You are missing. You will always be missing.
But in some places, there are traces of you. I feel them, and while it would be tempting to go looking for them, I actually don’t. They find me: usually through almost inaudible whispers in my ear as I pass by somewhere.
One example is that I was sitting at a very oft-frequented intersection near my house, waiting to turn left to get to Target. Vacantly, I stared across the street into the window of a Starbucks. The amount of times I have done this very thing numbers in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Every time I look into the window, and I think to myself: That was the worst place to put a drive-thru Starbucks. I wonder how many accidents are caused by people making an illegal left in there just so they can get their mediocre coffee.
This time, I was thinking that again, and my eyes peered through the windows and rested on the artwork hanging on the walls: two posters; one reading Panama and the other, Kenya. The Kenya poster has a big, abstract elephant on it, in bold colors.
We’ve been there before, I felt you whisper into my ear.
I sat up straight. I am still not used to this voice that rises up out of nowhere. It has happened three distinct times since you’ve died.
No we haven’t, I thought back quickly. I think I would remember if I sat in the very Starbucks that I’m always criticizing —
But then, I as I thought that, I DID remember. It was a hazy memory — my mom sitting across from me, eating a hardboiled egg. When was that? Snapping into my memory: my sister, also across from me, also eating, but something much less healthy.
I didn’t remember you there at all, brother.
But as I sat at the intersection with the memories, the lines filled in. Morning light, coming through the windows. A warm day. We talked about walking on the beach later if there was time. Why would we have been there together? Vaguely, I recalled saying, back at my house, “I’ve already eaten, but if you guys haven’t, maybe we should get something quick, before we go.”
Snap — the whole memory filtered back through. April 21st, 2018 — you, our sister and I had gone all in to surprise my mom with a Titanic-themed escape room. My mom is obsessed with the Titanic, and thinks she may have even been on it in another life. She’s loved it as long as we could remember. I remember approaching you and our sister about it, and booking the room for her birthday.
But everyone had shown up at my house bleary-eyed and tired, plus, we had time to kill. We also had reservations for lunch at a restaurant down by the beach owned by a Top Chef contestant, so we decided to eat lightly for breakfast…which is how we ended up at that Starbucks…conveniently placed across from the freeway entrance.
Inside of the memory, you at last appeared beside me, in a burgundy V-neck shirt. You were in a good mood that day. We only ended up solving the escape room because of you, and your brilliant brain.
And inside of my car that day, a month after you died, the memory I had discarded was crystal clear.
See? Told you we were there together, you said, in my mind.
I burst into tears.
The other times I have heard you was on a day I was getting ready for work, and looking for a pen — and you calmly reminded me with only a little admonishment that you’d made me a pen almost ten years ago. Like the Starbucks memory, it had been wiped clean from my brain. Oh my god, he DID make me a pen! I thought, and then immediately panicked that I may have gotten rid of it, like the painting. So once I heard you, I ran downstairs like a crazy person and found it, thank God, upright and alone, in the pen holder on my desk. I had never used it.
On Christmas Eve, while I tried to put together a play kitchen set from IKEA for our daughter, you calmly whispered that the panel I was trying to access upside down + backwards with a flashlight simply popped out. No it doesn’t, I shot back at you, half-assuming I was only imagining you…only to find out after I’d gotten the batteries installed that it did, in fact, very easily pop out.
Are you with me, or are you dead?
On good days, I feel you with me.
But today, you feel dead.
Today, searching for the feeling of you, I drove back to the arcade where my husband threw me a surprise party last year, where your eyes were the first pair I caught in the crowd.
But when I got there, I couldn’t feel you at all. All I could feel was the gap of you — the black hole of where you’d stood twelve months earlier, full of life.
You are the most dead, the least with me, on the days I am the saddest.
The sad days are also the days that my iTunes auto-launches in my car, and shuffles songs that it thinks will hurt me the most.
(Seriously, I don’t even use iTunes anymore. My car thinks otherwise.)
In the car, Christina Aguilera’s “Hurt” came on.
1. I did not remember this song until I heard it again.
2. Wow, those lyrics are so painful if someone you love has died. Listen with extreme caution.
So I’d gone to the arcade looking for you, nothing. My car thought “Hurt” was a good song to play when I left. Two strikes. Finally, Waze led me home a weird way and I ended up right beside the townhouse we lived in when you were born. First steps, first word, first birthday.
Are you freaking kidding me? I asked you. I was starting to get angry.
I parked in front of it. I waited. I felt nothing but sadness.
I imagined taking out an energy vacuum, and collecting particles of you that floated in the air near where we’d lived.
Last week, I visited the floor you died on in the hospital, to leave the nurses with some snacks and gift cards to thank them for taking care of you.
I didn’t see any nurses I recognized, and someone new was in your room. I couldn’t feel you at all there either, but if I could have, I would have bottled you up and taken you with me.
The same thing happened when I took the long way home from work a few weeks ago. I drove by the Motion Pictures Hospital, which has a gym attached, and whoosh — suddenly remembered all the times you took me there after the earthquake, when I was moping around the house and you told me working out would cheer me up. You even came to let me back into my car once after I’d locked the keys in the trunk. I take that way home every Saturday night when I leave work, and had never thought of that gym until you died.
Was a piece of you there, too? Is that why I hadn’t remembered it until you were gone? Now I imagine taking my energy vacuum and scooping you up from there, too.
When I think of you like this, then there are wisps of you everywhere.
Your elementary, middle, and high school — all of which I drive by on a regular basis.
Every place I’ve ever worked that you’ve come to visit (which is all of them), and every place we’ve ever eaten.
All of Berkeley, which we explored when I was transferring to school — we went up, just the two of us, and found my future apartment. It’s where you nicknamed the BART the “broke ass rickety train” because it kept breaking down. It’s also where you made the joke about the blind person who almost hit you with their white cane. “Guess he didn’t see me!” you quipped happily, pleased with yourself.
New York, Chico, places we camped and vacationed as a family together — Hawaii, Las Vegas, Toronto, North Carolina.
I want to go down every path you’ve ever traveled and scoop you up.
In the car, before I finally settled on writing in the Starbucks I now know contained the two of us on a much happier morning, iTunes shuffle continued its damage: “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from Phantom of the Opera came on.
And in the end, as I sit here crying and listening to it on repeat, I realize that even if I could capture them all, a thousand wisps of you don’t make up a complete, breathing, alive you.
Nothing can bring you back.
You are missing. You will always be missing.
Help me say goodbye.
(But if you want to keep whispering in my ear from time to time, and making me remember what I have forgotten, I will listen. Every time.)