About the beer can I tossed you: man, I should have made a better throw of it. The minute I saw it go under I felt something in me sink.
And I know you’re thinking, man, it was just a beer. No need to go all shameful on me here.
Of course I should have known the thing would float, and so it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I did make a bad throw and the can slipped out of your hands.
Sure enough, the can popped up and bobbed and turned end-over-bottom in the wake behind your kayak a second after I swore and apologized and started feeling asshole-ish and incredibly lazy for not paddling over to your kayak and handing you the can.
No one had been pushing the rest of us to hurry. We were nearing the end of the trip and I think all of us were trying to prolong the experience of being out on that shallow murky green knee-deep water at noon on a Wednesday smack in the middle of a week we’d all been waiting so anxiously for since May burled its super-humid way through this year’s paltry excuse for a spring.
If we could have — I know I would have, if we could have — we might have stayed on the water all afternoon.
Maybe you wouldn’t have stayed on the water, I don’t know. I do think, though, that you would have liked to remain a beach bum another couple days.
You’d told me how much you had been looking forward to the week at the beach in the texts you’d sent G and me the week before. And you’d told me in the truck, after we’d loaded up T’s bedframe and mattress and her bookcase and desk and had been driving out of downtown Columbus back to B and T’s new place, that you couldn’t wait. You could. Not. Wait!
In fact, on that day in the truck, you were so looking forward to time away that you’d asked me, maybe, if a weekend trip to Cleveland some time after we returned from the beach sounded like a good idea. We could do the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, grab a few drinks afterwards. Maybe take in an Indians game.
I was on my phone texting G when you asked. I admitted I hadn’t given you my full attention, though I did think it sounded like a good idea, and I sure was interested.
(Did I tell you why I was texting her? Did I mention that I’m trying to do better to keep in touch when she and I are apart? Trying to let her know what I’m doing, how long I’ll be, whether all is going smoothly? We’re working on that sort of communication, because we both agree our openness and connectedness is what makes our relationship strong, and it’s the same force that’ll keep it strong as we move forward in our lives together.
I may have not told you why I chose that moment to send G a text; I just told you because what I want to say next has to do with communicating, openness, and feelings. All that sort of stuff.)
When I said Cleveland sounded like a good idea, I was thinking you were still with A and we’d all go together.
That was when you told me you two had split up a few weeks back.
You told me about how difficult the long-distance thing was for you both. She would call at the end of the day and be upset about something at work, or someone at work, or at the job generally, and you would listen but never know what to say. Or else you would say the wrong thing and make her angry.
I learned this from you later — I think it was Thursday, while we ate breakfast on the deck after our run — but when she found out she would be able to come with us to the beach you realized you weren’t as excited as you should be to have her with you.
You asked yourself, “Why am I not more exicted about this?”
Something was wrong; you knew it. And you brought it up to her and it wound up ending with you two splitting, which I think you think is for the best, though it still hurt you and her both.
I never said it to you, but I remember feeling really moved by your self-reflection. I was really proud of you for knowing that a feeling, or lack of one, wasn’t a thing to be ignored or stumbled past but was instead worth examining. Though you knew doing so would likely cause you pain, you asked “Why? What does this mean?” and acted on what you discovered.
Let me tell you, Brother: that is courage. That is maturity. That’s boldness.
No matter what happened between you and A, you’ve got to see what you did with that feeling as something valuable, even vital, to where you’re headed.
I know what it means to fail to understand, and what means to fail to even try understanding what your feelings might be trying to tell you.I’m still struggling with this. I’m nearly thirty-four years old and I still struggle making sense of what I want, where I need to go, and how I might best do what needs doing.
I told you this on the beach. G and I both did, while you told us that what you most wanted to do professionally would mean going back to school another three years, and how could you tell Mom and Dad? How would they see a return to school as a plan worth endorsing, when it likely would mean going deeper into debt and prolonging your college career? How would they see it as anything other than you saying to them, “I messed up and I need to start over”?
