Last week I was rather mindlessly wandering around Safeway when I came upon the adult diapers I had once bought for and put on Tad. Quite unexpectedly I found myself whimpering in the middle of the brash light and mind-numbing supermarket colors of the personal hygiene aisle. I quickly calmed the tears and went to the check out.
But the next day at home it bubbled up again without warning. It was early in the morning; I was alone. This time I decided to let it flow. I wept for one full hour, howling my pain from the living room floor of my apartment, urging it to come out when it slowed down.
Towards the end I finally called a girlfriend who I knew would listen lovingly and shared my grief with her.
The ironic quality of this gushing moment is that it is both painful and soothing; it opens up something deep inside. In a way I was happy to somehow reconnect with this deep level of crying for the first time in a very long time; I had missed it.
This summer while up in the mountains hiking I found myself napping next to Fall Creek. When I woke up I decided that one of the curves in the river was too steep and that by creating another path I would open up a beautiful new waterfall. So I began industriously pulling out stones and branches, displacing large rocks, shifting handfuls of silt, digging a small trench in the alluvial deposit with my bare hands to create a trickle. Then I pulled out just the right river rock and hit a tipping point. The gushes of water started coming down my side of the little trench creating a second beautiful path for the river and making a sweet gurgle over a pile of rocks.
That moment when the water started coming after all the hard work: that is what this sobbing feels like.
When I ran process groups for nurses and doctors working with mostly terminal patients in the 1990’s I would ask them to classify emotions into families then describe to me how the emotions “behave”. They all agreed that we can accumulate them if we don’t take the time to express them. “Particularly grief,” one older charge nurse said. Everyone nodded.
Unlike the weeks surrounding Tad’s death, today I can overlook the sadness cues my body is sending me. Or if I do hear/feel them they are so much smaller than they used to be that I can ignore them, sort of give them a rain-check.
Indeed from early on in this whole adventure with leukemia I’ve known that part of my work is to stay “in life” – to keep myself from wandering into forms of what I would call non-life. These for me are moments where I would sit around wishing Tad were alive. Wishing he didn’t have leukemia. Time thinking how I could have done things differently. Or even time poring over photos and talking for hours about Tad with friends.
Another form of this would be for me to start comparing my sweet burgeoning relationship, which of course has its flaws, with my old one. In the glowing light of post-mortem love it of course appears perfect.
Cesar always offers me the opportunity when I mention Tad to talk about him opening with “Do you miss him?”
It’s a funny question for me because I’m not exactly sure what it means. Do I wish he were here still? Of course. Do I find myself yearning for that? No because my mind knows it’s vain: he’s never “coming back”. I watched his body go into a flaming oven.
I think the truth is I cry because I have a clearer sense of life’s tragic side. I cry because Tad and I lost a fight; one that consumed our lives for nearly eighteen months. I cry because beautiful, caring people are here one day and not the next. I cry because life can be painful and most of the time my brain has well-worn strategies that help me keep that out of my awareness. I cry because grief is a lonely process; a necessary solitary path.
I also think –and this is a very distant thought, barely audible - I cry for the little boy who got beat up at school and never quite fit in, I cry for the teenager who could only separate from his family through a move to the other side of the world, I cry for the betrayals from people who said they loved me then did unethical things to me.
I don’t know I’m crying about these things. Tad’s untimely departure is the cover-up for these things. Yet they are there, like one of those scrims barely visibly hanging in front of a scene on a stage.
In my mid-twenties I would regularly get together with a fellow free-lance journalist to kick around new story ideas. She and I would talk about this or that emerging trend in the Paris arts scene, a new interesting building that was breaking ground, an edgy film in post-production. Once we decided for the fun of it to write auto-biographical pieces.
She copy-edited mine with a proper red pen and commented in the margins on the fact that my character cried a lot suggesting he lacked subtlety. I wondered if – despite her Australian birth –her English upbringing had given her that certain un-American composure I found in most of my British friends. I didn’t feel like I cried more than the average person.
But of course this writing wasn’t about me – it was about an idea of me, the me that was finally able to let out all that sorrow and disappointment.
Is Tad’s death finally letting me feel that bitter-sweetness of sorrowful relief as it flows through me like the water down the silt furrow and somehow heals my broken heart just a bit?
I yearn for the day when I can close my eyes and remember the good times Tad and I had, when the pain of his last ten minutes on earth struggling to breathe in my arms doesn’t dominate the tableau. I find myself envious of one of the members of my spouse grief group whose husband rolled over in bed one night and was dead. No months of hospitalization, no screaming matches with medical staff, no mind-reading strategies to figure out what they’re really saying, no painful trips to the ER to save him one last time, no catching him in my arms as he passes out unexpectedly from low blood pressure, no wondering what his insurance won’t cover this time.
Is it possible in the book of “How Emotions Work” that I’ll get to the sweetness by walking through the tears?
God I hope so.