The most painful part of my story with Tad is the part where he dies. The part where he goes somewhere -or nowhere- and I don't. The part where he suddenly starts convulsing and struggling then stops. Dead. And all I can do is hold on for dear life, waiting for his pulse to stop and repeating to him how much I love him.
This may seem like an obvious fact - it's the culminating scene of nearly every Hollywood drama ever made - but it's important for me to note. That moment is so deeply and painfully engraved in my brain I find myself yearning to be free of its pull. And yet I also want to hold tight to it.
Separation has never been easy for me.
In love relationships when the other starts to pull away, I hunker down, I cling; start bargaining. Somehow I get to a point where I click into "need" instead of "want" as in "I can't live without this relationship." Animated in essence by the same drivel that filled the pop songs of my younger years, I forget that I am whole and capable when the other person pulls away, that I have a life and an identity of my own.
Needless to say this uncontrollable strategy of clinging usually serves to push the other person further away, bolstering my fear-driven pain.
In my friendships - and because of my bi-cultural status - I tend to have short-term but intense moments with loving friends around the world. Then we separate. I have incredibly fond memories of beautiful moments spent with lifelong friends in New York (John!), Paris (Matthieu!) , London (Fiona!), Dublin (Ross!), Bordeaux (Madina!), Bangkok (Geof!) which end with one of us getting on a train and leaving for an airport.
After those separations my mind does something funny: it tries to keep the relationship going despite the thousands of miles that separate us. I usually talk aloud to the absent-friend in my daily tasks. I make concerted efforts to maintain the connection with phone calls. This phase generally lasts a few days until my brain settles into reality and the fact that we are separated by an ocean becomes palpable.
Or maybe I just do it until the pain of their not responding with a presence, a voice, a smirk, a touch becomes too much for me. Maybe I stop talking to them simply because it hurts too much to continue the charade of magical thinking.
Pain. Pleasure. Pain. Pleasure.
This time it was not two weeks I spent with a friend but five and half years. This time it was not a friend but a lover, a life companion, a person who shared the mystery of ecstasy and the quotidian with me.
And this time instead of returning to my own place on the other side of the ocean - surrounded by my other language, my other circle of friends, very different sights, sounds and tastes - I stayed in Tad's world. I choose to stay there to this day despite my urges to bolt. I reach out and pet the cat he petted every day for eight years (who uncannily behaves a lot like he did). I go out in the garden and weed around the flowers he carefully planted. I sleep in the bed we shared for years, the one where he bled out on the sheets, where I changed his diapers, where he took his last breath - also the one where we made tender love, watched silly TV and read books til the wee hours side by side.
"Honey it's time to go to sleep - turn the light off.",
"But I'm reading" (actually asleep)
"No you're not - I just woke up and your book was on your chest. You were snoring.",
"No I"m reading.",
"Here let me just take the book and put it here on the table. Can I please turn the light off so we can sleep?",
"No, leave it -I'm reading."
I can't call or send emails. I can listen to old voice mails or look at photos but I choose not to - at the moment that hurts too much.
I have found myself looking for notes from him to me - as I rummage through the privacy of his office. I pick up pieces of paper and hope maybe there will be a love note to me, a reminder of his devotion to us. I read all of his diaries hoping I will find declarations of love and pining. But I don't. Alas he mostly used his diaries to write about difficulties he was having, including with me.
A few days ago I found a new diary, just a few pages jotted down on a notebook he'd bought in Paris - narrating parts of our long journey. There on the second page after a long description of the frenetic big city and his overwhelm he wrote: "...but thank God I have my beloved guide, lover, friend Greg."
The truth is we both expected his death and yet we were sideswiped by it so there never was a formal moment of saying good-bye in that tidy way we therapists like to do it.
He was actually quite busy the last few weeks of his life. He worked diligently at finding, printing and piecing into collages photos of the important people in his world. First he glued his family back into the same configuration they were in before the Big Dispersion in 1977 when his mother died.
He pieced together photos of friends from all periods of his life: Arizona, the Navy and San Diego, the SPCA and Santa Cruz. Two days before he died he made a long list of all the people he wanted to invite to a party - this included people who had never met before, who lived in Europe, the midwest, Arizona, California. People who in all reality would never gather in the same room because of time, financial and social constraints. He grouped them all - he brought them all together before he died.
I can only imagine what a glorious gathering that might have been and what a painful separation would have ensued. I would have been talking to invisible people for days.
Mostly I keep communicating with Tad by talking to him in my head. Sometimes I cry and ask him to hold me in his arms (If I use my imagination can almost feel them around me, warm and strong). Most of the time I ask him for advice - admit to him that I don't really know how to do this grief thing very well.
(Today at the gym with my little brother in Iowa I quickly moved to a private corner, behind a small separation wall and curled up to sob to the thump-thump-thump music pounding in my head. But I didn't communicate with him. I didn't ask him to hold me. I just wept then - a few minutes later - went back to my workout.)
Pretty much all psychologists agree this is me simply projecting the voice of Tad I remember. This is me using memory and imagination to recreate something that is no longer there. Yet why does it feel so much bigger than that?
If I stop and listen, if I close my eyes and breathe, I ask him to just talk. His answers are usually quite prompt, almost immediate. They are incredibly loving and kind. Our conversations go something like this.
"Honey I miss you." (I usually start crying at this point) "It's so hard to not have you here anymore"
"I know baby, everything is going to be okay. I'm right here."
