Between June and July, you lost twenty pounds. And maybe he died because of it. Wait. Was it fifteen pounds? Eighteen? You can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter—Maybe he died because of it.
When you have this epiphany, you’re pouring cups of lemonade for you and your mom. You two slowed down for a dinner of boxed-leftovers and juice in two ceramic mugs. Hotel shopping is hard work, especially on short notice. You decided you wanted to do this—a spontaneous trip up the coast to San Francisco—only this morning.
This morning, when you were late. Standing in front of the mirror, hurriedly preparing your face with concealer and blush and mascara. You were trying not to shed tears, but it was happening anyway. Had you even put on your gown yet? Had you discovered that it was already 10AM and virtual graduation had already started? You knew you weren’t exactly on time. On Time takes planning, and you purposely hadn’t done any. Because you didn’t want to. You didn’t want to go to graduation. Why?
Well, you’ve never liked transitions.
In our session, I’ll tell you that doesn’t make a lot of sense though because you’ve weathered more of them than most people have. As a kid, your parents had you hop schools like education was a pogo stick. You’ve travelled the world. You picked up everything and moved out here just a few months ago. You didn’t cry about that. Why now?
Well, you… didn’t get to choose this. Graduation. Graduation always comes before you’re ready. You never choose graduation—
Ah. Now, I see. That’s what this is really about. The things you choose… don’t choose you back. And the things you don’t choose…
All of your friends made it on time. They planned. They got up, and washed, and dressed, and sat down in their desk chairs in front of their webcams. They zoomed into your virtual graduation ceremony right on time, while you stood in front of the mirror, crying. Crumbling. For so many, this milestone is sweet. For others, it is bittersweet. For you, it’s just bitter. And that’s when you realize you’re there, again.
In the basement of your heart. We’ve talked about this place before. You’re in the darkest, deepest, most depraved cavity of your heart and you have to climb out of there. You can’t stay there. That chamber of your heart closes in around you, suffocates you with life, with the steady march of continuousness, the promise that life—and everything about it that scares you—will continue. If you stay down there too long, you might convince yourself to leave life behind.
“Do you have any reason to believe he might have killed himself?” The officer asked you. You and your mom were standing in your old kitchen at the old apartment. The one your mom picked out because it was closer to his hospitals, his doctors, his treatment. If anything happened, help was only a few minutes away.
“No,” your mom told the officer, but you came to your father’s defense and said, “We can’t be sure about that.” And you were right. You couldn’t be sure. You’ll never be sure.
He’d been sick a long time. Since he was in his 40s. Since you were a baby. But diabetes was just a cloud in the sky then. If you looked up and happened to see it, you didn’t worry. Clouds came and went. Sometimes they brought rain, sometimes they didn’t.
And speaking of rain, do you remember the day before it happened? You were hiking at the mountain. Your favorite place, even though the carving on its face immortalizes everything wrong with the South. You’d been at the mountain every day for weeks. And that day it poured. Drenched you. The whole world went white and silver. You were wearing white too. It rained so hard the stain in your shirt from breakfast came clean in the downpour. You were purified by that rain, doused so thoroughly. You’d never been so clean.
You probably felt it. You usually do. Rain… a metaphor for God’s provisions. His movements. His plans. You must’ve felt it on that gorgeous raining day that something was going to happen. And then you went home and you came through the door, and your heart leapt because you weren’t expecting to see your dad standing suddenly in the kitchen. And he laughed a little, smiling.
“I didn’t want to scare you,” you remember he said. You smiled back and told him something like, “It’s okay. You’ve scared me before and I’ve always survived.” And later you wouldn’t remember if these were the last words you ever spoke to him. Your mom would fill in the gaps. That day, hours later, after she got home from work, you’d pile into her bed—separate, always separate from your father’s—and watch Forrest Gump. What your mom always remembers about your father’s last night on earth is that movie and Sally Fields, her character dying and the line—“It’s just my time, Forrest. Death is a part of life.”
Just like transitions, her eyes say to you, as you fumble to get on your robes. Your stol. Your hood. (Not your cap. You forget your cap and come back for it later, only for Zoom to blur it out like a piece of background.) You feel alone. You’re the only one late for virtual graduation. Your friends are already there. Allison was worried she’d be late, even though she planned. Even though she’s in DC, three hours ahead.
Allison shines like a beacon to the most insecure parts of you. She’s talented, smart, and presentable. She achieves the beauty standard. She eats salads. You’re so glad you love Allison. Because you could never hope to compete with her. I give you a combative look when you say this, but you ignore me and continue with… I may be talented and smart. I may have style. I may have beauty (some). But will I ever fit into a thin body, have perfect skin, hair, and makeup, all done and done so well as to look effortless in person and on Zoom?
