Fire-Swallowing, Love Letters, and Other Dances with Death
I’m stalling in a secluded corner of the library on a Saturday afternoon. It’s quiet over here in the useless books section, and no one can see me with my scatter of printer paper and G2 pilot pens, readying myself to do something impossible and crazy. Something that involves two letters and saying goodbye to the love of my life.
Outside, a spray of reeds waves in the breeze. A bird feeder stands tall in the grass, squirrels stealing the seeds. February sunshine. Inside, government issue bookshelves box me in like hedge maze walls. Decrepit psychiatric textbooks from the 60s line the shelves; their spines leer at me. Across the room, there’s a paneled window with baby cacti potted in the sill. If, by some act of God, I actually manage to stop stalling and write the letters, it will be the third impossible and crazy thing to happen this week.
Saturday, Mom called.
Dad’s in the hospital again.
His words were a scratched record, like hiccuped lyrics, interrupted melodies, not making sense. Not the way they should. Maybe something was wrong with his brain.
The doctors don’t know yet. It could be an aneurism.
It could be soon. Dad might be almost gone, I thought. And that’s impossible and crazy because no one should have to say goodbye to someone they love over the phone from two-thousand miles away in Nowhere, New Hampshire.
No, if Dad’s dying, I’ll be driving my car down the east coast to say goodbye properly. And if I have to do something as impossible and crazy as that, on my way, I might as well stop in Philadelphia and ask Jared to go out with me or to never speak to me again.
Because if my dad’s dying right this second, then that means that I’ve spent the final years of his life not telling him how much I love him. Not telling him how thankful I am to be like him. Not apologizing for being so angry. I always kept it in.
I swallowed my fire, until smoke choked us all out. And if Dad’s dying, then I don’t want to make that mistake ever again. And I really don’t want to make that mistake with Jared. Because I love him. I think I was born to.
The fact is that a few years ago, he cornered me about how I felt.
Back then, I was stalling for time.
He was recovering from a broken heart. We were on different continents.
One day there would come a time, I excused myself.
But maybe that time is now. Because maybe my dad is dying, and I’ll be driving down the east coast anyway. I’ll stop through Philadelphia and see Jared in person and ask him to choose. Choose between together and apart.
Together, because “You started a riot in my heart.”
Apart, because “I never wanted to be just your friend.”
The white of the pages glare up at me. I click my pen.
The second impossible and crazy thing happened when my therapist suggested I write two letters, instead of one. It was an exercise meant to challenge a long-standing interpretation of mine about Dad’s parenting. I’m lovable when I serve a purpose. This sentiment had been the wallpaper of my mind, the underlying logistical equation beneath my relationships, for as long as I could remember.
This sentiment is not what love is, and therefore would make a terrible love letter.
Which my therapist understands better than I do. Which is probably why she said, “What if you wrote two? Write one logically, from your head. Write the other with feeling, from your heart. See which one feels better.”
But I’d rather be asleep. I’d rather be in a warmer state than writing these letters, because neither version is going to feel better. And for one simple reason: Jared doesn’t love me. After my final pen stroke, after seeing him in Philadelphia, on the way home to part with my dad, I’ll likely never see or speak to Jared again. And the thought of that feels like goodbye, and goodbye feels like lifting an elephant with my bare hands.
Goodbye feels like these two unwritten letters sitting before me.
I don’t know where to start.
I don’t know how to imagine that it’s possible—that I could live my life and Jared not be there. I used to be a little girl, growing up alone, dreaming of a place called home, where there would be someone I’d trade the stars for. I’d spent pennies, birthday wishes, and countless prayers on a love that time would bow to, a love that would light the world’s way. One that would melt and reforge me, soften and strengthen me until I died a happy, committed, domestic death, after 60 years of marriage, a van full of kids and an unknown number dogs.
More pen clicking.
Never mind what I wanted.
Let’s try this again. I’m sitting here in an old OfficeMax chair in a dingy library with blank sheets of printer paper, penning a letter to the love of my life, asking him to be with me or never see me again, knowing that given these options, he’d rather never see me again. Added to this, my dad is maybe dying somewhere. I feel like dying too. Because I don’t want to lose my dad. And I don’t want say goodbye to the love of my life.
