You Cannot Go Back, and It Never Really Gets Better. Sometimes the Truth Is Cruel.

Father and daughter at Grand Canyon
Cheyenne Smith and her dad at the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of the author.

At a point in time some five or so years ago, I found myself at a party early in my first semester of college. It was supposed to be some introductory thing for the people in our dorm to get to know one another, and to this day I still think I should have passed on it, free pizza or no.

I had promised my mother I would make more of an attempt to be social. I had also promised my mother I wouldn’t drink, what with most of our combined luck going into keeping us alive and not, say, keeping cops or snitches from showing up randomly at college parties. Perhaps I should not have made these promises side by side. Perhaps it was paranoia on both our parts, and while there was no alcohol at the party officially, after a certain point past the allotted time the resident assistants and the college had laid out for the event, it became a general hang-out. General hangouts don’t really follow the same rules, and if I remember correctly it had gotten pretty late. It was mostly just us that had trouble sleeping there, and I was trying to be social. I was really trying.

I can’t remember how it came up, but someone talked about a friend who had gone to the grief counseling group on campus. I don’t think the topic was really about the group, or maybe I had mentioned it in an offhand sort of way in an attempt to get rough directions for myself. But a guy loitering on the fringes trying to find a way into the conversation chose that moment.

He asked me, full of the flippancy of someone never touched by true loss, if it really gets better. It was kind of a weird segue, in that it wasn’t much of a segue at all, and I have no idea how he singled me out from the four or so of us talking. Mostly I was annoyed he had hit the nail on the head while smelling so crossfaded.

By nature, I think of myself as a liar. By nature, I find myself to be too nice. I said that I was sure it would get better with time, even though I wanted to skin them alive for comparing my father, a man who had a hand in my past, in my life, who was a living human being, to their late dog. I wanted to let loose a million cold things, to solidify myself in his mind as some cruel villain so I would never be bothered by him again. I didn’t. I’ve lost pets before, I know it hurts. I should have. Pets aren’t people. I tell them some inane lie and let the death throes of the college party I didn’t really want to be at in the first place wash out the rest of the conversation on a wave of alcohol that I was avoiding and music that I didn’t really like, like some sort of teeny tiny tsunami of fireball and cheap whiskey savior, and beat a hasty retreat.

I won’t lie and say I’m in some sort of better place. That time has erased all the pain that loss brings. Maybe it has; maybe thinking about it is the too-long nail in the freshly silvered scar pick-pick-picking it back open. I do admit that I think I would handle it differently now, though I wonder if that is maturity or the light catching that silver. I suppose I’ll never really know. Or hell, maybe in another 10 years, I will, and I’ll revisit this piece with a bit of disdain and a lot of amusement. A perfect mirror’s image of now, looking back at 10 years since that day.

I think now—that is if he asked me now—I would focus a little more on him. I’m a little more sure of myself now, so if I was feeling confrontational I might have asked if he would have compared his own father to that of a dog that, by his own admission, he hadn’t seen in a little over two years. I might revel in the way he would probably stutter and try to philosophize his way around it. I know better than to not give any quarter these days. I should really stop giving so much quarter these days. It doesn’t change the fact that I can still be a little vindictive when people really say the wrong thing.

I realize now, looking at this at three a.m., that perhaps the way this man—no, more like a boy—approached this conversation might have been what some therapists consider a trauma. More like an aftershock if you ask me, but who knows, maybe there is a scientific word for it. In the way that psychiatrists count as scientists, of course. Couldn’t go a whole paragraph without making that joke. I’m so sorry.

But, I suppose, if the boy had really come across as lost I might have been a little kinder.

Maybe I would have given a fellow directionless student who just lost a parent, a sibling, or a friend a little more of my time. I can’t remember the mental state I was in that night, even though I was trying to cling to my little sparkling water like a lifeline in a sea of White Claws (Read: maybe three, at max) I was trying so hard not to drink.

Maybe I would have let him choose. “Do you want the pretty words from the movies or the truth?” I would ask. Because honestly, sometimes the truth can be pretty cruel in itself. A punishment without meaning to be, one you won’t know to brace for until it’s stinging across your skin. I didn’t get the choice. The one I would offer here is a bit of an illusion—he’s gonna figure it out one way or another. But maybe he just needs to hear pretty words. I can do pretty words for someone else’s sake. Not like I haven’t been asked to and forced to in equal measure before. Maybe he would want the truth, though. I’m capable of giving that too, even if my own version of it is skewed in the way all things personal and emotional can be.

