So I spent part of today, the second anniversary of Karen’s death, tending her tarantulas. A few of them are off their diet, so that worries me. But I’m feeding them more often than she fed them, so perhaps they’re molting more often? I hope so. I joined a tarantula group on Facebook. Hopefully they’ll give me some good advice.
A few days ago I had to watch the video, which I thought was my only video of Karen. But this one (beginning at about 2:00) has some good vintage Karen off camera. That’s her stern voice (but good-humored). If I just trust to my memory, all my traitorous memory provides is stern Karen without the humor. But that voice. It’s an anchor. It’s a key. It’s the only thing that gives me access to Karen-as-three-dimensional-human, which memory alone won’t provide. Of all the violence done by that last year or two, that’s the worst of it, I think: that the memories more often than not are harsh, or desperate, or lonely, or hopeless. It can be hard to remember why I was so crazy about her.
Her voice is in that third video, too (Chapter 3 of Lisa Altalida’s Idiots Guide to Dating Girls). But I can only take so much of this.
Maybe it’s all for the good. If I carried within me an accurate representation of Karen-in-her-prime, the sense of loss would be unbearable. And yet sometimes I need to feel that loss and all of that pain. While I’m awake it comes in split-second flashes. In dreams, rarely, it all comes out. A real downpour.
All I’m certain of is that I miss her and I can’t have her. And that she faded away from me for at least a year or two before she died, and I didn’t fully realize it until she was gone.
Would’ve been 32 years today.
For both of us, the wedding was an annoyance (we thought the Buddhist reverend was a twit) and the reception was chaotic. We didn’t get to enjoy the string quartet we’d insisted upon. I have a dim memory of us roaming from table to table, socializing with Karen’s relatives. There was a mini-scandal when one of her female relatives combed her hair with a dinner fork. Another mini-scandal afterwards, when one of the presents was a vase with WITH THANKS FROM SUMITOMO BANK written on its underside.
It was a blur, even at the time — not just a matter of the passing years smudging it all into a kaleidoscopic memory; it was kaleidoscopic even then. The hotel where we had the reception gave us a honeymoon suite with an enormous hot tub. Karen always claimed that her dad looked sick when he saw the honeymoon suite, as if he could imagine his little girl getting defiled soon afterward. We had an okay wedding night, no major olympic feats; we were both tired, and even then she lacked the stamina to have a full day of excitement followed by a night of the same.
She was a beautiful bride. She always did pretty-up nicely with makeup, and she did it so rarely I’d joke she was a different woman. The woman I fell in love with didn’t wear makeup. Not that I minded . . . although there was always that little trace of “what the hell are you doing with me” in the back of my mind.
And even now there are flashes when I don’t realize she’s gone. I was looking at a locum tenens headhunter email the other day. They wanted someone to cover a Northern California facility for various dates in the Fall. I thought about what life might be like post-retirement, and whether I might want to do a gig like that . . . and I had a moment’s concern about how rough it might be for Karen to accompany me on such trips. Travel wasn’t easy for her.
Such moments are rare nowadays. They’re brief, sudden, like involuntary reflexes.
Two in the last two days, but these haven’t felt like supernatural visitations so much as lectures from my subconscious. Fuck you, subconscious.
I found her in a hospital bed, but she looked good nonetheless. She reminded me of how she looked in her hospital bed after she’d delivered Jake. I looked at her wristband and the date was October 2014. So: not dead yet, but not long for this world. Post strife. I was back in time and I had another chance — to apologize, to profess my love, something. I was tearful, agitated, and she knew something was up. She got out of the bed and we walked together — dream transition, now we were in our house, putting our shoes on. I hugged her and told her, “You mean more to me than anything. You know that, don’t you? Tell me that you know that.” But she wouldn’t respond. She wanted to talk about a project for the backyard. “You need to do something about that big pile of soil. Build that island already and be creative. I know you can do it.” We talked about looking on the internet for images so she could show me what she wanted.
You wouldn’t celebrate Mother’s Day because you considered it a manufactured holiday. Didn’t stop you from celebrating Father’s Day, of course. Your preferences were your preferences, and mine were mine, and God forbid I should be at all critical of yours.
I think of the some of the movies you watched repeatedly: The Heiress, perhaps, or Resident Evil, or even (inexplicably to me at the time) Titanic. And it all makes sense now. The protagonists were all survivors, and often badasses. There’s no doubt in my mind that in your strongest moments, you wanted to survive. Maybe even in the weaker moments, too, and maybe even in the face of the gruesome logic that none of us survive for long. You certainly beat your own expectations. But I wish you would have beaten the odds a while longer.
Sometimes I can feel you inside me, so keenly.
Happy Mother’s Day. You have to suck it up now and not grumble about it.
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.
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.
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.