As the second anniversary of Shawn’s death approached, I knew I needed to be more proactive than I had been on the first anniversary. That day, exactly one year after Shawn died, I decided that I would go to work and teach my high school classes.
I mean, what was I thinking? I only had two classes that morning, but I cried in both of them, including while I was lecturing to my seniors about something like state sovereignty. (To be fair, this was one of those times when a terrible mistake leads to a real life lesson. Many of the students reached out to me afterwards and later that year, they chose me as their speaker for graduation. I talked about crying in front of them, and the importance of connection. So, really, it was probably something that was good for all of us. But…once was enough.)
This year, I decided I was going to take a solo hike in the morning. I am not sure I’ve ever actually been on a solo hike, or if I have, it’s been years. But I wanted a chance to really separate from the world and think only about Shawn and not have to hide my tears for fear of making someone else uncomfortable. So I chose a spot near Washington and drove out there early in the morning. The trailhead was deserted, and I put on my headphones after reading the map.
I spent the entire hike listening to The Tragically Hip, Shawn’s favorite band. I hadn’t listened to anything from “The Hip” in two years, even though it was such a staple in our house before that. The first time I heard this band, which Shawn described as “the Beatles of Canada,” it was 2001 and I was sitting in Shawn’s apartment in Japan. We listened to them every day for years and then tearfully watched their final concert together, before the lead singer died from cancer just a few months before Shawn. The Hip is arguably the most important Canadian band ever, and the fact that I haven’t listened to them in two years is something close to a tragedy. How are my kids supposed to know good music if I don’t listen to it?
Within 30 seconds of beginning my hike, I was crying. No one was around, so I made no effort to clean up my tears. Instead, I walked and walked and walked. The sun was bright and after about an hour, I stopped at an overlook to write a bit.
And I cried. A lot. Not because I feel lonely, even though I sometimes do. Not because my kids miss their father, although they certainly do. I cried because I just missed Shawn. He was so fun and witty and smart and sometimes – especially in moments when I get a chance to breathe – I realize how insanely lucky I was to have him for a brief period of time. And how terrible it is that I’ll never see his face again.
The hike took me almost three hours. I stopped a number of times to think or write or cry and by the end I was completely exhausted. As I got to the very end, there was a single man who was entering. “Excuse me,” he said to me, “the trail – is it icy?”
“Um, not really,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know what kind of climbing you’re going to do. I stayed mostly on the main path, as I’m not much of a hiker. I’m out here doing…um…actually, I’m on a pilgrimage of sorts.”
“Huh, a pilgrimage,” he said, looking at my headphones which were audibly playing music from The Hip. I think he was trying to figure out what band it was. “That’s cool,” he said, and smiled.
I started walking the other direction, putting my headphones back on for the last bit of trail, and then I went back to DC to pick up my kids. We were headed to the cemetery.
The night before, I told Claire that I wanted to make a short video of her and her brothers talking about the things they loved about their father, so they would remember him when they were all grown up. She looked at me strangely. “Did you forget your mom after she died?”
I paused. “No,” I said, “but over time, some of the memories aren’t as clear. But I remember all the important stuff about her, just like you’ll remember that about your dad.”
I said it confidently, though I wasn’t really sure. How can I know what they’ll remember?
The kids were happy to get pulled early from school, and they sat across the middle row in the back seat. As we always do on the road trips, they took turns each playing a song from my Spotify account. Austin played various songs he deemed “clean rap,” Claire played mostly country music, and Tommy played songs that had the word “Minecraft” in them, which were all terrible. I mean, honestly, most of the songs the three of them picked were terrible, but Tommy’s choices didn’t even qualify as music.
Mercifully, we made it to the cemetery relatively quickly. The kids easily found Shawn’s grave and we talked about their dad, the memories we had of him, and the body’s process of decomposition, because they are children who don’t know that it’s odd to ask about that sort of thing at a cemetery. Then we watched the videos Shawn made for each of the kids the day before he died. They are private – just for my kids – and aren’t that long, but in them, he talks to each of them about his love for them and thoughts about their future. The kids were mesmerized, slumped all over his gravestone with a laser-like focus on the videos as they played. When they finished, Austin and Tommy ran off to play.
Claire and I sat and talked for a while and she cried a bit. “I worry that I’m going to forget dad,” she said.
“You won’t,” I said. “You might forget tiny things, but you won’t forget how he made you feel. He made you feel loved, and special. And you have so much of him in you. Remember, you like rollercoasters, and I hate them. Guess who else loved them?”
“Dad!” she said.
At that point, the boys ran up. “You know, kids, Daddy really wished he had been here to see you grow up. He didn’t want to leave.”
“Leave?” Tommy said. “Can we leave? I’m tired.”
The big kids laughed. “That’s not what mom meant,” Claire said to Tommy, but we decided it actually was time to head home. As we walked to the car, Claire tried to explain death to Tommy.
“Hey, maybe Dad could re-spawn, like on Minecraft!” Tommy said as he got in the car.
“Tommy, people can’t do that when they are dead,” Austin said.
“But they can in Minecraft!” Tommy said, and then he buckled his seat belt and looked at me. “Mom, can I play my Minecraft music now?”
“No!” Austin and Claire said at the same time, and the three of us laughed while Tommy scowled.
“Actually, I have a better idea,” I said. “Your dad would be horrified that you three haven’t listened to much good music lately. He loved music. So I’m going to play you one of his favorite bands right now. They are called The Tragically Hip.”
I put it on shuffle, and “Ahead By a Century” came on. I smiled as it began with somewhat familiar words, and I thought about hearing it for the first time almost two decades ago:
First thing we’d climb a tree
And maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently
And listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday
Cast in a golden light
No dress rehearsal
This is our life
From the backseat, the kids swayed to the music and I sang as much of the song as I could remember.
Turns out, I hadn’t forgotten all the words.