I said that I was leaving town for a funeral, but I lied.
Nobody close to me died yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that.
But it’s easy to say that somebody died. People get visibly uncomfortable. They clam up and offer condolences, and then pretend that you didn’t mention it at all. They don’t ask any more questions.
I always get this way in the days leading up to November. Every year, things start to fray. I remember things about the accident that I want to forget, and it makes me antsy. I try shooing away memories like they’re flies caught in my peripheral vision, but they eventually wear down my defenses. Getting out of bed becomes an accomplishment for a little while.
This year was a perfect storm. I’ve been courting burnout for most of 2015. I had to stare into the mirror and tell myself that I believe in what I’m doing, that I can handle any workload without complaint.
But the grief never dissipated. It only appeared less frequently and less acutely, until November, when everything becomes a reminder of my brother and the decade I’ve spent without him.
It’s easy to say someone died. It’s much harder to say, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
I’m sitting in half of a treehouse. It’s the middle of the night. The pine needles above me are blocking out the moon and stars, and the laptop glow is the only source of light. I’m messaging my best friend Kat and trying to explain why I ran away to Wisconsin.
My youngest brother Grant brought me here today, to the ruins of a fort that I built in the woods long ago. In junior high I found four sturdy trees that formed a rectangle and nailed a few old barnwood slats between them. It didn’t have a roof or a door and I certainly hadn’t exercised any technical skill while putting it together. It was a crummy little fort, a few boards nailed to a few trees. It was nothing special. But I had imagination to spare, and sometimes all I needed was space.
It crumbled over the years. A few of the wooden planks fell off or were blown off in a storm or got kicked off by my brother Jesse and me and our friends while we played paintball in these woods.
Jesse would have smiled if he knew that we came out here today. It’s been almost 10 years to the day since I crawled into his hospital bed and sang him to sleep, and I feel it in every moment of every November day.
No matter what a million people will tell you about “how to help someone grieve,” there’s not much you can really do if you haven’t been there. It’s something you should be grateful to misunderstand.
Funny. I never realized it, but now Kat and I both have dark days next to each other on the calendar. She lost her mother a year ago to a vicious cosmic joke, a rare disease. Now I spend a lot of late nights telling her again and again: I know. I know.
It feels like we’re the only ones who understand this cavernous empty space on the calendar. She will never have to ask why something as simple as a date can send me into a tailspin — I know she understands.
I fill her fridge on the right days and respond to thousands of text messages and prove that I’m the one person who will never call her crazy. She does the same for me. I’m trying to help her the only way I know how, by reliving it alongside her. Even though her grief is fresh and mine is a decade old, we both understand and recognize the pieces of it that we share.
This is the only thing that helps. It’s a collection of connections, a million little unspoken everyday actions. We share them between us and with the people we lost. They help us understand how tiny things can reverberate, how people can change each other in silence.
That’s why I’m here, at home, in the woods, in the trees. I needed to show up. For the family I have left.
Dad met us out here in the woods earlier. He drove the big white truck that he drives everywhere, with every imaginable tool stashed away in the boxes in the back. He pulled a trailer full of brand new lumber and parked it at the edge of the trees.
I hid in the ruined fort, behind a pallet and a few barnwood slats still stuck to the trees and pelted him with pinecones when he came close. He screamed, gruffly, and sunk into a defensive stance, but his face bloomed and his yell turned to laughter once he realized that I was home. He wrapped me in a bear hug, a little longer than usual — a few seconds spoke volumes.
I was home for a full day before I saw my dad. He’d been living at my grandma’s old house for a while, waiting for the papers that will make it official. Waiting for our future Thanksgivings to finally — legally — break in two.
I wanted to tell my dad that I understood. Whether you spend 30 years or three planning a life together, it sucks to watch it crumble. It was gnawing away at me too.
My dad and I don’t talk about my relationships very often; I’m always waiting for him to ask. My last boyfriend isn’t anything like my mom, and our relationship wasn’t anything like my parents’. But I thought we were headed for 30 years until a month ago.
He wrote an album about me, full of our story in every note. He isn’t the first guy to write something about me (I’ve racked up an embarrassing yet flattering collection of things written about me by guys I’ve dated — self-aggrandizing BuzzFeed essays and sweet books about boys kissing boys) but he made us into music, and it reverberated in my bones. It felt like something we made together, even though he did all the work and I only named a song or two. He sent me early versions of his songs while working on the album, and I turned them on and let them sing me to sleep.
It was within those songs that I found the courage to finally buy him a ring. I wanted to give him something indelible, like a song. I engraved my fingerprint on the inside. I rehearsed a thousand times in my head giving it to him and telling him: No matter how far away you are, you will always have my hand in yours.
