On the first anniversary of your death, there were curtains of lightning—bright flashes every few seconds, the smell of things burning, the weight of rain in my clothes as I ran for cover. The power of the storm, a force against my body, as if you were reaching through the void, trying to say something.
On the second anniversary of your death, there was wind strong enough to spiderweb windshields. I grew up hearing stories of me as an infant, you as a new father, bewildered by the all-night crying. We lived on a Christmas tree farm with a woodstove and no electricity. You would take me out onto the balcony, hold me up to the wind to calm my cries.
On the third anniversary, I was living aboard a 130-foot wooden boat in the South Sargasso Sea. For weeks, hundreds of miles out of sight of any land, we’d been in constant thirty-foot waves and steady winds. It was a sail training program with twenty students and ten faculty aboard. On this particular morning, we woke up to flat, eerie calm. No wind, not a ripple in the water. We were forced to float, to wait, to hold. After so much motion, it was unnerving.
We wandered about, applied more sunscreen, baked in the relentless sun, and watched the captain shake his head. Doldrums weren’t common in this area. I wondered if you were gone.
Betsy was another student onboard. I was nineteen to her twenty-one, she’d lost her dad at the age of sixteen, and I’d lost mine at seventeen. Her father was a dentist who made jewelry in his spare time. He’d crafted her a necklace by hand shortly before he died, a small bronze sun with rays casting out of the center haphazardly. She wore it around her neck at all times. She was the first person I’d met whose father had also dropped dead of a sudden and massive heart attack, leaving her in that vast slippery space I recognized, where there was nothing to hold onto. We spent hours tucked up in some corner of the boat, talking about things other than who to hook up with, how much beer we liked to drink, what college we went to, and how much fun it was.
The wind picked back up after the doldrum day, slow and steady until we were back in thirty-foot waves, the boat and all of us in constant motion. We had all learned celestial navigation and used a small wooden chart table to plot out our course based on sextant measurements taken at sunrise, noon and sunset every day.
I woke up for my three a.m. shift, sat up and reached for the chart table to steady myself as I got to my feet. Betsy’s necklace was there, on top of the chart. I grabbed it, afraid it would be flung into oblivion with the next roll of the wave.
I knew Betsy was now asleep in a bunk near the bow of the boat. She was on C shift and would take over for me and the rest of my shift at seven a.m. It must’ve come off when she figured our position at some point on her last shift. I zippered the necklace in the pocket of my shorts and headed up the four stairs to the aft deck.
As I steered by compass, at the large wooden spoked wheel through the blue night under a thousand stars, I felt sick with the possibility that she might have lost the last thing her father had given her. I had nothing tangible like that. My father had offered up a smile as I walked out the door less than an hour before he died. “Want to go sailing tomorrow, bub?”
At 7 a.m. Betsy came up the stairs bleary eyed, her brown hair a disaster of sleep. “Bets!” I called. “Your necklace.” I held it out in my palm. Her hand went to her neck immediately where her necklace was securely fastened. The bright morning sun lit one half of her wide face, and threw a shadow over the rest. Her dark eyes caught mine. She picked up the small bronze medallion I still held out in my hand. It was a round sun, thick rays branching off, a small circle at the top to loop a thin strap of leather or twine through. She looked up. “It’s like mine, but it’s not mine.” She held up the one around her neck so I could compare the two. The one I’d found was a bit smaller, a bit more delicate, the branching of the sun rays was different. I caught her eye.
“I’ve never seen that one before,” she said, her voice catching as she placed it back in my hand.
I felt cold despite the warm breeze. The dark sea rose and fell, the surface of the water glinted as I closed my fingers over the small sun.
We asked every single person on board. No one had brought it, no one had seen it before, and no one had noticed it on the chart table throughout the hourly check of our current location in the shift before mine.
I found a thin length of rope on the boat and hung the sun around my neck. I did not remove it or change the length of rope to something more suitable to a life on land when I moved to Colorado months later. I did not question its origin, did not tell anyone the story, did not think about anything else except that with that sun around my neck, I felt a fraction of his presence in my everyday life that he was no longer present for. And that made it a little bit easier.
I stumbled through life without him, as you do when you lose someone essential. Photos from that time show someone who looks older than she was, a set to the jaw, a pull at the edges of the eyes that isn’t usually there until life shows you its hand and you realize who’s really controlling the game.
On the morning of the fourth anniversary, I ran light fingers over the sun at my neck and waited for the weird weather. But there wasn’t any.
Over the next year, I moved from house to house as roommate situations and college semesters changed, packing my things into and out of my run-down Subaru. At some point, I didn’t need the necklace as much. I became self-conscious, the rough twine at my neck reminding me of that raw need that I was trying so hard to keep off display for the whole world to see. I could fit in, pretend that I was whole, like other people did. I found that the more I acted whole, the more whole I felt. I put the necklace into a small bag that held other important things I didn’t want to lose.
On the fifth anniversary there wasn’t any weird weather either. I’d seen the necklace in the small bag off and on when I’d gone looking for other things. But that day, I wanted him around, and so I dug out the bag for the necklace. It was gone. Perhaps fallen out and lost in some move, perhaps fallen back into the divide from which it had come. My dad, perhaps saying, that’s enough, you’re good now, I can’t stay forever.
RACHEL WEAVER is the author of the novel Point of Direction, which Oprah Magazine named a Top Ten Book to Pick Up Now. Point of Direction was chosen by the American Booksellers Association as a Top Ten Debut for Spring 2014, by IndieBound as an Indie Next List Pick, by Yoga Journal as one of their Top Five Suggested Summer Reads and won the 2015 Willa Cather Award for Fiction. Prior to earning her MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University, Rachel worked for the Forest Service in Alaska studying bears, raptors, and songbirds. She is on faculty at Regis University’s low-residency MFA program, and at Lighthouse Writers Workshop where she won the Beacon Award for Teaching Excellence in 2018. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Gettysburg Review, Blue Mesa Review, River Teeth, Alaska Women Speak, and Fly Fishing New England.