That X-Files poster has always struck me as sad verging on pathetic. I want to believe seems a concise way of saying, This is something I wish were true. I know it’s not, but damn it, I want to believe. That’s how I feel about life after death. I want to believe that Karen has some sort of existence outside of my own mind, that she’s really out there, watching over me. Because that means I may see her again and say all the things that went unsaid. Hard to believe there’s anything left to say, after all the talking we did. But maybe what’s missing is her belief. Such a simple statement: I believe you.
I dreamed last night that Karen had been away a long time. It was late at night, the house was dark, and as I went through the doorway into my bedroom she was standing at the verge. I made some sort of startled exclamation, then hugged her tight. After a while, she hugged me back. And then we went to bed. She was back.
Maybe she’s happy with me for taking care of the tarantulas yesterday (but I’ve done that many times). Maybe she approves of how I’m handling things in my life. Or maybe it’s all just random meaningless chatter. But I want to believe that was really her. It felt real enough.
I’ve written before about THE dream, which is more of a recurring location — no, a destination — that I’ve revisited throughout my adult life. Always, it’s to the northwest. Always, it’s at least a couple hours’ hike before I can get to my destination. I used to be able to start that hike, and once, once, I made it to the cave.
I’m using the word “destination” because for years, now, it’s been so bloody difficult to even get a look at that rocky landscape. The other night was no different. I was young, high school perhaps, and I had gone to the house of a girl I liked. There wasn’t much daylight left but she agreed to go out with me on a hike. We figured we could walk for as long as the sun stayed up, and then there would be enough twilight to make it back before nightfall. We’d go as far as we could, then return.
That’s what we did. But we had barely started the trail when she pointed out she hadn’t worn the right shoes, and the trail was not as compact as I had recalled, and could we please just leave?
I woke up wondering when I’d have the chance to return. And I wonder, as I always have, why this destination has such a fascination for me, and whether I’ll ever make it there before I die.
Well, five words.
Jessica Jones, episode 5. Her junkie neighbor says to her, “You can’t save me again.”
and I’m an instant puddle.
So there’s this dramatic concept known as “the crucible,” which is, your characters are confined somehow, can’t escape their situation. A life raft. A house or room where going outside is unthinkable. A dead-end job where the alternative is starvation.
Grief is like that, I think. It’s there all the time and you can’t escape it because you wouldn’t want to, because not feeling would be so much worse.
It colors everything. Happy memories become bittersweet memories. Sad memories become harrowing memories. It colors fantasies, too. A few days ago, I thought at length about what I would do if I were back in my 22-year-old body, getting together with Karen for the first time. Would I do it all again? Of course. I love her. But then I was faced with the agonizing question: what do I tell her? How much do I tell her about the pain in store for her? About how much she will lose . . . ultimately everything? But would I have the strength not to tell her? The fantasy sucked. As much as I might like to live through those years, both for the joys of those years and for the chance to do it better, to be a better husband, I couldn’t do it. The joy would be poisoned by the knowledge of what was still to come.
I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. After all, we always knew that a bad end was likely. We knew this most acutely in those first six years, but after a while, I think we both started to hope. Hope kept us going. Could I do it all again, knowing the hope was pointless?
One of my pen pals wrote me that I sound like I’m doing better. I reread my letter to her. It did indeed sound upbeat. Maybe I am doing better. Maybe I dissemble well.
Nearly thirteen months.
To Karen, in imaginary heaven, where bandwidth is never limiting:
We were supposed to be better than this. We were supposed to win.
I love you, and I miss you.
Ever had one of those life lessons where you had to have the truth ball-peened into you over and over again? Because, you know, you really wanted to believe otherwise. I’m the Catholic Church dealing with Galileo. Fuck the truth, I know what I want to believe, damn it. And apparently I’ve wanted to believe in sympathetic magic.
Dying inside because of the hole in your heart? Fill the hole. Hey, that’s just basic pediatric cardiothoracic surgery. If you have a big enough ventricular septal defect, you’ve gotta repair that fucker or the child will die. So how do you fill an emotional hole? You can’t resurrect the dead. That would be the simplest path.
You can’t resurrect the dead.
But you might be able to magic the hole away. I cooked like a demon for Karen on our first date, so I’ll cook for my dates. I spilled my guts to Karen on our first date, so I’ll spill my guts to every woman willing to listen. We’ll go to the same places. We’ll do the same things. We’ll do all the things she would have liked. We’ll sprinkle it all with fairy dust and the hole will be gone, Karen’s spirit will shine upon the union, and when I think about her, it will be with love and appreciation, and not this overwhelming despair.
And I continued to believe this, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. As recently as last night, I told a friend that all I really need is to be in love again, and be loved back. That would make it right. That was the one last thing I could try that I haven’t tried already, and I’ve tried everything, it seems. Mind you, this was a terrible enough situation, because I can sense that I’m not ready to love or be loved, that it’s going to take more time; terrible, of course, because I have no idea what “more time” means. Six months? Six years? How long does it take, after a thirty-two-year relationship? “As long as it takes.” Fuck you. That’s not what I want to hear. (And in the back of my mind, there’s that little whisper of the believer: sure, it’ll take as long as it takes, but at the end of it all you’ll find someone, you’ll love and be loved, and all will be right again.)
