When I began to think about where I was on this day ten years ago a feeling of vertigo caught me off-guard, as if the weight of where I had been in life could pull me over if I looked back for too long. So I stopped. This was supposed to be a fun assignment, a lovely personal essay. I didn’t understand what I was afraid of. Why did my life now somehow feel above where I’d been back then?
In 2007, I was living in Chicago, wrapping up my work in Northwestern’s graduate fiction program, working full-time, taking classes at night. And I had just fallen in love. I couldn’t get enough of her voice, her thoughts, her laugh, her body—then she left town for a job in Philadelphia. We stayed together, though, and soon after I decided to leap: I quit my job and moved there in early 2008. When the time felt right, I asked. And she said yes. I couldn’t believe how good my life was.
In Michigan, my Dad was going through his fifth year of treatment for lung cancer. His mother, my Polish grandmother, was also fighting cancer in upstate New York. My Dad was able to make it to my wedding in Philly in the autumn of 2009, but my grandmother couldn’t. She died in early 2010, at age 79. My Dad’s brother in Michigan died five months later; he was 51. I’d been close to them both. No one close to me had died before. I didn’t know what to do with how I felt.
Soon after our first wedding anniversary in 2010, my wife and I bought a house. A few weeks later I was laid-off at work, but found another job. Our son was born in the fall of 2011. I was elated, along with my family, yet quickly exhausted, sort of hollowed out by lack of sleep. I began to feel set apart from what was happening, in a new city, with milestones moving past very quickly. My father died the next fall. A peaceful death, but I didn’t get to say good-bye. He was 62. A good friend of mine from work died four months later; he was 35.
In three years I’d gone from my highest high—love, vows, a future—to two deaths, to a child being born, to two more deaths. I did not know grief or how it worked. I guzzled beer. My state of mind and my relationships felt fragile, and I was a jerk on many days. Other hard things happened during these years—a miscarriage, court dates to make sure my daughter in Michigan could spend time with me, separation from my mother and sisters as they grieved—far too much to cover here.
Which explains in part the vertigo I felt when I first tried to write this. It felt more sensible to look forward, forget what shaped me during those years of loss. I’m forty-two now. No lay-offs since then. Fewer funerals. More time for parenting, friendships, writing, and protests. My son is five. My daughter is thirteen. I have two new nieces and a nephew.
I’m grateful for these sentences and the time I had to work on them. They didn’t come easily, but trying to look back without fear or resentment, I can see more clearly my love for the people who’ve been drawn closer to me or taken away. I see that I need to remember how we’ve struggled to keep each other safe, what we work hard to maintain, what people sacrifice for a chance at lasting joy.
Matthew Jakubowski is a fiction writer and literary critic from Virginia, living in West Philadelphia. His work has appeared widely, in venues such as The Brooklyn Rail, Music and Literature, Great Jones Street, The Paris Review Daily, and 3:AM Magazine. He recently had a short story translated in Tamil, and he has an experimental book review in the August issue of Full Stop Quarterly. You can find him on Twitter @matt_jakubowski and his litblog/website mattjakubowski.com.
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