I guess what I’m trying to say is that what you’re hoping to do’s not starting over; it doesn’t have to be. You could see it instead as a next step, the continuation of your professional development. I told you this that day on the beach, but it’s worth repeating: even if you choose to see it as a new start, consider the advantages of starting again from a position of greater awareness, focus, and maturity. You know how to study, how to focus; unlike your freshman year, you’d know what you want.
I didn’t know when I first started college how badly I would want to write. I stumbled upon it midway through sophomore year. I spent my last two years as an undergraduate taking writing courses and trying to decide whether I should commit to writing and reading and teaching professionally.
I don’t know what made me want to write you about this stuff. A lot of things, I guess. For one, I wanted to apologize for my bungled toss of the beer can. I also wanted to let you know how important I think it is that you’re making sense of your feelings. I also hoped to offer you a little encouragement as you decide on what to do next.
I asked you to think about your ideal day, where you would be and what you would be doing, and why those things would make you, if not happy, then at least content, satisfied. Remember your answer.
Also remember the way you responded to that feeling of yours. Trust your feelings; moreover, trust your ability to make sense of your feelings.
One more thing.
This came back as I was writing about your emotional maturity: the rafting trip we took several years ago. You remember the trip, right? We’d had a laugh about it that week, maybe on Thursday morning over breakfast on the deck.
We’d all strapped on our life vests, shoved off and climbed in the raft, taken up our spots and paddled off down the rain-engorged river. The guides had all commented on how good the rapids would be on account of the high water levels, and I remember feeling thrilled and terrified at the same time at the thought of facing the intense rapids we would navigate toward the end of the ride.
I tried writing about this experience several times before. I actually managed to do the experience some justice recently in a post I put up over on Medium. And I know I probably should have let you know I was planning to post that piece before I posted it. I’m sorry I didn’t. But in a way, unlike this letter, that post felt more personal, less about you and me and more about something a little larger than the two of us. Shame, guilt, moving on. Hopefully all those things come out in that piece. Some of the reader commentary seems to suggest I hit on both the experience of being pushed under and on the experience of being the one doing the pushing.
Truth is, I don’t know any more than this: I still feel I owe you so much. Because I failed you. Failing you, I also failed myself, on so many levels. And I had been failing you and everyone, myself included, for a long time. Once our raft tipped and you and I and everyone else (except for maybe the guide???) went into the drink, all my failings came to the surface. I could no longer escape those failings. They nearly caused me to do you grievous harm while trying frantically to save myself.
When our guide had us paddle up on the slanted back of that massive boulder angling out of a calmer stretch of the Cheat River, something in me sank. Like that beer can.
Unlike the can, though, I’m still not sure it’ll float to the surface. To use another metaphor, I haven’t found its switch yet, let alone discovered the way to switch back on… I don’t know what to call it: my moral compass? My ability to look out for others?
I’m supposed to be a writer; I should have a better sense of what this thing — this sensibility, this awareness, this center — is, how it’s defined. Why it matters.
Maybe I know more about why it matters than I do about its qualities.
Maybe what it is is bound up with what you did when you paused and thought about what your feelings meant. Maybe what it is also has to do with what you did when you acted on what you felt — when you told A you didn’t feel as strongly as you should have felt; when you suggested things between you guys weren’t healthy enough to sustain a long-distance relationship.
Maybe it’s also got something to do with what nearly bowled you over that day on the beach: the thought of really going after the future you’d almost talked yourself out of.
And when you forgave me, told me not to worry about it, told me you had moved on and so should I — maybe that’s part of it, too.
Maybe there’s no maybe about it.
Don’t give up, Brother. Never. Not for any reason.
I need to hear that, too, rest assured. Maybe more than you do. You’re confident in ways I can only imagine.
That’s what this letter is. A statement of appreciation. A reminder of things we’d do better not to forget.
And a thank-you, of course.
Thank you, Brother. For everything.