Object of Habitual Trust

Anything that happens to you also happens to me.

I’m not tired and sad because I’ve been providing emotional support to you, I’m tired and sad because anything that happens to you also happens to me.

One week after my dad died, that is what my best friend said to me.

I can’t put this part of the sentence down: Anything that happens to you also happens to me.

That’s how it is when you love someone. Maybe not for everyone, but that’s the way it is for me, for my close friends, for the way we want to exist on this planet together. I knew exactly what she meant.

I know, I said. You are imprinted on me, and vice versa.

I looked up the definition of “imprinted” just now because I had a feeling in the moment that it was sort of an intense thing to say, but no one is fact checking me these days, everyone keeps saying I can say or not say exactly what I want, do or not do exactly what feels right to me. (Do you think it would be weird to introduce my therapist to my mom on Zoom? I’d asked this same friend a few days earlier. Well I think it’s up to you, she’d said, but I’m pretty sure you have carte blanche right now. Like what, is your therapist going to say no?)

To imprint (verb): to impress or stamp (a mark or outline) on a surface or body; to make an impression or mark on (something); to fix (an idea) firmly in someone’s mind.

And then the second definition, marked helpfully “Zoology,” because what are we if not animals: (of a young animal) come to recognize (another animal, person, or thing) as a parent or other object of habitual trust.

There it is — the definition to match what I meant.

Anything that happens to you also happens to me.

It was 2:30am in Oregon when my mom called me.

That’s 5:30am in Massachusetts.

I can’t stop thinking about this. Almost one month into grief I am learning there are certain moments my brain has chosen to latch onto, certain phrases, certain truths, certain questions, and they cycle on repeat, as if my mind is sure that if we just run the highlight reel one more time we’ll be able to make sense of this nonsensical thing.

At 2:30am on January 1 my whole life changed, but at a different version of 2:30am on January 1 my dad was still alive. That is how time zones work. That is what it means to live three hours behind the three people in my nuclear family.

At 2:30am (EST) on January 1 my dad was alive and I was snuggling with my boyfriend and her new puppy in bed in Portland, Oregon. At 2:30am (PST) on January 1 my dad was dead and my mom and my brother were at the hospital with him in Newton, Massachusetts and I was a long plane ride away.

It is grotesque to me to square these facts away. I was happy while my dad was dying. I didn’t know my dad was dying while my dad was dying. I live three hours behind the East Coast so I was late to the news. The worst thing to ever happen to me was happening and I didn’t know it was happening in real time because I was living in a different version of my family’s life, the one where I’m always a little bit late to family FaceTime calls because I still haven’t gotten the hang of time zones, the one where the three of them have already eaten breakfast and I’m still asleep, the one where either I hear a funny story three times over because everyone tells me or I never hear it at all because everyone assumes I already heard it from someone else. The one where I have to get a call that my dad is dead because I’m not there.

I’m having a hard time accepting that I don’t live in the same place as so many people who I think I share a life with, and that when something bad happens to them I won’t be right there. Something very bad happened to my dad and to my family and to me and I came as quickly as I could, I was on a 5:25am (PST) flight, I was at the airport less than three hours after I hung up the phone with my mom.

But at 5:30am (EST) my dad was dead. At 5:25am (PST) I was not 5 minutes away, I was three hours too late. Living on the West Coast means I am always three hours too late when it comes to my family. How to go on existing with that knowledge?

I like living in Portland. I don’t really want to move back to the East Coast.

My dad missed me. He was proud of me for being independent and forging my own life but also he wanted me to come home.

In 2013, the year before I took a road trip that accidentally launched me into my life in Oregon, he wrote me a birthday card: Darling Vanessa… Enjoy your journey — you are so brave! We’ll be following you closely — but not too closely! Love, Dad. But last summer, July 2020, before he drove me to the airport in Boston so I could move back to Portland after finishing grad school, we sat in the living room in my childhood home and he asked earnestly, Don’t you want to stay in Boston? We love you, Vaness. We miss you when you’re not here.

That morning at the airport in Boston is the very last time I hugged my dad. We were both wearing masks and I was scared for him to get out the car. He liked that I was happy but he wished I was happy living closer to him. I’ll see you soon, I told him. As soon as it’s safe to travel, I want you to come see my life in Portland. I want you to see why I love it so much there.

