I used to have a cassette tape with my father's voice on it.
I would listen to it when I wasn't with him, when he was at his house and I was at mine. I was in third or fourth grade when he made it. One side of the tape was him reading "The Polar Express", his voice, so full and animated, somehow taking me straight into pages full of wonderment, of all that was possible.
The other side of the tape was simply him talking. I remember there being emotion in his voice, even then. I could hear it, I could feel his sadness, could feel just how much he wanted us with him, as if talking to us on the plastic rectangle with two holes in the middle would somehow draw us to him, even though the intention was clearly the reverse. I remember crying while listening to that tape, not because my dad wasn't with me, but because I could hear just how human he was. I had no idea what any of it meant, of course - I couldn't tell what human meant, or why my knowing was so strong. But I knew something.
Toward the end of Side B - I think there was music playing softly in the background - my father said the words that have become, for me, one of his most lasting legacies.
"Feelings aren't right or wrong. They're just real."
I remember highlighting that sentence in my mind. I remember knowing that that was the meat of the thing, right there, that sentence. I knew, more than I'd ever know anything, that it held the answers to all of the questions I didn't even know how to ask yet.
My dad has been gone for almost 10 years. The okay-ness I feel when I speak of him still surprises me; I can't clearly remember the last time I cried about his death. Sometimes I feel self-conscious for my lack of tears, for the lack of regular longing. I'm always grateful when it comes though, the grief - the heaves and shudders, the remembering that his gone is a permanent kind of gone, the hollow sorrow I feel when the grief comes back inside - is kind in its love and pure in its throbbing.
But my feelings of peace and contentment, my daily joys and my deep need for healing - they needn't be labeled as right or wrong.
'Cause they're just real.
I learned that long ago.