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.
Six fucking months today. Just saying.
I feel good, mostly, and then something happens and I feel like toxic waste.
Is it weird that I expect to find a suicide note? (No, she didn’t kill herself.)
As I go through the files on her computer — I’m paying bills, so I’m using the laptop that has Quickbooks — I keep thinking, hoping I’ll see a file titled “Doug.” The text will begin, “If you’re reading this, I’m dead . . .”
No, I guess it isn’t weird that I would hope for some communication not-exactly-from-beyond-the-grave. I wish we had talked more. I wish we had talked more back when it would have meant something. I keep thinking I will never take a lover for granted again. Why must we fall into these ruts, where we ignore one another . . . and somehow that’s okay?
Great dream last night between 1:00 AM and 1:44. I know the times because I was awake before and after the dream. I wanted to write it all down afterward, but I went back to sleep instead, hoping to get back into the dream. Instead I had a nightmare about Karen. Fuck you, subconscious.
Anyway, in the dream, I lived in an apartment complex with this very cute girlfriend. Everyone was friendly and wanted to get to know me. Everyone was my kind of people: gamers, nerds, folks who raised exotic pets. There was a guy raising baby monitor lizards. There was another guy who had flooded out the basement parking area to create an enclosure for alligators. Life was good.
Sometimes I wish I could shirk my few remaining responsibilities (to work, to Jake) and go off on the equivalent of a walkabout. Just travel, get lost, meet people, see new places. Like people in my generation once said — “find myself.” Find out who I am without Karen. One of my co-workers told me I had to become comfortable being by myself. She’s by herself. I’ve never liked being “by myself” and doubt I’ll start liking it any time soon.
I’m hating every part of it. Being alone, feeling that pressure in my head coercing me to do stupid things. (Haven’t. Yet.) Looking. Dating. I don’t want this. I want my wife back. I want her back whole and sound, not damaged and pain-racked. Yeah, I don’t want much.
I said in her eulogy (and I’ve said it here, too) that she’s been boycotting my dreams. That’s not entirely true. A few nights ago she was there beside me, and I told her I loved her and wanted to hear her say the words back to me, but it was my damaged, terminal Karen I was talking to and she was too obtunded to respond. Thanks, subconscious.
Just woke up from a dream in which she was alive and whole and well and we were tending the tarantulas together. She needed help with a particularly large tarantula who had given birth. There were a bunch of little tees in the cage, and they very nicely weren’t rushing out when we opened the lid. Karen made a motion to pet the big mama when the bit Tee hissed and went into full threat display. She said Oh, come on, and tarantula whisperer that she was, started petting the mama like a dog or a cat, and mama settled right down.
In the dream, she’d been away for a while. In the hospital, I think. And I’d been making plans without her — lunch dates, dinner dates, all of that, and these things were coming up, soon, just as they are in real life. I had this sudden jarring realization: what the hell am I thinking? I’m married. I was about to confront Karen and say, You need to tell me what you want me to do. Is this a marriage? Are we going to have sex any time soon? Because it’s been a loooong time, Karen, and I would really rather it be with you. Cajoling. Threatening.
From there I drifted into a twilight sleep in which I kept thinking the same thing: Why have I set up these dates? What the hell was I thinking? I’m a faithful husband. Why would I do such a thing? I’ll cancel everything, even if she won’t answer the question.
Then the truth rushes in, like it always does.
Sometimes I think I must still be in the “denial” phase. Happens every morning when I wake up and I expect her to be there. Or when, half-asleep, I reach over to touch someone who isn’t there. I used to do this sometimes to reassure myself that she was still breathing — she would be so still when she slept, it would scare me sometimes. I was that paranoid she’d die. But not paranoid enough, or at the right time, apparently.
I’ll think: she’ll be there when I come home.
I’ll think: she’s away on a trip. She’ll be back.
Only two things seem able to push her out of my head. Maybe three. Patient care does it; I think I knew that instinctively, which is why I went back to work so quickly. If I get caught up in a book or movie, that helps. And thinking about other women, that surprisingly is the most effective trick. This is something I never would have predicted. I would have thought it impossible to think about other women when you’re grieving for someone so dear. Turns out it’s easy. It feels like a physical force, like magnetism or gravity. I want to fill that huge sucking hole. They say you shouldn’t make any important decisions (like marriage) in the first year. I can see the sense of that. And it’s not an irrational urge; I mean, I don’t feel like I want to fill the gap with just anyone. Naturally, I want what I had with Karen, and that is no easy thing to come by.
Just glum right now because I’m working on bills. Procrastinating RIGHT now, obviously, but the bills are there at my left side, waiting to be paid. This is something Karen did for years, and then as she declined, we did it together, but now it never fails to upset me.
I’ve taken to lying to my patients when they ask about my family. Oh, we’re fine, I say. Just fine.