I was driving north on the I-5 last week when it happened again.
A country song was playing loudly through the speakers of my Subaru. The sky was miraculously blue after a week of wildfire smoke keeping it a shade of apocalyptic dusty orange. My brain was feeling okay. And then I rounded a corner and something shifted. It was nothing tangible: the song, still loud, the sky, still blue, my brain… well okay, my brain was no longer feeling okay. It’s because my thoughts had shifted ever so slightly. I remembered that I wanted to take my dad camping when I moved from the East Coast to Oregon and became an outdoorsy person. I remembered the way my dad had seemed delighted but nervous, the exact way his voice pitched when he said, “But how can we go camping? We don’t know how.” I remembered how proud I felt when I explained to him that I did know how, that my friends had taught me, that I could teach him. I remembered that I never took my dad camping. I remembered that my dad is now dead.
I gripped the steering wheel tight, kept my eyes on the road, opened my mouth wide, and started screaming at the top of my lungs.
I’ve spent the summer screaming in my car.
My dad died on January 1. That is the fact that defines this year for me. It’s 2021 and everything is wrong: the pandemic, climate crisis, white supremacy, evictions, trauma, death, grief… It feels like the world is ending, I know this is true for so many people in so many personal and global ways, but I also feel as though I am on my own planet entirely. On my planet my dad is dead. On my planet everything else is in addition to this main fact. On my planet I am entirely alone. I have never felt so lonely.
A car is a good place to be alone. You can be parked, in front of your house or in an empty parking lot or next to a hiking trail or on a street you’ve never driven down before. You can be in motion, racing up or down the freeway, stopping and starting at neighborhood traffic lights. You can listen to music or you can be entirely absorbed in your thoughts or you can call a friend and yell into the speakerphone across state lines. You can eat a meal in a car, or a snack, or you can let yourself stay hungry and thirsty for hours so you never need to stop to use the restroom. Of course you could put a passenger inside your car. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being alone in your car, about being alone when you already feel so lonely.
I’m trying to tell you why I’ve been screaming in my car all summer long.
The first scream — well, to be honest, I don’t remember the first scream.
Maybe I just got off the phone with my best friend in Minneapolis, maybe she let me sob for a full hour while I was parked outside my house, maybe it didn’t make sense to go inside because I have housemates and even though they love me and understand I am grieving, I just don’t feel good shrieking at the top of my lungs at 10pm on a work night in a house with other humans.
Maybe it was the six month anniversary of his death, witnessing my baby brother celebrate his 30th birthday without our dad, forcing myself to keep a smile on my face for the entire party so I didn’t ruin his night, sneaking into the garage near the end of it so I could scream alone, wondering what my dad would’ve thought of the three different cakes I made my brother, per his request, because I would do anything for him now, because the one thing he really wants is unattainable.
Maybe it’s after I fight with a loved one, when I feel abandoned and alone, when I can’t figure out who the fuck I am anymore, because this is not me, but also, I guess this is me. “I am not myself,” I will have said earlier, before I am in the car, “I am just not myself right now,” but later, in the car, alone, screaming, I will be forced to wonder, well okay, maybe I am myself right now, maybe I will never be my old self ever again, and I will scream so loud because it is so fucking unfair that trauma shapes us and we are all experiencing traumatic events every single day and changing so fast because of it and maybe none of us are ourselves anymore and maybe that’s why I’m so lonely. I will scream and I will wonder if everyone is quite so lonely.
Screaming is different from crying because it feels like an action instead of a reaction.
My tears come often, unbidden. I’m crying while I write this essay. It is often an inopportune time to cry. I have taken to telling myself sternly, we do not have time for this right now. We cannot do this today. Get it together. Stop crying.
When the sound of a scream leaves my throat, it is a choice. I am never accidentally screaming. I scream in the car and it is on purpose.
I scream and scream and scream and scream because my dad is dead and nothing I can say explains anything, but when I scream, alone in my car, over and over, somehow I feel like maybe I am saying something that needs to be said. Somehow it makes me feel a little bit better. I guess we call that a coping strategy.
This is what I know: My dad has been dead for almost eight months. Everyone I know is suffering. I do not mean that as a euphemism, as a cutesy way to end this essay — I mean we are all living through actual hell on earth, I mean everyone I know is filled to the brim with sadness, with loss. But I don’t know how to connect right now. My usual strategies have failed me. Screaming in my car is a new strategy. Do I feel better after I scream? Honestly, I don’t know. That’s not really the point. It’s just a thing to do in the moment, a way to remind myself that I am still here, whoever I am. I guess it’s me telling myself that I’m allowed to be angry as well as sad.
I guess I wanted to tell you that, too.