How We Keep Meeting

If you've ever seen Parks and Recreation, you know that Ron Swanson loves red meat, America, and storing his gold in unmarked locations. If you really watch Parks and Recreation, you also know that Ron Swanson loves whiskey, specifically, Lagavulin.

So, when Papa and I watched Parks and reached that episode, it was obvious that we, too, would be purchasing a bottle. While my father was not a drinker, he enjoyed buying liquor, a strange hobby he qualified with "in case someone comes over and drinks something specific." Over the years, we acquired quite the collection, but of all the bottles he had bought, Lagavulin was special. It was something we bought together. It was purposeful. We spoke of visiting the distillery one day, just like Ron. When we were cleaning out things, I couldn't even get myself to throw its box, and so, the empty box currently sits on my desk.

Last week, I went to the basement to check the humidity. (The fact that I'm slowly becoming my father does not escape me.) There was a small piece of paper on the floor. Mom keeps the house spotless (a skill that I am hoping will eventually seep to me like osmosis), so it was odd that she would have missed this. I picked it up and walked to the trash. I flipped it over.

lagavulin

How? The box had been moved to my room last year. I've been to the basement hundreds of times since then, even to that exact location, and never saw it. How did it get there? Why then?

There could be a very obvious answer: coincidence. And I agree with that answer. Like my father, I'm practical. This is the world and that's all we've got. Nothing more. Nothing "beyond." When you die, you die.

And yet.

We visited Harminder Sahib in Amritsar, Punjab last month. At a casual 95 degrees, the sun bounced off the white marble, making it difficult to see or walk. We were constantly squinting, wiping off sweat, and trying to navigate among the thousands of people around us. While maneuvering through the crowd, I happened to look up. He must have been a police officer or some government official, but the first thing I saw wasn't his face. It was his name tag, right at my eye level.

Rupinder Singh.

Coincidence? Probably.

And yet, the same thing happened in a Teach For America office a few months ago. I was waiting to meet someone and saw a whiteboard with a list of corps members, and there it was again, a few names down. 

Rupinder Singh.

I wish I could say that we should stop meeting like this, but this is all I'm given. One coincidence after another that starts to feel less and less like chance. This is how I see you nowadays--in slips of paper that fall on the ground and strangers who share your name. 

A year and a half later, and we're still meeting.

On a ferry to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. August 11, 2014.

On a ferry to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
August 11, 2014.

January 24, 2017

Now, you feel loss everywhere: At the airport. Christmas morning. New Year's. It's what keeps you up at night. It's what scares you after yet another dream about Papa. (Though the panicked stress-induced dreams have been replaced by mundane ones of him doing things for you. You can't decide which is worse.)

If you close your eyes hard enough, you can see how Papa smiled at you peacefully that day on the subway. He gave you his seat. You can see his grand silhouette against your apartment window, checking the snow's progress. You can see his reflection in your own mirror, happily posing for another picture.

If you close them harder, you can see the ambulance. That eternal drive to the hospital. You can feel just how much you hated the doctors, that hallway, the nurses, the snow, the godforsaken traverse, every person who was allowed to laugh on their way to brunch, how much you hated all of New York.

If it's quiet, you can still hear the sound of Mom's voice when we pulled over. You can remember that awful call you made to Didi. You can imagine the stranger telling you it would be okay. That he would pray for Papa. Like a child, you remember hating him too.

That night, when you sat in someone's living room, surrounded by all those living except your father--whose voice you had heard just hours ago and was the only important one worth remembering--you weren't sure how another minute would pass without him. You didn't want another minute to pass without him.

And then, somehow, unknowingly, a whole year did.

Central Park, New York. January 23, 2016

Central Park, New York.
January 23, 2016

The After.

Last year, I read a book where the narrator divided her life between two sections: the Before and the After.

It felt dramatic--capitalizing whole pieces of time into separate segments seemed irrational and obsessive.

But now I know. Because this is the After.

I've started teaching at a new school, and I have never been more aware of the After until the new subway route, the new walk, the new faces. New subway delays, new methods of getting lost, new coworkers. Slowly, all of this is becoming routine.

But these walks and people and places will never know the Before. In fact, no one new I will ever meet will know how I associate every single Toyota Corolla with my dad. They won't know about our texts, all of which ended in an "ok." And honestly, I don't want to tell them. Sometimes, it feels like no one new deserves to know because no story will do him justice.

I like to keep my memories safe, wrapping them tightly around myself. The only rule is this: these memories cannot be seen every day. It's not allowed. If ever tempted, you allow yourself to do anything else--clean dishes, write a card, choose a Netflix movie that doesn't have a premise based on death (are all movies about someone dying? I think so.), cook...rather, just think about cooking instead.

