The word Nostalgia originates from the Greek words nostos meaning “to return home” and algia, a painful condition” which translates to a deep and often painful yearning to return home. Not always the desire to return to a physical place called home, but to memories of the past that feel like home, ones that often bring back unhealed wounds.
And I have been lost in a sea of nostalgic pain recently.
I thought it fitting to start this difficult memoir with that Greek word and definition, as I am currently working on sailboats here in Greece, but also because this very pain is what I have been struggling to fend off for weeks now. And when I say struggling, it is more a feeling of constantly drowning and trying to stay afloat, barely catching a breath before another wave of nostalgic pain washes over me.
There is a long shadow that follows me wherever I go in the world, a dark part of my past that still claws on my heels. Whether it was in New Zealand when I was homesick, or in Thailand celebrating Christmas alone, it’s been there with me all over the world. Darkness I have been haunted by for a decade — one I’ve learned to fight constantly every day, but that nostalgic phantom still clings to me and won’t let me go. I don’t know if I’ll ever escape it. That shadow is the memories of my parent’s deaths, and the depression I’ve been battling since. And this day, on July 21st 2007, was the day I found my father dead.
Today marks 10 years since my father passed away and the moment that my life changed course, shaping where I’ve ended up now, and also the long trudge through the muck and mire of depression to get here. To get to a better state of mind, which is still a battle to this day. When I began traveling in 2011, and subsequently started my original travel blog after, one of my first articles was titled, “Death, my travel inspiration“. This article was one of the first times I ever openly talked about the deaths of my parents and the deep depression I was drowning in after. Really the first time I spoke about it period.
At the time, writing that article helped me to finally put the pain forward I had hidden in a dark corner of my mind for so long. Helped me to face it. That was something I hadn’t ever done before, instead, I had bottled it up inside until it finally burst out and sent me into a downward spiral — landing me in jail and nearly drove me to suicide. It is still something I haven’t fully come to terms with, and something I don’t want to openly revisit. But I’m writing this piece today for myself to get it out of my mind before it takes hold too much.
This summer it has been especially hard to fight.
Summer months for most people mean barbecues and beers, sunshine and beaches, festivals and good times. For myself, summer months always call forth pangs of pain from my past, though over the past few years I’ve learned to deal with it slightly better. But for years before, summer had no color, no emotion, no smell, no taste, no happiness — it was just a reminder of these moments that shattered my life.
It was a waking nightmare playing out in my mind on repeat. And still is a waking nightmare on occasions when I’m caught off guard. I’ve felt the nostalgia stronger this year than most, for no reason I can find other than that the exhaustion from having to pretend to be happy around so many other people on these recent anniversaries while working. This has left me without the energy to fight off the profound sadness and loneliness like I do most years.
The depression has been terrible lately.
However good I’ve gotten at masking painful memories with the distractions of travel or washing it away in alcohol, I still succumb to the depression June and July bring. Especially on this very date. It has become inevitable, a horrifying foreboding feeling brought up as the cicadas start to cry in the summer. Those fucking cicadas, their screams in the heat are the soundtrack from my nightmares about those days and the noise that wakes these painful memories. And every island we go to the cries of the cicadas is heard and invite the memories.
Those events are ones I’ve struggled to deal with for a third of my life now, events more vivid and real than the memories of growing up with my mother and father. Memories that I’ve hidden away and run from and even acknowledged and thought to have defeated. But it has become clear recently that I still haven’t escaped the dark shadow, and I may never. They are seared into my mind and I just want it to stop already.
I just want that pain to go away.
I thought I had stopped running from the haunting memories and the nightmarish events and faced them finally, but it seems most days I replay that record of events in my head. Sometimes when I dream I see my mother and father, and I can hear their voices and see their smiles and remember happier days when we had crab feasts as a family or went to the beach together. Awake, I can only seem to remember their violent endings; finding my father’s lifeless body or my mother’s drug buddy driving by to shout mockingly that my mother was dead.
This has affected my mood intensely, bringing me down and making me close up.
Around this time of the year, I get uncontrollably jealous and even angry when I hear other people talking to their parents and sharing their lives or getting sweet messages from them. It’s selfish, I know, but I can’t help the resentment over it all because I can’t remember the last words I spoke to either of my parents. I can’t remember my last hug with my mother or father. I can’t remember my dad scratching my head and saying “I’m proud of you Bubba“, or my mother holding me and saying “I love you Bear“.
All I can remember is their last moment. It makes me want to cry, to weep so much I’ll drown in the tears, but I haven’t cried in 10 years since I buried my father. I want to, but I don’t I’m capable of it anymore as if I cried all the tears I had on the days I buried them both.
