I generally spend a portion of every day thinking about Michael. Usually there’s no warning about when that will happen. Occasionally a song provides the stimulus. More often, I’m pondering something or other and I just really, really want to talk to him. So far, after over five years, nothing has slaked that thirst for sharing my thoughts and ideas with him. I can talk to other people, but I rarely feel the sense of truly unloading what burdens my mind that I did after speaking with him. I suppose if I mention this to someone, they might respond with sorry for your loss. That phrase might be in my top 5 of hated comments. Michael’s corporeal being is gone. But the rest of him is so alive and vibrant in me. I struggle with his physical absence but he is not lost. I don’t know the history of that phrase, but it feels so dismissive. Like a cut and run comment that someone can say, rather than really connecting to the more painful realities that could be mentioned. Everyone wants to get done with grief. So many psychologists and doctors and anybodys have tackled the subject. One book says there were five stages, another, seven, then who knows how many, laid out in order. Boom, boom, boom. Get through the program and move along.
That really isn’t how grief works. Life is about accumulating all kinds of grief, as different as the socks in a drawer, as small as a toothpick, as big as a jackhammer. Grief is a pinprick or a gaping hole. Grief can be silent or screaming its head off. An amoeba or skyscraper. Even if you think you get past it, it lurks at the molecular level in your cells. Grief causes mutations in the mind and body. Some of them manifest physically and some of them are forever hidden. Grief is raw and ugly, radiant and exquisite. Grief is nothing and everything.
Grief can begin early in life, depending on the randomness of where and when you are born and to whom. Sometimes a dreadful calamitous situation is the backdrop for the grief that begins with true cognition of those circumstances, although for some, with no other real frames of reference, grief and life are one and the same. For luckier people, there are longer innocent times untouched by deep sadness. I think I felt grief twice as a young child. The first time, I was five, when so filled with love for a pet chameleon, I accidentally hugged it to death, the poor thing suffocating in my hands. The second time was when I was seven and my family moved from Sioux City, Iowa to Chicago. Our neighbors came outside to wave goodbye as we drove away, including Robin, the boy I’d loved since I could remember. Of course those episodes are glancing blows of grief compared to the big picture of my life. But yet they’re still part of me, unforgotten after all these decades.
My older brother and sister had a much harder time with that move than me. They were older by over five and eight years, those tougher adolescent years so fraught with difficult adjustments and personal changes than those of a little girl. Our apartment was small. The conflicts and worries they had were an undercurrent I always felt. My brother was impulsive and angry while my sister was depressed. By the time I was twelve, Fred had imploded over a lost relationship and enlisted in the Air Force for four years. My sister was remote and silent. Then shortly after my 13th birthday, on the day I graduated from eighth grade, my baby cousin Iris died from a common respiratory infection. That was the beginning of real grief, her unfair death, my siblings’ obvious disturbances, and an overall sense of life’s uncertainty which expedited my growing up fast.
My high school years were complicated. My parents were struggling with finances, my grandparents and my siblings. After my freshman year, although I was interested in learning, I became a mediocre student. I was more interested in understanding people, relationships, and the complex issues of the ‘60’s. For the most part I passed for normal. I had a social life and classic crushes, one in particular that I hoped would turn into something more serious by the time we got older. But that was a pipedream. The real world was exploding with race issues and the Vietnam War. When I went off to college in the fall of 1968, I was maintaining a relationship with a boyfriend who was always more of a platonic friend than a romantic one, no clue as to what my future goals were, and a pretty jaded attitude regarding how much the social world was about skimming the surface of life. I felt disconnected and out of place. I knew I didn’t want to continue in the lifestyle which many of my classmates who were joining me at the same school appeared to be comfortable in, an extension of our high school behavior. I was alienated. Before my freshman year ended, one of my cousins committed suicide and my grandfather died. An attempt to live with my oldest friend blew up within the first two months of college. Thankfully, that relationship was salvaged.
