Michael died 422 days ago. That’s only 2.65% of the 16,425 days we lived together. Apparently at about 365 days, the grieving partner is supposed to have recovered to the point at which, along with participation in normal life, the capacity for joy returns. I guess I’m an underachiever.
The truth is, this second year feels harder than the first. The fatigue, the shock, all the activity associated with a life’s end takes up a lot of time. I’ve been incredibly busy since Michael died. My lists remain undone at the end of each day. Always more to do. The legal business is done. I threw a big bash to celebrate the rich, complex life Michael lived. Now I’m deeply involved in planning my 50th high school reunion. Those are the objective realities. I’ve taken classes, traveled by myself, created art and started a grief support group. In certain ways I’m the poster child for the median time for societal standards of recovery from grief.
But what is actually of note is that none of these activities has allayed the deep pain I feel. The novelty of Michael’s absence is so over for me. I’m done with it. I’ve proven that I can deal with it. Check. Now, I’d like him back. Right away. Yesterday. A pretty unreasonable stance, I know. I still can’t believe I don’t get to see him or speak with him again. One more hug.
By this time, most people who are still partnered up have stopped thinking about what daily life is like for me. Adapting and moving on is what’s supposed to happen. I appear to have done that. I’m doing life, too, just like them. But the crushing empty space where Michael is supposed to be is always right in my face and on my mind. A constant awareness. I’m not prostrated by grief every day and I’m not crying all the time. Still, the ache is always present, and no amount of my letter writing or my occasional good dreams can fill that chasm.
I try to think about the future. Michael and I had time to discuss what might happen to me. He wanted me to be happy. He wanted me to share my energy with someone, to not be lonely. As I listened to him, he knew I was looking at him in disbelief. Another intimate relationship for me? Unimaginable.
So what about this guy has blotted out all thoughts of another companion? I know plenty of people who find a new person to be with, perhaps not with the same feelings, but still, someone to share the rest of what’s ahead in life. The thought of that is alien to me and completely undesirable. I never think about it. Why? I am fixated on my husband. Who was the real magic Mike? Why is his hold on me still enormous, his mystical presence so powerful for me? I remain very married.
I knew the first day I met Michael in 1971 that something big had happened to me. That was most interesting because at the time I was madly in love with my first real deal, Al. The guy who made mincemeat out of my heart and reduced me to a neurotic, sniveling mess for a few years. When I read my journals from the years we spent together, I feel humiliated and barely recognize myself. I was very young and didn’t have the strength to divest myself of what in retrospect, was a toxic, immature relationship.
I think I was always looking for big love, even as a kid. Though my parents led far from a perfect life, their obvious passion and support for each other became my role model. I looked around the world of the late 60’s and chose to be very cautious in my personal life. I didn’t want to make a mess and I didn’t want to look back with regret on bad personal choices. So I was very careful before giving my heart away. I had high school boyfriends and one in particular that lasted through my freshman year of college. But that fizzled out. Those loves were baby steps. When I began my sophomore year, I was unattached, open and still pure, holding on to my virginity until I met the guy I was going to marry. I may have been the last innocent I knew in those years of “free love.” I was holding out for the brass ring.
I’d met Albert briefly at some street dance as a freshman. What I remembered most about him was that his dance technique mostly resembled the consequences of sticking your finger in an electric socket. I forgot about him. But in October of 1969, when I ran into him on the south portico of the student union where he sat strumming his guitar, I felt a spark. Through the next four months it was the classic spark turning to a flame. I was still holding onto myself with a significant amount of caution. On New Year’s Eve that year, when he brought me home from our evening out, he whispered, “Just for tonight, I love you.” Talk about a red flag. I should’ve run the other way immediately.
