I spent the 4th of July weekend with my best friend, Jenna, and some of our friends in Tacoma, which is about a half-hour south of where I live in Seattle. I know Tacoma pretty well, having gone to college at the University of Puget Sound there from 1999-2003. Even though it is not really so far away, I’ve only been back to Tacoma a few times in the last seven years, and have visited my old stomping grounds on even fewer occasions.
As I followed the directions to Jenna’s boyfriend’s house, where a group of us would spend the holiday watching the air show, drinking, eating, and taking in the fireworks display, I noticed that I was in some very familiar territory. As I pulled onto the street where my friends were waiting for me, I realized why it all seemed so familiar: the house that used to belong to the family I nannied for all through college sits less than two blocks away. I let the fun of the holiday briefly take my thoughts away from all the time I spent in that neighborhood, and the time I spent in Tacoma. Even though the weather was largely uncooperative, my friends and I had a great time. I honored our country in the style that most Americans employ on the 4th—I drank too many beers, I ate too much, and I had a really good time celebrating with some of my favorite people. But all the while, my memories of my life in Tacoma steadily crept their way back to my attention.
I slept fitfully last night, in part due to the air mattress I slept on and all the alcohol in my belly, and partly because of the bizarre dreams I had. I dreamt all night of being stuck in a dream, of being trapped in some kind of alternate reality where I tied pink balloons to the wrists of my loved ones so that we could find each other in the surreal landscape. It was one of those intricate, epic dreams that ended and began again each time I woke up whether for intervals of a few seconds or a few hours. When I finally woke up and got moving, my mind was already spinning. I threw my things in the car and sleepily said goodbye to the gang. When I left to drive home, my car seemed to turn on its own, first passing that house where I worked as a nanny those long four years, and then out into the opposite direction of the freeway back to Seattle.
To finish this story I need to preface it by explaining that my college years spent in Tacoma were not for me what those college years are supposed to be; my father was either sick or dying of cancer for most of that time. And after he died I felt extremely out of place in that college environment, having to live out while there what has been, thus far in my life, without a doubt the worst emotional pain I’ve ever experienced. So of course being back in Tacoma brings a mixed bag of emotional upsets, and one that I probably shouldn’t have reached into.
But I did. Leaving the intersection of 30th and Alder near Old Town, I followed the route I drove almost exactly nine summers ago. One afternoon in July of 2000, while I was playing trains with the little boy I took care of, I got a phone call from my parents, who told me that my father had received some devastating test results, and that he likely only had a few weeks left to live. I dashed out and drove home in a reckless panic, fully anticipating the misery I was about to endure. Thinking back on it, that drive is really not one I have ever wanted to reenact, but for some reason I led myself there today.
I noticed this time how many houses have been remodeled along the way, how different the water of the Puget Sound looked on today’s cloudy morning as opposed to the mockingly sunny day nine years ago. I pulled past the driveway of my old house, stopped at a point where I could see past it and down the street, all the way down to the water. And then I left, turning onto Pearl Street back towards the University campus and the other houses I lived in around that area.
I took about an hour to tour a sweep of those old houses, the English buildings I took my writing classes in, my old favorite bars and restaurants. Tacoma has changed a great deal in the last seven years, developing and growing as cities do. Though it hasn’t really so long since I lived there, my life has taken so many unexpected turns since then and changed me several times over again, so that my time in Tacoma seems like whole lifetimes ago. I was someone else then, and it felt pretty strange to tour that person’s life as if driving through a memory. Like visiting my own ghost.
I’m not sure if it was wise to do what I did, if it was necessary for me to instigate such weighty thoughts. Of course I couldn’t help letting my mind return to that summer when I left to take care of my father–to watch him die. I thought about what it was like to get in the car that day nine Julys ago, what it felt like to turn the key and will myself to drive to pack my things, say goodbye to no one, to go home to Wisconsin—what it felt like to know that I was about to become another person.
As the clouds began to burn off I made my way to I-5 and turned my car north again, heading home. I’m glad to know that after so many years spent grieving I’ve at least learned a little something. I’ve lived a lot of life these last few years, and the best thing I’ve learned is to shake things off—that I often have a choice in whether my day is a good one or a bad one. I do a lot of shaking-off of things that upset me now that I’m getting a little older, and I’m getting pretty good at it. I picked Mona up from the kennel, played with her at the park, and walked into my house feeling good rather than sorrowful.
The weather is gorgeous today and my garden is positively glowing. I picked the last of my strawberries, which practically hopped down from their vines they look so happy, as well as the first batch of my peas. Artichokes and chard will be next, and I’m finding myself thinking more about the next few months than the last few years as the day wears on.
So perhaps today’s meander down the roads of my past wasn’t really such an unwise idea. At worst, I reminded myself of who I used to be and how far I’ve come since those unhappy days. And at best I’ve assured myself that I am resilient, that I am constantly evolving and figuring things at a slightly better rate than I used to. And that I can grieve and be happy at the same time, remembering my father and the person I was while he was alive, while simultaneously making the most out of the life I’ve made for myself now. Those old ghosts can stay in Tacoma for as long as they need to; they don’t bother me so much anymore, and I’m quite happy right where I am.