There are birds in the trees, can you hear them? The little black birds; they sit right outside the window of my apartment. They keep me company when I feel alone, which is not so much these days. Last week, the birds flew around in agitated circles, sticking their beaks in each other’s face, squawking at each other with anxious intent. I sat in the window with my coffee and watched them— wondering.
The next day, I woke up to a howling wind and six inches of snow. The birds, it seems, were preparing for a storm. In March no less! I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything else from Chicago.
Today there is no storm, though. It is 60 degrees and sunny. 60 degrees, Mom! Almost like it’s summer. I’ve come a long way from my days as a Californian, when 60 degrees required me to wear my warmest pair of boots. I was always sweating by lunch.
I wish I could show you around my new city. I will settle for telling you about it, as I have since you died, as I always have.
It’s Sunday. I am walking to the grocery store. Technically it’s an errand, but today I don’t mind so much. I suppose I’ve never told you about my love for Trader Joe’s, the freezer section especially, the fried rice— oh, I wish you could try the hashbrowns!
It’s not just the food, though. I’m not sure why, but whenever I’ve felt low over the past few years I’ve always had the urge to walk to the grocery store. Maybe it’s the walk itself, the surety of a destination. Maybe it’s the fact that there are no expectations there; I don’t have to buy anything. I can just walk around in circles for a half hour and leave. Or I can buy something, and smile at the cashier on my way out. I know they’ll smile back if I’m at Trader Joe’s. But maybe it’s capitalism to blame and I just have a shopping addiction. Whatever it is, Trader Joe’s has become my happy place, or simply a strange, treasured coping mechanism.
Today, I’m taking the long way to get there. I am stopping by the lake first, which may be too far out of the way to count as “on the way,” but that’s alright, so long as I am walking.
I think about walking a lot, Mom. Did you love to walk, too?
I used to be a runner, but not in any physical sense. I dreamed of climbing to the top of my field, winning a Pulitzer, becoming the first female president! I joined clubs and extracurriculars, was always on my way to a sporting or social event. I never stood still; I never strolled, only sprinted.
Maybe it was something I picked up from Dad. He is always on his feet, always on his way to a basketball game, a meeting, a concert. When we hike together, it’s always a race to the end of the trail and when we get there, we turn around and come right back. He always has a destination, which I suppose is the point. But today I wonder, Mom, did you ever move without a destination in mind? These days it’s all I want to do. I wonder why I never let myself before.
As a child and into college I feared wasting any time at all; I feared it would slip away. I feared I would die like you, suddenly and without apparent cause. I flew around as agitated as the birds, zooming around in circles trying to find some semblance of purpose before the storm hit. I thought I had no time to coast on the breeze, to sit quietly in the trees.
I found your old journals in college. You were 16 when you wrote them, younger than I was then, younger than I’ll ever be now. It was strange to only know you through the voice of a teenager, but I pretended like you’d written them to me like advice columns anyway.
I spent long nights trying to decipher your handwriting, the pencil smeared across the page from years of wear. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for; perhaps I shouldn’t have been looking for anything at all, but back then, I was always trying to achieve something, to reach some goal. I was always— always— running, just like Dad taught me.
It was helpful, maybe, for the years it gave me purpose. The only problem was that at some point, I forgot how to breathe.
I read the journals like they were guidebooks to the future, instead of just being present with you, in the only way I could. Sometimes I read them to make myself sad, Mom, or to have some reasonable excuse for the sadness that was finally catching up with me. I had finally realized I didn’t want to be president, and I didn’t want to spend my life climbing the corporate ladder of a system I no longer believed in. I’d lost the dream I was running toward and so maybe I was hoping to recognize myself in the pages of your journals.
Maybe I thought I could get some confirmation that you were like me, that I was like you, that nurture didn’t matter so much as nature, that a piece of you was still here, living inside of me. Maybe I shared your dreams, Mom, or maybe you could tell me what to dream of, what to run toward, because I was so disillusioned back then. Maybe I just wanted to be you, Mom, because I didn’t know who else to be.
But, of course, you were 16 when you wrote your journals. I’m not sure why I expected to find some insight in the pages about who you wanted to be, and in turn, who you wanted me to be. I only ever found one dream scrawled in the pages: you wanted children and a loving husband. I threw the journal across the room in frustration when I read it. My own mother! All she wanted was a family? How could she have left me such a boring fate? I felt betrayed that the one dream I knew you had, had never been a dream of mine.
I wanted you to dream of becoming a writer or a musician, or sailing away to Greenland on a ship you made with your own hands. What I wanted, was an easy way out. A way to go forward without actually having to look back, or inward, at the emptiness I was certain festered in the center of me, irresolvable without your guidance.
Later that night, I crawled across the floor like a child to pick up the journal. I sat in the corner of my bedroom and read.