But I was dazzled by this guy, mostly by his oversized brain. He was incredibly bright and for the first time in my life, I was with someone who didn’t find my intellectual ability intimidating. That’s not the same as liking it, however, but I didn’t understand that then. Ten months passed, many of them tempestuous. We argued a lot but I thought the up and back was worth it. True love. We would expand each other’s consciousness and grow. I thought I’d found my life partner. I was nineteen years old. Finally I felt ready to commit myself to this guy I figured I’d marry as soon as we were done with college. I was ready to take the big plunge. I had sex for the first time. Things didn’t get any calmer. I spent most of 1970 and 1971 in a devastating emotional ride of breakups and makeups. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t concentrate. I lived on one track, trying to keep my dream of being like my parents, one lover for life, alive. I disgusted myself.
In 1971, I finally dated someone else besides Al. He didn’t like that much and we continued our torturous journey, splitting apart and rejoining. He had a lot of random encounters with women while I stayed as true to myself as I could, being with only one other person who I inadvertently tormented as my heart was always somewhere else. I still feel badly about that. I never did “casual” very well. I always thought it was a superfluous waste of my time.
I didn’t trust Al, ever. I knew that he wasn’t ready for what I wanted. He always told me that I functioned as if there was only the all or none hypothesis. I think he was right. I thought I could force him to be ready for a committed relationship which was a huge mistake. So I limped ahead with my self-esteem in shreds. I had trouble concentrating on school and was buffeted around by the swirl of unsettled feelings.
I decided to focus on politics. I was active in the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement. I made different friends. I wasn’t in the best mental shape but I wasn’t lying on the couch with the vapors, either.
In the summer of 1971, I was working, living in my college town and hanging out with people in the alternative community. I was invited to a wedding that August. The day before the wedding, I was at the home of some friends who had made the wedding cake. People were coming in and out to have a look at it. A couple walked in the front door, the man a very tall, thin person with auburn hair, a big red mustache and a beard. I was introduced to Michael for the first time. I’d heard of him before. He was infamous for tearing out the telephone system in his fraternity house after his “brothers” rigged a way to eavesdrop on a private conversation he was having with a girlfriend. He moved out of the fraternity shortly thereafter as his personality and that lifestyle were a mismatch. When I’d heard that story three years earlier, I’d pictured him as short, dark guy with glasses who’d been bullied as a kid and had developed a persona with an agitated affect. When this long, mellow string bean showed up, I remember laughing to myself about how wrong perceptions can be.
The next night, I attended the wedding which took place in the backyard of a rented sabbatical house. Hippie-esque was how I’d describe the vibe of the event. The bride wore a long dress and the groom a cotton shirt with needlework flowers and vines sewn on the neckline and cuffs. The parents and most of the guests were mostly obliterated from imbibing a variety of alcohol and drug offerings that were being passed around like hors d’oeuvres. I remember the bride eventually vomiting in the front yard and professing that she really didn’t like anyone at the event.
I actually felt pretty relaxed and glad I could enjoy myself during another of my Albert droughts. At one point, I wandered into the back yard where I saw a male friend and Michael lying on the grass, their heads resting on a log. There was a space between them that looked just right for me. So I went over and laid down between them. As we looked up at the stars there was silence. But it wasn’t particularly awkward silence. In my drug-induced haze, I felt like these two males, not well-versed in the art of communication were sending their positive connection through me. They clearly weren’t skilled at verbalizing. So as I am wont to do, I started talking for all of us. They didn’t seem to mind. And as we lay there, I remember feeling that Michael was emanating these inexplicable wonderful feelings toward me. I didn’t know him at all but he felt familiar, soothing. I generally operated at a pretty speedy high energy level as I still do. He felt slow and relaxing. As I write this, I’m still at a loss as to how to describe this unusual interaction that was all sensation, a subversive current of non-verbal dialogue that warmed me in a way that was so different from anything I’d felt before. Eventually we all got up and mingled with the rest of the guests but Michael and I stayed near each other.
