A week after my seventeenth birthday my family took a road trip to Redding, California to watch my brother graduate from boarding school. It had been two years, two weeks, since my brother left home. He’d grown eight inches. He looked healthy and muscular, almost unrecognizable from the pasty, acne-faced, alcoholic teenager who departed in a terrifying frenzy of aggressive resistance and law enforcement intervention. I hadn’t grown at all but I’d learned to drive, taken the SAT and survived more than half of high school in the time he was away. My parents had separated. Each of their faces wore the lines and expression of ten years passing, not two.
My mom drove my red 4runner north on highway 5. My best friend and I serenaded her from the back seat with impassioned covers of tracks from Garth Brooks’ album, “Sevens.”
I packed a pink turtleneck, my black J. Crew pea coat, a pair of dark denim and side-zipper, heeled black boots. A carefully chosen wardrobe, selected to display my junior-year sophistication. To illustrate to everyone just how much I’d grown up.
For the car ride I wore sweatpants and my River City Magic hoodie. In my lap, I kept safe the stringy remnants of my childhood blanket, mostly a tattered wad of disintegrating fabric.
I called it “blanky,” and even then, it was my most valued possession. I inherited blanky as a hand-me-down. My brother failed to recognize its magical, healing powers and passed it up without ever getting attached. At seventeen I felt like my brother robbed me of many things, but blanky, I stole from him.
Blanky survived countless family vacations. I battled my fear of flying by anxiously poking my fingers in and out of the spaces between the cotton threads. When anxiety turned to terror (frequently) I’d clench all ten fingers together and hold the fragile strands up against my face. I’d breathe in it’s comforting smell, slow and deep. My mom swore it emitted a fragrance of filth and decay. But to me, blanky smelled warm and safe. Before and after harrowing plane excursions, I schlepped blanky in and out of rental cars and between hotels. I slept with blanky wrapped around my wrists, or snuggled beneath my nose, every night.
I took blanky on overnight school field trips and to sleepovers with friends. When I got older, I’d hide blanky in my pillowcase, take it out when no one was looking, and stash it discretely under my shirt or between my legs.
Somewhere between a gas station pit stop in Red Bluff and our accommodations at the Best Western Inn, blanky disappeared. My first sensation was panic, followed by the launch of frantic phone calls to every place we went that weekend. For forty-eight hours I held on to the hope that blanky would be recovered. Every time the phone rang, I heard the miracle in my head. The voice on the other line assuring me blanky was safe, promising to fold it gently in a fed-ex envelope, and ship it, unscathed, to Sacramento.
A week passed, and nothing.
I cried myself to sleep every night. My mom was helpless and distraught. She couldn’t even look at me, so sad and pathetic. I’d wake up disoriented at 2a.m. and reach into my sheets, desperately feeling for blanky. The race in my heartbeat would settle when I’d brush against something warm and soft. Then, awakening to clarity, I’d realize it was all imagined.
Blanky was gone.
I was heartbroken.
It was the deepest, most painful loss of my life.
Blanky had been my last shred of sanity and security, and comfort. The only thing salvaged from the wreckage of my brother’s alcoholism. The sole remaining artifact from the life I was living before everything came unglued.
The days after my brother’s graduation were dark, and long, and difficult. I felt both inconsolably sad and indescribably angry. I held my brother responsible. For all of it. The loss of blanky was both the “final straw” and the ultimate symbolism. If only he: wasn’t such a fuck up, finished regular high-school, hadn’t ruined my life…
Everything would be different. And blanky would be safe.
On Easter Sunday, twelve years later, my brother and I reminisce about blanky. He shares that his favorite childhood toy is still tucked away in a hall closet at my dad’s house. I admit I’m still angry that “funky” survived and blanky didn’t.
In the discussion, I feel a surge of old emotions. Heartache and longing for something I haven’t seen, or smelled, or touched, in over a decade. Resentment, sadness, anger, grief.
On the car ride home I blast the a mixed CD my best friend made me. It begins dramatically with the lyrics, “that was a tough goodbye.” My eyes fill with tears.
It sure was.
Tough goodbyes still haunt me. The struggle to gracefully move through endings, and peacefully accept loss. The mirror image is me clinging to old: feelings, relationships, ideas, even when I know it would serve me better to let them go. I think about about the hurt I was burying, every time I picked blanky up. The emotions and sensations that I wadded up, and tucked away. I gripped blanky like it would stop time, or speed it up. The illusion that if I could dig in deep enough, everything around me would evaporate, and I would be “o.k.”
I roll the windows down and turn the volume up. I sing as loud as I can and when the tears come, they pour down hard. My face is red and swollen and my throat is parched. I feel all of it.
That was a tough goodbye.