But Jesse’s reaction surprises me.
“What is this about going crazy on the roof?” he says calmly.
“What?” I ask.
He hands me the letter as if I’ve never read it. I stand up and take it from him. I open it even though I already know what it says.
The handwriting looks hurried. You can see, at the end, that there are splotches of ink where water must have hit it. Tears, obviously. I can’t stop myself from rereading it, seeing it through new eyes.
You’ve been gone for more than two years but there hasn’t been a day that has gone by when I haven’t thought of you.
Sometimes I remember the way you smelled salty after you’d gone for a swim in the ocean. Or I wonder whether you’d have liked the movie I just saw. Other times, I just think about your smile. I think about how your eyes would crinkle and I’d always fall a little bit more in love with you.
I think about how you would touch me. How I would touch you. I think about that a lot.
The memory of you hurt so much at first. The more I thought about your smile, your smell, the more it hurt. But I liked punishing myself. I liked the pain because the pain was you.
I don’t know if there is a right and wrong way to grieve. I just know that losing you has gutted me in a way I honestly didn’t think was possible. I’ve felt pain I didn’t think was human.
At times, it has made me lose my mind. (Let’s just say that I went a little crazy up on our roof.)
At times, it has nearly broken me.
And I’m happy to say that now is a time when your memory brings me so much joy that just thinking of you brings a smile to my face.
I’m also happy to say that I’m stronger than I ever knew.
I have found meaning in life that I never would have guessed.
And now I’m surprising myself once again by realizing that I am ready to move forward.
I once thought grief was chronic, that all you could do was appreciate the good days and take them along with the bad. And then I started to think that maybe the good days aren’t just days; maybe the good days can be good weeks, good months, good years.
Now I wonder if grief isn’t something like a shell.
You wear it for a long time and then one day you realize you’ve outgrown it.
So you put it down.
It doesn’t mean that I want to let go of the memories of you or the love I have for you. But it does mean that I want to let go of the sadness.
I won’t ever forget you, Jesse. I don’t want to and I don’t think I’m capable of it.
But I do think I can put the pain down. I think I can leave it on the ground and walk away, only coming back to visit every once in a while, no longer carrying it with me.
Not only do I think I can do that, but I think I need to.
I will carry you in my heart always, but I cannot carry your loss on my back anymore. If I do, I’ll never find any new joy for myself. I will crumble under the weight of your memory.
I have to look forward, into a future where you cannot be. Instead of back, to a past filled with what we had.
I have to let you go and I have to ask you to let me go.
I truly believe that if I work hard, I can have the sort of life for myself that you always wanted for me. A happy life. A satisfied life. Where I am loved and I love in return.
I need your permission to find room to love someone else.
I’m so sorry that we never got the future we talked about. Our life together would have been grand.
But I’m going out into the world with an open heart now. And I’m going to go wherever life takes me.
I hope you know how beautiful and freeing it was to love you when you were here.
You were the love of my life.
Maybe it’s selfish to want more, maybe it’s greedy to want another love like that.
But I can’t help it.
So I said yes to a date with Sam Kemper. I like to think you would like him for me, that you’d approve. But I also want you to know, in case it doesn’t go without saying, that no one could ever replace you. It’s just that I want more love in my life, Jesse.
And I’m asking for your blessing to go find it.
I know I’m adding new splotches, new tears, to the page. But I can’t seem to stop them from coming. When I finally look at Jesse, his eyes are watery. He puts his arm around me and pulls me in tight. The pain between us feels sharp enough to cut, heavy enough to sink us.
“What did you do on the roof?” he says again, this time softer, kinder.
I catch my breath and then I tell him.
“Everyone said you were dead,” I start. “And I was convinced they were all wrong and that you were trying to come home to me. I just knew it. So one day, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I went up to the roof and saw this small sliver of ocean and I just . . . I became convinced that you were going to swim to shore. I got your binoculars and I . . . I stood there, watching the small little piece of shoreline, waiting for you to surface.”
Jesse is looking right at me, listening to my every word.
“Marie found me and told me you weren’t going to swim back to me. That you weren’t going to just appear on the beach like that. That you were dead. She said that I had to face it and start dealing with it. And so I did. But it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the day. Sometimes I was living hour by hour. I’ve never been more confused or felt less like myself.”
Jesse pulls me in tighter, holding me. “Do you realize that we were both looking out at the same ocean looking for each other?” he says.
I close my eyes and think of him waiting for me. I remember what it felt like to wait for him.
“I had this idea in the car that I would look through that envelope and find all of the stuff in there, the memories and the pictures, and that I would show you how happy we were together. I thought I’d be able to make you see that you were wrong. That we are the same people we were when we loved each other. That we are meant to be together forever. But you know what I realized?”
“What?” I say.
“I hate your hair.”
I pull back from him and he laughs. “I know that’s not very nice to say but it’s true. I was looking at those pictures of you back then with your gorgeous long hair, and I always loved how it wasn’t really blond, but it wasn’t really brown. I mean, I loved your hair. And now I’m back and you’ve chopped it off and it’s blond and, you know, maybe I’m supposed to like it, but I was sitting in the car thinking, ‘She’ll grow her hair out again.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, wait, she likes her hair like that.’ ”
“Yes, I do!” I say, stung.
“That’s exactly my point. This is you now. Short blond hair. My Emma had long, light brown hair. And that’s not you anymore. I can’t just look at you and ignore your hair. I have to look at you as who you are. Right now. Today.”
“And you don’t like my hair,” I say.
Jesse looks at me. “I’m sure it’s beautiful,” he says. “But, right now, all I can see is that it’s not like it used to be.”
I find myself leaning back into him, putting my head back onto his chest. “The Emma I knew wanted to live in California, and she wanted to be as far away from her parents’ bookstore as possible. And she wasn’t going to sit still until she’d seen as much of the world as she could. She loved tiny hotel shampoo bottles and the smell of the airport. She didn’t know how to play a single note on a piano. And she loved me and only me,” he says. “But I guess that’s not you anymore.”
I shake my head without looking at him.
“And I have to stop pretending that it is. Especially because . . . I’m not the same, either. I know it seems like I don’t know that, but I do. I know I’ve changed. I’m know I’m . . .” I’m surprised to see that Jesse has begun to cry. I hold him tighter, listening, wishing I could take the pain away, spare him any more hardship on top of what he’s already faced. I want so badly to protect him from the world, to ensure nothing ever hurts him again. But I can’t, of course. No one can do that for anybody.