The Good News or the Bad News? A Grief Update.

Mom

When Mom told my younger sister and me that she was never leaving us, that after she died, she’d always be hovering nearby, trying to protect us, I was amused. Honestly, as much as she loved us, I only recall a few times when I felt her protection. Once when I was about 10, a nasty teenager hurled my first ethnic slur at me using two words I’d never heard before, fucking and kike. I ran to our Chicago apartment to ask her what they meant. She was furious and came storming outside to tell that wretched Harry Hess to shut his mouth and never say those words again. I was pretty impressed. Some years later, in my junior year of high school, a teacher berated me in front of her freshman Latin class for being a terrible example of a student council officer. I’d cut sixty physical education classes, and although elected to serve as council treasurer the following year, she threatened to strip away that office as retribution. My mom steamed into school to defend the indefensible, for I had indeed broken the rules. Mom still was furious that I’d been humiliated, no matter what I’d done. My punishment wound up being forced to make up the classes, two for every one, in my senior year. On swimming days, I was wet three times a day. Go mom. Aside from those memorable experiences, she was often a vulnerable mess, sorting out her unsolved childhood issues, making robust use of sedatives and being hospitalized a lot. I remember her saying ridiculous things like, “if you keep swallowing your gum, your insides will get stuck together,”or “if you buy anything for your unborn child, you’ll curse the baby.” She was essentially a kid, often fun, often naughty and generally needy. She was a curious combination of neurotic, tough and funny, weak and often overwhelmed. As kids, when my sister and I waited in the car with our dad while she ran an errand, he rustled his newspaper in the front seat and glancing back would say, “you know your mother’s crazy, don’t you?” But in a loving way. When he died, I spent the next twenty-five years taking care of Dorothy. She said lots of things that I remember. Lately I’ve been thinking of one in particular – “you can’t be in two places at the same time, no matter how hard you try.” As with many of her opinions that I chose to disregard, that statement turns out to be one of them.

Michael

Soon I will have completed my fourth year since Michael died. That’s less than nine per cent of the time we lived together. I don’t expect to live long enough to ever get to even half of our time which would be a long stretch that doesn’t sound appealing. I remember many things that Michael said to me too. Some were repeated on multiple occasions. During the course of our life, when we contended with whatever got tossed in our direction, he’d always say, “what do you want first – the good news or the bad news?” That was always an easy choice for me. Bad news first so the good could then ameliorate the rotten. So what do those two disparate comments from my mom and Michael have to do with my current take on grief? A lot, as it turns out.

So we’ll start with Michael and deal with the bad news first. He is definitely still dead. There isn’t a single thing I can do to change that reality. And the whole business about the stages of grief? I seem to be parked in the angry lane. I don’t know if that’s the desired outcome according to all the experts, but that’s life. I’ve definitely moved forward, but invariably, I wind up being really furious that we didn’t get the time we were so sure we had ahead of us. How all those nasty people in his family lived well into their nineties while he was gone at 67 is for me, evidence that there truly is no justice. I know it’s much worse for many other people but on some days, I just want to think about us. I remember in those last months of his life, he’d emerge from the confusion of his cancer-riddled brain, look at me and ask, “what are you going to do without me?” I’d tell him the truth. “Beats me.” I honestly had no idea what I would be doing once Michael died. I just needed to complete being his partner until the end of his life. There would be time for everything else later.

I’m coming up on the four year anniversary of his last breath. I’ve figured out a lot of things to do. I’ve traveled, at least before the pandemic. I’ve continued to grow my education by taking a broad array of classes and these days, webinars. I’ve exercised, danced, gardened, created art and read lots of books. I’ve listened to countless hours of music and discovered new artists to love. I’ve watched movies and television series. I’ve spent time with my family. I still have some long-lasting friendships with my peers, although some of those have fallen away. Being a widow has changed certain dynamics with people and I don’t have the desire to use my energy for trying to fix everything that doesn’t work any more. With a more limited future, I’m more stingy with my time. I have a nice group of younger friends who weave in and out of my life. They’re refreshing.

