That’s how long it’s been since I last saw you, since you’ve been gone, since I laid you to rest, buried you in the ground, kissed the cross on your grave, cried as if my very soul had been destroyed.
The recovery period has been long and harsh. I understand the word “devastation” now in a new context. Grief has an altogether new meaning. Permanence is real.
You weren’t actually planning to leave. You took a walk in the garden, fell down and didn’t get up. Your heart stopped. You were probably gone before you hit the ground. Probably saw yourself falling, realized what was happening and tried to reverse the process. But the heart controls everything. There was nothing you could do. I can’t fault you for that.
You left your shoes at the back door. The ones you always wore outside to sweep the balcony, or smoke a cigarette, or drink a beer and watch the sunset.
I left your shoes there for 14 days — in case you decided to resurrect yourself. If you were able to pull that off, I knew the first thing you’d want was a cold beer and a cigarette. And you’d want to sit outside and smoke and tell me the story of what you saw and how you did it and how you made it back home. So I left your shoes there in case you managed to pull off a miracle. Like Jesus did with Lazarus. Like Elijah with the widow’s son. You didn’t. It was a pretty big ask anyway. I didn’t fault you for it.
I finally put the shoes in your closet, which opened a whole new world of reality I wasn’t ready for. What to do with all of your clothes, your shirts and jackets, those pajamas you never, ever wore — why did you even buy those? You don’t even wear pajamas. Even when it was freezing cold, you refused to put them on. You would wear a t-shirt to bed and shiver and complain about how cold it was. During the day you would wear flannel pants and talk about how remarkably comfortable they were and so warm! And at night you would take them off, jump into bed and moan about the cold. You could be such an idiot sometimes.
There are no days that go by where I don’t think of you. Even after all this time. There is no time or space in which I don’t miss some part of you. Inconsequential things bring you to mind. Today I dropped an onion skin on the floor, and when I went to pick it up, I remembered how I could tell what you’d cooked based on the remnants left on the kitchen floor — garlic cloves, onion skins, salt crystals, red pepper seeds, a random bean or potato slice. You were an excellent cook, but the concept of a broom was simply beyond you.
Ninety days after you left, I moved out of our house. Eventually I moved out of our city. Last year, I moved out your country. I couldn’t breathe in those places anymore. These are not things you can easily explain to people. You can’t tell someone that you can’t breathe. They think you need medical attention. I didn’t need medicine or attention. I needed to figure out how to live, how to create a life in which you did not exist, and how to do it now instead of in 30 years when we would have both been old and gray and I could have simply moved into a retirement community and taken advantage of senior citizen discounts.
I never questioned why you left. Never raged at God, never decided the universe was unfair or somehow against me. Ok, I was angry at elderly people for a minute. Couldn’t quite figure out how they were alive and you weren’t. I was particularly angry at that one uncle of yours who’s like 900-years-old or something and still walking around. I mean, seriously. How is that even right? But then I realized I was leaning towards irrationality and decided not to go down that path.
This is what grief does to you.
You have to choose which path you’re going to take. If you don’t, grief will take you, and in ways you don’t expect. In addition to irrational anger at the elderly, my grief manifested as clouds in my head. That’s the only way to describe it. Puffy white cotton clouds that you normally see in an everyday sky were inside my head. Everything was soft and fuzzy and unfocused. Clouds and cotton balls do not make for good brain matter.
For weeks after you left I couldn’t figure out what to do — about anything. I don’t mean the overall big picture of what to do with my life. I mean the very small picture of what am I supposed to do right now this very minute. And because I couldn’t figure it out, I wouldn’t move. Hours would go by and I would still be sitting in the same place. Just sitting. Possibly thinking, but not quite thinking. Mostly just sitting.
One morning I woke up and realized I couldn’t keep doing that; that I had to make a decision about something; about anything. I remembered an article I’d read about a woman who’d suffered a devastating loss, but through therapy she’d learned a mantra: a bad thing happened, but I’m ok. She would say this repeatedly until she felt better. I decided to try that. It was the first real decision I’d made in days and it helped to clear just enough of the clouds in my head that I remembered something else I’d read or heard somewhere: when you don’t know what to do, do the next thing.
I’m not going to tell you that immediately everything became bright and shiny and clear. It didn’t. Nothing happened immediately. Nothing happened, except that I made a decision and that single act moved a piece of a cloud in my head, which helped me to do the next thing. And the next thing was to wash my face. Hardly epic, I know. But if you honestly can’t remember the last time you washed your face, it’s kind of a big deal.
After that, I brushed my teeth. And then I took a shower, put on some clothes (ok, a t-shirt), and made a pot of coffee. I got lost at that point and didn’t know what to do next so I watched the coffee brew. Then I stared in confusion at the sheer number of coffee cups in the cupboard. I couldn’t understand why we had so many cups. Who was drinking all these beverages?
I turned on the TV to that channel where people cook all day. And by then I was exhausted and had to lay down. But in lying down, I realized a few more of the clouds in my head had shifted. And while I didn’t have the wherewithal to do anything else that day, I made a decision that the next day, I would do the same thing and maybe try to read the stack of mail.
And every day, I added a bit more to the day. And every day, a few more of the clouds cleared.
I wish I could tell you that I’m finally back to myself, but that wouldn’t be quite true. I had to find a new self and I’m still figuring out who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing in this new life, the one in which you don’t exist, and I’m too young for retirement, and would likely get carded for trying to use a senior citizen coupon.
I can tell you that the clouds have all cleared and I’m ok now. I don’t cry when I think of you. I don’t get lost while brewing coffee or making tea. In fact, I can cook whole meals with laser-focused attention. I figured out that the reason we have so many cups is because I buy two whenever I see one I like. I can even look at men’s clothes now without wondering what you’d look like in them, although the other day I was about to check the price on a jacket before I realized there was no point.
People tell me that I’m strong and that they don’t know what they’d do if they were in my situation. I’m not strong. A bad thing happened and I made it through. Your loss is part of my ongoing survival story.
There’s a poem I like by Lucille Clifton that says, “…come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.” Your death almost killed me. But I survived. I have survived much in this life. I will survive more. I will live. I choose to live. In this life — this new kind of life. I know you won’t fault me for that.
Sometimes, when the beer is ice cold, and the sun sets just right, I look to see if your shoes are at the door. I know they won’t be. But I like knowing that when you left, you had every intention of coming back.
It’s past midnight now.