The first time I visited Pittsburgh, it felt larger yet more compact than Cincinnati. I spent the night sobbing in my hotel room with a bottle of wine (which you can’t even buy at a grocery store!).
Pittsburgh (where I was moving in August to start an MFA program) was overwhelming for many reasons: it was too big, too foreign, too not-Cincinnati.
At 24, I had finally settled into a pattern of life and created a network of friendships with which I was content. Chronically a lonely and socially anxious child, teenager, and college student, every previous change of location had been cause for celebration. It had been a chance to start over in a new place and hopefully, somehow, be a different person.
This time I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to leave my underrated, beautiful Cincinnati. I didn’t want to leave the random, unexpected meetups with people I knew or the places at which I’d become a regular: Arlin’s Bar, Lydia’s Om Café, Tuesday night yoga in Washington Park. Whenever someone asked if I was excited to move to Pittsburgh, my heart went cold.
And yet, after I had decided I would be going to graduate school, that was that. Even if I stayed, choosing an uncertain future in Cincinnati over the certainty of further education, things wouldn’t stay the same.
No matter how I dig my heels in, my life will be changing come August. My AmeriCorps term ends and some of my closest friends will be moving away from this city with which I’ve had a love affair ever since I first left it for Evansville, Indiana in 2010.
I should be happy. I’m going to Pittsburgh because I’m going to graduate school, which I’ve wanted from the moment I started undergrad. But if I’ve learned anything from the past few months, I’ve learned not to beat myself up for not feeling the way I think I should.
For the first half of 2016, I was overwhelmed with how everything fell into place (even if I did have to move to Pittsburgh to make it happen). On May 3, I Tweeted, “My cup is so very, very full right now. Thank you, Universe, for all this is glowing and vibrant in my life #gratitude.”
I smiled when I saw that Nathan, my first love, had liked the tweet. After all that we had been through, after the heart-wrenching realization that his Christianity and my quasi-Buddhist-agnosticism would never play well together, he could still be happy for me.
I didn’t know then that in exactly 10 days, I would learn of his death.
As soon as the reality hit me (and hit me, and hit me, and hit me), things I thought I had forgotten came back bright, shining, and terrible. The quiet young man I’d fallen in love with, the man who had helped me cart my stuff to the very apartment I was now looking to leave, was gone.
Suddenly, I had to make space for grief and guilt even as I was preparing to move from the loved and familiar to the new and strange. I was both horrified to leave the last place we had been together and newly eager to go.
I hadn’t seen him in over a year. I would never see him again.
At this point in my life, on the precipice of moving away to graduate school, I would have expected to be filled with unshakable joy. Instead, I spent more than a month alternating between fear and numbness, trying to behave like a normal person for those around me. I tried to be grateful for all that I had been given. And yet, I am raw, newly sensitive to the reality of death. I feel guilt that can never be resolved with an “I’m sorry.”
As I begin to collect boxes and plan the move, I am reminded how often Nathan did this very thing. He was fearless, always packing his life up in the back of his Toyota and driving someplace new. The adventurous spirit that wasn’t salient to me during my first visits to Pittsburgh is, for the most tragic of reasons, suddenly my constant companion. It gives me a strange and sad kind of strength.
To leave behind a place that fills your heart up with the deep, resonant chorus of “I am home” is a terrifying thing. To do it when the whole world seems to have turned into something dark, twisted, and unrecognizably cruel seems impossible.
And yet, like all the places I have been before it, I know that in time Pittsburgh will become home. I know that life goes on and that, somehow, so will I. This August I will begin to settle in to a new place, and a new way of being myself within it.
I know this because I know that Nathan made a home of each new place he lived—Evansville, Grantham, a small town in Holland, Arkansas and, finally, Arizona. I know this because I know that I am strong, that though I carry the weight of grief, anger, doubt, and guilt with me every day, I can still see the beauty of the blue, blue sky stretching infinitely out above me as I reach my foot behind me in Downward Dog, ready to pull it forward, shifting from one precious moment to the next.
Amanda Kay Oaks received her BFA in Creative Writing and Literature from The University of Evansville and is a current Creative Nonfiction MFA student at Chatham University. An AmeriCorps alum, online tutor, writer, and nonfiction editor of Newfound, Amanda considers herself a professional wearer of many hats. When she isn’t working, reading, writing, or sneaking in a few minutes of yoga, Amanda can most likely be found snuggled up on the couch with her cat. Her work has appeared on Book Riot.com, Greatist.com, and in the Aspiring to Inspire women’s anthology.