Spanish moss dangled overhead, providing the shade that all of my relatives in Sunday clothes were seeking. My cousin kept shifting her feet to keep the ants from biting her. A distant relative I've met only a handful of times finished up her remarks before shuffling off from the narrow round hole 4 or 5 feet deep, into which we were about to lower the urn holding my grandmother's ashes. I hadn't planned any kind of memorial speech of my own. As I listened to others' reminiscences and a psalm from a strange minister hired to offer a little Christian comfort, I tested out a few lines in my head, wondering if they'd be the right thing to say. It wasn't until the moment I started speaking aloud in front of everyone that I was able to begin sorting it all out.
The thing about losing someone is that, at some point, you have to confront the fingerprints they've left all over you and your life. During her life, I admittedly wrote my grandmother off as either a faraway relative whom I saw only a few times a year or, more recently, a sweet but often frustrating old woman who had crash-landed into a well-established family of three. I didn't realize until I was standing by her grave trying to explain what she meant to me the degree to which she shaped me, despite being only an occasional figure for more than 20 years. Sometimes it was positive, like the way she tried to teach me to knit or cooked me Southern classics like chicken and dumplings. Sometimes it was more complex, like the way her classic "Mad Men"-era lifestyle served as a foil to the kind of life I want to live and the impact I want to make. While she was alive, I didn't give her enough credit because she just wasn't as big a personality as some of my other relatives. Surprisingly, to me at any rate, her death is the one that made the biggest impact.
It's hard to predict the size and depth of the fingerprints people leave on our lives. I dated my first boyfriend for five years, but today, it seems like just a blip on the radar, a time when not much happened. A guy with whom I had a brief love affair of less than six months made a much bigger dent, both in the depth of my attachment and the extent to which he changed me as a person. Even now, two years later, I still feel his shadow on me in unexpected places and at unanticipated times. Losing someone, whether to death or a breakup or a slow drifting apart or any of the other myriad ways you can part from someone, has two main phases. One is the grief. The other is the tidying up afterward.
Grief isn't easy, but it's simple. It even has a set number of stages worked out by psychologists and social workers. Grief is when you drink and cry and do questionable things, like getting a bad haircut or refusing to clean out a dead parent's medicine cabinet. Tidying up afterward is dirty, messy business. It's deleting numbers from your phone. It's throwing out old Christmas cards and photos, not because they make you angry, but because they really no longer matter anymore than last year's receipts. It's keeping other cards and photos because they keep something alive and tangible and real. It's deciding if you really liked that postmodern novel enough to keep it on your bookshelf or if you were just liking it to please him. It's sorting out how you want to live your life without that person there to influence you or notice or care. It's the slowly building awareness that you learned to travel or braid your hair or be a mom or take a compliment or run a business or what-have-you from someone who is now gone.
Every day, even if we don't notice it right away, we learn lessons from those around us. We are covered in the marks, light and firm, others have made on our lives. I still feel the bruises of elementary school classmates who looked down on me, of the lovers who rejected me, of neighbors who gossiped, of acquaintances who didn't become friends. I still feel the elation that was getting tangled up in the lives of boys I've dated; the electricity of first kisses; and the sudden, easy confidence of recently minted friendships. I recall the strange, awkward familiarity of being with family members rarely seen, the joy of Christmas presents that proved they had been listening from across the country, and warm hugs hello and goodbye.
Life is a series of thousands, maybe millions, of encounters. Even eye contact with a stranger from across an airport terminal or saying hello to the janitor shapes thoughts and moments of our days that, together, roll up into part of a whole life lived. It's hard to say how they will balance out. Some of the relationships that seem most significant day to day—your boss, your co-workers, your roommates, your partner—are the ones that matter least in hindsight. Sometimes, it's the people you rarely see who are the least like you who make the biggest difference. It's like the difference between a broken bone and radiation. One happens in an instant and is heavily felt, but you knit back together mostly the same in the end. The other seeps in undetected, maybe even from millions of miles away, but over time, it can cause your very cells to alter and grow differently.
To a certain extent, we are all haunted. We are haunted by the encouragement of teachers who pushed us to work harder and make better grades and by the callous words of teenage crushes. We are haunted by who we ourselves used to be and by firework moments of happiness that can only exist in their particular way once in a lifetime. We are haunted by the memory of Thanksgivings at bigger tables surrounded by more smiling faces. We are haunted by the knowledge that we let friends down, by lost loves, by closed bars and bulldozed buildings.
Our lives are series of millions of encounters, and just as all those fingerprints build up on our skin, we move through rooms filled with memories and invisible figures, trailing us, waiting to be recalled.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.