I saw my dad a few months ago for the first time in 11 years.
Before that it had been 13 years.
We spent most of our time silent, using our tongues less than our ears—turns out you can’t catch up on 35 years.
The day passed in a very manly—and pleasant—Midwestern way. We lifted weights, shot pistols, ate burgers and talked about women. Women meaning my sisters (his estranged daughters), our lovers and my mother.
At one point, late in the day, he plucked a picture from a secret hiding spot tucked behind a framed copy of the Lord’s prayer (God grant me the grace to accept that which I cannot change and all that shit…). He handed me a bent and worn photograph of a radiant redhead, and he arched his eyebrows when I said, “Who’s this?”, in a way that said, you know.
In my hands was an image of my mother, all of 20 years old and—if I dare say so—pretty damn well put together (fit for a magazine cover, really).
I handed it back and he buried it away ignoring the objection of his current partner. I shuddered at an unpleasant reflection—a window into the past if not a projection into the future.
Later that night, I burned dozens of love letters never sent.
There was a time when I wrote one a day hoping that they might make the one that got away more to me than a fond memory. That evening, while the letters curled and burned—turned from paper to ash—I indulged in a memory for each, an intentional morsel from the past.
Each of them representative of a time we laughed or a time we cried—that time we tried colonics, or her struggle with my love affair with the chronic—and I let them, and her, go. Stopping to acknowledge—taking time to know—that our time together had helped to propel us both to grow into better, brighter people, that without the pain of our parting we would still be stagnant, stuck lingering and wondering.
If our paths ever cross again, we will have become brand new people and will have to learn about each other all over again…whether that does or does not happen (stranger things have), nothing can erase the memory that persists, nothing will erode the love for her that resists time, new partners and new love in kind, not an unrequited period nor an unquiet mind.
Somewhere in the ashes of the letters I’d burned I learned that sometimes loving someone means being willing to do anything to get them back, and sometimes it means being unselfish enough to do nothing. To allow someone the space to be happy, to give someone the grace to be free.
These days, my dad and I stay in touch. In fact just the other day, he asked me to pass along a message to my mother on Thanksgiving day—a few words meant to say I love you to his one that got away.
“Tell her love lasts forever,” he asked me in a voicemail.
I did them both a favor and swallowed my tongue—for perhaps the first time in my life—choosing to shut my mouth in order to be a better son. Their love, and perhaps mine, like those burning pages—a smoldering love obscured but perhaps better served lost to the ages where for some reason only fond memories remain, fantasies. Stories whose pages are blissfully free of heartache and pain.
Love doesn’t have to be returned to be real, and it doesn’t have to be reciprocated now, for years, or ever in order for you to feel it…forever.