Then something clicked this morning while I was cleaning the kitchen. Really simple thought, but I knew at once it was true: love isn’t going to fix anything, either. A few times this last year, I thought I was falling in love. Each time was a nice distraction, and each time, when the fog lifted, nothing really had changed.
The romantics out there might say: but you weren’t really in love. Or, you weren’t loved back. Well, yes. But I’d argue that my premise is flawed. This isn’t surgery; the hole isn’t a physical hole. Such a simple thing to realize! The hole will never go away. So I really have no other option than to just fucking deal with it.
So how do you deal with it? Fucking google it?
On the plus side, the kitchen is clean.
By popular request . . .
First thing you need to know: this isn’t easy. It’s not hard, either, particularly if you have any culinary skills. But it’s not the sort of soup you can whip up as an afterthought, nor will it soar without some TLC. Look, you’re making your own damn stock, okay? And you’re going to take pains to wring as much flavor as you can from each ingredient.
Let’s begin with the chicken.
If this were Facebook, I could convince you that the ability to read sideways makes you smarter than 98% of other humans. But this is old media. This is a BLOG. I expect you to be able to read sideways. And if you can’t cope with sideways photos, buh-bye. I’ll fix it later.
Back to cooking.
I probably spend less than 1% of my waking time grieving. It does not consume me, mostly because I find other things to think about. Work helps. Having an active fantasy life helps, too, especially if I’m obliged to sit through something that would trigger even a sociopath.
Today, at our monthly meeting attended by most of my Kern County colleagues, I’d made it halfway through a twenty-minute presentation on end-of-life planning (which featured, among others, the woman who did our end-of-life counseling, and signed Karen’s death certificate), and I was doing really well by making sure my head was a million miles away, and pretty much not paying attention. I’m making it sound like I planned it that way. I didn’t. Maybe it was luck, or maybe my subconscious doesn’t hate me nearly as much as I think it hates me. But I was doing okay.
And then my boss turned around and said, “Is this difficult for you?” Wham, pulled me right out of my own head, put me into the moment, and made me fully aware of what was being discussed and who was discussing it. I can’t get angry because she’s my boss, she really does mean well, and I owe her for a lot of things, not least of which — my job, and the fact that she got the psychiatrist to see me two days after Karen died, and damn did I need some good sleepers at that point. All I could say was a tight, “I’m fine, thanks,” and try to get through the remaining minutes of the presentation without bursting into tears in front of everyone.
And she did the same thing four days ago, at our annual dinner dance. Once again, I was doing a reasonably good job ignoring the fact that damn near everyone was there with their spouse, and I was there fucking ALONE, and I was doing a reasonably good job not having this kill me by being someplace else in my head. At one point I slinked off to a quieter place to text message a friend. That’s when my boss decided the whole thing must be terribly depressing for me, and she came over to talk to me about it, which reminded me of just what a bad move I’d made coming to this thing in the first place. I’d been doing okay, up to that point.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s this: be careful where and when you give support, because you might be doing something that’s kind of the antithesis of support.
Bad grief weekend. Or good, depending upon your opinion on grief. Is there a certain amount of work to be done? Is it like housework? Am I accomplishing anything? All I know is, it’s tedious. I’m even boring myself, which is why I keep a lot of stuff quarantined here, where I have few viewers. (Why air it at all? Sunlight, contagion, etc.)
It’s hazardous, too. The tears seem to come most often while I’m driving.
I went to Lure, in Ventura, which was a favorite restaurant of ours. She sat across from me in the empty seat, not saying anything or doing anything, because the dead don’t eat. I ate six oysters for her.
A voice would come into my head, and it was a more supportive voice than usual. Yeah, I know, this is what I wanted, right? But it provoked a lot of self doubt. Does she have any sort of existence inside me? (Thinking: you were nearly inseparable for thirty-two years. How can she not?) And then there’s that disbelief which never quite leaves me. Still not past “denial” apparently.
Last night, I dreamed I was pushing her in the wheelchair. She was so quiet and still, I had to ask “Are you okay?” just to get that feedback that would tell me she was still alive. We came to some stairs and I carried her down the stairs, still sitting in the wheelchair. Yeah, not symbolic at all.
I’ve been thinking lately about how easy it is to take people for granted. In particular, I’m wondering if this was MY problem — my unique brand of egocentrism, selfishness, call it what you will — or whether it’s just intrinsic to being human. Is it possible to always keep your loved ones in mind, to always keep in focus what they mean to you? I took Karen for granted. She took me for granted. We used to be such an amazing team, but then it all went to shit.
It took long enough. We were together for thirty-two years, married for a little over thirty. This state of fatigue (I can’t think of a better way to put it — we were tired of each other’s bullshit. We were just tired) only crept up on us in the last five years. We used to be a lot more willing to fight for each other.
I’m young (sort of) and I have no intention of staying single until my death. But it worries me that I let this happen, because that means I could let it happen again. Even with all of the rockiness, all of the many things last year that could have focused my attention . . . and yet it was like I only really remembered Karen when I wrote her memoriam. So is that the key? Write a memoriam for your loved ones before they die? I’ve been thinking, it’s a shame we can’t hypnotize people into thinking their spouses are dead. Then separate them, let them live with that loss for a few days before snapping them out of it. It would probably save a few marriages. It would probably end a few more.