When I think of him, I think of the ocean.
Today, there is a woman.
Yesterday, it had been Wyoming and wooden floors and rosary beads. Specks of dust caught in the weak slivers of sunlight pouring through a basement window. An old man who could not speak, and a girl who’d offered you a cup of coffee and a smile. A boy, who’d stood next to you and swore he knew the exact date for the end of the world.
You had told him through the clouds of cigarette smoke that hung above each of you that you didn’t believe him; you knew that the end of the world had already happened.
He said, That’s okay. I don’t believe in you, either.
That was all yesterday, though.
When he was younger, he’d put old lanterns in his window at night, like a lighthouse at sea.
Today, you’re in Nebraska, only sixty-seven miles away from the house you grew up in. There’s a woman who’s standing on the very same stage you’re about to perform on, and she’s speaking of a boy you’ve never met.
He feared I’d get lost when I would drive home in the dark, she’s saying with a voice as quiet as snow, even with the aid of a microphone. He wanted to be my lighthouse.
You want to drown out the rest of her words, but you’re stuck in a fish bowl and the water’s just not deep enough. You’re left there to float backstage in your sea of nerves behind the white curtain that separates you from the rest of the world, and you hold your guitar as close as you can to your chest like a life jacket.
He was always so worried, even as a little kid.
You find it strange that this woman can still speak of the ocean with as much certainty as a hot knife between the ribs. That the heartland of this country hasn’t swallowed her whole yet, like it has to you, like it did to the boy she’s talking about.
You’ve never seen the ocean before - you imagine it’s not that different from the sky above you - but you at least know that the entire Atlantic ocean could be dropped over this woman’s head like a bucket of water and it still wouldn’t be enough to wash away her pain.
It wouldn’t be enough to wash you away, either. You are determined to become as resolute as the god’s fist outlined against the stormy clouds that hang above you in the Nebraska sky. More than a ghost’s footsteps in the snow, more than tear-stained napkins left in a diner, more than faded blue jeans and cigarette smoke and anxious glances. You want to be more than a stranger to give cold coffee to.
You want to become the kind of person that causes all the walls to fall down when they walk into any room.
You want people to believe in you.
He always wanted to learn how to surf, though. I promised him I would teach him one day.
Today, you are here to sing for a boy you’ve never met, and the house you grew up in is only sixty-seven miles away. Today, everything reminds you of your brother.
You spot his shadow dancing between the taillights of the two black cars you parked next to at the edge of the field. You could hear his laughter with each step you took across the wet grass, and the peeling, white paint of the wooden stage where you’ll be performing today takes you back to a sweltering day in June with your brother, watching singing princesses and princes fall in love with each other, the same happy ending unfolding over and over again.
The nervous tremors in your hands suggest to you that there are no happy endings, and you know that if your brother were here, he would agree.
And that smile of his. Oh, that smile. He’d always be smiling, even when it was raining.
You’ve never met the boy you’re here to sing for today, but something tells you that if you were to meet him, he would remind you of your brother, too.
You’re nervous this time, more so than usual. Your anxiousness clings onto you like static crackling through an old song on the radio, so you hold up your hand and make a fist. You imagine it’s like the one in the sky that can topple over entire mountains with a flick of the wrist, the one that can tear down all the billboards you passed on the highway that screamed words of fire and hate at you as you drove by.
One that can hold the entire ocean in the palm of its hand and hang it in the sky.
You hold up your fist and wish for rain.
It doesn’t work.
You figure you have around twenty minutes before you’re expected to walk on stage. You decide to make a phone call to a friend.
When your friend answers on the second ring, she sounds tired, like someone who’s seen the ocean and doesn’t find it as beautiful as the woman on the stage is making it out to be.
Jesus Christ, she says after you ask her for something to make you feel at ease, something to distract you from the boy you’ve never met, from memories of your brother. Please tell me you’re not singing today.
I might be.
I really wish you wouldn’t do this to yourself.
What do you want me to do? you ask angrily, because you’re confused and scared, and the words drop like glass to the ground, one shard landing in the sands of a beach in California, the other landing in the place you both grew up.
