Recently, I’ve been compiling a list of all the goofy phrases and inside jokes that Michael and I used to toss around. I remember when our daughter went to college and started expanding her movie choices, she called us and said she was appalled to find out that half the lines we frequently threw at her were swiped from movies like The Godfather and Animal House. Gotta love the enlightenment of your kids. I’m hoping the list provides my family with laughter and great memories. Which brings me to the next subject.
Michael and I spent 45 years together. Today, I was stewing over the way I feel about the platitudes I get to hear from people about my grief process. Like never say never, one of my favorites. That’s the one I hear when I say I have no interest in marrying again. I’m told that in time, I’ll change my mind. That it’s too soon for me to know how I’ll feel in a year or so. When I say I know exactly how I feel, I get these knowing looks. I find this intensely annoying and presumptuous. What in the world makes a person think that grief makes you lose touch with the self you built over a lifetime? That pain makes you incapable of any rational thought? I find this attitude mysterious. I don’t attribute any maliciousness to it. I just think that assuming I’m missing something that others know is an error in their judgment.
I was the third of four children in my family. Birth order has multiple advantages and disadvantages. In my case, I felt three was a pretty decent spot. I got to watch and learn from my older siblings, in addition to my parents and their extended family. Dysfunction can be pretty glaring looking up from the cheap seats. By the time I was in my teens, I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want in my life. Sticking with the program I designed for myself was sometimes isolating and painful. But what I knew with absolute certainty were the following personal parameters for me: 1) I was never going to pretend I was stupid, even if it seemed that boys didn’t like the fact that I had opinions and a lot of attitude, 2) I wanted whoever I was with to be a real friend and not just a love interest, and 3) I didn’t want a lot of regret in my life. If onlys and what ifs just don’t work for me. And I was lucky because I had those parts of myself figured out. Of the four kids in my family, I was the only one who never divorced. I consider that a good thing.
When Michael and I met in 1971, what happened between us remains as mysterious to me today as it was then. Mind melding? A collision of souls? I don’t know. With all the language at my disposal, I’ve never been able to pin it down. We had an instantaneous connection and intimacy. We became best friends. We were each involved with other people romantically. But as months went by, I knew we were headed somewhere different. I was terrified to try the transition from friends to lovers, fearful of losing a relationship that was magical and unprecedented. As I headed to Europe with two friends in the beginning of 1972, I called Michael and said, “guess what, I love you,” to which he replied, “far out.” Yup. And I left the country for a few months. Upon my return, we needed to disentangle ourselves from previous relationships. I showed up on his doorstep with my suitcase and announced that I was moving in. He asked where I’d sleep. I answered, your bed. And that was when our long road together truly began. I was twenty, he was twenty-two.
There were some tumultuous times. We were discovering each other and trying to figure out if we could make a lifelong commitment to each other. For a time, I was troubled by doubts. Michael’s response was to sell a catalog of his work, buy me an airplane ticket to California to see my oldest friend Fern, so I could decide if I wanted to stay with him. True friendship, the bedrock of who we were together. We got married the next year.
We grew stronger together with each passing year. And we grew stronger as individuals. Michael was a feminist and I benefited constantly from his support and irritating pushing. I think he’d say the same thing about me. We made babies and lived through failures and deaths and uncertainty. We had hard times and incredible joy. We were constantly amazed that we were never bored with each other and that our passion kept growing, right alongside that steady friendship which was our go-to place when times were tough. It hauled us through everything.
And then Merkel cell cancer entered our lives. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Michael, whose youth was spent lifeguarding and doing water sports was a red haired guy with a family history of skin cancer. So he faithfully got checked every three months and had multiple growths removed, as did his parents. Nasty Merkel came fast and hard. His dad died at 98 and his mother is still alive. How could he have this dreadful prognosis of only a few months? Impossible. I became a researcher. Those few months he was given to live in 2013 turned into years as we pushed for treatments. Our years in tandem served us well, as we sunk in despair and then pulled each other up to be the best we could be with each other as long as we could. We made memories which cushion this time without him. He left me music, a mourning quilt made of his clothes and a heart necklace engraved with his writing. And stacks of notes and letters that surround me with love.
So when I say I don’t want to be with anyone for companionship, it’s because I’ve already had the best friend and best love I can imagine. And I had it for a full life, not my whole life, but a rich, extended one. I’m not lonely, except for him. The rest of the time, I’m busy trying to find the most positive ways to finish off what’s left of my time.
Like compiling Michael’s humor and writing for our kids. Like writing this blog and the story of our journey through a rare disease. Like appreciating nature and music and taking classes and being a good mom, grandmother and friend. When I think of Michael watching me fend off unasked for advice from well-meaning people, I know he’d be pissed off and select one of his choice dismissive phrases and tell me to have at it. So I will.
Take a hike, people. I know what I want, thank you very much.