Unspeakable Things

It seems we tend toward definitive beginnings and endings, usually deliberate and ritualistic: We start a new job by eagerly settling in at our new desk, and we leave the job cleaning out our desks; we write love letters that carefully articulate why we want more, then Dear John letters that carefully articulate why we’ve had enough; we make a virtual holiday out of birthdays and wedding anniversaries and other significant events that marked new chapters in our lives. Our resumes are a detailed timeline of our career, an obligatory means of asserting a competency that is in no way proven by calendar dates. As a rule, we like clear starts and clean finishes, probably because closure helps us catalog our own lives in a logical manner. At least that’s true for me.

I’ve been thinking about this since the horrible Café Racer shooting in Seattle on May 30. If you hadn’t heard, a gunman shot a handful of diners, killing four people and critically wounding another before he left to kill one more person and himself in other parts of town.

I didn’t know any of the people killed, but I saw footage taken moments before the shooting and they all look like people I know. There is no drama in the photo, no impending doom — just some folks talking and drinking coffee, a scene so commonplace that it underscores the randomness of the event. None of the victims have any idea that their lives will end or irreparably change in the next moment.

When I heard the news, my thoughts jumped to all the loose ends left dangling in the victim’s lives. From the minutia of phone calls unreturned and emails unwritten to the massive bulk of conflicts unresolved and ambitions unrealized, these were lives interrupted midstream. In that way, it was like every sudden tragedy: no chance for professions or apologies; no chance to say goodbye. The thought of it cascades through my head like a line of dominos. I try to imagine the intensity of their last moments and worry that, had it been me, I would be overwhelmed with regret for things those loose ends left hanging. I cringe at the thought of my daughters not having my guidance and support, the emptiness that would rush into their lives at that moment and remain forever.

I am not heading toward a platitude like “make sure the people you love know you love them” — though that is certainly good advice. My frustration lies in a sense that I will never be able to adequately express the depth of my emotion for my daughters. I could talk myself tired and whatever I said would still feel inadequate. Trying to sum it up with words feels like trying to use jars of pennies to buy a home.

I expect most parents understand this. Before I was a parent, my friend Doug told me, “You never know how much love you have in you until you have a child.” He was right — and it’s an amount so great that I feel helpless to express it. I tell my oldest often, and emphatically, how important she is to me, but it’s like describing a sunset: I can wax eloquent about the radiant hues and expansive splendor, but she will quickly sigh and say, “Yeah, dad, I get it, lots of pretty pinks.” Yes, lots of pretty pinks. But a sunset is more than the colors in the sky — it’s how the shifting lights changes the entire world around us, how everything is in a process of transformation as the darkness envelops us. It’s the temperature of our skin as we slip first into cool shadows and then the cold of dusk.

I tell her anyway, but I have no way of knowing if she understands how completely.

I’ve been wrestling with this dilemma since I heard the news of that shooting. I try to make it a point to tell my friends how much I appreciate them (though I don’t tell them often enough), I try to emphasize to my wife how excited I remain about being with her (though after 20 years together, I worry the phrases are too familiar to carry real meaning), I try to reinforce my pride in my oldest daughter and my elation with my youngest (and vice versa,) but it never feels like enough. I never get the feeling that it’s complete.

I don’t have a solution. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way my daughters will truly understand is to one day have children of their own, children who fill their hearts until it feels like panic, who slay them for years with stunningly logical insights and terrible improvised toddler jokes and earnest gray-day lemonade stands. Maybe in those moments, they will finally understand what I fear I will fail to convey. In those moments, my most important loose ends might finally be tied.

PS My deepest sympathies go out to the families and friends of the victims of the Café Racer shooting, wrestling with a horrible reality that is only hypothetical to me. I wish that a lifetime of wonderful memories soon reclaim the parts of your hearts and minds where sadness currently has its hold.