No, I wanted both of them to be more invested in the reality of a relationship with me.
I wanted my dad to make it clear that I couldn’t earn his love, because it was already mine forever and always. I wanted him to share the stories of his life with me. I wanted him to act like Mom did and be my best friend, my biggest fan. After all, I am sitting here trying to write a love letter, something he would do.
I just want to share a fork. I want to take naps with you. And make you laugh. And kiss your face. And hold your hand. I want to sit around and plan stuff with you and go where you go and talk to you about everything.
I want you to want the hold you have on my heart because my heart is a sacred place.
And no one but you has ever found their way in. Maybe no one else ever will.
I see you and don’t know what to say because all I want to say is this, and I know how that’ll make you feel so I don’t say anything. I just swallow my fire and choke on the smoke alone.
And you watch and think, how sad that she had all that fire for me and I had nothing for her. And it’s not sad. It’s not tragic. It’s something else—It’s wrong. Like a book with pages ripped out. It never occurred to me I could fall in love the way I did with you, and have the person I fell for feel nothing in return. Movies lie. The cosmic alignment of two people who meet and love in the same space at the same time and decide to do something about it in the same way at the same time is as complicated as having a healthy baby.
Now I’m just ranting.
The letters are supposed to say other things.
More important things like:
I’d rather argue with you than agree with anyone else.
I know you didn’t see the lightning striking when we connected across countries,
when we struck peace like diplomats
and spoke treaties on matters of love and friendship,
but I hope you’ll let me show you.
Tomorrow means that you will officially have been gone for 4 months. We expect that by now, you’ve established your routine. Brunch with your mom in an eden-esque replica of your childhood home. A walk with your dad around the golden block. And of course, a daily pilgrimage to heaven’s golfing greens.
It has been told to me by Mom that “I love you” is one of the first phrases she remembers hearing me say. She was floored. She didn’t grow up in an I-Love-You-Saying family and neither did you. She checked with my school, but I didn’t pick it up there.
I can’t remember it. I can’t prove it. But sometimes I think, what if it was you who told me to tell her that? After all, I love television and movies and music and cars and nighttime and making people feel listened to, and I got all of that from you.
Why not “I love you” too?
You were a romantic. You were the one who taught me how to swallow fire. That’s what I was doing a year ago, when I thought you might be gone. I didn’t tell you about it. Instead I wrote two letters that I never sent. You remember Jared? (It’s a long story.) But now I think I should have written a letter to you instead and said:
You are someone I’ve been mourning the loss of my entire life and I’m still not ready to say goodbye, but if I have to, I want you to know that I’ll stop being an idiot. I won’t let anyone else go before I let them know that no feat of time, distance, or circumstance could ever separate them from my love. I will use my fire to warm us.
Do you remember the last words we ever spoke? When I got home that afternoon, you were standing around the corner out of view. You said my name when you heard me coming. You said to me, “I didn’t want to scare you.” And I smiled and said back, “You’ve scared me lots of times, and I’ve always survived.” You laughed.
And later, I lay on the couch working and you walked by into the kitchen. I didn’t look up at you. I didn’t know that was my last chance.
The holidays are coming and with any luck, I’ll sleep straight through. I’ll sleep straight through and dream about you laughing or your pantry full of spices older than me. Maybe I’ll drive by Home Depot, the one where you and I used to pick out the family Christmas tree every year. Maybe I’ll laugh or cry or better, remember that one day, my heart will wake up again. Bright and warm. Like string lights in shopfronts and hot apple cider.
Regan Humphrey is an award-winning writer and family therapist. She is an MFA Candidate in YA Fiction & Playwriting at Antioch University. She holds a BA in Creative Arts, Writing & Performance, a BA in Cross-Cultural Relations, and an MA in Applied Psychology. Her work has been published online by Poems by New Yorkers, Antioch’s Social Justice Newsletter, and Lunch Ticket Magazine, and in print by Gilded Dragonfly Books and Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Her first credits as a director, producer, and playwright came in April of 2017, when she mounted What A Heart Loves, a five-act Shakespearean-style comedy at Saint James Place in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.