A few weeks ago, I was sitting with a good friend, Denisse, on the couch in my new apartment. I hadn’t intended on living here. This was the backup plan. This was the safety net that we needed in case all other options fell through. They did. Over the past year things had been difficult to say the least, but no matter how painful or disappointing the last 365 days had been for me, they paled in comparison to what Denisse had endured. Denisse was diagnosed with cancer a year go: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. What I witnessed her endure and survive can not be shared in this page. Our conversation, on that night in my apartment, can be. We were discussing the strangeness of endings. When do you stop living a traumatic event and start being a survivor of a traumatic event? Denisse, in her sassy short hair and tanned complexion, looked undeniably healthy as we sipped our dessert wines. She had been in remission for months now, but there were still the doctor visits, still the medications, still the thoughts in the back of her mind that her cancer might return. As we sat in comfortable silence, Denisse asked something so poignant and beautiful it that it started us down a road of pondering that lasted for hours, “When can I start saying that I had cancer instead of I have cancer?”
Sometimes I think I have started over so many times that all I do is start over. In the time it has taken for half of my life to pass (hopefully only half of my life) I’ve called over 25 places “home”, married a man young, divorced a man almost a decade later, married a woman at a decent age, have had several different careers, worked over twenty different jobs, helped raise seventeen children, advised hundreds of teenagers, attended four colleges, earned three degrees and have just recently left yet another career to begin anew. The previous list spouts an inventory of events that all share one common element: a final farewell. I have no fear of starting over. I have fear that I will eternally be starting over.
I’ve said so many goodbyes that I struggle to see the faces in my life outside of their transitory nature. I am not trying to be fatalist. It is just reality. We all experience change and loss, it just seems my life path might have decided to pick up the slack of some cosmic social loafers out there. That’s ok. I believe in karma; most of the time. The fugacious nature of my life has deep and early roots. I would chalk it up to perspective- as I am a strong believer that we make our own realities- but alas, I have had enough anecdotal evidence from unsuspecting conversational partners to know that probably is not the case.
I have a visceral feeling in my chest; a homing signal that drives me to constantly seek out a place of remedy: a place to make me whole again. A place to heal the tiny, congenital tears in the fabric of my being, that I am constantly mending on my hand-me-down soul. I have been self medicating with real estate listings and daydreams for as long as I can remember. I am a situational kleptomaniac: I have an inability to pass by free real estate magazines in gas stations without grabbing one, or two, or three. In every one if these lies the promise, the hope, that sprawled across the pages- like some architectural pin up model- will be my “forever home”. Despite my endless search, I have no idea what my forever home looks like. I only know how it feels.
I have almost found it a few times in the arms of beautiful people with their beautiful families and their beautiful lives; but there were goodbyes there too. Goodbyes that were sent one way on a postcard with no return address. But for all of the painful consequences, some unexpected beauty has emerged from these departures. I don’t believe in endings anymore. I believe in change. I believe we are all swimming in an ocean of churning circumstance; an inescapable, gradient of existence that binds us together. I also don’t take people for granted. I can’t. The presence of mind that reminds me that the “here and now” is more akin to “then and gone” doesn’t allow it. Every time I see my daughter’s face, I know that we are one day closer to saying goodbye and it fills my heart with an absolute sense of awe at how infinitesimal the odds are that our lives have ever intersected, and an all encompassing feeling of completeness in knowing that the universe is as it should be.
The trials and challenges of my childhood have inadvertently granted me many blessings; the most functional of those being my ability to be a warrior for myself and those I love. I am a survivor in the strongest sense of the word. If the zombie apocalypse falls upon us or, a natural disaster results in a loss of the social order, trust me, you want to be with me. Running is also in my family. My elders were all genetically gifted at getting the hell out of places, especially from situations that required emotional fortitude. So I had to teach myself early on how to anchor my feet in the ground and plow through things that feel like shit. And you know what? I am damn good at it. I am part MacGyver and part Hester Prynne.
Part of both of these gifts is the ability to assess situations instantaneously. I have learned to listen to myself and my judgements about people, places and decisions. I follow my gut but always take my mind with me. And for all of my adult life, with very few exceptions, my intuition has been my guardian angel. I owe her so much. So for me the leap of faith is not in the decision to follow my gut, uproot, and move on, but in the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps I am meant to stay put; despite every alarm bell in my soul sounding with urgency.
Perhaps the drive I feel to seek out my home has more to do with homeostasis and harmony than locale. Maybe the imperfections I seek to correct in my life- the soul-less apartment I am trying desperately to embrace, the incessant city noises that set off my anxiety, the past relationships that will never be mended, the mistakes that can not be undone- maybe these are the memories that will play through my mind when my final moments linger quietly and then come to an end. Maybe the desperation I feel at righting these wrongs can only be assuaged by closing my eyes and breathing in their presence; peeling away their chitinous, waxy exoskeletons to reveal their internal grace and beauty.
My soul-less apartment is a block of wet cement, waiting for the footprints of my family to tread across lightly, leaving tiny little toe marks in their wake. The city noises that cause my heart to to pound with anxiety is just the universe forcing me to acknowledge that I have a vibrant heart remaining and it is made to love ferociously and tirelessly and can withstand a few beatings. The relationships that will never be mended are not broken at all, but instead quiet souls to remember with love as they walk separate paths down memory lane. And the mistakes I have made are gorgeously etched wrinkles on the face of humanity to grant others the permission to not expect too much from themselves.
There goes that perspective again. Damn if it hasn’t served me well.
I do not know if I have lived an amazing life, but I have lived a passionate, honest and loyal life and along the way have made some amazing memories. They are simple memories: the sound of a child’s laugh, the feeling of weightlessness in water, the scent of magnolias, the erotic feel of paint between fingers, the pain of unrequited love. These are the gifts the world has given me, and they buoy me through all of my expiries. It’s important to me that this not come across as my accepting or embracing the etherial quality of the relationships in my life. If anything, my experiences and perspective have made salient the reality that those around us will not be with us forever. They come and go into our daily lives; in and out of our routines.They are the sisters, spouses, best friends, baristas, preschool teachers, first dates, lovers, spiritual guides, thieves and heartbreakers we all will know; and they all are woven through our memories in a tangle of love, loss and mess that can not be undone.
Kallie Clark is a Chicago based artist, educator and advocate for social justice. Kallie recently left a career as a high school teacher and college counselor to pursue a Masters degree at The University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.