In my time living in Kentucky (Winter 2010, Summer 2010-January 2011), it would be safe to say that nearly every single person I met impacted my life in a meaningful way. I grew up in West Virginia, but I think I “came of age,” both in the legal sense (turning 21 in a dry county requires intense creativity), and in an emotional sense, in Eastern Kentucky.
Today I found out that one of the people who had a bigger impact on my life during my time in Kentucky is dead. I’ve written about death before, but in those cases, it was the death of a good acquaintance or a guitar teacher and musical friend. I knew I was sad and I knew why I was sad. Those relationships were linear and clean. But not all relationships can be that way.
And maybe it’s too soon for me to write about it in a public forum, but I honestly have no other way to pay tribute, and am far away from anyone who would understand the complexity of my relationship with this person. Heck, I don’t really pretend to understand my relationship with this person. His role in my life falls into the category of loose ends and unfinished business. We owed each other a heart-to-heart conversation, and now we’ll never get to have it.
I met him at Seedtime on the Cumberland, a summer music and arts festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky (a wonderful event that everyone should check out). I was interning at a community radio station, and he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He was older than me and fascinating and fascinated in my life and the things that I had to say, and I felt the same about him. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but we talked for hours, and, as was wont to happen when I was 20 and around an attractive 27 year old man, we ended up doing some kissing. We spent more time together the next day and night, talking, drinking, camping. Because I was 20 and he was 27 and sweet and smart and interesting and attractive and doing something cool that I would never be capable of doing, I developed a big ole crush on him. And that’s an understatement.
We stayed in touch via phone and email when he left Whitesburg and headed back on the trail. The email account with those emails is now defunct, but I wish I would have printed them out. Kids, print out all of your emotionally valuable email correspondence. You may want it some day. He gave me a long list of books to read about Appalachia, and I diligently read every single one I could find in the Whitesburg library. He gave me music recommendations and was a sounding board for the confusion I was feeling about my life and my decisions.
I stayed in Kentucky in the fall, and after he was done hiking the AT, we made plans to meet up in Boone, NC. We were going to go camping. And my naive, 20 year-old self was planning to make him my boyfriend.
See, this is the part where this nice tribute to a major influence on my life gets a little hairy. Because things did not go as I intended. The best laid plans of mice and 20 year old girls, you know. The weekend was lovely, but for several years after, it came to be known as “that time I got my heart broken in a tent,” and the first in a string of many infatuations with slightly older men with emotional baggage that prevented them from being the partner that I needed. I was pissed, perhaps not rightfully so, but I was younger. I believed that things would go one way and they went very differently.
We parted ways in Boone. I gave him a thoughtfully mixed cd, and he gave me a DVD with 10 – 15 albums and various songs on it. I haven’t seen him since. We talked on the phone and exchanged a few emails after that, but I was too hurt to go out of my way to talk to him for several years afterwards. When I moved to Boulder, he sent me a message saying that he might come visit, and I offered him my couch. Time had healed most everything, but I still wasn’t woman enough to give him a call and speak my piece and hear him speak his.
William, I am so sorry. I’m sorry that I never finished your Appalachian book list, sorry that I still haven’t listened to all of the albums you gave me, sorry for that phone call 3 years ago that I never returned. I’m sorry that we never got together to get a beer, take a hike and feel much better than we felt in previous days. I’m sorry that you haven’t been able to know the woman I’ve become, due in no small part to the ideas we discussed, the sorrows we shared, and the lessons I learned from my relationship with you. I’m still becoming that woman. I’m sorry that I didn’t get to know the man you became. I’m sorry that 4 years later, my heart still constricts a little bit when I think of what you said to me in that tent. I’m sorry that I never told you that I understand now, sorry that I couldn’t reconcile my selfish wishes with my genuine love for you. I’m sorry for your friends and family and everybody else who was a continued presence in your life and is feeling your absence in a stronger and less selfish way.
I’m not sure where you are now, but I sure hope it’s a place with hiking trails, swimming holes, intelligent conversation, humor and love.
And for the ones you leave behind and the ones who are still with us: tie up those loose ends. When you forgive, don’t forget. Have those tough phone conversations, write those scary emails, make the drive you’ve been dreading to clear up things with someone you love. There’s no time for grudges or leaving folks hanging. There’s no way to not make this sound corny.
I’m grateful that I had the privilege of knowing you William, and that we had a few laughs and many intense conversations. I’m grateful for the impact you’ve had on my life, as a learner, an activist, as a friend and a human being. I hung on so much to your every word, as a model for how I should live my life and who I should aspire to be for a short, but influential time, that it feels ironic yet fitting that your passing should also come with such an important lesson.
But I wish it was a lesson that I didn’t have to learn.