For Patrick

“I think Patrick died. I have to go be quiet somewhere, I’ll talk to you later.”IMG_3288
These words, sent in a message from a close high school friend, flashed across my computer screen on a rainy day last October. For a moment my brain was in chaos, flipping through the chapters in my memory, trying to focus my mind on which Patrick, from what place, from what time in my life.  The word “died” looked so out of place, so jarring, it made my vision go blurry. There is only one Patrick we both know, only one Patrick deployed in Afghanistan.  The news articles of Patrick’s last effort to save a fellow soldier began to flood my facebook feed, confirming the worst.

Like most things, the news of Patrick’s death has sunk in slowly and silently and yet with such heavy weight on my heart that it seems to creep in with its inexplicable emptiness before I can even realize it sometimes.  Loss is a strange and uncomfortable thing, it doesn’t feel right grieving Pat when there are so many that know him and grieve him in a deeper way than I possibly could.  The truth is that when I learned of Pat passing away it had been a long time since we had talked – years even. The period of time our lives intersected was so brief, just a blip on the screen, and yet it left such an indelible mark on me.

Since I learned of the loss of Pat, the steady-rhythm-rumble of skateboard wheels on gravel echoes in my thoughts and I see Patrick rounding the Carlisle, Pennsylvania street corners of my mind, of my youth.  This plays on loop, Patrick eternally rolling and rolling and rolling down that hill on Butler road, flashing his wide, infectious, grin to a fourteen-year-old me, over and over.  And the tiny part of my heart (we all seem to have even as we grow old) that feels eternally ‘fourteen’, breaks over and over again. When I met Pat I was the new kid, as we both had so often been, and I was lost. I was starting high school having just moved to Carlisle from Greece, and I was having a rough go of it. Patrick offered me friendship and a reason to start to love Carlisle, a reason to try.  We spoke about growing up in military families. He spoke about music and poetry and his interest in culinary school. He was smart, and dynamic, a bit of a mess at times, and this spoke to me.  Patrick was never anyone other than himself, and this was at times hard to come by in small-town Pennsylvania, and in the world in general really.

When I first heard of Patrick’s death I was headed to my first day of Postgraduate classes. I told no one initially, there is nothing in my life here that overlaps with the life that Patrick and I had in common – the military posts, the deployments of loved ones, the military family, friends and acquaintances that belong to what seems like a different life I once lived in a foggy dream.  Patrick’s passing has come after I have seen both my father (twice) and brother off for deployments to Afghanistan.  There is no way to express what learning of a loss like this feels like for those of us who have allowed our worst nightmares to carry us to a place where we imagine the knock at the door, and the unidentifiable car in the driveway, the drop in the stomach and weakening knees before rational thought can even take hold.  Members of the military family learn to suffer these things in silence, feeling sorrow for those who will never be able to welcome their loved ones home, tinged with the guilt and relief that you somehow escaped this fate.  I hurt for Patrick’s family, even as a teen he spoke of them with such loving admiration.patrick

So now months later I am somehow better able to digest the thoughts that inevitably follow learning of a life cut short. As my father once put it, I cannot bear the thought of a soul passing through life so quickly. I want to run and unearth old abandoned diaries that are full of teenage angst and girly high school crushing over Patrick, I want to preserve any picture ever taken just to be able to remind myself of all the places my heart has been, and that Patrick touched so many lives in his short twenty five years spent on this earth.  Patrick, we will hold your memory close, we will share it with others.

It seems silly, but sometimes when I’m on an evening run and I’m hitting that last quarter mile and I can’t breathe and that mark I’m trying to hit seems like its getting further and further and the mass of people I’m dodging keep getting denser and denser and my heart is beating straight out of my chest and I don’t think I will make it – I think of Patrick. How he must have felt in that split second of reaction to seeing a friend go down before him, and how his brain must have gone blank and his vision a soft purple around the edges and he just moved forward when everything in his body was shutting down, simply because he knew he had to get there and this commitment was so intense and beyond comprehension that the option of NOT moving did not conceptually exist in that pocket of time. And on these evening runs, in this split second of thinking of Pat, I have the most grateful heart for love winning over the absurdity of politics and war, and the limits of the physical body. And my lungs open up and I become super human and I sprint all the way to that stoplight I have in sight, and beyond.