June this year came and past, and so did the date of my mother’s death. I had tried to mentally prepare myself for its coming, but instead, I spent all week drinking and partying harder than most while sailing. It’s a coping mechanism I tried to steer away from, given that was the way I ended up in jail years ago after drowning my sorrows in whiskey. I couldn’t help it this time around. Throughout the week, sticking on a smile and pretending to be happy, the bitterness built up and the day of her death replayed in my head over and over.
I remember the brown truck that pulled up to the house on a hot summer day in June while I tossed a football around with friends. The cicadas were screaming. A bony man, an addict from the Baker bunch whom my parents used to hang around, poked his head out. “Your mom is dead!” he yelled and laughed maniacally as he drove off in a cloud of black exhaust. I was confused and thought he might have just been telling me my mother was in trouble with the police.
After all, growing up my nightlight was often the blue and red flashes of police lights and the sirens were my lullaby. Both of my parents were well-known by the officers in that area.
But it wasn’t a joke, and my mother wasn’t in trouble. I remember my father coming home from work with a sadness in his eyes I hadn’t ever seen. He called my brother and me into the room and told us that our mother had been found dead in a house she was staying in at the time, known to be a drug den, and that she had committed suicide the night before.
I remember those molten hot tears and the indescribable agony of having your heart torn out. I remember feeling like the world had ended, and not knowing how I could live without her. I remember feeling as if it was my fault she killed herself. For years my parents had been split up after my father’s beatings were too much to handle and I hadn’t talked to her enough, afraid my father would get angry if I did. Maybe if I had stood up for her more against my father’s slandering or chose to live with her instead of being afraid to leave the house I could have saved her. Maybe she would have stayed off the drugs if I had. I blamed myself for years for her death, which eventually turned to hatred toward her because she killed herself and left me.
When I would visit her on weekends after my parents split, she would always tell me that she would never leave me, and would never do anything to hurt me. Maybe that was why I stayed with my father instead of her. My father would tell me if I chose her we wouldn’t ever speak again, but she would simply say that she loved me all the same. But she lied to me, broke my heart, and killed herself and I hated her for it for years. How could she leave us, leave me with a hole in my heart so big it still hasn’t been filled?
She never said goodbye, and I have always struggled with trying to think of what happened that night. About why she did it. I once wrote a short film script to deal with it that had her writing me a letter, apologizing, and saying goodbye. But that was never the truth. Just me trying to trick myself into understanding. I will never know.
It was on July 21st, 2017 that my world ended for the second time. I woke up and tore my bloodshot eyes open, still smelling of campfire and Mad Dog booze from a party the night before. My best friend was rapping on my front door to wake me up, we were to head out for the day to shoot a short film. I could tell it was already hot because the cicadas were screaming. I didn’t know at the time that they were the harbingers of death. After crawling out of bed and dressing, I ran to the back door to grab sodas before heading out.
I remember grabbing them from the cooler and seeing my father lying on the ground out of the corner of my eye. “Hey dad, I’m going to film” I shouted, thinking
he was tinkering with something on the back porch. He didn’t respond, and when I looked closer, I saw that he was face down on the bottom of the porch railing. I ran over and screamed out for my friend to call 911. I remember the shrill terror in my voice as I struggled to lift his stiff body that felt like a 250lb block of rubber. I was hysterical and desperately tried to pick him up, finally managing to roll him over. A bee flew out of his nose.
I remember he was spotted purple and yellow and greasy, face swollen and cut from the apparent fall, and his blue tongue was trapped between his teeth. I tried to open his mouth but it was locked tight and screamed for my friend to get something to pry it open. I thought he was choking, and it must have just happened before I walked out. He was the strongest man I knew and there was no way he would die.
My friend returned with a spoon, and by now I could hear the sirens coming down the street. I stuck the spoon between his teeth, and can still hear the metal grating on them as I pried and pried. Finally, his mouth opened and a breath came out. At the time I thought that it was a gasp for air, and somehow he’d spring back to life. But it was just gas, smelling of stale margarita and cigarettes. The scent of death itself.
A female paramedic burst through the back door and took one sad look at me holding my father’s lifeless body in my arms just after that false breath came out of his mouth and shook her head. She was the angel of death, and nothing could be done. I remember wailing so loud I thought the sky shattered like porcelain plates crashing, and I remember the sound of the cicadas crying. After, I thought of how if I hadn’t been partying all night, maybe I could have saved him while having a heart attack. Maybe I would have been there to call the paramedics in the middle of the night.
Those are the memories I can’t help but think of on these dates, ones that haunt me around the world. The nostalgic pain, one that comes up at random and feels like I have an apple stuck in my throat. I want so much to have just said goodbye, or that I love you just one last time. I want to wish them Merry Christmas and I want them to call just to say hi, just to tell me that they miss me, or ask me how I am. But that is a foolish impossibility that leaves me constantly filling up a hole that has no bottom.