You wrote that when the sun sets, older people see the past while younger people see the future. Back then I think I read it wrong, Mom. I neglected the most important actor: the present self, the self that performed the act of looking, that made it possible to put one foot in front of the other, to reach that longed-for future. I could never see the present self as anything other than ephemeral, as anything other than a stepping stone to the next moment, to the next, to the next, to the next…
Did you know there is a way to be at peace, Mom? I’m not sure I’ve found it yet, but I believe in it now, and that’s a start. I’ve made it to the lake. I’m messing around on my long, indulgent trip to the grocery store. The water is choppy, and white wake cuts through the jade surface. It’s still windy, of course, but I don’t mind the breeze. Everyone across Chicago has the same idea; they’ve all come to celebrate the pallid winter melting into the vibrant spring. There is a lightness in the air, as if all our troubles are dissipating into the sunshine.
After years of running with the heaviness, trying to escape the weight, hoping to hand it off to others, believing they would make me whole, maybe this is what the beginning of peace feels like, Mom, just learning how to carry it with me. Learning how to smile at the friend the past might be, if I only let it.
Ghosts don’t have to be scary. I am learning not to fear your presence.
I didn’t always know I was running from you. Sometimes it felt very much like strolling through Boston in the dead of winter with the first boy I loved, drinking whiskey from a Pepsi bottle to stay warm. Even walking near him, I was always two steps behind, reaching— always reaching— for the tail end of his coat, settling for the scent he left behind. But there was a pleasure in that pain, as there so often is. At least I had someone to pin my hopes on, someone to attach my purpose to.
He chain smoked cigarettes, I remember, and he was always sad. I can’t remember now what he was sad about. In fact, I don’t think he had much reason to be sad at all, but that didn’t stop me from running in circles around him, dabbing his eyes, holding his hand, all the while thinking this love will make me forget. For a while, it did, until it ended suddenly, and without apparent cause, just like you did, Mom— and then: silence.
The world stopped, and there was nothing I could do but stop, too. There was nothing I could do but walk aimlessly for long hours in a sweaty mask, alone with my thoughts, with thoughts of you.
I climbed a tree one night in June of 2020. I stared at the setting sun. I thought of what you wrote when you were 16. I was 20 then. I couldn’t see any clear future, but I believed it was there, and for the first time, I realized this was only true because of you. Because you wanted me here, and you wanted me to have that future, even if I couldn’t yet imagine what it looked like.
I could see my feet, though, outstretched in front of me like a child. I thought of my father. I jumped down from the tree.
Here is one foot, I thought. Here is the other. And everyday I walked until I found myself here, in Chicago, in this moment, in line at Trader Joe’s.
Of course it’s crowded on a Sunday, but no one minds. People make room for each other when they pass by, head nods and smiles exchanged. What a beautiful way to acknowledge our shared existence, how simple, how wonderful.
As I wait in line, eyes on the back of the person in front of me, headphones on, I hear someone whisper, “Look.”
And so I look. There is a bouquet of pink tulips, your favorite, or so Dad tells me. I have no reason not to believe him. I step out of the line. I know I’ll have to go to the back of it when I return, but it’s okay. I have no destination in mind.
For so long I was scared, Mom. I was scared to stop; I was scared to look. I know I’m still young, but all I used to see when I looked into the sunset was the past, like a cloud, like an omen, and so I ran—blindly. Blindly, I ran. But I’m trying now, Mom. See the birds, see the lake, see the flowers. I’ve always had my feet beneath me.
It took me so long to understand. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to say goodbye. I’m sorry that for so many years I didn’t want to think of you, and when I finally did I couldn’t conceptualize you as anything other than emptiness and loss. I’m sorry I threw your journal across the room when I found out that the only dream I’ll ever know you had was my dad. And my sister. And me.
I’m sorry, Mom, because there is truly nothing more precious to me than knowing that you wanted me here. Yes, my dad raised me, and it’s his voice that tells me to keep going, even when it’s difficult, even when it takes all I have just to put one foot in front of the other.
But it’s you, Mom, who reminds me to look.
You lift my chin, tell me to take it all in, to slow down, to step closer.
You are the shimmering surface of the lake, the lightness in the air. You are everything. You are the heavy fall of the snow, and the tulips that dare to break the surface every spring. You are the way I fall in love, headfirst despite the fear. You are the laughter down the hallway, the sunset through the trees, the voice I hear inside of me: awakening, awakening, awakening.
I’ve always been desperate for something to cling to, something to sprint toward, to dream of. I have no dreams now except to write this, and then write something else. I have no dreams except to buy the tulips, to put them in my window, to sit down for tea with my best friend. I have no dreams to run, only to stroll, to look up at the sky and out to the sea, and inward to me. I have no dreams of purpose, only presence.
When you looked into the sunset at 16 years old, Mom, did you see me? You must have, because when I watch the sun sink behind the shapes of the city, I see you, and maybe in this way, across time, we are looking at each other. I sit in your presence, understanding my own. I am alive, Mom, because you wanted me to be. I am looking at everything: the little black birds out my window, the lake as it ripples in the wind, the tiny waves cresting against my feet, and I am crying, Mom, because it is beautiful, all of it. Thank you.
Rachel Davey is a writer originally from Northern California and now living in Chicago. She has previously published poetry and personal essays, and is currently working on her first novel.