Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
When I was in my first year of college, I started what I called an apocalypse notebook. I was seventeen years old. I found myself perpetually surprised by a seemingly endless string of newspaper headlines and stories that should make all the hair on your head stand straight up. And yet, while all these unimaginable tales were being spun in the news, regular life seemed to just go on. People were going about their business. While my hair was feeling peculiarly upright, I was surrounded by folks who seemed able to ignore what I found impossible to ignore, impossible to forget. After a while, I abandoned the project. I realized that keeping track of all the unacceptable happenings in the world was an infinite task. Giving it up was kind of similar to my accepting that I was never going to be able to read all the books in the world. I did that after reading a statistic which stated that on average, there were approximately 10,000 books published a day. Quite a reality check.
Instead of trying to comprehend the madness of the world at large and trying to consume every thought that’s been written, I’ve spent my lifetime sifting through what are the big questions for me. The older I get, the more introspective I become. I’ve got some answers to a number of my big questions. But there are still a lot of things I don’t understand. What I’m learning is that I probably won’t ever know how some things work and that more questions keep piling up every day.
I’m trying to accept that and go with the flow or rather, my flow. I’m coming up on my wedding anniversary which is May 1st. That date starts my most emotionally daunting six weeks of the year. Squeezed into that time are the anniversary, Mother’s Day, the birthday of my oldest and deceased friend Fern’s birthday, my birthday, the anniversary of Michael’s death, Michael’s birthday and finally, Father’s Day. It feels like a lot. Lots of memories, lots of absences, good times coupled with dark times. I find myself trying to gear up to tick each event off the list so I can get to the other side. One thing is certain – these personal events wouldn’t make it into my apocalypse notebook.
Today, I would be entering the latest news about another AR-15 attack in a house of worship. And most certainly I’d take note of the fact that certain areas of pigs’ brains have been revived after being dead for hours.
“A dead pig’s brain was brought back to life, sort of…” USA Today
My life is trivial in comparison to those things. I suppose I’m better at handling things than I was a year ago. I’ve parsed together a semblance of a new life, one which still needs work, but is better than just feeling disoriented and empty. I’ve definitely had the type of recovery associated with the passage of time. I’m more in control of my emotions on a daily basis. Still, I haven’t gone through those orderly grief steps, at least not in the order they’re supposed to happen, according to the seemingly hundreds of books about the topic.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get past some of the landmarks that mean you’ve made progress. I suspect that’s partly because I had no expectations of what it would be like to be widowed at my age. Michael’s parents outlived him by 30 years each. We always thought he’d be around a very long time. And then suddenly we knew he wouldn’t be. We talked about it a lot. He’d ask what I thought I’d do after he was gone and I truthfully told him I had no idea. He wanted me to be happy and freed me to resume a life with another partner. I kind of thought he was crazy then and now I feel that even more. I had no idea I’d be so uninterested in new partnership.
I think being a mate was the only thing I ever really wanted in my life. And I was very successful at it. I don’t believe lightning would really strike twice in that arena and having been so happy, I feel really done with that part of life. I miss who I had but I don’t believe I would be content with anything less than who he was to me. So I’ve turned my attention to other interests. The other unexpected thing is that I still keenly feel Michael’s presence all the time. That has become one of my big questions. I didn’t know what I’d feel like when he was gone. I really don’t feel he is as gone as I expected him to be. I know people who’ve processed their pain faster than me and have moved on with other relationships. I know people who’ve filled their lives with projects and commitments that keep them occupied from morning until night. I instead still feel very married and ok about it. I remember the old James Stewart movie, Harvey. He was a large rabbit who accompanied Stewart’s character wherever he went. No one could see him but Stewart. Yeah, that’s me.
The other day my sister asked me if I was going to just isolate myself on my wedding anniversary and feel all my feels. I realized that I wasn’t planning to celebrate or mourn. So often I feel Michael’s presence with me during my days that I’m not thinking of any plans to fill in the gaps. Am I making that up? I don’t think so. It’s one of the unexpected surprises and one of the big questions I haven’t figured out.
I realize that I’m still wearing my wedding rings along with other rings Michael gave me. Taking them off never occurred to me. I feel like a nun who wears the ring marrying her to Jesus. The symbols of our life together feel permanently affixed on my hands. I’ve seen movies and read articles about the rituals people go through to remove those symbols. That’s ok with me but it feels irrelevant to my choices. I didn’t know I’d be this way. I’m having lots of thoughts about how time works and what effect my desires have on it. I want Michael to be in my dreams at night. Often he is, and we are doing normal things, chores around the house, our famous bickering, all pretty familiar and feeling very “now.”
