You have been there, haven't you? In the picturesque meadow or on the mountaintop or at the beach where somebody is about to throw a box of ashes into the flowers/valleys/waves. There have been months of decisions and caretaking that have led to this moment, not to mention the end of the daily making of ice chips and the return of the rented walker. People you detest have lectured you on the importance of an official urn. People you love have gotten into fights over the sale of the house or a pair of tacky candlesticks. The person you have lost is not coming back, and the place where they used to live (your heart) feels like a TV with the screen kicked out of it.
This is when your uncle (who may or may not be a little tipsy) sits down heavily on the boulder beside you on the beach, just before the scattering of the ashes, and splits his ancient wool pants up the derriere. You will laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. So will he. So will everyone. You will know that the laughter was a little uncontrolled and a little wacko. But you may not dismantle it as fake or cheesy, or some kind of nervous reaction to sadness, and dismiss it hastily. That laugh you have to keep forever. It was real laughter. It was a choice by you and whoever laughed with you—to celebrate instead of judge—while sitting side by side.
To Keep: The Random Person
For the most part, we turn to family or close friends for advice and encouragement. These are the people who know us, after all, and, more importantly, are the people who have to help us (another way to think about this: the people who can't hang up).
It's true that occasionally a taxi driver or waiter will toss off the most insightful, most absolutely needed comment at just the right time. The odds of your hanging out with this waiter or taxi driver for the rest of your days are pretty low, though, if only because taxi drivers and waiters help a lot of strangers though rough times. They can't buddy up long term to us all.
This is why another group of accidental sages exists. These are the people you run into, say, right before a job interview or during a marital separation or during a nerve-wracking trip to the emergency room. They do not belong in the ambulance or at the rehearsal dinner or at the book club meeting, but they are the ones who look at you and say, out of nowhere, with no authority or information, "This too shall pass." Or, "You're making the right decision. It might not feel like it, but I can tell." These people have displayed—in the quickest flash—a strength of character and compassion that you will admire for the rest of your life. These people you must make real, lasting, forever friends with. These people will show you how to live (and how to listen) for the rest of your life.
To Leave Behind: The Wince-Provoking Letter
We all make mistakes. Some of them are more horrid that others. Some of them are actually cruel. We slept with a friend's boyfriend. We hit a co-worker's car. We left the door open to a neighbor's house and caused it to be ransacked by a passing band of robbers. I have done something along those lines. I am loath to think about it, and yet I do think about it. I also think about how I apologized to the friend and about how I tried to make amends by inviting her on vacation and paying for everything she ate or drank (plus hotel) for three weeks. I think about the odd little apology presents I made with my own inept hands, like soap and the weird waxy muddle in a crafty tin that I referred to as "orange-scented lip gloss."
I think about how none of this worked.
When I open my jewelry box, right there next to the ladybug necklace from my grandmother lies a folded-up piece of notebook paper on which the friend explained—in intricate detail—why we had to end our friendship. I tried. She had seen how I had tried. She understood. And she tried too.
But she just couldn't get over it.
For a few years, you may keep this letter. (You really should have it around in case you receive a second one—just to make sure that you don't "forget" the first.) Assuming that no additional missives arrive, however, there is only one reason to keep such a letter: to beat yourself up. Burn it. Flush it. Rip it up. You have changed, and you're still changing, with luck, because shame isn't the lesson here. Forgiving yourself (finally) is.
To Leave Behind: The Story You Tell Yourself
You're a complete disaster when it comes to dancing or eating or even talking in general. You're too loud or too quiet or too tall or too old or too blunt. You're not smart enough or not sexy enough or not risky enough or not fast enough. You never catch on like other people. You ruined the family holiday. You bungled your own marriage. You never loved him in the first place. You'll never love again. You'll never be loved again because love is for other people with smaller hips and larger hearts and a better sense of when to stay and when to leave and who to trust. You're alone. You deserve it. It's all your fault.
These are stories we tell ourselves. In most cases, they are also the stories that were told to us—by our families, by boys, by other girls, by exes and by teachers. Or even by the TV shows we watched, thinking that we would grow up to be TV humans who have jobs where nobody works, who give presents that come perfectly wrapped, and who had boyfriends.
These stories are listed, by title, in a thick, moldy dictionary that we drop on our own heads. They have to go. Now.
Are You Ready to Move On?