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Returns

In a few hours I will be on a plane bound for New York.IMG_3345
I close my eyes and my mind travels back to a June day on that MTA Hudson line between Highland Falls and Manhattan, the day before I left the U.S on a one way ticket.  The train is stalled on the tracks, suspended between certainty and possibility. I am propped up on my backpacks gazing out the window as I wait for the final whistle to sound and the doors to close. I try hard to focus on my own reflection in the glass rather than my fathers face behind it, I can’t bear to see it teary-eyed and strained.  I try to distract my mind so I don’t cry or let uncertainty creep in, “you are used to this” I tell myself. He waves at me. He blows me kisses and shoots me sad smiles as I hear the train conductor give the final call,  final stop: Grand Central.  My father often knows me better than I tend to know myself.  Even though I was sure I would return in three months or so, his tears indicated it would be much longer.

He was right.  Now nearly six months later (to the day), I am returning to the East Coast for a short holiday.  That last Manhattan bound train feels like so long ago. Everyone has shed their summer skin and the trees in the park outside my apartment have become bare too, their  branches like skeleton hands shaking in the wind that sweeps off the sea. I will go to the home I left in New York, and after a few weeks I will return once again to the new home I’ve made here in Thessaloniki.  It’s a home I’ve carved out all on my own. I will return to the people I’ve spent the last couple of months getting to know on evenings that lasted well into the morning.  We have spent nights fumbling around in the dark with our words, trying to find common ground to latch on to.  I’ve dug for personality traits and quirks and stories that might reveal connection, excavating souls like a clumsy archaeologist.  I will return to the post-graduate program I enrolled in on an impulsive and pivotal Tuesday last October. I will return to walks along the seafront and my empty abandoned backpack stuffed under the bed. I will return to my new life here, but first I will return to New York.

Last time I wrote I was crying in a visa office, sure that I would be forced to leave Greece. I spent the following two hectic weeks in Athens bouncing between hostels and family, pleading with more immigration officers.  I met a stranger named Liam who read my heart as we sipped Ouzo in the ancient part of the city. He had the misfortune of running into me when I had hit rock bottom, when I was at the pinnacle of my confusion about the future. He listened to me patiently, he told me he was on his way to Egypt to scuba dive and live with the Beduin. We decided circumstance was just as good a reason as any for two strangers to have dinner together, and he encouraged me to go after what I wanted unabashedly. I remember the Parthenon looking incredibly beautiful yet intimidating that night.  For some reason its timeless, enduring, commanding, presence only emphasized how fleeting and unsure everything else felt.  Back then I couldn’t have fathomed I would be where I am today.

I come from a military family that has become good at separation, and six months of absence is by no means record-breaking. Yet the last six months have been so packed with experiences and changes I am finding it hard to prepare myself for the return.  What is it that I left behind again? Why did I leave it? How did I get here? I didn’t move six months ago – I anticlimactically walked out the door, took a long, lonely, taxi ride to the airport with a backpack full of enough clothes to last 3 weeks, and then just didn’t return. I told myself I would write stories, collect them, refine and shine them into tiny pearls, and then I would crack myself open like an oyster for others to read. I told myself it is good practice – for what, I am not exactly sure yet.

My Aunt recently sent me a beautiful piece called Things I don’t Tell my Mother, which ends like this:  “I’m alone again, and in my own head—in my own narrative, really—spinning into another secret. But that’s the nature of travel, isn’t it? To fill up with stories you’re unable to tell. To realize that’s not why you collect them.”
I think about all the stories I am unable to tell, ones I convince myself I could not possibly convey. Flashes of trains through the German countryside, food-poisoning and a new friend in a Barcelona hostel, chasing after a thief in Italy, sailing into Greek ports all dance in my head.  After it all, I am filled to the brim with stories. I hold and hide them like cupped hands around candle flames; I want so badly to share their light. I have to at least attempt to reveal a glimmer, for my own satisfaction.

So as I prepare to return to the familiar, I figure I might as well return to this old thing again too.  I have spent the last few months challenging myself to study, make new friends, explore my new city and yet I abandoned my writing – i suppose there is a limit to how vulnerable one can make themselves feel all at once.  And yet I have missed writing, and the terrifying discomfort that comes with it, leading to discovery and growth. If there is one thing I have learned in the last several months, it’s that the more raw and exposed we make ourselves, the better.