Our block is quiet this summer. Turning past John and Elaine’s house at the intersection toward ours, Sam’s never standing in the garage working on bikes with music on when I get home. It’s been a cold summer with lots of rain. I’ve certainly had fun and stayed busy, but constantly wondered what we’d have done together this year and been nostalgic about past summers with Sam.
There’s nothing like Wisconsin Northwoods summers. Specifically, Northwoods Fourth of July. The weather is hot and humid, begging you to jump in a lake and spend the day on the dock or boat listening to country music, spin casting for sunnies and bluegill, and drinking PBR. In the evenings, Sam and I would eat dinner with his family on their patio. The menu was always pretty much the same: brats, potato salad, watermelon, and the best, freshest, midwest-grown sweet corn in the world. After that, we’d drive over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and watch fireworks from the pier over Crescent Lake.
Sam celebrated this way throughout his formidable childhood years, minus the PBR (I’m pretty sure anyway). I think he’d have preferred to be out on a camping trip or some other new adventure as an adult, but once he showed me the joys of the Northwoods Fourth, I was hooked and wanted more of the same each summer. He obliged and, amidst eating brats or retelling muskie fishing stories with Grandpa each year, I knew he really didn’t mind keeping the tradition.
Two summers ago, we were devastated when Sam and I first learned that our Alaska neighbor, John’s, wife, Elaine, had died. We couldn’t imagine John without Elaine. Neither of us had any idea what to say to John the first time we saw him except that we were terribly sorry and to please let us know if he ever needed anything, knowing our words weren’t enough. I’d see John come and go from his house and try to imagine the loneliness and the difficulty of a transition to being alone after spending a lifetime with your partner.
In May, when John gave me his well wishes after he’d heard about Sam, his words were few. I think he knew we’d soon have an understanding - that, from now on, we’d be on the same team. We’d watch out for one another on our quiet little block.
Summer has been good, as summers go. But sad and hard without Sam. (Maybe I should have something more original to say.) Any time I do a new thing, it’s a new thing without Sam. Now that his parents are back in Wisconsin and I’m here, my heart feels like it’s in two places.
I spent this Fourth of July hiking a marathon-length trail in Denali State Park amid breathtaking views, connecting with friends, and scaring away bears. Meanwhile, I imagined Sam’s family enjoying the Northwoods and eating brats and sweetcorn, wishing so badly I could be there with them cherishing years past.
I biked down the summit of Thompson Pass and cried as I flew through Keystone Canyon because Sam wasn’t standing at the pull-off at the bottom making fun of my endorphin high and taking my picture.
I’ve walked into the garage and hopelessly sighed at all his gear that begs to go on adventures but doesn’t fit me.
I’ve cried in my car a LOT, and tackled more administrative tasks that arise when your person dies than I ever knew existed.
I ran a half marathon and day dreamed that Sam would be standing on the side of the trail cheering for me, but he of course wasn’t.
When someone says something that reminds me of Sam but it’s not the time or place for outward grief, I’ve learned the skill I never wanted to know existed of coaching myself out of breaking down and back into conversation.
I’ve hiked miles upon miles, silently and while singing, and while talking, remembering the times throughout our years where Sam and I hiked in silence, in conversation, and in song.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many unexpectedly beautiful moments often follow the hardest ones.
I’ve honored the unofficial summer theme of #GoBecauseYouCan and been more aware and in awe of all the things my healthy body can do.
I’ve stood in a river and wondered, when it really comes down to it, why did it take him so long to get his fishing gear packed?
I’ve eaten terrible sweet corn that flew too many miles to get to Alaska, and daydreamed about summer in the Northwoods.
Yesterday on my way home from the dog park and grocery store I was thinking about all this. OK, yes, I was also crying in my car. Meanwhile, I felt proud that I have done so much this summer both in sadness and in genuine joy. I felt proud that a grief counselor told me she thinks I am “doing well.” I also felt proud for staying in motion without Sam because I know without a doubt that’s what he would want me to do.
I pulled onto our block, past John and Elaine’s house and had just finished trips unloading the groceries onto my kitchen counter when my doorbell rang. I opened the door and there was neighbor John, who handed me two ears of sweet corn.
“These were growing on the stalk in Indiana four days ago. Nothing like fresh sweet corn,” he said with a smile before turning back home.