish he were here. My pragmatic brain tries to be intentional about focusing on the open doors. It has gotten easier with time, mostly because I have been able to not just think about the concept of the new doors, but I have gotten to experience them too.
And there have been many.
I felt a bit melancholy in the final days of another school year without Kenneth, but nothing paralyzing. I had done it before. After crossing through that doorway we were off–to Australia! Madison, one of Kenneth’s former students, came with us. We are an odd bunch. My widowed self. Three half-Japanese children that always invite a double-take from strangers, and a 19-year-old redhead.
The other day we went to pet kangaroos and cuddle koalas. We scratched the heads of joeys who lounged in their mama’s pockets and fed hungry kangaroos who were as friendly as my pet dog. Later we drove through the countryside and saw wild kangaroos hopping in open fields. We stopped at a farm to eat potato and leek soup and toasted sourdough bread and enjoyed views of blue water and open green fields dotted with grazing livestock. We watched several different types of colorful birds we had never seen before. The kids ran around the open grassy area squealimg and laughing with boundless energy. I remember being conscious of a perfect moment and realizing that I did not immediately default to “I wish Kenneth could see this,” and instead felt content with “this is great.” Just this.
We went to see the penguin parade at St. Philip’s Island, sitting on the beach with cold Antarctic winds turning us into human popsicles, but all of us too excited to fully care because there were thousands of penguins swimming in from the ocean at sunset, waddling across the sand to secure a place to sleep. Little penguins in their natural habitat, and they were literally a foot away from us. An experience of a lifetime.
It was a two hour drive back to our apartment on the 6th floor in Melbourne. The kids were asleep in the backseat of my rental car and Madison and I talked in the dark as we sipped our McDonald’s coffees. I drove and Maddy navigated alongside of the spotty GPS. The thought struck me: whoa. I am here (and somehow managing to drive this vehicle on the opposite side of the street than what I am used to–major whoa!). I am here with Maddy, who we would have not known if Kenneth hadn’t died and she started babysitting. I am here without Kenneth. We are an odd bunch, and yet I am doing the things I always wanted to do, just in different way. A reconfigured way.
It’s the dichotomy of having terribly sad things in your life, but also so many wonderful experiences and people, and reconciling both in your mind. That is the place of your healing–a scar over the chasm that the pain carved into you–a place filled with regrowth. The wound is still there, but not in the same way, and it doesn’t hurt. Its presence reminds us of what once happened to us. We can trace the edges of the scar with the tip of our finger and feel where we were once split open and bleeding and also feel the place that is now closed by new tissue growth. It reminds us of our strength and resilience and that we are still alive. That jagged line has become something that is merely a part of who we are.
I can’t look forward to summer in the way that I used to. Even when I know I’m about to get on an airplane to explore somewhere cool and wonderful and I’m about to have two months off. It’s not that I don’t look forward to summer. I’m not being ungrateful; it’s actually quite the opposite. I recognize the amazing opportunity and I intend to fully enjoy and savor it. I just don’t have that burning desire to speed up time and be there any faster than it is supposed to happen. You won’t hear grousing out of me anymore about going to work or how long the days are. I don’t keep countdowns. Part of it is the trigger–the reminder of that special time I shared with Kenneth but no longer have–and part of it is maybe guilt that I get to have another summer and he doesn’t. It’s so many things, really. But perhaps the easiest explanation of this change inside of me is that I have learned the hard way that it is a waste of life to always look forward to weekends and summers and begrudge the time in between. Our time to live is right now.
As we go through another doorway, it behooves us to remember that our fears and anticipation about the unknown is natural, but to remember not to get completely caught up in all of that. It takes away from living right now and deprives us from the joy and excitement that the unknown can also bring to us. It’s a mental balancing act to prevent onself from teetering too far to one side.
Maybe we don’t always need to know what will happen next. It can be enough to know that in a world where we don’t have complete control, we still have options. More doors. Lots and lots of doors.