I have my father’s coloring. Shades of ochre faded to white, glistening deposits in termite’s bodies. And his deep socketed eyes, sunken in, withdrawn, brown puddles of loamy silence. His fingers, a frustrated pianist’s, unable to master grace, playing chord upon chord of blocky hymns, foot heavy on pedal, pursuing the elusive beauty that allows redemption, or amnesia.
Every few months I begin to write a letter.
One writes letters to those who are absent, hoping they will be received with joy and care, that they will alleviate tensions, explain situations, forge new relationships, enhance ongoing intimacies. One hopes that one’s prose will be compelling, one’s sentiments beautiful, one’s affect palpable.
And the most beautiful prose tries to move from here to an imagined there. One searches for Charon laden with anxiety-shined coins. I have sat with nightingales to learn their nightly serenades, convinced song can do what language cannot.
I whisper to my “you look like him” mirror-image hoping he hears through the reflecting glass.
Every few months I start to write a letter that describes who I have been and who I am becoming.
I no longer play chess because it reminds me of the day you bought a set to teach me how to play. I no longer read Sidney Sheldon and Stephen King because you are not here to buy them and buying my own copies seems empty. I can’t absorb your body’s oil through the pages. I no longer eat meat because it is obscene to imagine feasts without you. I no longer listen to Handel and Dolly Parton over Christmas. I find it difficult to visit your former optician. I cried the day I realized my feet were too big to fit into your shoes. I cannot be around men who wear Aramis because it is your scent.
I study the history of venereal disease. My work engages with rhetorics and practices of reproduction. I write about men like you, men who travel from here to there and back and leave pieces of themselves here and there. I drink coffee because you decided to plant it. I keep a dictionary next to me, open at all times, because you taught me to look up words. I love libraries because you showed me how to lose myself in other people’s worlds.
I do not ask what might sunder the fragile ties of memory: do you approve of my choices? Would you be proud of whom I have loved and who has loved me? Do you like my shoes? If I asked, would you visit me and stay in my world for a while? Will you read what I have written? Do you like my writing? What do you think of my friends? Am I the right kind of doctor?
I have written this during the quiet early morning hours over a period of three years, on two continents and in multiple towns. Each word a heart beat. Each sentence the length of a breath. Each keystroke, a reminder that you will never wave me off as I catch the next plane and the next and the next.
That when I leave you do not wait for me to return.
I keep promising that one day I will visit your grave and say . . .
What does one say?
Should I eat the grass from your overgrown grave to ingest pieces of you? Should I capture and keep one of the multi-generational insects your flesh nurtured, my brother from your flesh? Should I play Handel and Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves and Crystal Gayle? Should I wear too-small shoes? Scour the streets to find the donated clothes? Hope that your scent still saturates warm leather belts?
I leave at the end of the month.
I thought, this time, I would have the courage to look at your gravestone, mutter some meaningless phrase, touch soil and rock and grass and flowers and believe in the promise of your ghostliness. I cannot.
The ache of distance allows me to inhabit what cannot be loosed—to be melancholic.
I fear that, were I to visit, I would feel nothing, see soil and rock and grass and flowers, and understand that I care more for strangers called Wanjiku than for a dry husk, that interred bones have no affective pull, and your now-consumed body no longer nourishes even the smallest insects.
It’s easier. No, not easier. It’s more convenient to ache in language, to probe long-healed scars and believe in the phantom pains of memory. It’s more convenient to perform loss from a distance, to believe that, like your mirror-image, you peer myopically and see fuzzily, that diminished vision is unconditional acceptance.
The first letter I wrote refused to end.
I could not sign off, not goodbye, not I love you, not sincerely, not faithfully, not my heart to yours, not best. I could not sign off, not because I couldn’t let go, but because I didn’t want to know how I was letting go. I didn’t want to know whether in the 10 years it took to write the letter we had become strangers, bound by experiences that meant less than my last orgasm.
Ache is not pain.
Your going might mean less than the founding absence that made me. It might be, as I stand at your unresponsive grave, that I discover you are not the source of my ache, and my axis shifts, enough that I forgo whispering to mirror-images.
Another early morning. Another continent. On the eve of another departure.
I take books and bedsheets, new loves and old writing, dreams and memories of whispering to broken shards of glass.
The needed promise of what we leave unsaid.