I miss him a lot, too, you know, she says, and this confession seems to get stuck in her throat, like she swallowed one of those pieces of glass. I know that you do all of this to cope and stuff, but you gotta remember to spend some time with the living, too, okay?
I will. Just...can you tell me a story?
Your friend sighs into her phone before turning the whole conversation in on its head by launching into a story about how her girlfriend wants to adopt a new cat and name it ‘Periwinkle’ and how when her neighbor plays the violin, the entire world seems to come to a stop to hear them play. How she can see the ocean from her apartment window.
It’s everything and nothing, and you hold onto these pieces of your friend’s life near the water, until it’s almost time for you to go, until your friend says, I’m going to call your mother later before hanging up, until you remember how to be afraid again.
Until you remember you’re here today to sing a song for a boy you’ll never be able to meet.
He always liked music. It was such a big part of his life. And before we scatter his ashes, I’d like to welcome that part of his life into our own lives one last time.
That’s you. The woman on the stage, the boy’s mother, is speaking of you now. You start to walk on stage, and there’s a gust of wind trailing behind you, whispering in your brother’s voice, it’ll be okay. The words curl around your wrist like that night in the hospital, and suddenly, you don’t want to hide from either boy anymore.
You take your spot on the stage, and all the invisible walls fall down.
The crowd is small, smaller than you expected. You catch a glimpse of the boy’s mother, and she seems to look right through you, but it’s okay because at least you know you’re there. At least you can feel the creaks of the wood beneath you. At least you know you’re as strong as that fist in the sky.
Four years ago today, when I was sixteen, my own brother died, you say because you want to them to know that they're not alone in this. That they're not the only ones who've been left alone in the dark. That they're not the only travelers. Two months later, I dropped out of school and started to sing at funerals. I still do this, to this day. Singing has helped me feel less invisible, less alone in my feelings of grief, and I hope...I hope today I can help all of you.
Somehow, you know that your brother is in the crowd. You can’t see him, but you know he’s there, just like you know that the sky overhead is one breath away from cracking open. He’s there, just like he always is, no matter how many funerals you try to put in between him and you.
Losing a loved one is an unimaginable thing, you continue. I’ve walked with enough ghosts across the Midwest to know that there is nothing I can say or give to all of you to make what you’re feeling disappear, but I can offer you this. My song. His song.
So please, listen. I hope it can at least bring you some small peace.
You hold your guitar in your hands, and it becomes more than a life jacket to you. It becomes a part of you as you open your mouth to sing for a boy you’ve never met. A boy who was probably just like your brother.
Songbirds fly out of your chest, and up above, the Nebraska sky cracks open, just like you knew it would.
Rain. It’s raining now.
Long afloat on ship less oceans, I did all my best to smile,
'Til your singing eyes and fingers drew me loving to your isle,
And you sang sail to me,
Sail to me, let me enfold you,
Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you.
After the service, you find yourself sitting in your car as the rain continues to pour. Each drop hits the roof of your car like a question. You catch sight of your brother’s dark skin in the reflection of the rear view mirror, but it’s gone as quickly as it left, and you think you understand that boy’s mother and her hot knife better now.
It's an understanding that you've grappled with in towns with only one stoplight, in motels with stained carpets. It's an understanding that might not be enough for you to outrun the memories that stained your bones blue or the anxiety or uncertainty that follows you everywhere you go, but it’s enough to remember you’re here, a living, breathing ghost. You have today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. Flesh and bone. Part of the living.
You forget that sometimes.
It's enough to remember that you have a gift that makes all the walls fall down and offer people tranquility at the same time.
You've come to realize that you don’t need others to believe in you, not like you might have had when you were younger, when you decided to drop out of school and to transform the roads into your new home. Not after today, four years after your brother's death, when you know you'll never forget him. Not when you've gone this long learning to be okay with the ending you've been given.
Not when you’re as resolute as a god’s fist in the sky.
You think to yourself, Sixty-seven miles isn’t really that far, and so you start the car and drive away towards the land of the living, until the weight of the ocean above you becomes a less heavy burden to bear.