Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Hearing about how you are perceived in the world is always interesting. During the past few days I’ve heard a number of comments about myself from friends. I believe the comments are valid within the limits of what they can hear or see. I know that what I’ve been told comes from a positive place, a supportive place intended to make me feel good. So I accept them in the spirit with which I think they’re delivered. One person told me I had a “larger than life” personality. I think that’s a compliment. I don’t feel it inside myself. I think I just expose more of my thoughts than a lot of people so my expressions seem outsized. My perception is that I’m more like, than not like, most people. I just have fewer filters. Another dear friend told me that she thinks I’m significantly less angry than I was a year ago. I’m coming up on the second anniversary of my husband’s death. I don’t feel less angry.
I feel less obvious about what I share. Those are two entirely different issues. To a degree, I’ve adapted to this undesired single life. I keep myself busy and I know how to behave in socially acceptable ways. But that’s only one dimension of me. Inside, I have deep crevices that I’ve always had and despite my facility with language, I am stumped at how to describe those places. Crashing waves of feeling live there. They are my undercurrent.
Anger is an active component of those spots. I’m angry every day and often irrational. I think it’s unfair that people whose relationships aren’t as good as mine should still have their partners when I don’t. I think it’s wrong and unjust and that I got robbed. Unproductive thoughts? Yes, but so what? I think them. I also think everyone has those private, dark places. Maybe I’m projecting but I doubt it. I think gaining access to them eludes many of us. Going as deep as you can get with yourself is hard and sometimes ugly. I’m okay with that. I live in a pretty honest place. I have an old friend who called me the truthsayer. I don’t think that was flattery. I think she wished I’d shut my mouth.
Another couple of friends who are traveling, sent me a picture of a statue that reminded them of me. It’s a metal sculpture of a person called “Overflow” that has letters and thoughts pouring out of it. They said they both thought of me immediately. This “overflow” idea is not a new behavior for me. I’ve always been full of ideas and words but for the bulk of my life, they were absorbed by Michael. He was my anchor, he was my sedative. He gave me what I needed in order that relax.
In ways that I can’t explain I’m still actively involved with him in that interchange. My letter writing to him that I began right after he died is still going strong. Until I’ve written him my thoughts I feel undone. As if I haven’t completed my process until I’ve shared with him. It’s mystifying. I’m definitely living in the present. I’m engaged with “now.” But internally, I’m still interacting with Michael.
I don’t know how to account for these peculiar sensations. When I dream, if he’s not actually visible, I feel his presence. Sometimes that’s enough to sustain me for a while. But don’t get me wrong. I miss the corporeal aspects of us. I miss my sex life.
Our connection was big and successful. It helped me unwind and just be. Having it be over is hard to accept. We managed through five years of his cancer to sustain our sexual contact. How very lucky considering the side effects of chemo, radiation and the array of other drugs plied during our journey. We both benefited from our consistent intimacy and experienced joy in the midst of the terror and the emotional erosion caused by daily fear.
Doing that for many years is indescribable. I’ve experienced fast deaths. I’ve felt the shock of the phone call death announcement, that’s a shock to your whole being. I’ve sat by the deathbeds of my parents from a few days to a few weeks. But there is nothing like the rollercoaster of living with your life partner, who’s afflicted with a terminal illness, for many years. I knew I would be permanently changed by it and that became my truth. While in the midst of it, I could feel subtle internal shifts. I wasn’t sure how they would manifest themselves over time. At other significant, major moments in my life, I’ve gotten similar signals. Eventually they altered parts of me as the normal changes that occur as a life that’s lived fully generally evolves. For now, what feels most clear is that I’m all out of fresh love. I haven’t been able to love my past two dogs. I care for them and make their lives better but I can’t seem to find the big love that I did before. I don’t think I can feel that again except if my son has a child. I still love my family and good friends. But I emptied so much of myself into Michael and me. We remain deep inside me, entwined in that intensity. I feel it every day. I call out his name each night before I sleep. He is my first thought in the morning.
I carry a photo button of us, a note from him and his little laughing Buddha that was his good luck charm in my bag every day. I wear the gold heart necklace with his loving handwritten message inscribed on it. He had enough vision to have a mold made for it in case I should ever lose it. He knew I would never be able to forgive myself if that happened. No one knew me the way Michael did, even my family and closest friends. Our connection was immediate and frequently nonverbal. I think that would surprise most people who’ve known me for a time. But it’s my truth. A large piece of me is a deep well of silence. Michael and I mostly felt each other silently and used words when necessary. But much of our constant exchange of information was quiet. I still wonder at the magic of it. Yet, even with that intense and beautiful connection, I always knew that there would be small places in each of us that the other could never access. As well as we can know anyone, I’m not convinced that anyone knows everything about the ones we love, the ones with whom we share our love and trust. What bits make us wholly ourselves contain tiny mysteries in the end. I’m exposing parts of my mystery just by writing this note. But no matter who reads this, I remain intact and whole in my deepest recesses. The emotional and intellectual connections I had with Michael are alive in here. I don’t know why nor did I expect to feel this way. As he would say, “it is what it is.” I don’t think I’ll ever be at peace with his dying too soon for me. Even when I’m aware of the great gift I had, even as I know that people are suffering unfairly from much worse situations than mine, I still get to be pissed off. And I am. I’m just doing better because I can and because I still mean something to my children and grandchildren. I hope I don’t get too old and sink into the mire of forgetting and being useless.
I watched my mom do that and remember her endlessly asking me why she was still here. I always answered her, beats the hell out of me, mom. I don’t know why her battered body kept going. I don’t want to follow in her footsteps. The night she died, she fell silent. Her eyes were open and she kept moving her hand in front of her face as if trying to push aside something that was blocking her view. She didn’t say a word and I’ll always wonder what she was doing. Right before her last breath, she squinted in what looked like a cognitive physical response, like a “huh?” I’ll never know what any of it meant. Just like I didn’t know how I’d feel after Michael died. He gave me permission and encouragement about moving on and finding companionship because he loved me and didn’t want me to be lonely. Oh well. I couldn’t have told him we’d still be hanging out two years after his death.
Soon May will come. Our wedding anniversary is May 1st, May Day, which we chose to honor International Workers who fought hard for the rights of working people. Living our political views is what we wanted to do. That month is full of birthdays and celebrations which are now overshadowed by the day of his death, May 28th. But that is a story for another day.