It took me three years, but I finally rearranged the messiness of my heart to leave him an open drawer or two. We had hopped back and forth every few months from Paris to New York in an exhausting international tango, driven by simplistic hope, and I was ready.
That crazy bit of hope was everything, and it disappeared around the same time the album came out. While I was planning my proposal and talking gleefully about moving to Paris, we fell apart. We started skipping every Skype date, every French lesson, every chance to check in and talk about our days. I would get home late and he would be in bed, five hours ahead and a million miles away. Eventually the silence spoke louder than any songs.
I don’t resent him; I only blame myself. In retrospect, it was insane. I was dating text messages. I kept imagining that one day one of us would wake up to the resources and resolve to leave everything behind for a digital specter. It was a promise I very much wanted to believe. At least I can finally stop curling up with an empty pillow and calling it love.
I brought the ring home with me to Wisconsin. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, besides fiddle with it in my pocket. I can’t sell it with my fingerprint on it, and it will never belong to anyone but him.
I had it when Dad and Grant and I started in on the treehouse. I would occasionally reach in my pocket for another screw, and my finger would find it, and I would think about flinging it away, but I wouldn’t.
We raised a new foundation with a couple of hefty 2-by-8s. We screwed the boards into each other, into the trees, into supports.
My dad gave each of us a job: Grant measured and marked the skeleton of the new floor, I attached supports using heavy-duty screws, and my dad measured planks and slotted them into their places. Then, together, we nailed down plywood on top.
I kept wondering why we didn’t knock the old barnwood off the trees. But I followed Grant’s marks, using the electric drill to drive each support into the foundation. It was useful, at least, to be able to climb on the boards as the treehouse above us took shape.
My phone was buzzing incessantly. I kept trying to ignore it. My head screamed at me to at least try to detox from notifications, but a few times I couldn’t help myself. I put down my drill and slipped out my phone. Forty breaking news alerts, 142 emails.
And 12 messages from Kat.
It’s OK to put them away for a few days, I told myself, over and over again, like an addict with a mantra. I felt guilty with every unanswered work email, like each one was a hungry child with sad eyes and my phone was Sally Struthers.
I love where I work. It’s exciting; I think we’re creating the future and making a difference. But I work at a startup, and I have no idea how to manage my own stress levels. I never figured out what balance looks like, and I ran myself into the ground.
Why is that a hard thing to admit? I have no idea what work-life balance looks like. There. Why did I have to invent a funeral before hitting the eject button? Am I off the leaderboard now? Is this another obnoxious story about why I left New York, only written a few weeks too soon?
I don’t think so. But I’m building a life, or trying to, and everything is still up in the air.
It was really the messages from Kat that I was looking for. I knew these days were tough for her too, and I knew she needed me to be there. Once I responded, I listened to the flight attendant in my head and put the oxygen mask over my own face first. I turned off my phone.
By the time we finished the foundation, the sun was riding low in the sky. Grant and I had to leave; we promised to join my little sisters for a game of ultimate Frisbee. Dad wanted to stay behind and keep working, like always. We shot off on the four-wheeler and left him behind in the trees, quietly building something for us. Just him and his work, building his ideal future, the way he’s always done. That’s his one true love.
I envy him that.
At dinner, my mom asked a question: “You wouldn’t care if we didn’t have that house anymore, would you?”
I changed the subject. A few minutes later I walked to the bathroom, stood over the toilet and retched. When nothing came out I sat down, put my head in my hands and cried.
The old drafty farmhouse next to the fort in the woods is everything I have ever had, everything that I remember. Without it I have no real home, no anchor, no recollections, no past. It’s what my parents built together, everything we have ever been.
It turns out I did come back for a funeral, of sorts.
My dad didn’t do much after we left. The sun only gave him an hour more. But now there’s a real floor for a brand new treehouse floating in the branches.
I crawled up onto the plywood, kicking bits of the old boards off the trees when they wouldn’t hold my weight.
I came back tonight to sit in this thing that we built, to look into the pine needles by the glow of my laptop and use the silence to try to be honest. Maybe I’ll leave the ring out here, nailed into a secret spot under the floorboards. Maybe I’ll write another letter to my brother Jesse and read it out loud, and hope that he’s listening. Maybe I’ll text Kat and tell her I love her.
It is possible, I tell myself, to build a new foundation. I hope this time it will hold.
Note: A version of this essay first appeared on Medium.
Joel Pavelski is a digital journalist at Mic.com. He lives in New York City and tweets at @joelcifer. Email him at email@example.com, especially if you’re writing from a treehouse.