The artist who created the work above feels like someone I must have known in one dimension or another. Throughout the course of our 45 years together, my frequent and repetitive request to Michael was that he have a zipper installed in his chest, which I could pull down, so I could climb inside him, getting closer to that essence of him which made me feel safe, peaceful and utterly relaxed. He would laugh while hugging me tightly and say, “ if you get any closer to me you’ll be behind me.”When I found this piece of art I knew it wasn’t actually us, but it certainly feels as if we were the impetus for its existence.
When Michael and I met back in 1971 at that backyard wedding, when everyone was pretty much smashed by one type of intoxicant or another, when some inexplicable planetary alignment or cosmic forces were operating, a bit of magic happened. Whatever is the most essential core of a person, the deepest part of the self that is wordless, that hums like a silent engine, mostly invisible beneath layers of social mores and structures, in this first meeting between us, this core was exposed. Not just in one of us but in both of us, simultaneously with our vulnerabilities laid bare. The instant spark of connection happened right then, in a moment. We were inseparable that night, in a completely platonic way, as if we’d been best friends for years, able to feel each other’s every feeling and hear each other’s every thought. I’ve only experienced that moment once, on that night. The same was true for Michael. Drawn together like magnets, it was only a matter of months before we abandoned our previous relationships and wound up living together for the rest of our lives.
I write “our lives” deliberately. Although Michael has been dead, at least corporeally, for four years, he isn’t dead for me. I had no inkling that this would be my reality. I had no expectations of what life would be like for me after he was gone. We’d talk about it. He’d say all the stuff you see in movies or on television. “You’ve been a wonderful partner and I thank you for everything we’ve shared. But you’re full of life. I want you to be happy and not lonely. It’s fine with me if you want to be with someone else. As long as you’re okay.” I would just stare at him blankly. Most of the time I was thinking about how to get another Ensure in him, to keep him alive which was what he wanted more than anything. A life force like no other. He was astonishing.
I was exhausted after he died. I’d barely left his side for 5 months, sleeping next to him in the hospital for 32 nights and being his full time caregiver for the next months until he died. I was wholly committed to him as I had been in life. I was in some type of reality which felt wrapped in plastic – I could see through it and was able to move within it but the daily slog was not like anything I’d imagined. I always slept in our bed, on my side. I still do. Although I missed him desperately, I also felt his presence. A lot. I could be doing all the daily chores a person does while simultaneously staring in his eyes, which we often did, especially at night. I had movie reels running in my head of the two of us in our former life, just doing our daily thing. My memory palace. Right now I can watch the tendons in his skinny legs, taut while he bent down in the garden to weed around his beloved tomato plants.
Don’t get me wrong. We didn’t have a perfect idyllic existence. We were well known for our bickering and disagreements. We were each strong-willed and opinionated. We lived like many couples do, with intermittent and challenging conflicts. But there was that deep, magical connection which emerged and glowed brightly during every crisis, every pain, every trauma. I’m not sure I think it’s actually anything magical. I’m more likely to think it’s science, beyond our current capabilities in understanding the complexity of our brains and how we fit into the universe. Maybe some day these rare and beautiful events will be easy to explain. I won’t live long enough to know. But in my moments of magic realism, I’m always reminded of these two lines from “Love in the Time of Cholera,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.”“ They were not capable of living for even an instant without the other and the capacity diminished as their age increased.” And then there is the line Michael wrote me after living together one month, for my 21st birthday.
So here I am, four years later with the connection and passion for this man still alive inside me. On my good days, it’s a bonus to conjure his image, to look at his shoulders or hands in my head, to hear him say his ridiculous goofy sayings and to laugh out loud. On my darker days when I think I might not get through the murk, I suddenly feel buoyed by what we had, from deep in my gut, pushed back up to the surface, to help me appreciate the life he’d have given anything to be living. That perpetual connection still feels electric although its existence is now a peculiar abstraction I don’t understand. But on it goes.
So here I am. Four years out from the biggest loss in my life. The grief is endless and surprising, as is the joy. As is the rage about the stupid, insensitive things people say to me when they have no idea what they’re talking about and no clue about how I feel. Also, the jealousy and anger I feel when I see other couples, most especially those I know well, still together, sharing real life, when I know that the quality of those marriages has none of what Michael and I shared. My nasty side. I have never claimed to be saintly or magnanimous. We all have our less than admirable qualities. I expect to live however long I have left, still in love with Michael and what we were fortunate enough to have found and cherished, unless dementia or brain death stops me from feeling. I’m sure by that time I’ll have bored everyone I know to death with my incessant conversation about a person who no longer exists for them. Who knows? Maybe it’ll go on even after that…