No. Salads? Voluntarily? The only time it seemed a reality that you might one day achieve thinness was June and July before your father died. And even then, salads had nothing to do with it. In fact your diet had nothing at all to do with it. You just worked out six hours a day and skipped lunch. When you did eat, it was all the foods you loved. Just in proportions fit for your puppy. (He weighs eight pounds.)
And as you’re trying to tell me, that weight you lost might have killed your dad.
But for right now, all you can think about is Allison’s music deal.
She’s leaving your Music Production and Engineering program with a record deal. A six-figure deal at that. Hell, she had a manager when she walked in on Day 1. And you. What do you have? Songs written, demos recorded, maybe eons away from being album ready. You thought one of your songs was good enough to be a single, maybe two. But you’ve stalled. Recordings are…They just are. There’s no rushing them. You just take them one step at a time, like grief.
And grief is like… student loan debt. Most of us haven’t paid it off. Most of us haven’t started. You haven’t started. When did you grieve? In the dark, on the bathroom floor of the hotel where you stayed when you went to bury your dad in his hometown? Those nights, on your drive home from the theater where you volunteered, when you drove past the hospital where you were born? When do you grieve? I ask. You don’t look at me.
What if smiling about him, remembering him when you listen to Marvin Gaye… what if smooth jazz, what if none of that counts as grieving? Your eyes well up. What if I ran away from home to build castles in the sand? Like with Henry. You saw a picture of him the other day, didn’t you? It was unintentional. A horrible quirk of fate. You opened social media, which you never do. A friend sent you something and you thought you’d look, and there he was instead. His smiling face. It’s been two years since you last saw him, and he’s different now, you can tell. But that’s not the point.
The point is that graduation feels like rejection to you. It triggers every pain receptor inside of you. It makes every past rejection echo though you. Your father’s. Henry’s. The universities you didn’t get into. And rejection, you know, it just feels like plain old failure. It feels like you did something wrong, except that “wrong thing” you did was being yourself. That wrong thing you keep doing is existing.
You. You were the problem. In your own dream. In your own life. In your own story, you were the problem. Everything you wanted had arrived, as you always thought it would, but all of it was kept from you. Because you were you. If you had been someone else, things might’ve been different. But because you were you…
When you’re a kid, they tell you that you can be whatever you want to be. And you believed them. You believed that you could be an Allison. You believed that you could be the type of person to whom, all of your dreams would come true. But you discovered that you weren’t. And right before your dad died, you thought… What if I could be that person?
And you thought you’d try, so you did. And maybe… when your dad saw you losing weight like that, day by day by day, fitting into smaller jeans, your body changing (even though you couldn’t see it) into a smaller one, maybe he stopped worrying about you. Maybe he mistook your starving and overworking yourself as a sign that you were getting healthier. And maybe that gave him peace. Maybe that helped him let go. Maybe those twenty pounds you lost helped him die.
You and your mom still don’t know what happened exactly. He died, sitting on the floor beside his bed, back against his bedside table, legs outstretched. The police officers recommended that you skip an autopsy. Because your dad had pre-existing medical conditions, even though his health was stable and he’d had no episodes at all that summer, it was more likely that he died of natural causes. They thought it would be unnecessarily invasive for you to find out for sure.
But sometimes you still wonder, if he simply went down into the basement of his heart and stayed too long. You wonder if those smiles he gave you were mechanical. You wonder if he cried in that room all alone, while you and your mom kept away from him, with only the machines he was hooked up to and his television to keep him company. You wonder, if in all the time you spent feeling rejected by him, he felt rejected by you. You wonder about his unfulfilled dreams.
Today, you graduated. And he wasn’t there. And it didn’t feel like he was missing. You didn’t miss him. And sometimes you wonder if the agony you’ve felt over the indifference of those you cared so deeply for is deserved. You think you… inflicted that same agony on him? I wonder aloud, and you reply, yes.
You and your dad must be alike, you think. His vices are what lead to his illnesses, possibly to his death. There must have been a time when he felt it, that he was the problem in his own life. That he was the obstacle between himself and his dreams. If he ever felt that way, or if he ever found a way to cope with that feeling, he certainly never shared his secrets with you.
Or… maybe he did, I point out. Because you’re doing what he did. No matter what he was going through, he smiled. Doesn’t that say he was hopeful?
No, you reply. All that proves is that he cared about appearances.
I close my book, because our session is over, but I ask you one final question: What’s the difference?
Regan Humphrey is a psychologist, film critic, and science fiction, fantasy, and contemporary young-adult writer. She is the inventor of the REFscore, the first and only scoring system that rates films on craft and social justice. She holds an MFA in Writing for Young People from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is the sitting Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket Magazine.