So July 4 was yesterday. You probably knew that, what with the hot dogs and fireworks and all that. And you’re especially lucky if you live in a small town that still does the small-town parade thing. I am from a real small town (right next to a real big city) and I used to crepe-paper my banana-seat bike for the parade behind the fire engines with great care and pride. Wonderful memories, truly.
This year, I spent the weekend in DC with my son and boyfriend, visiting all the founding fathers and marble statues and Smithsonians and generally having a great (if very hot and sweaty and touristy) time. But instead of staying in DC, we tucked our tail between our legs and left at 9am yesterday, so as not to have the four-and-a-half hour trip turn into the predictably hellish 7 or 8 or worse that happens on holiday weekends. We were back home by 2pm, with no plans, and nothing to do. I meant to buy sparklers in Virginia on the way home, but I missed the “last, last, last, last chance for fireworks!!” turn. I tried not to feel bad when I saw it shoot by me, but as my boyfriend raised eyebrows at me for my flustered upset at missing the turn, I felt the disappointment attach to a larger ache.
Turns out I really did need the sparklers.
I always had sparklers on July 4 with my parents, since I was little girl. And then even as we got older. Fifteen years ago, they had moved from our childhood home into a house next to a hidden glen that filled with fireflies, from tree canopy to ground, turning the hidden pocket of nature into a twinkling snow globe as the fireflies cast around for their mates. Then after nature’s fireworks, we’d retire to their patio, and light our sparklers, waving them around and listening to the crickets sing.
Last summer my parents were dying. And by July 4 my father was already gone. In the many long, long hours of my mother’s sleeping her way toward her death, I wandered around the house, sliding open drawers and cabinets in the unfocused haze of what was coming, packing up a lifetime of their belongings, dismantling my family’s center. In the living room, I came across some really old boxes of sparklers tucked amongst some decorative detritus (stone figs, bundles of gilded ribbon, crystal candlesticks and the like), and I just held the worn boxes for a few minutes before putting them back. But later, I took them back out, put them in my purse, and brought them back to Brooklyn to light with Zack, to share my ritual.
It was a bittersweet evening, last July 4. My mother was already in the coma that comes at the end of cancer, lost to me and my brothers, though her body was still there in her bed, doing the hard labor of letting go. I drove back to Brooklyn to spend the night with my son for the holiday.
As I lit Zack’s sparkler and he exclaimed at the amazing wonder of the shooting gold and silver stars, my heart lifted in my chest for a moment. I captured a photo on my camera, and posted it on Facebook with the caption “A spark in the gloom.”
This year there’s still gloom, but I didn’t have a spark. This July 4 I commemorated an independence of sorts, for sure, but I did not celebrate it. Instead I had a good time at a friend’s barbecue, drank some wine, put my exhausted son to bed, watched a movie, and then picked a fight with my boyfriend to unplug the backed-up feelings, and so I started to cry. And cried and cried and cried.
I miss you, mom and dad. I am between the anniversaries of your deaths, between jobs, and between many layers of myself, trying to sort and file the many griefs I am living at once.
I now realize that even defining oneself against one’s parents—as I often did with you—was a tremendous privilege. I am honored to have had you as my guardians. I simply cannot cherish this independence.
Next year I’ll find some sparklers, even if I have to drive all the way to Virginia again to get them, and I’ll light them in your memory. And I’ll watch my son’s wonder and reach back to remember my wonder as a child, and know that you saw on my face what I see on his. And that way, I can bring you close, again.