I saw a man at the grocery store with a Macalester baseball hat on. Brand new. Brilliant royal blue with the college name in orange. The grey-haired man wore glasses. I gasped as I saw the hat, so relieved to see one of my people in the upscale-grocery store.
“You’re wearing a Macalester hat?” I said. “I went there. 92. Did you go there? Have a kid there?”
“I went there, 65,” he answered. “I just went back for my 50th in June.”
“I miss it. I think about it all the time,” I said.
“Yeah, it was a very important part of my life,” he says to me.
We tell each other it was nice to meet each other as we leave the store and enter the grey, windy, rain soaked day. I drink him and his hat up one more time and turn back toward the rain, which hits my Barack Obama hat. And I start to cry. Again. I was crying in my car before I shopped. I’m giving myself permission to be sad about my friend dying even though I’ve not seen him in person in more than 20 years. I’m giving in to the overwhelming sadness that I couldn’t help him when he emailed me a few weeks ago. That I had nothing to give, only the knowledge that he was in deep.
I’m traveling back through the rain to my own rainy days. Pete’s ghost infiltrates these early December days. I push back against the thought that I have no right to feel so deeply. The man in the Macalester hat gives me permission to push aside the idea that it’s not my turn to grieve. It’s my turn to grieve what can’t be, what never was. And I grieve what was. My youth. Those days at Mac that formed who I became. Those years right after college. Those times when I was so scared to step into my future. All the moments I really wanted Peter to come with me into that art world just beyond not believing we could be artists. If I grabbed another soul like mine, could we jump past not believing into our bright futures?
I didn’t grab Pete and go. I grabbed myself and left St. Paul behind. I took one suitcase, hard, off-white, with brass closures. A one-way train ticket. I thought about Peter and how he liked to ride trains. I couldn’t stay in St. Paul. I wouldn’t let myself become who I wanted to be there. I don’t know why there was fear around every corner there, but there was.
I took myself and rolled away on a midnight train. A Mac friend met me at the station with a bottle of champagne. Lee and my parents toasted my leaving and I broke my parents’ hearts as we raised those glasses. But I knew it would be easier to breath in Seattle. I’m not sure how I knew, but I knew.
And this morning I cried in my car after meeting the man in the Macalester hat. Because not everyone makes it. We are so good at talking about people who rise up past their pasts, triumphant. I raise these words to my friend who didn’t make it. I cried in the car for not being able to say the exact right words when you wrote me about your darkness a few weeks ago. If I could, I would, if I could I would have pushed you into the now. So it wouldn’t be your ghost that I’m dancing with right now. I wouldn’t be typing these words at all. I wouldn’t be flashing back into the past, to the people we used to be, striving to grow up and out into the world past Macalester. God, I miss that safe place and who we used to be there.