I didn’t realize until recently just why I wrote my thesis. Lots of people run into problems in grad school – life problems – that delay their thesis. Several of the people I was in class with had been working on theirs for years. (I can’t help but think it was more of a hobby than anything else at that point.) I planned to write mine because it was a requirement to graduate but I’ve come to understand that in 1999, the thesis was really about much more.

From The Map of My Dead Pilots:

By the end of the month I was back in Fairbanks. By then I’d been gone for a couple of months and was way behind on my graduate thesis. It’s been so long now that I can be honest – I was set to graduate in December, the first draft was due in September and I had not written a word, not one single word. All those books I brought with me to Florida, the copies from old newspapers and magazines, had never even left my backpack. I had the chance to postpone my due date, the graduation, everything. But I was afraid that if I didn’t write it then I might never write it; I might not care enough about it to even try anymore. I might not care enough about anything.

You think you are thirty and that means you can handle the loss of a parent; that you’re prepared for it better because you are out of the house and far from home. But I was five years old again that summer, it didn’t take pictures to make me remember; it didn’t take anything. I didn’t want anything to make me remember. I just laid on the couch and saw him again as he was so long ago; as we were so long ago. And I tried to see it perfectly, to keep it all close. What did he say about hockey, about how the boys used to come down from Canada as ringers on the local teams; playing undercover, yelling to each other in French, all of them pretending like they knew each other forever and winning for the home team which was still more like Canada than Rhode Island for all of them who missed what they left behind.

Or catch a wave. He said you had to see it coming, you had to hang out there at the breaker line and choose the wave and start ahead of it, get ahead before it rises up to carry you away. You couldn’t wait for it or it would pass you by. Choose your wave he taught us and I was five years old and riding on his back and I listened and I learned.

You crack an egg on a bowl so you can catch any pieces of shell; do the crossword puzzle one square at a time, left to right, take your time; never be without a good book, never let a day go by without reading.

In all the years since the end of my parents marriage we had never strayed from our commitment to each of them; both of them. Separately they lived their lives but together we continued to be their children; we continued to love them. There was no replacing our father; there was no relief from losing him. I taped his library card to my wall; my brother put his last pouch of pipe tobacco in his truck. We watched the Red Sox play and we mourned him. Neither one of us could bear to go back to his beach.

If I said it all over and over again then I would never forget anything; I would never lose his voice beside me, his hand reaching out for mine. I would never lose who he was no matter how long he was gone; no matter how many days went by. I sat on the couch and I tried to remember and that was all I could bring myself to do. They told me I didn’t have to turn in my thesis; I knew that more than anything, yes I did.

This is from a chapter I’m still tinkering with – one of those I will likely rewrite bits of until it is taken away from me – but this part really struck me the other day. I don’t know how I got off the couch; I really don’t know. Both my brother and I, separately, went into personal tailspins after our father died. We expected to be sad but not so very sad; not so despondent.

It’s odd because you know you’re parents will die and of anyone I should have been readier for death than most – already several of my friends had died suddenly in crashes. I wasn’t expecting anybody I loved to live forever. But still. You just don’t know how sad you can be until you lose someone who helped craft your heart. I remember lying in bed for a month and it wasn’t until I realized that the thesis had to be written fast if I wanted to graduate that I finally got up and got out (meaning I was up for reasons other than mere survival). The oddest thing is that my brother and I told each other all this time that we were okay – not good, but okay. You’d think we knew each other good enough to have guessed we were lying (and we do know each better than just about anyone) but maybe we just didn’t have the strength to save each other at that point. We only had it in us to save ourselves.

And eventually we did. But I don’t know what I would have done without my thesis; without all those pilots to talk to I don’t know if I ever would have gotten off that couch.