Today, I finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, in which she details the way her life shattered after her mother’s sudden death and the way her grueling long-distance hike along the Pacific Crest Trail helped her to reassemble it and herself, and I found myself thinking of Lawrence’s parents, who too died young, abruptly, and of cancer.
I never met them. Our romance started the year after their deaths. In some ways, it may have been their deaths that facilitated our relationship: Lawrence and I had been friends for a number of years by then and had kept in touch on and off, but it was my learning of his parents’ deaths that spurred the particular reconnection that led to the online message that led to the phone call that led to the visit that led to those heady days when it felt like we didn’t need sleep nor food because we could subsist on love alone.
In all these years, I’ve lived among the ghosts of his parents. His dad was a saxophonist who took up painting late in life; his mom was a schoolteacher with a penchant for fairy tales. I inhabit their apartment, eat from their plates, sort through their possessions. I have seen their art and their instruments, their furniture and their books and their clothing. I have met their siblings and their cousins, read their letters, heard recordings of their voices.
I suppose that, in Lawrence, I must see each of them daily in ways I can’t identify. After all, they created him and shaped him with their values, taught him the color of love and the shape of a family. They encouraged his creativity and his curiosity but left it to me to encourage his environmentalism. They introduced him to Buddhist philosophy and Beat poets but not to how to scrub a bathtub. In countless small and incalculable ways, I will spend the rest of my life responding to the consequences of their choices.
Despite all this, they are as insubstantial to me as strangers. No matter how much I learn about them, no matter how many stories I hear about them, I will never know them. I will never have a relationship with them, my future parents-in-law already lost to the past. Sometimes I think back to the close relationship I had with the parents of the boy I dated throughout college, the way they counseled me and comforted me as though I were their own daughter, with kindness and affection and generosity, and I feel the peculiar loss of these parents I have never met, who should have been my parents too.
It isn’t the kind of grief that takes a thousand-mile walk in the woods to shake. But it’s a strange absence, losing something you never had. I miss the possibilities that could have been.