The other night I had the most peculiar dream experience I can remember. Most of my dreams are pretty mundane, what to write on a grocery list, what I want to plant in the garden and so forth. Rare for me are the wild adventures with people chasing me or being in another universe with monsters and such. I was lying in bed awake and worrying because I knew Michael was mad at me, in the way he’d be when we were very young. He’d stalk out of the house which drove me crazy. He was an avoider and I was a confronter. I managed to break him of that habit by packing a small bag with everything he’d need for a few days, leaving it by the closet and telling him that next time he wanted to go, to just grab the bag and leave. Nipped that behavior in the bud back then. But this time he was definitely gone and in Chicago. I was worried that he might hop a plane to go see his sister in California. I’d had no calls or texts from him and I felt frantic. So I decided to text him and tell him to come home so we could work things out. I was thinking I was glad I remembered his phone number because I knew it wasn’t in my contacts. I reached for my phone and then suddenly realized that I’d been sleeping. Grabbing my phone woke me. I was really confused. It took a few minutes to sort things out and remember that Michael was dead. I found the whole thing so surprising that I sat up to write it all down so I wouldn’t forget by morning. Fat chance of that. I felt like I’d been stuck between dimensions. That’s not an average thought for me and I found it both unnerving and interesting.
I started thinking about my mother. My dad was the same age as Michael when he died, just sixty seven. My mom lived almost 25 years without him. She never got past him. They were really in love their whole lives. I think their relationship reflected the difficult parts of their early years and that it lacked maturity in many ways. But there was no doubt that they had big love. My mom was sad and wistful about my dad for the rest of her life. She would frequently say, “I know you’re not going to believe me but your father came and sat on the bed with me last night.” She was strongly convinced that she had regular visits from him and her mother. When she probed me about whether I believed her I told her I couldn’t say one way or another if what she felt was real. But as I try to understand why Michael feels so here, I wonder about how parallel my world seems with hers.
I hear both my grandmother’s and my mother’s voices in my head frequently. I don’t know why. If I’m conjuring Michael just because I miss him so badly why can’t I do it at will? Recently I’ve read some interesting ideas about time. Most people view time as linear – we’re born, we grow up, we die. But there are different views.
A scientist from MIT wrote a book a few years ago about the “block universe” theory, in which time travel is possible and that time doesn’t really pass. This theory posits that all our experiences of birth, life and death are present out there somewhere. Wormholes may exist. There are physicists and philosophers in Time Study institutes around the world trying to address these bizarre concepts. Getting your head around this kind of stuff is a challenge. But aren’t all belief systems that firmly put forward such things as afterlives, reincarnation and the like equally bizarre? I really can’t differentiate between the faith and the science.
What I do think is that human beings have been on a quest to make sense of life and death forever. I don’t expect to live long enough for any ultimate evidence to be presented to me as scientific fact. I wish I could know why I feel the unusual things I feel about Michael and why I hear mom and grandma saying things in my head that make me laugh out loud. I’ve just decided to go with it all. For me it’s no different than having someone call who you were thinking about a few seconds before they rang. There’s another theory floating around about how our brains are connected by an intranet, this one put forward by neuroscientists and psychologists. What do I know? I guess we all select what works for us. I’ve always felt I have some kind of radar thing going on in me. A prescience, sometimes good and sometimes lousy.
Just like the movie, The Sixth Sense, I hear, rather than see, dead people. I hope this isn’t alarming – I’m pretty sure I’m harmless. At least to date.
In the meantime, I stare down my wedding anniversary. I lived with Michael for 4 years before we married. So for me, this will be our 47th year, 48th including the six months of friendship that preceded our romantic involvement. We always talked about renewing our very alternative vows but never got around to it. I guess if I’m still counting the years, I’m still celebrating.
I remember our 25th anniversary. Our life was changing. Michael was leaving his music business after 27 years and beginning his career as a teacher. We were broke but in classic fashion, we decided as we only lived once, we’d take a cruise. There were Mayan people in Tulum, Mexico who would make a commemorative calendar date on parchment as a souvenir.
Instead of a birthday, we chose our wedding date. I’m so glad about that. I still have the red rose Michael managed to get on the ship when we had our romantic dinner and he gave me a ring I still wear.
So, however strange or confusing it all may be, I’m just going to keep my mind open to the mysteries and hope they hang with me for the rest of my life. As Michael would have said, “It is what it is.” He was always interested in pretty cosmic ideas. He read a lot of science fiction and thought about the possibilities of time travel.
I gave him a clock for our first wedding anniversary. How appropriate. I have an art piece he gave me for another anniversary. It’s a couple entwined in each other’s arms. Yes. Feels like forever and across dimensions to me.