I’d say that my grief is now fused to me, like a sheath which is primarily internal. I’m not sad all day or crying or incapable of average life functions. It feels like those hazy clouds, diffuse and quite like other feelings that vary in frequency and intensity. I’m not sure if I actively made this happen or if it’s a purely organic process attributable to time passing. Periodically, I get surprised by a deeply primal agony that erupts over a certain song, a glance at a photo or an unexpected jolt of loneliness. I just ride out those waves. I expect those to be a permanent part of my life. But then comes the good news. I knew I’d never again be interested in a relationship, a partnership. The powerful magic that was Michael and me still exists and is alive deep inside me. During the hardest times, it surges up in me and helps me cope, as it did when he was alive. I marvel at this kinetic combination of pain, fire, power and love that are all rolled together now. I didn’t know that who we were would continue to fuel my life in his absence. But that’s what’s happened and although I’d give a lot for his touch, this mystical connection is unique, comforting and very real for me. How it was that two skeptical people like us, and especially a realist like me, gave ourselves over to this otherworldly attachment still leaves me confounded. It’s real though and I have documentary evidence from us both attempting to understand it as far back as 1972. Indeed, that’s the good news I take away from the infuriating injustice of not being able to grow old together. We saved every scrap of paper we ever exchanged. I find great comfort there. Which brings me back to mom telling me you can’t be in two places at the same time. Oh but I can.

Mom and Michael

At a time in life when people are beginning to have those moments of walking into a room and having no memory of why they went there in the first place, I am still experiencing that vivid recall I’ve had my whole life. A few years ago, I wrote about my “memory palace,”a reference to Sherlock Holmes who was able to pull out complicated details and minutiae from his brain to solve his cases. My memories are like those children’s pop-up books in which you turn a page and an entire scene stands up in three dimensions rather than only words. I can walk through those memories, seeing the clothing I was wearing, or that others were, smelling what was in the air, listening to and participating in conversations. So vivid and stunning. I have no idea why this happens. My mother had a powerful memory until she was about ninety when it finally began to fail. She too could describe her life from her early childhood in tiny details. She told me so much about hers that they now feel like they’re mine. In the long hours of social distancing during the past year, I’ve literally been internally transported into another time while actively being right here in the now. I think my long hours of listening to music enhanced this phenomenon. For example, I was hard at work in the yard last week when I recognized the first note of The Allman Brothers’ song “Jessica.”

From Wikipedia

I don’t know exactly how many times Michael and I saw them perform nor can I count how many hours we spent listening to their albums. But after the first note, I was at The World Music Theater in Tinley Park near Chicago, attending their concert thirty years ago, swaying to the music next to Michael. Only a two hour drive from home, we’d just gone up to the concert for the night. I can see myself walking toward him from a bathroom break, dawdling a bit because getting out of the parking lot and onto the highway always took awhile. We climb in the car together and I can feel the warm satisfaction of our good time, my hand massaging the back of his neck to make sure he feels alert and comfortable during the dark drive home. While I’m in that moment I’m also still digging up clods of dirt and grass for my new garden bed right here in 2021. An interesting kind of time travel that happens mostly when I’m alone but can show up unexpectedly when some trigger pushes the button that releases this parallel universe in my head. There’s no dissonance or adjustment. I guess I think that the mind is a series of layers, like sedimentary rock, but flexible and mobile. I have no clue how it works but if I concentrate, I can select a place to visit while I’m sitting in my recliner in my living room. So no, mom. I can be in two places at once. Just not physically. I find this phenomenon to be a wonderful gift. I dread the idea of having it disappear. But I’m trying to stay as close to the present as possible. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself which is consistent with how I’ve felt for a long time. This interesting ability helps with my grief companion. Getting to immerse myself fully in the good times has definite advantages. I can leapfrog the bad memories as well. So far none of my forays into neuroscience classes has unearthed any explanation for what goes on in me. Maybe I’ll never get to understand. So I’m going with the flow.

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