His girlfriend became furious with him and grabbed his car keys and took off in a huff. We wound up staying at the event until dawn, helping the host clean up and eventually, heading toward our mutual friend Mark’s house. I was supposed to leave that day to visit my parents in Chicago and was getting my ride from him. When we showed up, Michael’s girlfriend stormed in and proceeded to lambast him for his behavior the night before amidst this small group of people. Michael sat silently on the floor with his knees drawn up and his arms folded across them. I felt badly for both of them and tried to do a little damage management and counseling which produced nothing but negative feelings. Finally, I said I was going to withdraw. I barely knew them. The only word Michael uttered was, “don’t.” I packed up and went to Chicago for a few days.
When I returned I called my friends and asked them how to get in touch with Michael. I called him and asked if he’d please come and visit me because I liked him so much without knowing anything substantive about him. He came to my house that day and without the blur of any mind-altering substances I felt the same way about him as I did on the night of the wedding.
We talked for hours. I told him all about Albert and my problems and he told me all about his. Our level of comfortability and intimacy was instantaneous. We were best friends. Just like that. We began to spend a lot of time together.
Within a few weeks, Michael moved into an apartment down the block from the one I shared with my roommate. While I seesawed through my relationship with Al, he and I spent long hours together, talking, listening to music, or just lying around hugging each other in the most comforting way. After awhile, I started feeling confused about the ease with which we were building this incredibly close friendship. Was this just friendship? How could I be wondering when I was still so deeply in love with someone else? Someone who made me crazy but who was still my desired life partner?
I decided to tell Michael that I wasn’t exactly sure of what was happening between us. His interpretation of that comment was that I wanted him to disappear. After a week or so of his absence, I went to his apartment to ask why he’d vanished. His life experiences had made him develop a rabbit hole that he plunged into when he felt criticized or threatened. He was sensitive and insecure. I learned that pretty fast. After convincing him that he’d overreacted, I invited him to my place for our first fire of the fall. We picked up where we’d left off, growing whatever this unusual, magical bond was between us. I managed to keep my questions to myself.
Fall turned to winter. To escape the emotional turbulence of my life, I planned to go off on a European adventure with two friends in January. I felt that as the end of college was approaching and my marriage wasn’t on the horizon, I needed distance and a change of scenery to help me figure out what to do next. Michael volunteered to care for my dog while I was gone. Shortly before I left town, we were standing in his kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, washing dishes, laughing and chatting. He bent down to kiss my cheek but I’d turned my head slightly and his mouth landed partially on the corner of mine. I still remember the hot current that ran through me, leaving me stunned. That was the closest thing to sexual contact that had passed between us in the 5 months we’d been spending time together.
There wasn’t opportunity to think about it as I left for Chicago within a few days to be with my family before leaving the country. I wrote Michael a few letters in a short period because I missed talking to him. No cell phones in those days. Then the weekend before I was leaving, he showed up at my parents’ place for one last visit with him and my dog. It was a surprise visit. I was pretty overwhelmed by it and even more muddled as I continued to struggle with my feelings for Al.
My friends and I had arranged through a rental agency to drive a car to New Jersey and then hop to New York for our flight. I spent the many hours in the car, thinking as hard as I could about what was happening to me internally. I realized that what had evolved between Michael and me, the friendship, the trust and the comfort were really what love was, not the explosive fighting/breaking up/making up cycle I was in with Albert. I loved Al, but his being so unprepared for what I wanted had splintered me and made me feel unsafe and paranoid. So unhealthy. We stopped in Philadelphia to visit an old friend and while there and at a safe distance, I called Michael. I confessed that I was pretty certain that I was in love with him. His response? “Far out!” And then I went on to New York, boarded a plane and left the country for almost 3 months.
I was gone, away from the turmoil. The feelings stuck. And they grew. I wrote Michael letters and postcards every day while I was gone. Being away and immersed in new cultural experiences was really good for me but I missed our conversations desperately. My friends thought I was barreling forward at a crazy pace but I was going with my gut. Every time we arrived at a major city, I ran to the local American Express office where I could receive international mail. When his replies were waiting there, I was buoyant. He was the first person to ever send me a telegram. We weren’t exactly writing love letters. Both of us were nervous because of the bomb I’d dropped when I left. But our attachment was real. I did write some letters that I never mailed. I was afraid I’d scare Michael when I was writing my raw truths. But I saved them. The fact is, I have all of our letters and postcards from that spring of 1972. We both kept every letter or note that we wrote each other.