In hindsight, I know exactly why my mother made me promise to try and be more social. There is a marked difference in how I presented myself pre-traumatic experience and post-. Maybe she was worried for the kid who used to be so extroverted and outgoing. Maybe that kid stopped breathing that unfaithful December. Who knows. I tried to use the old mask anyway. It sat dusty against my skin, uncomfortable. Stilted from lack of use. Out of practice with the world. Letting it slip here would be advised. Honesty can be brutal and a little ugly, and I have quite a bit of experience being asked to hide the ugly parts. If he is asking for the truth, then some of it should at least be seen in the way my whole demeanor seems to change sometimes. I could address him head-on with that out of the way.

high school graduation
Cheyenne Smith graduates from high school without half of her support system after the loss of her father. Photo courtesy of the author.

The short answer is no, it doesn’t get better. The long answer is yes, but also only kind of. It stops feeling so raw sometimes. Less like an open gash and more like a cut you’ve forgotten about, and in that forgetting you can almost pretend it didn’t happen. You can spend a lot of time in that space. Knowing, yet not. Bleeding sluggishly. It doesn’t matter how far away from your gash cut you get; it’s still there. If you’re not really careful, infection will set in. You’ll have no choice but to deal with it then. It’s fair, though, if it does. It won’t seem real for a while. Even if the stress of the situation leaves you exhausted, you’re too focused on other things to really feel it.

Funerals and services and people praying over you even though you just do not want to be touched and work and school are quick bandages, and busy doctors and splashes of dollar-store tequila across already barely clean gauze are distractions. It’s when the ceremonial aftermath comes to an end and all the well-wishers who you silently don’t know if you wish well slink away self-satisfied and never to be seen again that you are reminded. In the silence of moments alone that are so loud your ears bleed down your neck and back, adding to the steady drip making a slowly spreading puddle on the ground. Bleeding a little does some good. Don’t bleed too much; you’ll regret it. The rest is figuring out how to hold skin together while doing other things.

There’s some poetic analogy about things coming in waves. It can. Sometimes things get too much to think about and you’re under wave after wave looking at the bloated bodies of others like you trapped under the surface. There is a kinship to be found with fellow drowning victims; sometimes you can band together and fight your collective way back to the surface. If I am truly being honest, for me it more comes like hits. A Louisville Slugger ringing out in metallic thwacks and bone cracks as it connects with jaws and ribs and legs. (Annie Wilkes, eat your heart out.) I wonder if it’s because waves can sometimes be pretty predictable. They only happen in the ocean or in video games. If one avoids those places, then it can be assumed one can avoid the waves. Being blindsided with a baseball bat or a crowbar is a little bit more unpredictable, the forward and backhand swings coming in with sadistic laughter. I don’t know if A or B hurts more. (Jason Todd, eat your heart out.) It’s a rare occurrence; even in “bad neighborhoods” things like this don’t really happen all that often, and when it does it’s played up almost to a disproportionate extent for weeks. People point at the place where it happened and speak in hushed whispers about never going there again. Problem solved. Don’t go “there” and it won’t happen. So most people go through life thinking it will never happen to them. Most people are correct, obviously.

Unfortunately, most people can just enjoy the holiday season without it feeling like their ribs have been beaten in and their organs robbed for cash. Thwack. Most people don’t go through graduations and proms while worrying about getting blood all over their nice clothes. The lace of their skirts are just pretty flares and not something they’re vaguely worried might become a tourniquet mid-Cotton-Eye Joe when they realize once again that they’ve made it to senior year and despite the family that has shown up there will always be an empty seat. Crack.

Most people have dads who uphold their promises for driving lessons and oil change lessons and barbecue lessons and tire changes lessons. Smack. Most people don’t still have the vehicle their dad took as payment for fixing another that he was supposed to fix with them when he came back from deployment so they would know all the how-tos if anything ever happened, except he never came back from deployment, and now the ’76 Dodge pickup is rotting in their mother’s garage with the electrical and dash in buckets on the front seat. Stumble. Most people don’t force themselves to read Louis L’amor novels because they belonged to their dad and those stupid books sit on the shelf and stare over their shoulders every time they sit down in their favorite writing spot even though they really hate Louis L’amor novels. Clatter.

I should warn him to pack some antiseptic for when he stumbles across the bones he’s been bereft of in all the blows. Picking them up, dusting them off with fingers calloused from years of hanging on, then rubbing them off on his jeans for extra measure before sticking them back in place works just fine for us, but it scares those around us.

