Tomorrow, I’m going home to Michigan. To a place I love dearly. “Camp Quinn.” Every summer, when my older sister went to sleep-away camp, I was sent to Terry and Mary Quinn’s house. Mary taught me how to make rag rugs. Terry would let me sit in the front of his pontoon boat and dangle my toes in the water while we puttered around the lake in the back of their house. We’d talk about books. We’d try (and fail) to catch fish. We’d bake pies.

Terry died last Friday night. After a nearly 20-year struggle with emphysema. His funeral is tomorrow. And I finally cried tonight.

There are times when it seems the universe conspires to make you cry.

When you drive home, alone, and hear an unfamiliar song on the radio.

And, half-listening, you catch a lyric about smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

About being a child.

About being an adult.

About watching a sunset with someone.

With you. With You.

And you think about the unexpected text you received, not ten minutes ago, from a far-distant friend, talking about the pain of missing. About the emptiness that is left behind. The You-shaped hole inside. Talking about how missing is a physical ache. A psychological torture.

And you glance, out of habit, into your backseat, to check on the children. But they’re not there. You’ve dropped them off for the night, or the afternoon, or the hour, or the weekend. And you know that you’re alone. But something in your brain—or your heart—still insists upon checking. Upon looking back.

Back when I was a dancer, we used to have entire classes devoted just to stretching. Long, slow, arduous stretches that made you gasp and sweat with exertion. You’d strain your body, trying to reach as far as you can, your muscles and body and brain screaming in unison, asking you to stop. Telling you it was useless. That you were held as far as you can. That there was nothing left for your body to give. Long, long minutes would be spent in that tight, strained agony. Then, suddenly, it would happen. A desperate gasp of air would finally float, find its way down to your muscles, filling them with breath. And something would release. Without feeling anything in particular—doing anything in particular—your body would simply stop fighting. And let you reach further.

And there, sitting in your car, driving down the familiar roads towards your home, you feel that breath reach down into your chest. Into that tight spot you’ve been carrying around. Filling it with the air that hasn’t been able to reach it for days. And without doing anything at all—doing anything in particular—your body, your brain, your heart simply stops fighting.

And now the road is a fog that you can’t see through the tears that have collected on your eyelashes.

Five minutes.

Five violent minutes.

You sob.

You choke.

Every breath shakes your body.

You park in your driveway and sit, engine running, with your forehead pressed against the steering wheel.

And between your gasps and sobs, you say it. Out loud. Louder than you should. Louder than you were expecting.

“Goddammit.”

“Goddammit, Terry.”

Because you remember the sunsets. And the boat rides. And watching him roll those cigarettes. One after another. Every evening. With the big, white dog sitting at his feet. Back before he knew what they were doing to him. Before the air started to leave, slowly. Before it squeezed out of his lungs. A bit, a bit at a time. Before he knew that he would never be able to bring that air down into the tight places in his chest again. Before he knew.

Or maybe he did know then.

And you know now.

You only know it now.

He helped raise you.

He helped shape you.

He helped you become who you are.

And you never told him.

Goddammit, Terry. Goddammit, cigarettes. Goddammit, me.

You finally exit your car, and walk into your house. Not quite a run. But faster than usual. You dread seeing a neighbor.

You take a tissue, and dry your face. Your neck. Your chest. The collar of your shirt is wet.

But your eyes are dry.

After five violent minutes.

And you are ashamed, but relieved, but ashamed to be relieved, that it only took five minutes.

The storm was furious.

But it was blessedly short.

And now you can breathe.

Without seeming to do anything, something released. Something let go.

The air finally reached your muscles. Your brain. Your chest. Your heart.

And you see the gift that he has given you.

The gift of the sunsets.

The gift of the white dog’s thick, thick fur.

The gift of those damn cigarettes. Hand rolled. One after another. After another.

And the gift.

The gift of this breath.

Goodbye, dear, dear friend. I know that you read everything I ever wrote. I hope some part of you can see this too. It’s for you.

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