Today, this song, written by Michael’s beloved Grateful Dead, comes to mind as I wrangle with my conscience on my own, in his very apparent absence. I am down to myself on this road. Though I still hear him in my head.
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home
Songwriters: Jerome J. Garcia /
Robert C. Hunter
When you go through a years-long cancer journey with your spouse which eventually culminates in death, you begin your own, new, years-long interior journey. After your partner receives a negative prognosis, time is spent focusing on the now in an intense, pressing manner, trying to capture every moment, to feel it with all your power. The focus and concentration are elevated, almost the way it feels like taking a final exam at the end of a year, the pressure so much greater than the whiling away of an hour a few times a week. Yes, every day is huge test.
I called my mental state hyper-vigilance. I was always on the watch, trying to anticipate problems which might be averted, trying not to get distracted by the small annoyances that we used to be able to afford in our life with each other. Living mindfully, aware that any moment what was taken for granted could be gone. We filled the healthy times with travel, family, movies, music and lovemaking. We squeezed our remaining life together for everything we could. And then, despite our best efforts, death came, and only I was left to sort things through.
I’ve been doing that while trying to establish a reasonable life just for me. I’m trying to remember and record everything from the goofy phrases Michael sprinkled into daily conversation, to our decades of adventures, from the smallest experience to the greatest moments of our life. I want my children to learn what came before them and what was of value to us. My kids know Michael’s secret handshake and that when one of us says, “check,” “double check” is the correct response.
I catch myself thinking about how my husband, the gourmet cook, loved to eat chunky cinnamon applesauce straight out of the bottle, and that sometimes he snacked on potato chips dipped in ketchup. Yuck. I remember his hideous liver sausage sandwiches with sweet bread and butter pickle chips. I was proud when I got him to ditch Miracle Whip for Hellman’s real mayonnaise. But I could never get him to eat my chicken liver pate, arguably the best on the planet, choosing that icky deli rolled mystery meat instead.
As I wander through this minutiae, I wind up in the bigger, deeper components of our relationship. Michael was my best friend. He knew me better than anyone else ever has or will. We came together barely out of our teens. We each brought a self to each other. Over the course of time we had the great fortune to build a mutually agreed upon set of principles and a moral code that were the foundation for our family . We were almost always in essential agreement about the important parts of life. I think both of us needed that solidity. Our united front was a great comfort as we passed through the decades, evolving and maturing as we went along.
But we had some basic differences. I was aggressive, virtually all the time, while Michael doled out his aggression in smaller slices. I wanted to confront everything as it happened, relying on ability to think on my feet and my verbal skills to tackle any problem head-on. Michael took his time and pondered, much to my frustration on many occasions.My style was frustrating to him, too.
Both of us were well known for being trustworthy. Secret keepers. Michael was more introverted and quiet so his maintaining silence about peoples’ confidences was no surprise. I, on the other hand, was always amused by the fact that since I’m outgoing, incredibly verbal and never met a subject I thought was off limits, was actually just as quiet about my secrets as he was, a fact that entertained us both. Over time, my openness and receptive nature brought me many more private problems shared by a wide variety of people. Sometimes it felt like a lot, but I had the comfort of Michael to defuse the weight of so much responsibility to the needs of others. I never told him everything I knew nor did he tell me everything. That would have broken the trustworthy ideal we both shared and afforded to others. But having him around helped me all the time.
We had many conversations about those confidences that had been deliberately shared with us. Not the actual subject matter, but the significance of the general issues. Many of them meant a lot to the individuals who unloaded them, while we thought they weren’t that big a deal.
But there were other secrets, ones that crossed invisible boundary lines. The ones that were shared to relieve the teller of the burden of carrying it alone but which in turn, threw an unsolicited weight on our shoulders, and most particularly mine. I got a lot of the deep debris, the dark stuff. The kind of secret that places you directly in between people you care about. The kind of secret that becomes a personal burden, one which over time becomes very emotionally expensive to bear.
Secrets like these test your personal ethics. Michael and I spent many hours in our life, struggling with the morality of baring secrets to unsuspecting people who had false impressions of the significant people in their lives. The question always boiled down to one central theme: if you unload what you know, is the purpose to relieve your own pain? Or will what you say simply hurt the receiver who is better off living in the dark? Wanting to dump your burdens, especially those you didn’t create for yourself seems like a normal, healthy act. But if you’re just passing the pile to someone whose innocence is perhaps annoying, but was created by another person’s actions, can that be anything but selfish? And selfish was on our negative list. Causing pain so you can feel less. A tough moral dilemma.
When Michael was around to absorb some of my frustrations about these kinds of issues, life felt more manageable. But when he left he took a lot of my patience and many of my filters with him. Left to my own devices, and being angry that he’s gone which of course, is irrelevant, but real to me, makes me struggle in an internal debate.
I’m tired of this load, it’s not my fault, how about I just let it loose and move on, a little lighter inside. But will I really be lighter? If I dump our 45 years of building a set of principles, what will I really feel in the end? And what about the unsuspecting innocents? What happens to them.
So the philosophical dialogue continues between me and me. What’s stronger, my need for relief or my commitment to trying to make the unmanageable world a little better for someone else? I’m no martyr. But principles mean something to me. So does truth. Sometimes they don’t go together.
Death shakes up everything.
I don’t think I’ll ever be done sifting through all these thoughts. But I’m working on it.