And now I’m back in his house and he’s not here and I’m not moving back and I don’t really know what to do with any of this. I guess I just want to tell you that it’s hard to live far away from the people you love, but it’s impossible to live close to all of them at the same time. I guess I just want to tell you that sucks.

A few weeks before my dad died my mom and I were talking about putting our cell phones on silent at night.

It’s fine to put your phone on silent at night Mom, I told her, because the truth is that if either of us were really having a middle of the night emergency, we wouldn’t be each other’s emergency contacts. Like, if I really needed something in the middle of the night, you wouldn’t be able to do anything. And if you really needed something in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.

She laughed and reluctantly agreed with me. We said if something was really wrong we’d just have to tell each other in the morning and come as quickly as we could.

My dad died at 2:30am (PST). My mom called to tell me at 5:30am (EST). I wasn’t able to do anything. I came as quickly as I could.

The very last conversation I had with my dad happened over text message. I wish that wasn’t true but I guess that’s what happens sometimes when you choose to live in a different time zone from some of the people you love most dearly.

(My parents left South Africa for Canada when they were in their early thirties. I do know my dad understood.)

I’ve been pouring a lot of time, energy, and money into my bedroom since I moved back to Portland this summer, like so many of us are doing during the pandemic, because if I’m going to be home all of the time I’d like my home to be a place I love. I painted my bedroom walls pink and I decided I would get new window shades, something more beautiful than the old dirty white plastic rental blinds that came with the place. I researched for months, literally, and finally settled on a gorgeous custom set of pink honeycomb cell blackout blinds. Through some miracle the shade of pink matches my walls perfectly. When I told my mom about the blinds she asked if she and my dad could buy them for me for my birthday. I said yes.

On December 31, about ten hours before he died, my dad texted me to say happy new year. I had just finished installing the pink blinds and was feeling extremely proud of myself; no one in my family is particularly handy and learning to wield a drill with any level of confidence is no small feat for me. I let him know that I’d installed the blinds myself and sent him a photo, thanking him and wishing him happy new year, too. Amazing! he texted back. I could never.

Aw, I bet you could, I wrote back. They match my walls perfectly! Thank you so much for them.

Amazing, well done! That’s the last thing my dad ever wrote to me. Amazing, well done!

A few days after I landed in Boston my mom, brother, and I were sitting in the living room together and for some reason we started talking about my room in Portland and my decorating plans. I started to tell them about my blinds, but my mom interrupted.

I know you installed them, she said. Dad told us about it on New Year’s Eve!

He did? I held my breath.

Yeah, my brother agreed. He was really impressed that you’d installed them yourself.

I started to cry.

Dad talked about me at dinner that night? Before he died?

They both nodded. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that my family spoke about me when I wasn’t here. Or it did occur to me, but I didn’t really register what that meant. My life in Portland sometimes feels far away and separate from what happens to my family in Massachusetts, but of course that isn’t really true. Or it’s not the whole truth.

Anything that happens to you also happens to me.

I wish this hadn’t happened to any of us.

My best friend, the one I told you about in the first paragraph, knows that nights are hard for me now. She texts me in the evening to check in. She texts me first thing in the morning to see if I was able to sleep. She picks up on the first ring now every single time I call. She lives in the Midwest, in a third time zone (it was 4:30am for her when my dad died), but she is leaving her ringer on, I can tell.

Two weeks after my dad died, she texted me: I was wondering if there’s anything I can do for you at nights since they sound so consistently hard. If it would help I would love to stay on speaker or FaceTime just to keep you company, we don’t have to talk.

Just a few days ago, one of my mom’s best friends texted her something similar from Berlin: Call me anytime. We don’t have to talk. We can just sit in silence. Anything you want. I’m here.

We can build our lives with the people we love, even when they are far away. I know this is true because my dad taught me that, both in his life and in his death. I have to hold onto this, I have to ignore the fact that if so many people I love need me at 5:25am this morning I may not be five minutes away, I may be hours away, I may not get there in time to say goodbye, I probably won’t, most of us probably won’t. That doesn’t mean we’re not living together. That doesn’t mean our love is less. I have to keep telling myself that because I fly back to Portland in a few days and my heart is attached to so many people who do not live there and one day we will all die and I hate it, I actually hate it so much, I don’t know if I will ever be able to close my eyes and sleep again, whether my best friend is breathing quietly and generously on the other end of the phone or not, if I do not hold onto this truth: We can build our lives with the people we love, even when they are far away. We can. We do. We must.

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