The Long Way Home by Seth Fiegerman
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When I was little, I’d wake up before my parents on the weekends and wait. My grandfather would come by when the sky still had some black in it and tap on my window. Then he would carry me away in his beat down rust-colored station wagon that smelled like the three German Shepherds he’d owned over the years, all named Georgie, regardless of gender. We’d drive 20 mph through the empty streets and walk the aisles of empty grocery stores. Sometimes he let me hold the steering wheel while he gently pressed the pedals. Then he would return me home just as my dad was shaking off the sleep.
Maybe that’s why I still believe strange and wonderful things happen when everyone else is sleeping. Maybe that’s why I don’t like to keep my eyes closed longer than necessary. I was always the first to wake up at sleepover parties and on vacations, eavesdropping on gossiping parents and morning birds. And I’m also the one who stays awake on trains, planes and car rides, measuring the changes in scenery, trying to catch the moment when the sameness becomes different and new.
As I write this, I’m traveling back down the coast of the Northeast in a slow Amtrak train that is being whipped by wind. It’s a trip I’ve made many times and I know how it always goes: You lurch away from Boston, that sleepy area trying to be a big city without ruthlessness and risks, then you push through Rhode Island in less time than it takes to explain why it’s a state, only to drag through the cookie-cutter cities of Connecticut, watching the way the stars curl up and disappear in fear of New York City.
I know all this, but I still stay awake and watch out the window for anything new. The water off the Connecticut shore is dark but grinning with reflected light. A few brave boats sit out in the cold. Somewhere in the distance I see or imagine seeing the faint lights of houses on Long Island’s Gold Coast, near where I grew up and sometimes stared back in this direction. Then, once again, I return to thinking of this godforsaken year.
For every month of 2014, a drama. Three funerals. Two strokes. Weeks spent in hospitals — and animal hospitals. Through it all, I tried not to close my eyes more than necessary. I wanted to stare death in the face and trace its details. I wanted to be present while life unbundled — to watch how it changed the people I love — and be an active part of the rebuilding process. I wanted to waltz with the grief. I didn’t want to cede any of the living, no matter how horribly painful it would certainly be. “Life is for the living,” one of my relatives said repeatedly on the day of his mother’s funeral last year. It’s a philosophy that comes from growing up in a Holocaust family. So much horror in the world to blink out. Yet that horror is part of life; you have to own it, to live in spite of it and because of it.
Unfortunately, you can’t be present for all of it. You pretend to fall asleep in the shower in the mornings, trying to will yourself to start again. Your eyes glaze over day after day at work, trying and failing to take it seriously. You tune out when friends talk about the problems of twenty-somethings that you wish you had. You can’t be all there to sort through your mom’s clothes; you can’t be present to talk about your dad’s dating life.
Sometimes, I admit, I wish I could just turn my face to the wall, fall asleep for three months and wake up to learn how everything turned out. Just let the scene change. This leg of the journey has gone on for far too long already. But then I look up and see all those familiar buildings rising up in the distance. New York is always at its most beautiful from the outside. When it’s first coming into focus. When you know everyone else around you is still asleep and you have the view all to yourself.