I learned a lot from my neighbor Joe dying in a house fire last December. Running to my mom’s house through the police barricades and firemen, watching the black smoke pouring from the house attached to hers and from out of her attic, and seeing on the pavement the lifeless body of my neighbor, his bare leg sticking out from beneath the white sheet that covered him, was one of the worst moments I’ve ever experienced. I immediately started sobbing this strange, animalistic cry that I’ve never made before and pray I’ll never make again. It was the collection of our fears, all the worst case scenarios, realized in real time.
After he was admitted to the hospital, I spent the weekend chain smoking and drinking, unable to erase the image of him that was seared into my mind. After he died, I couldn’t go to my mom’s house. His burnt home was directly beside hers. His truck was still in his driveway. There were boards against the door I used to watch him walk through and ladders in the garden he once cared about. Metal springs, all that were left of his mattress, sat morbidly twisted in his backyard. I could not be near that place, and I don’t know how my family stood it. His blackened bedroom window faced my sister’s. She still keeps her blinds closed.
I couldn’t stop looking back at that morning; the horrible panicked phone call from my mom, the longest car ride of my life, the feeling of terrified panic that clogs your throat.
Yet it’s been nearly two months, and everyone is okay. His home is being rebuilt, his family has returned to wherever they came from, and his truck is finally gone. Joe won’t ever be forgotten but we moved on. I don’t know how; something was lost to us! A relationship perished in the worst way imaginable. There is unfinished business and zero resolution here! But we didn’t have a choice. We had to return to work, pay our bills, feed our stomachs, and see our friends. Moving on wasn’t an option, it was required.
This is the first time in my adult life that I think I’ve finally accepted that we really don’t get peace and resolve every day. We are not guaranteed closure, or fairness, or a chance at the last word. In fact, we rarely deserve those things. But what we do get are 24 hours to move on, shake off and do better.
I’m reminded of a salary negotiation that went really terribly and how I spent months smoldering over a pay rate that I couldn’t change. There was nothing left for me to do, yet I lived in that conversation for way too long. I didn’t move on and it was as unhealthy as sitting in Joe’s ashed bedroom would have been. What I should have done, and have done since, is learn from my mistake and then get over it.
The habit of living in the past, of putting new words in our mouths for past arguments, imagining conversations going differently or thinking of relationships preserved, is really toxic. It’s an expensive habit that yields no results and costs you whatever time you actually have. Yes, I wish I could have somehow saved Joe and my mom wishes she noticed the fire before it had raged so hotly… but I couldn’t and she didn’t. That’s all there is too it, and the longer we stayed in that day the worse off we were.
Learning from the past is obviously a requirement for every adult that wishes to be successful, but it is also just as important to get over it. If there is one thing I’ve taken from the day that left me so shaken, it’s this; Life sucks, and then you move on. Take from it what you can, and then leave it where it belongs – behind you. There is no use in clogging up your present with yesterday’s darkness.
Sail on, Joe. You are preserved as a good memory, and the darkness is lost. Rest easy, our friend.