"But I don't know what to do sometimes. This is so painful"
"You're doing everything you need to do. Give yourself a break. You know that everything is going to work out fine - don't you?"
"Yes but I forget - I get scared. Then I miss you."
"I know. I feel it. I can feel everything."
"And I'm pissed off at you. You left left me all this stuff. Every time I pick something up it weights a thousand pounds and I don't know what to do with it."
"That was just me being human. I was scared so I accumulated stuff. Get rid of it. It's nothing. Just be happy. Soon you'll be dead too."
"How can I be happy without you here?" - I know as I say/think this that it is in fact not real, that deep down I know it is just my fear talking - "It's so hard without you."
"Well if you just sit still - you can see that you are not without me.You're not without anyone."
Leukemia and death made Tad so wise.
Just sit still he says: Not so easy - my brain is particularly bad at sitting still.
Lately it has been busy reconfigurng Tad's house so that - whether I have it for one month or one decade - it meets my needs and looks less like the place he died. My brain runs with a million different geometries some of which I actually physically attempt in the place. Move that sofa there, this table here. I've moved the bedroom into the office and the office into the bedroom. I have begun imagining ways in which I can mix and match furniture from my place in San Francisco with furniture from his house adding another layer to keep my brain running more laps.
Now single - my brain begins to weave incredible 100 mph scenarios each time a man begins a kind conversation with me. These scenarios almost always include a version where we become a new couple. The fact that I'm in love with another man and really not available does not enter into the brain's equation. The sweet guy at the coffee shop, the man who chat with me at the dog beach - I find myself wondering if it's the start of a new life, a new Greg. My brain completely disregards my gaydar telling me these men are straight.
In short my brain loves to imagine new possibilities - no doubt driven by that painful but unrealistic part of my soul that aches to go back to the way things once were.
Oddly I actually see my brain doing this. I see it running circles around me - like the ten year old boy with ADHD I once worked with who would literally run back and forth across the school courtyard three times between the moment I picked him up in class and the moment we arrived at my office.
But when I stop and take a breath and pronounce the words, "Tad I miss you" when I sit still as he tells me to do, then I understand. The sobs come bubbling up and I remember what I don't want to remember. I remember that I have stopped looking at pictures of his last few months on earth, replacing them with photos of earlier, happier, pre-cancer times. I remember that I am consciously pushing away the flashbacks of his last hour - a hauntingly irresistible tape I play on a loop like the plane flying into tower number two over and over and over again.
Ironically I realize part of feeling less pain, part of getting through this process is to remember less. My capacity to no longer remember the more painful parts somehow helps me move forward.
One of the most ground-breaking experiments in twentieth century psychology developed into a theory called "attachment". The experiment was very simple: a young child and mother are placed in a room for twenty minutes, the mother sitting in a chair, the child playing on the floor. At one point the mother is joined by a stranger. Then after a few more minutes the mother gets up and leaves and the unknown woman remains. Finally a few minutes later the woman gets up and leaves to be replaced by the mother.
The observations that psychologist Mary Ainsworth made in the 1960's from this study have had massive implications on how we see relationships. And as we learn more and more about the brain her discoveries are becoming even more essential.
In short the team of scientists were able to determine several types of reactions in the children - ranging from secure to anxious. These generally reflected the inner state of the mother which would get transferred to the absorbant child.
The ideal outcome for a healthy life is what's known as a "secure" attachment. If the attachment is "secure" - that is it feels safe, predictable, consistent, empathic, connected - the immature parts of the child's brain can actually learn to use the more mature parts of the parent's brain. The more solid person can help the other party learn to modulate their reactions and soothe themselves in times of fear or sorrow.
Long term this kind of positive deep connection can lead to what John Bowlby, the main theorist of attachment theory, called a "secure base" in the world - the recipient of the goodness begins to feel safer in general, more confident, better skilled at going out to confront uncertainty while knowing or remembering there is a safe place to retreat to. This generally results in that person choosing to surround him or herself with more secure, healthy people as well.
I see today that Tad's voice inside my head is that calm secure base. His is the solid "voice of god" the church taught me to listen for as a I child which always seemed to escape me; the voice of loving god.
It is extraordinary to me that a groundbreaking piece of psychology which continues to affect how we think about human behavior is simply a story about the joy of love and pain of separation. But the outcome is clear. If we love someone deeply and consistently, the beloved party is able to hold that love, to remember it, even after our disappearance.
It does not escape me that the most powerful, nurturing activity I engage in weekly is to sit with dying people in a hospice; to proffer them love. I also remind myself regularly of the uncanny fact that I began doing this volunteer work the very day Tad was diagnosed with the leukemia that was to kill him.
I see now that my biggest obstacle to remembering love, to holding onto the secure attachment is actually the material world. I see how difficult it is for my brain to remain strongly connected to the ephemera of love, serenity, and trusting life when the world surrounds me with solid, material things that seem so much more important. Bills, career, politics, injuries, hunger, war - these all seem to pull me away from remembering love.
Sometimes the most soothing thing I can do is to sit down and make a list. It's a very simple list and it starts with "This is who I am." Then I write.
My name is Gregory Rowe
I am 50 years old.
I love a dead man named Tad Crandall.
I am a psychotherapist.
I am bilingual.
I live in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, CA.
The list is always the same. The important part, the part that keeps me solid is the making of the list. The act of taking my brain out of the news headlines and thoughts of bills, out of the pain of Tad's absence and fearful thoughts of the future and simply remember:
This is who I am.