(This is the first in a month-long series of blog posts from National Safety Council survivor advocates. We are sharing our stories in honor of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.)
There was a period after my father died when I also felt dead, and it was the worst possible timing. I remember reflecting on how disconnected I felt from my own face and body, when I really thought about it. I was sitting in my New York apartment, at my landlady’s desk—none of the furniture in the place I was subletting belonged to me—just sitting there, in the middle of the day, with Oprah on the TV behind me, my computer screen in front of me, and this idea occurred to me. In my yearning for connection with my departed dad, I couldn’t discern what part of him still existed and where. And for a moment I felt, well, how different will it be when someday, I, too, am separated from my physical body? Because isn’t all that makes up me, this “I” that I consider “I,” a series of magic strung together and plopped into this piece of meat? The realization was chilling, and yet oddly made sense as I’d spent much of the previous year yearning to see the world through others’ eyes.
This started one day when I was ordering coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts back home, and I looked at the Middle Eastern woman behind the counter and wanted to know what she felt and saw, what she was thinking. I viewed this as overdeveloped empathy at the time, not realizing that I’d just largely grown weary of being in my own 24-year-old skin.
Is there any experience in the world more expansive than grief? It knows no bounds. The connection you once felt in a physical way has now become invisible, and yet its palpability is somehow that much stronger. The year before I moved to New York, before my father died, I spent a lot of time pondering how small we all are and how disconnected, that Dunkin’ Donuts clerk and me—I yearned to see what she could see because I assumed it was different, and the fact that I couldn’t see it made me feel that much more alone. It’s a distinctively young person’s sentiment, this newfound fear that one’s perspective, one’s existence, does not truly amount to much.
I’d taken that attitude with me when I moved—there was a certain amount of freedom to it. I’m curious about the world, I thought, and I am not afraid.
So how strange to find myself just five months later, in New York but still jobless and surviving off an insurance settlement due to my father’s violent death, in which his breath was ripped out of his body—though I like to think it jumped out in anticipation. He always had great reflexes.
I’d gone from yearning to leave my own eyes and look at the world through another’s to realizing I never needed my eyes anyway. In fact, they didn’t even feel like they were uniquely mine.
I’d entered the world of the dead, and while the timing blew, the setting was inspired. I’d chosen my sublet on Craig’s List, and it ended up being a fuchsia-colored living-room-turned-bedroom in a garden apartment on a corner in Little India. After I’d met my future landlady, a Filipina flamenco dancer from Las Vegas, and my sometimes roommate, a flamenco dancer from Mexico who liked to clap when making a point, I walked back on the street I’d used to get there, smelling unusual spoiled lychee smells. The rows of yellow-gold necklaces and filigreed chandelier earrings glistened in the store windows as I passed. The ultra-white mannequins in purple and teal saris in a storefront, their whiteness made all the more jarring because of where they stood. And I thought, Now this is an adventure! Or probably something like that. And it was. And I was both fortunate and blessed to experience such vibrance—it reminded me of my favorite passage in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
But in five short months, that once vivid purple, that bustling street of busy Indian and Sri Lankan men, those Our Lady of Guadalupe candles flickering with promise and light, the Empire State Building—which I often mistakenly called the Eiffel Tower—a sliver of hope at night through my kitchen window representing the good to come, all of this turned, changed, into a cavernous eggplant room, cold in its dark corners; solemn men on the streets, preoccupied with work; candles blown out and sacred, everything just had this air of emptiness and the sacred—even the Empire State Building, now as religious to me as a cross.
Everything in my life had changed, and in the mornings, when I woke to another day of sitting at that desk to apply for jobs, rather futilely, I looked out across the purple room into the windows across the street, at their arched tops. I don’t know if there was anything in those top stories—I believe they were the turrets of a nunnery; I used to let the nuns predict the weather each day as I watched them walk out the front door below me—but I would sit up in bed, just a box spring and a mattress on a floor, but it looked glamorous to me, anyway, and I would rest on my elbows and look across into those screened-in turrets, and I would imagine they were the tops of a beach house in Delaware or the Outer Banks—I would imagine I was home. Every day I did this, and every day it brought me comfort in what had become a sullen, cold, distant land.
Much as my own body had become, at last, on that one afternoon.
Gradually, though, the solemnity of those mornings in Jackson Heights gave way to a spirituality that I sensed all around me. I’d learned that many of my Muslim neighbors—next to whom I was a female Opie in red suede Pumas (it was the summer of red shoes)—prayed three times a day. When I woke and looked over at my beach house across the street, I pictured them all kneeling and worshipping their god on a blue rug, in front of a window, and I suddenly felt I was part of a congregation, and I soon felt less alone. Even the Empire State Building made me feel that way in time. After all, he stands there all by himself, celebrating the passing seasons, inspiring the masses.
But the worst part of the timing of all this was that while my once exotic Queens apartment had now become a strange sanatorium, my heart was being forced open by someone more and more every day, as though doing this would somehow keep me alive.
A month before I moved to New York, I’d met the love of my life on the Internet because we read all the same books and liked the same paintings and had the same dreams. And when I ran off to follow mine, he came out to the city, across the country—he was in Seattle then—to watch me.
When we met in person, in my Jackson Heights kitchen, the Empire State Building blinked at us and the skies rejoiced in thunderous applause, as though God were giving himself a hand. They were having a raucous party up there, a loud celebration complete with fireworks. “Thunderstorms are my favorite,” he told me. And so I learned to associate disruptions in the sky with hope instead of trepidation.
Which was helpful when my father was killed. But it still all seemed so cruel. The depth of my disappointment, that I could no longer force my heart open enough to feel what I felt for this man, pained me in a way I could barely explain—it was like the feeling you get as a child, when you’ve opened your eyes wide enough to discover a beehive or a gaggle of butterflies or a nest of baby birds, and then you come back the next day to find sweet, smashed honeycombs on the ground, monarch wings on the pavement or cracked eggshells next to a robin with a broken neck. It was like I was that robin, and I’d finally found the courage to fly, but then my nest had been destroyed.
He could have run away, too jarred by the disappointment. That’s what many of us would do. But instead he cradled my little robin neck and lay there on the ground with me.
A few times during my descent into the world of the dead, I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and in those weird few minutes between sleeping and waking, the lyrics to Neil Diamond's song “Turn on Your Heart Light” would emerge in my head.
Once when I was four, my dad showed up at my preschool to surprise me. Dressed in his business suit, he’d just come from work, and I felt so important leaving my little friends behind as he took me away from the classroom and out to see the movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” He’d been talking about seeing it for weeks, and had decided to go see it with me. Afterward, we stopped at a diner for lunch and then he took me back to school. It was a very exciting day.
At the end of that movie, before the alien returns to his planet, his heart begins to glow, and he tells the boy who’s become his friend, “I’ll be right here.” It’s a common misconception that he points to the boy’s heart when he says this, but Spielberg insisted that E.T. point to Elliot’s head.
Whatever planet my father had returned to, he really was still “right here,” but it took some time for me to see that. It took turning on my heart light.
It was by that light that I could see through the dark, however faintly. And then it gradually got brighter. In the beginning, I kept it lit with the love of someone who didn’t fear darkened skies, someone who when he himself was four years old, ran around the classroom during a thunderstorm, telling his friends not to be afraid.
Because the truth is, there is one experience in the world that’s more expansive than grief. Love.
And for the past 13 years, it’s been my greatest adventure.