I’d warn him about the constant fear that something will happen to the remaining loved ones. The near-constant paranoia that if they turn away for too long when they look back there will only be empty space. It happened once to an immortal; how can we reasonably say it won’t happen again? The little bit of oily fear in the back of your mind that it’s you. You’re the one that’s cursed. That you’ll curse them too if you hang around too long. It’s all your fault somehow, even though there is literally nothing logical about that line of thought. Nothing. It’s stupid, even. He’ll learn to ignore it eventually. It never goes away. He should start building mental defenses as soon as possible before all the slings and arrows leave him with skull soup.

I could help him prepare for the inevitability of hearing the words “I’m sorry” over and over and over and never really figuring out what to say in response. Even years later when someone finds out you’ve lost half a support system and are dragging a stump around in the mud as you crawl, you’ll get an awkward knee-jerk apology. I don’t even think they know what they’re apologizing for; they feel like they have to fill the space of air you were doing perfectly fine breathing in and spray a bit of hand sanitizer thinking it’s some sort of acceptable antiseptic for gaping gashes.

Pointing out the inevitable random spikes of emotion he’ll get years away from it all that will leave him silently sobbing in shitty dorm rooms thousands of miles away from it all might help. For a while his eyes might be broken, the emotions damming up and stagnating and filling the cavity of his corpse until it all bursts out unbidden with the near-silent plop of the smallest petal on the near grassy surface. That bursting is good; it leaves room for the self and soul again, even if he winds up so angry for it being the smallest little thing that reduced him into a mess. For me, it was the scent of motor oil and Cool Water cologne off a couple of visiting parents I passed during a trip across campus. Just the brush of it against my face. I wasn’t even that close to the familial gaggle; I just happened to be caught downhill in the Scottish wind when the father clapped his son on the back. The retreat I beat so hastily back to the shitty dorms I was paying way too much for was littered with fallen bones that I retrieved later.

The most important thing to warn him about would be the discovery of new (old) information. Stories about the loved one that did not come from their lips. The information told in stories you can imagine them reacting to with reminiscent smiles or a flushed face covering embarrassment or arguments they can’t have now. It will come. Someone will seek him out and tell him, or it will come up trying to pass by him only to be stopped with a smile and a raised brow and an, “Oh? You didn’t know about that? Yeah, so what happened was …”

The kindest thing I can point him toward is the future. Of living for both yourself and others. I can tell him how annoyed he’ll get at people who say they would die for you. Living for someone is so much harder. He’ll pull old stitches in tourist traps when families argue in that affectionate way, but something about local food and friendly company helps. Living is so important. I have to talk about the living. His old hobbies will feel childish, distant, too sticky slick red for him to handle again with the same kind of care he once did. He will find new ones, though for those first few years, things will stagnate moss-like along with the tears. The future will bring new chapters. Eventually, he’ll untangle himself from the worst of the blockades.

And I can be honest. The big movie resolution where everyone is all better in the end is so stupid he can’t help but to laugh in the theater even when the glares from others turn his way. The future is bright but washed in featured film filters. He might lean on escapism as much as I do, who knows? I know the local theater is sick of seeing me, so it will be nice to find another person on their shit list. Sad Kid Book Club gaining another member is never a bad thing.

I don’t know how to tell him the flat-out no that I owe him. No, you never go back, and it never really gets better, because the “better” you’re searching for is the way you once were before you wound up bloody on the floor. That’s gone now. There’s no closure to be found in bruised knuckles or quiet marble slabs. You cannot go back. The past is just that. The past. End of. No further input available. The only way out is forward, to find what the future holds. The problem is that I will probably always be affected by my past; I know this hypothetical version of this boy I never talked to again would be too. I’m not the same kid I was 10 years ago. I won’t be the same person I am now in another 10 years.

Somehow I know I’ll still be jerked to a full stop from passing thoughts and scattered eavesdropping because something will open the wounds again. But eventually, scar tissue pushes over the battered edges of the few remaining bones, and though my fingers will never be so strong again, I can now grip the pen. I’ll rip the thin layer of new skin off on different utensils and people and situations. I’ll bleed and bleed and bleed over still, and this hypothetical boy will too. But forward we’ll trudge, red trails behind us like macabre trains, and we will proceed in pursuit of the new things that make us happiest; the ghosts that we have haunting us will gladly lead us down the aisle. We will make ourselves proud, or learn to eventually. People are pretty resilient that way.

Cheyenne Smith’s father died in December 2013 during a tour in Afghanistan when she was 14 years old. These days, Smith is an aspiring writer and recent survivor of the harrowing experience that is getting a master’s degree, which she received from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. She lives near Houston and loves to travel and try new things, especially food. She is a 2023 War Horse Writing fellow.

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