Once someone explained grief to me as love that suddenly loses its target. When people die, you’ve still got all the love you ever had for them, but they can’t receive it anymore. It hurts.
I guess that’s why breakups hurt, too. All that love, and suddenly nowhere to put it. But surprisingly often, you have the privilege of saying goodbye, excruciating as it may be—the “we have to talk” talk, a dying person squeezing your hand, or just leaving a job in the flurry of a happy hour and promises to keep in touch. When “I love you” is the last thing you say as you hit airport security or hang up the phone, isn’t a tiny part of it, just in case, because that’s what we’d want our goodbye to be?
But goodbyes aren’t grief. They’re given and returned. So what happens when you have to say goodbye to something that can’t say goodbye to you?
The house on 27th Street
If you printed up every email my extended family has exchanged about the house we own on Brigantine Island, and laid the emails end-to-end, the notes about everything from the furnace to the beach tags to the dishrack would reach from the Walt Whitman Bridge all the way down the AC Expressway and back.
But now we have to let the house go.
One of my earliest memories there is that photo you see of me and my brother and cousins sitting with our grandparents (who built the house in the mid-1980s) on the back stairs. I’m the little blonde kiddo on the far right. As far as I knew, the house had always been there, and always would be.
I wish I could say
Earlier this summer, I wrote about how I’ve never been to Iceland, but I’m ok with that, because of our place at the shore. I wish I could explain what being there meant. It was my grandmother’s makeshift watercolor studio, where the morning sun poured in from windows facing the ocean. It was paddling against the current, one salt-stung eye always on the orange flags on the beach, and the airy screech of the lifeguard’s whistle if you floated too far. It was waiting your turn outside on the deck for a cool, humid shower to rinse away the sand, clean water running down your ankles to the carpet when you finally stepped in the house, wrapped in sun-warm terrycloth. The low, heavy whoosh of the sliding glass door.
It was the deep, slow, improvised music of the living-room windchime talking to itself in the breeze. Feeling just a little hungry all day long, for Eggo waffles and watermelon and pretzels and hot dogs. The crunch of gravel in the alley when someone arrived. Reading on the upstairs couch, the ceiling’s light brown beams slanting high above you, until you got sleepy and napped where you were, everyone else lowering their voices. Sweeping tangled bursts of yellow corn silk off the deck while water boiled on the kitchen’s old electric burners. Late-night belching contests, illicit cigarettes, kids beating their parents at Scrabble. Coolers of a cocktail my dad calls “peach power” at Christmas and “beach power” in July.
How do you say goodbye?
When I left the house earlier this week, I pretended it wasn’t for the last time. I focused on the chores I’ve done a hundred times when packing to leave the house, when I knew it’d be there to come back to: the sweaty scramble to scrub the bathroom, Lysol burning my nose and foaming in the sink. Making the bed with sheets hot from the dryer, pulling the coverlet even and arranging the pillows. The vacuum briskly coaxing the old tan carpet into wide, fresh vertical swaths.
As my train pulled away from Atlantic City, I looked at the marsh rolling away to the bay: flat and gentle, spiny and briny, flagged with snow-white egrets. Like always, my eyes chased the myriad washes of green and yellow, and timeless gray roots cradling glints of rippling sky.
For years, I wondered how I’d say goodbye to rooms and a view and a house that can’t say goodbye to me. But when it came down to it, I knew that stopping to take it in one more time couldn’t fix it in my mind any more than all the times I looked over the last 30 years.
How can I be so lucky and so sad all at the same time?
What did you say goodbye to this summer?