I am lighting a candle for you.

“The pain of realizing how many damn candles people have been lighting in my honor and how few I have been lighting for them.”

Bryan Barks


I used to be afraid of walking home from the metro after dark. I know we live in a safe area — colorful rowhouses line both sides of the street. Cobblestones. Benches. Parks. Coffee shops. Doormats disingenuously welcome unexpected visitors.

“The metro is only ten minutes away,” my husband said. “If you’re not home in ten minutes, I’ll start walking that way. I’ll call the police.”

But my anxiety persisted. My heartbeat quickened when anyone was walking behind me. I would see shadows and run to the other side of the street. I would clutch my keys in one hand and my phone in the other, ready to call 911 at any moment. And then I’d arrive home, flustered and relieved, shed my coat, and flop on the couch, exhausted from the ten minute adrenaline spike.

Then, December.

Then, there were your lights. Tracing your door frames and windows. Sometimes whimsical and flashing, sometimes simple white with a wreath. A wreath on every door — a symbol of being alive and festive and happy. I marveled at the happiness it takes to find a wreath and hang it on your door.

Each house, a different display. Austere and sophisticated white lights down the banister. Santa figurines that moved. White reindeer statues from Crate and Barrel — an attempt at sophistication that lost dignity when placed next to a dingy inflatable sleigh.

And then there is the house with the tall white candles in the windows. No other decorations. Three candles. When I round the corner and see them, all becomes quiet. I am breathless. I feel drawn to them. I want to go up to the windows. But I stand at the street corner and admire them from here. Here is close enough.

When I was ten years old, I planned an elaborate imaginary dinner party. I set the long white table. I found some red candles — melted, then cooled, warped into curlicues — Dr. Seuss-esque shapes. Never burned. I adored them. I made them the centerpiece.

But after I blew them out, they weren’t the same. They weren’t curlicues; they were shapeless. They lost their personality. I cried. I ruined them. I ruined the beautiful candles I loved so much. In middle school, I bought cheap candles at a junk shop and lit them in my room. But none of them had the curlicue shape. The red candles were really special. You only had to burn them once to extinguish their beauty.

My throat is tight as I stand outside the cathedral. I look up. I’m 19. I’ve been slogging through this city for a year and a half, trying to find the future I wanted so badly. I can’t find it. I gather strength and step inside, feeling unworthy. In shaky French, I try to tell them I want to light a candle. They respond in English and show me where. Carefully, I steady the flame and bring it to the wick. I watch the glow, and then, as I saw other people doing, I bow my head and close my eyes.

I knew it was selfish. I knew it was improper.

But I lit the candle for myself. Because I was dying there, and I knew it.

Selfish how many times I have felt like I am dying. Ridiculous. Seven years later, I am rotting here in a hospital bed. Nauseous. Dizzy. Irritable. Drowsy. Dry mouth. As I lie on my back, my sister-in-law texts me, “I am lighting a candle for you.”

A candle. Tears of gratitude and peace and sadness and remembering pour down my face. The pain of the red candles, the guilt, the cathedral. The pain of that city, the pain of leaving a future you wanted. The pain of realizing how many damn candles people have been lighting in my honor and how few I have been lighting for them.

I have been selfish. I have been self-absorbed. I have ruined what I loved. I have to get out of here, where I can have fire. Where I can have candles. Where I can light them for other people. Not my goddamn self.

The air is cold as I pass the café lights and the park. The wreaths and the lights begin; they slow my heartbeat, warm the fear in my throat. The snowmen illuminate the buttons on my coat, the holly bursts with color in the black of the night. The colored lights sing joyfully and the white ones glow, warming the back of my neck as I pass.

I round the corner, and the singing stops. Quiet. I see the starkness of your white brick home, your three candles. Two months I’ve been out. Two months I’ve had fire. Two months I’ve been lighting candles. For others. And, sheepishly, a few for myself. For healing. I hung a wreath.

Though I love it, so often, the flicker of the flame will bring back sorrow.

But your candles, dear stranger, maintain beauty when they burn.

Your candles, my neighbor, cauterize and heal.

Your candles, my friend, do not lead me back, but home.

Home, where I will light a candle for you.



Bryan Barks

30. Mental health & gun violence prevention advocate. Baltimore.