More often than not while traveling and the depression hits me hard, I think about just leaping off when I am atop a cliff or some high monument or building to end the pain and stop the memories. Maybe that’s why I’m terrified of heights, not because of the fear of falling, but because I’m always tempted to jump. I wonder, when I have these thoughts, what it would be like just to find silence in my mind finally, and not to lie awake at night when I’m not drunk thinking about how amazing it would be to tell my parents about my day. Or a girl I met. Or the food I ate that I loved. Or just to see them again. What it would be like not to feel like I’m always drowning or crumbling or lonely.
I’ve now spent half of my life without my mother, and a third without my father, and as much as I thought I’ve gotten better, maybe I’ve been lying to myself. Maybe there is no getting better, just getting better at fighting it. Getting faster at filling the hole with things that make me happy as that happiness trickles slowly out the bottom of the hole. But what happens when you get tired of fighting constantly? Tired of putting on a smile? Who knows, but I can say that given how deeply hurt I was by my mother’s suicide, and how stubborn I am, the “easy” way out isn’t an option.
Over the years, I do feel as though I’ve gotten better at seeking happiness in life and spending my days doing things I love. This does help. People now know me as a happy guy, and most of the time I’m not faking it. It feels good to feel and to laugh and to have fun after I spent so many years being numb. In my earlier 20’s, I spent it perpetually miserable and blaming the world for all of my problems and unhappiness. I spent my life wallowing in a pit of despair and anger, only to now be living a life that I am proud of and happy with. We can’t always be happy, and I’ve learned this year in particular that thinking so does as much harm as ignoring the past.
I’ve spent so much time running forward into life since I began traveling in 2011 and trying to gobble up as much experience as possible, that I’ve been leaving memories and people behind. I’m afraid that if I stop moving, it’ll be the end of me. That if I get too close to anyone, I risk losing them. But just like my parents and the far too brief time I had with them, I’d rather have time and memories with people I care about than to never have had it at all. However short.
Will it ever get any easier? I don’t know. I believe the nostalgia, that yearning for a home that once was, will always be there however hard I try to fight it. But do I need to fight it, or just learn to embrace it? To look forward to the nights that I dream of those childhood days hearing my mother’s voice and feeling the scratch of my father’s beard. To be with other family and friends and let my guard down finally without the fear of losing everyone I get close to. To create more memories that are happy to help with the times where the shadow of depression gets too close to me. To live the life my parents gave me and to not give up or squander it.
Ten years after I buried my father, I remember standing up in front of everyone at the funeral and saying, “My father was the strongest man I’ve ever known, and his strength and personality is in me and all of us”. My parents were flawed people and each had their demons, but I still love them and they were still great people. As a child, I was present for most of the violent times and locked a lot of that away for so long that when it came bursting out after their deaths, it overshadowed so much of the good. But there was plenty of good.
I remember my father always being the life of a party, and his thunderous laugh, and how his funeral had the most people attend that the cemetery had ever seen. Everyone knew him in town and loved Ronnie Brown. And I remember my mother known as “Tinkerbell” and her infinite kindness, and how she looked after everyone else before herself which was a reason for her end. I remember how she always told me I could be anything I wanted, and always had a smile on her face. I remember that my parents once did love each other and made each other happy, and that yellow shingled house wasn’t always a sad shell of a broken past but was often filled with good times. And I hope to live with those attributes of them and live more with those happier memories than letting the pain consume me.
It can be difficult while traveling to face times like these when you find yourself alone and lost in a storm of feelings with nobody around to relate or no family to share the sadness with. You can feel more vulnerable than ever. But in reality, it can make you stronger and make you appreciate the ones you do have in your life. And if you don’t bottle it up. After writing this, I’ve felt a weight lift off my shoulders. Depression will always come in waves, sometimes stronger than others and will always be a shadow that follows me, but I’ve learned the key to beating my depression is to let it out and talk about it.
This year on this anniversary, and after a month of being filled with a
sadness I couldn’t fight, I thought I should write about everything in my head just to simply get it out. Instead, writing this while fighting back tears at the start of it, I’ve realized there are so many memories I cherish about them and my family. Not just painful ones. I’ve realized that I do remember my parents not just when I dream, I still have them with me, and I can’t let the darkness hide the light. To live, and live fiercely because you never know when the end may come, so it’s best not to waste time consumed by the bad and embrace the good.
In loving memory of my father Ronald Edmund Brown and my mother Darlene Love Neff, you’re still teaching me lessons about life and still teaching me how to be stronger.