Forever holding on. Madison Square Garden, New York. May 27, 2015

Forever holding on.
Madison Square Garden, New York.
May 27, 2015

But every few days, like clockwork, I allow myself to open the door. I allow myself to get washed over completely with things that can't happen again. It can last a minute, sometimes an hour. On good days, it's over within 15 minutes. Then, gently, I shut the door, promising to return, not right away, but soon. In a few days.

I'm not sure if this is considered healing, but it's how I've managed to get to autumn. (Today, a friend mentioned making plans in January, and I caught my breath. January? Again? Wasn't the last one enough?)

It's a shitty realization: no matter who I meet in the future, they'll never be introduced to my dad. Never know his hospitality. Never get to see him be a good sport. (A man scared of heights agrees to take a gondola 2,000 feet high. How am I supposed to explain that to anyone?)

I'm terrified of ever having children who may grow up in a world without him. It's ridiculous that all of his things--briefcase, ID card, wrenches, gloves, turbans, snow shoes, pens, magnifying glass, colognes, can continue to exist without their owner.

I've found the sharp line between the Before and the After. The After is a few shades dull, a little out of focus, and severely crooked. It's not terrible, but it's barely acceptable. And it's all we have left.

A Lifetime of Firsts.

Papa didn't believe in Band-Aids. Whenever he had a cut--a reoccurring instance as he was always working with his hands--he preferred to use New-Skin. This liquid bandage, looking an awful lot like clear nail polish, "sealed" his cut and allowed him to go right back to work in the kitchen/garage/yard.

The day of Papa's bhog at the Gurdwara, I ended up peeling my own skin off instead of a carrot's. It was a deep cut that wouldn't stop bleeding despite all the turmeric rubbed into it.

When I got home, I found that bottle of New-Skin. Papa swore by this thing, I thought. I should use this. Determined, I opened the bottle, got a good amount of liquid on the brush, and coated a layer onto the cut.

And it burned. A lot.

This was worse than a swipe of an alcohol swab--THIS WAS TORTURE. What the hell was in this bottle? Papa never once flinched when he used it! This is some serious false advertising, and I'd like to speak to your manager. 

I panted, and after a few seconds of crazy-eyes, applied a second layer. It hurt, but much less. The third coat had the ghost of a burn. The fourth felt like nothing at all.

Somewhere, circa 1994.

Somewhere, circa 1994.

In these past few months, everything new, everything done for the first time feels like that first layer of New-Skin. It makes me want to squeeze my eyes shut so hard that the world implodes and emotions become irrelevant. It makes me want to take my brain out and leave it off the read so I can just stop thinking about every single moment I was robbed of having. It makes me want to scream at whoever is in charge and point out exactly how I was cheated on that January afternoon.

I am stuck in a revolving door of Firsts. The scabbing and healing seem distant because each First seems to burn a little stronger.

The first time we set the table for three.

The first Saturday waking up to silence.

The first time we changed the car's oil.

The first time I saw a movie and felt the absence in the seat next to mine.

The first time someone called home asking for you.

The first time I dreamed about you (we were crying and saying goodbye at Sam's Club).

The first time I felt--and can't stop feeling--the inevitable mortality in everyone and everything.

The first time I was sick, standing at Duane Reade, and all I wanted was to cry in the aisle because I couldn't call you.

The first time that new lawn mower wouldn't run.

The first time I felt helpless.

The first time I felt overwhelming responsibility.

The first time I figured out that new lawn mower.

The first time we tried one of your recipes and it just didn't taste the same.

The first time I hung a new painting and realized that all the tools were in my hands.

The first beer on the deck.

The first time Mom packed away your winter clothes, knowing it would also be the last.

The first time I bought shoes without consulting your opinion.

The first time I laughed so hard that I felt guilty for feeling happy.

The first time I checked flights and realized we will never stand at the Grand Canyon (or the cliffs of Ireland or the coast of Australia) together.

The first time I caught sight of your snow boots, untied, slightly worn, still in the hospital bag.

The first moment I realized I am no longer allowed any new memories or photographs with you.

The first time I knew I couldn't do this alone and all I wanted was to just hug you and smell your cologne and feel safe and see you smile and have you laugh at my dumb jokes or just want to know if you're proud of us or if you think I can do better or if I'm a good person or if there's another Bond movie we never watched together.

The first Father's Day.

Vancouver August 2014.

Vancouver
August 2014.