It’s cloudless, clear blue days like this that make me miss my brother the most. Has it really been almost six months since he died? It’s odd how time doesn’t seem to make sense in relation to loss and grief. One day everything changed, and everything since is the same and different. Sometimes it feels like I’m finding out for the first time, and other times it feels like it’s a heavy fact that I’ve lived with for years.
I have the luxury of having Sundays off, for the most part. Today I get out of bed at a decent hour and walk to the coffee shop on the Northside to meet a friend for writing. I pass the local Ace Hardware, with legendary sandwich shop attached. I pass an elementary school, an old brick edifice that looks like the one I attended back in Cedar Falls, one that has long since been torn down. The building is empty, for Sunday and for summer, and the full leaves on the trees flutter and swing, birds and passing cars and rushing leaves and church bell peals all melding together, the summer soundtrack.
Days like these remind me that he’ll never see a day this beautiful and clear again. I’m learning that grief can be swift and unpredictable, a summer thunderstorm. Torrential rain out of nowhere, then sun again. Two or three minutes of intense, raw missing, then it’s dormant again, or sometimes the bitter ache gives way to a gratitude for this life, this moment, the beauty in front of me. I must enjoy it, partially because he cannot, and partially because I won’t always be around to enjoy it, either. For whatever reason, these moments seem to happen at times like these, when I’m walking downtown in good weather.
I forget things about summertime until it comes around again, the same surprises every year. Unearned sweat from sitting still. Anthills- how do I always forget that sidewalk cracks turn into venues for these incredible miniature edifices? The way the fan at the end of my bed can make my sheet billow up and stay suspended for a few seconds like a dome above my skin. And this summer is different, with John gone. I didn’t get to see him often, but summer was always our best bet. This summer I won’t get to reunite with him. I won’t get to hug him, get to let him look through my sketchbook, get to sop up his praise that he so easily doled out to everyone, including his little sister.
I pass shaded porches, some still lined with burnt-up candles and empty tallboys and cigarette butts from Saturday. It’s a staple of summer here, people chilling on their porches night and day. At night you hear the laughter, see the small red glow of a cigarette, the flash of a beer bottle in the porch light, but rarely the light of a phone. The pastime feels intact from generations past. It’s so straightforward – crack open a cold one, light a cigarette (because apparently people still smoke these days, which baffles me), and shoot the shit with a friend. I doubt even the beer can labels have changed much in 50 years. Some things outlive us.
The students are mostly gone, and the ones that remain are free for several months, no longer hunched over tables in the coffee shops, no longer walking in thick clumps around the Pentacrest, backpacks on, phones out. Even though most of the city is still working, it feels like a holiday. This weekend is the arts festival, and only a few blocks away from the coffee shop, the roads are blocked off and swarmed with people, strollers, art tents, food trucks, and dogs on leashes, so many dogs. After the coffee shop, this festival will be my next stop.
I pass the Haunted Bookshop, a two-story historic stone house full of tall shelves crammed with used books. The shelves wind into nooks, and occasionally you might find one of the two resident cats. I pass Friday’s barber shop, which is also closed, the snakelike, jumbled plant in the window pressing its spiky limbs against the glass. I pass Bluebird Café and El Banditos, which will be swarmed with brunchers in an hour.
John never made it down to Iowa City while I’ve lived here. I would have taken him to the best coffee spots and at night, the bars with the most knowledgeable bartenders, where he would have made quick friends and talked shop. He would have paused somewhere in the middle of our drinks, turned and looked at me, and taken a moment to appreciate everything, the fact that he was there hanging out with me. He was very good at gratitude. I’m trying to learn from that.
By the time I reach the coffee shop and wave to my friend, I feel the overloaded sensory thrill of traveling in a new city, though I’ve been home all along, walking a route I’ve made countless times. There’s a special, tender thing about grief that wakes me up from time to time. I am, for the moment, alive, and I know how fragile that is. I can’t be the tour guide for John, show him around my favorite spots. But sometimes I think he’s still teaching me how to look at things with new eyes.