By the next fall, I’d developed an invisible armor to shield myself while I launched into a more experimental lifestyle. Within a short time, I met love #1. I was pretty guarded initially, using mostly my executive mental function out of caution, before committing myself to the relationship. After a bumpy 10 months, I was all in. I thought I’d found my life partner despite explosive breakups and reconciliations. I figured that time and maturation would solve those issues and doggedly pursued my vision of our future at the same time my self-confidence and self-esteem were gradually eroding. My political interests kept me going and I had some good friends but I’d say that I was as mentally unhealthy then as I’ve ever been in my life. During a long breakup, I met love #2. Someone I’d known for years, he suddenly found me to be the most fascinating person alive, a welcome relief from the boomeranging emotions with love #1. I really cared about this person but along with everyone else, he came with the baggage of being a pretty boy who was susceptible to flattery. I realized that love was one thing while trust was another matter entirely. For almost three years I swung up and back between these two people, more in love with #1 and sadly, unable to fully engage with #2. I learned plenty about grief during those years as I thought that I was destined to be alone forever, unable to sustain real partnership. Then in the summer of 1971, when I was single and just doing my own thing, I met Michael at the wild hippie wedding where sone inexplicable magic psychic connection instantly happened in a span of a few hours. Forever mystifying, I have never understood exactly how that transpired. I had no physical attraction to him initially – I’m not sure our physical beings had much to do with our entwining at all. Regardless, I was immediately changed. I had a lot of despair back then and was profoundly wounded, innocence destroyed. But the friendship that began with Michael was like a magic elixir which was amazingly restorative. An unevenness accompanied my healing, but despite intermittently falling back into defensive postures, our meeting of emotions and our minds was unlike anything else I’d ever felt. After 8 months, that powerful friendship took on the added dimensions of love, both the romance and the physical kind. We were never apart after that, throughout the forty-five years until his death.
Despite my joy and good fortune during my life with Michael, grief was always close by. Another cousin and my oldest friend Fern, killed themselves within a year of each other. My father died the following year. My grandmother died, too as did my closest uncle. Some years later, when Michael was already ill, my brother, my mother and the dog of my heart died, all within three months of each other. Dennis, love #2, committed suicide when he was only 52, a tragedy I’ve never understood. As people age, we all see the companions of parts of our lives vanish. What does not is the grief and pain that are woven into our internal tapestries, staying with us forever.
Along the way, over the years, many more friends and family have died. From my nuclear family, only my younger sister and I are left. A few years ago, my brilliant friend Julie died. I saw her a few times before cancer overtook her and we had long talks about life and the “deep debris” we humans carry with us as the years go by. I was able to discuss what I refer to as the exquisite grief I have for Michael. I know that for some people, recovery means some type of closure and often the seeking of a new partnership as balm going forward. I didn’t know how I’d feel about any of that before Michael died. But I do know now.
A friend of mine recently told me she thought I have a sunny disposition. I think that’s right. I’ve never been a dark and depressed person and I’m not now. Even in the immediate time after Michael’s death, I wasn’t those things. Mostly I was mad that he died too young when we wanted more years together. I’m still mad and greedy even though it’s useless and isn’t part of the grief resolution profile. I don’t care. I’ve moved forward. I’m in my life. I’m thankfully still independent. But I’ve taken Michael along with me, during my daily life and on my solitary travels to places I wish we could’ve seen together. I don’t want a new companion. I’ve already had the best possible marriage. So I’m doing my thing, accompanied by this marvelous memory that is three-dimensional and such a comfort. My gift and my curse. I go to the movies and remember how until the end of our time together, we were always draped over each other in the theater. I still sense it in the darkness. I can conjure the feelings from the countless mornings from before, when I wake, still on my side of the bed, the body pillow behind me being a moderate substitute for the body I wish was still there. But I can again elicit the comfort from so many years of profound intimacy that my natural strength remains augmented by its still palpable presence. I find my whole process utterly unanticipated and surprising. I also love that “forever” apparently is real in certain contexts. I feel similarly about Fern and my parents who live on in me, along with a dog or too who were something beyond special. This is my exquisite grief, simultaneously painful, beautiful and sustaining. Don’t be sorry for my loss. Like I said, it’s not exactly what people may think. At least not for me.