After my brother died in 2015, I emotionally cratered, then tried to revive myself with some nonsensical, Year-of-Magical-Thinking logic: Yes, he was gone, but he was still with me, somehow seeing through my eyes. And since that was true, I should entertain him by showing him what he no longer could, at least in fleshy form. So I showed him everything.
I kept myself moving like a hammerhead shark, accepting every work and social invitation I could. I flew around the world on press trips, staring up at the sun while floating on my back in a gaudy Mexican resort pool, introducing my brother to Paris while I browsed flea markets and blasted Deee-Lite in my headphones. I took “drinks” meetings with anyone who asked and over the course of a year, poured probably the contents of a top-shelf bar down my throat. I took an indoor-skydiving lesson, rode every carousel I passed, went out to clubs on Tuesdays and let the bass rumble my feet. I had plans six or seven nights a week, and sometimes my schedule felt punishing and yes, my hair started falling out at an accelerated rate, but I didn’t stop. I did it for me, sure, but I did it for him.
But none of that actually “healed” me. Back then, I commuted from Brooklyn to midtown every weekday, a 45-minute one-way journey that meant literally shoving myself into a subway car while someone’s ponytail tickled my cheek, then transferring to a second, equally cramped train. That was fine until the subways started breaking down constantly, turning 45 minutes into 90. (Which happened three days in a row during one especially fucked-up week.)
I couldn’t handle another morning hotboxing a stranger’s B.O. so I decided to do something my friends thought was moderately insane: I would walk.
The on-foot journey from my apartment to my office was about 2 hours and 20 minutes one way, so to arrive at a respectable hour, I’d have to leave the house around 7:45. For many, many mornings, I woke up when the light was still dim, packed a tote bag with “work” heels, and headed out the door in my ugly comfort sneakers, looking like an 80’s working-woman cliché.
I broke the walk into sections, mentally. There was the prissy stretch through Brooklyn Heights, me stomping over flattened cherry blossoms on the sidewalk. Then the frantic jumble on the stairs before the Brooklyn Bridge, swimming upstream through clusters of Canadian tourists wearing “J’Adore Dior” T-shirts. Then onto the bridge itself, where the city looked its most postcard-y and my hair whipped everywhere. Then the bummer-y section of lower Manhattan where people wore awkward suits for their court dates. Then the massive arched windows and expensive handbags of SoHo, dudes hassling me in Union Square, the grim transitional upper 20’s where I’d walk through clouds of weed smoke, the people drinking deli coffee in the little parks near the flagship Macy’s, the sooty credit-card funhouse of Times Square. And then the starchy, boxy midtown buildings that meant I was almost there. The heavy glass of my particular skyscraper, and finally me inside the temperature-controlled lobby. At the end of each walk, I felt wrung out like a washcloth, my shins aching, my scalp sweaty. But I was incrementally better.
Since then, too-long walks have been a passageway to fixing whatever feels wrong with me—accidental pilgrimages toward some kind of normalcy. My partner and I started doing them on the weekends, walking south toward the Italo-institution Randazzo’s Clam Bar for a monster plate of red-sauce pasta, then walking home—a six-hour round trip journey. For one of my major birthdays, we did a walking tour through Germany, panting through grapevine-covered hills flanking the Rhine. We’d walk and hike three to six hours a day, on wooded paths and around twee neighborhoods, frequently lost—then get back to some nowhere hotel and peel off our muddy, repulsive clothes, tired in a way that felt both empty and holy. Sometimes I’d stop and stare out across a wheat field thinking, Are you still here? Can you see this?
When you get past what feels like a stroll and into the second or third hour of a walk, it takes on a different contour. Your body starts to move on its own, and the exhaustion opens up space in your brain. It’s a place to be totally silent or talk shit, and spiritually it’s the closest I get to church, aside from the occasional karaoke room. And as long as I have enough sunscreen and the right shoes, I’ll walk for hours, anytime, anywhere.
The dumb narrative I held onto for so long was that my brother saw everything—that my eyes were the movie screen through which he continued to experience the world. But now it seems clear that he was just the totem I carried while I did what I could during those months. Keeping myself busy with liquor and chitchat and plane tickets didn’t help me outrun grief—in the end, I had to walk through it.