So on it went. I still struggled with my emotions for Albert. I have a deeply loyal streak and what I felt for him was real. But his inability to handle us was wearing thin. And Michael was moving into the core of me.
I returned from Europe in April. After spending some time with my family, I went back to Champaign to collect the pieces of my life and decide whether to stay there or return to Chicago. The first person I saw on campus was Al. Within a few hours, I was with him in his apartment. I went to visit Michael and my dog. We were warm to each other but holding back. It only took a few days before I realized that Al was uncomfortable living as if we were a couple. He was going away to grad school in California in the fall and I could feel that he wanted to maintain his independence. I was done. I packed my suitcase and went over to Michael’s place. He asked what I was doing. I told him I was going to move into his apartment for awhile. He asked where I would sleep and I responded, “in your bed.” We’d never even shared a kiss. The first night we just lay together and talked like we always had and finally passed out. Our transition from friends to lovers happened the next day. We never lived apart after that. I was 20 and he was 22.
As time went by, the relationship deepened. Our friendship was our go-to place. I’d never trusted anyone the way I trusted Michael. He routinely put my needs ahead of his own. Although I was emotionally battered and frightened of being hurt, I slowly began to heal, piece by piece. Within a year I was able to tell him every dark secret of my life, all my guilt, all my shames, all my wrongs. It was like shoving boulders off my chest. Being next to him felt like being gently sedated while still conscious. I’d felt for years that I could spin off into the universe but he provided a gentle tether, like the string on a balloon. He was magical. I used to imagine a zipper in his chest that I could pull down so I could slip myself inside him to be surrounded by the comfort. That ease was coupled with our growing passion for each other that was finally released after months of denial.
And lucky us, the friendship and the passion we shared grew. We managed to head in the same direction. During our first few years there were hard times, disagreements and doubts. Both of us had strong opinions. We bickered and clashed, trying to figure out if we could stay together. We were so young. But the foundation we built sustained us and eventually the rhythm of our life was steady and smooth. After a few years passed, there were no doubts left between us. He was the magic for me as I was for him. We made each other strong. We fought for each other.
When he was diagnosed with his rare cancer and given his dark prognosis, we were devastated. We thought we had so many years left to enjoy each other. His parents were alive, in their 90’s. We felt robbed. But we found our way through those five challenging years and the fire never died. Neither did our friendship. We took turns helping each other and talking about everything as we’d done since the first night we met. Michael faced his disease with courage and heart. I was his advocate and constant companion. During his healthy days, we traveled and made memories. During the scary dark times, we held tightly to each other and clawed our way through terror. We shared all of it. Our communication and passion sustained us until his last days when, finally communication and lovemaking finally ceased. Then I whispered to him, played our music and held his hand until the end.
Now I am still writing him, the way I used to speak with him. Events and feelings are more complete for me when I direct them toward him. I know that what we shared was more than many people ever have in their lives. I recognize my greed for more, but I forgive myself. I also recognize that my ability to function well as I do is partially based on what we shared which still buoys me when I feel like I’m sinking.
Michael was my unicorn. My magical being. I remember our bad times, our fights and what habits he had that annoyed me. But mostly it’s the magic, still beating away inside me for as far as I can see. Saying it aloud helps me cope. Maybe it makes people uncomfortable. I can’t worry about that. What we had made me strong enough to know that now is my time to acknowledge how I feel. Maybe some person who reads this is in my shoes. Or maybe someone will be. This is my truth in this time. Don’t believe you have to be anyone other than yourself. I’m still hanging with my guy. And someone else’s rules and opinions don’t apply.