It all happened so quickly.
The headaches started. Complaints of double vision. More time spent lying on the couch. Lots of doctor visits. Friends coming in and out, checking up on you. It was a blur and a flurry of appointments and visitors.
Your chiropractor friend gave you adjustments and fed you wheatgrass smoothies and celery juices. I’m pretty sure you tried marijuana, CBD, and probably even spells. Whatever might work. Chemotherapy and radiation ravaged your once healthy, strong, able body. Your face started to swell. . . It’s like one day I woke up and you suddenly looked noticeably different.
I naively thought you checked into the hospital so you could get better. No one told me you were in the hospital to die.
I suppose I’m never the first to react. Emotions are to be dealt with privately–this has always been my way. But as the years tick on, it’s catching up with me. The number of things you’ve missed. The memories we could’ve made. The moments we should’ve shared.
It’s 2008 and I get accepted into Purdue. I’m turning 17 two months later and set to graduate that December. You went to Purdue. I remember the stories of you working at a factory all summer long to pay for school and faint memories of how much you hated Tomato soup after having eaten it for dinner one too many times. I am such a perfectionist, constantly letting the world feel too heavy and the stakes feel too high, but I got a scholarship though. One of your former friends and colleague sends me a two-page letter of advice he thinks you would’ve given me upon graduating. I unfold the letter and read the cursive handwriting line by line. A silent tear falls.
I’m working in a jewelry store to pay my rent and buy my books. My nametag says Diamond Expert or something, along with my name and hometown of Hickory. It’s Valentine’s Day 2012, and I’m gift wrapping a set of pearls for a customer who suddenly freezes. He asks if I’m an Ashby, as in Marvin Ashby’s daughter. I am confused, but say yes, that’s me. He tells me he used to coach wrestling with you, that he thinks of you all the time and worries about us often. He says your memory is especially present around the holidays. He starts subtly crying in the middle of the store and asks to give me a hug. I am, not surprisingly, choked for words. I make a dash for the break room after saying goodbye. A silent tear falls.
I land my first big job in 2013 and buy a little blue house in the city. I’m working in the back garden, one of those unseasonably warm autumn days, trying to discern what is what and decide what to yank out. Memories of us working in the garden come flooding back. You built me two large garden beds the second I took an interest in gardening. We planted all kinds of things. I can’t remember how much of it was successful, but I remember doing it with you. When we moved to Indiana, I gawked at the bleeding hearts tucked on the side of the house. They were so magical. You said it was your favorite plant. I’m pregnant with my first child. I vow to work in the garden with my own children one day. A silent tear falls. I drive to the garden store on the other side of town just to try and find a bleeding heart to plant.
It’s 2017 and the anniversary of your birthday. This day is always especially horrible because you died the day before your birthday. We’re grieving and celebrating you all at the same time. I have a four-month-old who we’ve just discovered is doing very poorly; his health has taken an unexpected sharp turn for the worst. Hagan is nearly three now. Clifton brings home a bouquet of roses. It’s his way of showing me he is thinking about me today… No words are required. I’m asking myself why life keeps punching me in the gut. I don’t know what the hell to do, but I feel your presence. There’s a theme I carry with me that year: perseverance and determination. A silent tear falls.
I’m biking through the tulip fields in the Netherlands on our big Europe trip of 2018, somewhere near Noordwijk heading back from Lisse, but I’m definitely lost on a Dutch map at this point. The boys are in the bakfiet (complaining of being cold and hungry). The cool air is so sharp it feels like I’m truly breathing for the first time. Trying to ignore how much further I’ve got until we reach the café, I get lost in my thoughts. You taught me to ride a bike. You loved biking so much–the competitive hilly hundred, leisurely cycling around the neighborhood, whatever it may be. If it involved two wheels, you were there. I remember riding on the back of the tandem with you. I, too, love biking so much that I think I should move here so the kids and I can cycle everywhere. I look to my right and see fields of flowers. I look to my left and see boats on the canal. A silent tear falls.
I find myself watching my two small children going ’round and ’round on a carousel in the 7th arrondissement with the Eiffel tower in the background. I have dreamed of this place so many times. It’s so beautiful it actually hurts. The boys are giggling and waving. You would love their spirit. They’re everything I could have possibly dreamed of and more. I can’t imagine ever having to say goodbye to them. A silent tear falls.
I’m on a boat. Between having a kid 2x and living smack dab in the city, I haven’t water-skied in years. I guess muscle memory is real though because I pop right up the first time. I feel like a giddy 8-year old again–I’m standing on the front of your skis and the wind is whipping my blonde braid around. There are stories of you skiing for miles on an oar just because. You could even ski barefoot. I remember our boat dying once and zero hesitation on your behalf to grab a rope, jump in, and swim us to shore. I’m thinking I can’t wait to try this with the boys when they’re a little bigger and I’m a little less buzzed. A silent tear falls.
I find myself 7,000+ feet high, looking down at the incredibly steep path I have to traverse on skis and somehow not kill myself. It’s January 2019 and the snow is falling in Wyoming; it’s so thick it’s almost otherworldly. I vaguely remember being on skis as a child and begging you to pull me up the hill (spoiled). I’m certain you would excitedly race me to the bottom if you were here now. You had an incredible zest for life. So I throw caution to the air, tip my skis over the ledge and let gravity take me where it wants to. A silent tear falls. This time it’s trapped in my goggles.
I’ve spent several years of wrangling two babies and dipping my toes in all sorts of projects, and there’s one passion I keep coming back to: writing. The big black typewriter your mom got me was my first adventure in putting words on paper. You used to entertain me by reading my childish 1-paragraph ‘stories’ and poems that I slowly clanked out key-by-key. I remember your neat and tidy handwriting, in all caps, spelling out my chore list or writing me letters when you were away. You traveled for work a lot, to Germany, to Japan. . . I remember you walking through the front door and setting your leather briefcase down with the combination lock and announcing that you were home. Now I’m on a plane traveling for work, with little kids at home, thrilled to be using my brain and missing them immensely all the same. I’m juggling it all, somehow, just like you did. I look out the window. A silent tear falls.
They say that time heals all wounds. I’ve found the opposite to be true. As the years pass and time ticks on, the number of things you’ve missed–moments we could’ve shared and idiosyncrasies I’d enjoy you being privy to and adventures we could’ve embarked on–continue to mount. Hagan occasionally asks about “my dad that lives in the photo”, which is when I offer up these little memories and stories. It’s my favorite photo and a permanent fixture in our house. It doesn’t matter that I’m not in it with you. It embodies you like none of the other ones quite do–young, healthy, tanned, and smiling on the beach with a surfboard. There was nothing you wouldn’t try (and nothing you couldn’t do).
Where there was great love, there is great grief. People like to say “gone too soon.” Your body is gone, that’s true, but every time I catch myself thinking about you, your love and your impact feel more present than ever. You embodied what I like to call ‘the full human experience’. . . you created a meaningful life with the people that you loved and a conscious awareness to live it to the fullest extent. It was just who you were: intelligent, adventurous, generous, and a friend to everyone.
We live on through our children and they become our story-tellers. I’m so glad to have parts of you living on through me. I wish I could say thanks because I feel like you gave me the full human experience before I even turned 10. But I’m not done, because now I have two kids to give your gifts to.
And I’m really terrible at saying goodbye. So I’ll see you later.