Pensacola—I’m looking at one thousand people wearing running shoes and Spandex leggings. There are people laughing, smiling, stretching hamstrings.
A large man in a Roll Tide hat shakes my hand. He has a long gray beard. On his T-shirt: the image of a teenage boy.
“This was my son,” he says. “His girlfriend broke up with him, he shut himself in our garage and kept his Jeep running until he…” He pauses.
“I ain’t never felt so alone until he died.”
Alone. As it happens, I know that particular emotion.
I meet a twelve-year-old girl with red hair. She also feels alone. She’s bone-skinny, wearing braces. She has so many freckles on her snow-white skin she looks half-orange.
“My mom was real depressed,” she says. “She overdosed, my sister and I found her not breathing in her chair.”
Grandma hugs them both.
I meet a thirty-two-year-old girl with the personality of cane sugar. She seems happy. She starts talking about her late father.
She shows me a photo. He’s a nice-looking man, holding a baby. He could be anyone’s daddy.
Speaking of daddies. I’m here today because of mine. I’m here because of the way he died.
I was twelve. I was redheaded. Freckled.
Music plays over loud speakers. The historic downtown is catching the first bit of early sun. The Pensacola Bay sits behind us.
For most of my life, Pensacola has been my closest biggest city. It’s where I used to take dates for dinner. It’s sort of where I grew up. Today it’s a place of pilgrimage.
The herd of survivors starts walking. They aren’t solemn—like you might think. In fact, they look empowered. Joyful even. Maybe it’s all the Spandex.
I’m walking with them—or are we marching? Whatever you call it, we are from all styles of life. Rural communities. Suburbs. City-dwellers. Out-of-towners.
We are here for loved ones, friends, relatives. We’re here to remember.
Some hold signs. Some carry photographs of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, best friends, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, students.
We honor the depressed, the lonely, the rejected, the outsiders, the bullied, the alcoholics, the addicts, the mentally ill.
And I’m honoring the man who raised me to adolescence. The tall, slender man who crawled on steel beams for a living. A man who had so many freckles, his skin looked half-orange.
A man who taught me to throw a baseball. Who taught me to open doors for females of any age, creed, or denomination. Who taught me to recite the Lord’s Prayer while floating the river in a boat.
A man who left this world by way of hunting rifle. I miss him today, even though he’s the reason I’m here at this event. Even though he is why I’ve felt alone for most of my life. Totally, completely, and wholly alone.
But then, the people walking here have all felt alone, too. In fact, it’s been our common characteristic. It’s become who we are. It’s our idea of ordinary, you could say.
And today, I’m wandering the streets of Pensacola with one thousand of them. One thousand souls who were all once convinced that we were by ourselves in this world. All alone.
We were wrong.
We were so, so wrong.