Grief is the Odyssey of spiritual journeys. Tragic, messy, exhausting, violent.
And in the end, alone.
Grief is the Odyssey of spiritual journeys. Tragic, messy, exhausting, violent.
And in the end, alone.
Saturday will mark two years since my husband died. Two years since I went singing into our guest room, where he’d slept because he was sick and didn’t want to wake me or risk my health. He thought it was the flu, but in 37 years, he had never been sick for more than 24 hours, so after day two, I’d made an appointment for him to see his doctor, on what turned out to be the day he died.
I was laughing at us both, thinking we’d overslept, and saying “wake up, sleepyhead-somebody’s got to let the chickens out!
And I danced into the room singing “Wake Up Little Susie,” amazed that we’d both slept late, and expecting to see his grumpy, pre-caffeinated morning face, with that begrudging smile he’d first muster for my benefit, but which became real when I kissed him and made him laugh.
I won’t go into the horrid details of that discovery and morning- the shock that’s lasted nearly two years and the PTSD I still struggle with. What I do want to say is that although I can as yet see no future for myself, it has been my personal Beloved Community who have consistently done that for me. They have held me, and listened to me- crying, wailing, confused, furious, hopeless, “bereft, bothered, and bewildered.” They sat with me and helped sort through his things. They worked hard and helped me pack up thirty seven years of our lives together, even the things they knew were ridiculous and I’d dispose of later. They’ve walked me through basic things I could no longer figure out, and they’ve been always kind and given me the shoves I’ve needed at just the right times. They’ve kept me alive and held the space I might someday walk into, where Life resides and maybe flourishes.
Some wise person once said to me that when you can’t see your future or how you’ll make it, that’s when you’re creating something new, not just moving the pieces around.
I know that is true, but honestly? Right now I don’t care, I don’t wanna! And I know I’m sort of holding myself in an emotional hostage situation, but I want to just do enough to feel less pain. I kinda hate the thought of “life going on,” y’know?
I have a lovely next door neighbor, who’s happily married to his second wife. His first wife died, and he recently told me that she was diagnosed only a few months after they married: can you imagine?!?
Anyhow, he shared his story of grief and “nothingness” before he met his current, beautiful wife. And he also shared that every once in a while, something will trigger that sense of loss and pain, despite his happiness and general contentment.
I was both touched and relieved when he told me that. To know that it’s possible to regain joy and still grieve the beloved lost. That love grows around the grief.
My loved ones-kin and kith- are like the gold used in Kintsugi, helping me to find my scattered, broken pieces, and believing that I will again be a whole, yet different and beautiful self. In unexpected ways and levels, community is Life.
Today marks nine months since my husband died and ends the week when things shifted for me. The last bits of magical thinking died somewhere around Wednesday, a day that has often marked changes in my life, although generally more benign, like getting a new job. It is Oya’s day- the Orisha of Change and the Guardian of the Cemetery Gate. It is she who admits the dead and has the power to deny entry. She’s the warrior who rides before Chango in the form of the whirlwind, the harbinger of his oncoming storm.
I am not one of her children, but my appreciation of that deity goes beyond the general respect I have for ancestral beliefs. I guess you could say that I get her, and like my childhood love for Athena, she is the archetypical embodiment of qualities to which I have aspired. This week my emotions made such a radical shift that I could not help but think of her, despite the inactivity of my beliefs.
For nine months some part of me hadn’t really believed that my husband was dead. It was unacceptable and just impossible. I looked for signs and portents. I prayed that his soul might enter an otherwise healthy but prematurely dying body, like in the old movie, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”, or the more recent “Soul.” His death was an intolerable mistake and I expected the correction every pain-filled day.
Years ago, I had an ugly dream that Ray had won the lottery and when I came home from work, he was waiting for me in a big limo, on his way out of town. He handed me his keys and said that he’d paid the rent for the year. It was November.
When I woke up, I was angry at him, with that residue from lucid dreams that sometimes floods the borders between our waking and dreaming worlds. He of course laughed, held me, and was a bit hurt that I held even the slightest doubt about his complete loyalty and devotion to me, and over the years it became a bit of a family joke, and I’d always end the laughing by saying, “Uh huh- I’m keeping my eye on you, brother!” It was particularly funny to everyone because most of our friends had never seen a man as devoted as my husband was to me. Yes, he could be incredibly stubborn, obtuse, and frustrating, as in any marriage. But he was “as constant as the Northern Star” to quote Joni Mitchell. Adultery was an intolerable sin to him and one of the few things for which he would cut off a friendship. It was not in his playbook. He understood the boundaries of mild flirtation and never went anywhere close to its edge. He didn’t hang out on his own or with “the boys.” Once married, he was completely faithful, so my residual anger over a few days after the dream befuddled and amused him.
I tell that story because this week I understood that he was not coming back. I know that because I know that my husband would never willingly leave me and if there was any consciousness beyond the grave, any way that he could return to me or fetch me, he would have done it. There is nothing that would stop him. He prided himself as a Marine to never leave a comrade behind, and his love for me more than doubled that emotion. He would sometimes say to me, “You go, we go” and he meant that most sincerely. So for whatever reason(s), this week something shifted in me and I knew that he was indeed gone. It is real.
I won’t bore you with the aftermath of such a shift, I’m still processing and so far there’s nothing beautiful or redemptive in it. But I will leave you with something by Carl Sagan’s widow that showed up on my Facebook feed on Thursday and felt affirming:
I found myself getting emotional, even weeping this morning as I was preparing for my final day of classes. Almost lost it as I listened to a song from South Pacific. Couldn’t figure it out until I realized that eight months ago today, I found my husband’s body.
So much is held in the body, despite our schedules, plans, methods, and formulas for control. The body knows, remembers, and feels, and it will not be denied. I keep saying that grief is like the Mafia: just when you think you’re out, it keeps pulling you back in. Perhaps our society should consider this and not expect people to return to full functionality the first year after loss. I seldom think of past Western societies as being kinder, gentler periods, but the older traditions of mourning made more sense than what we do now.
When he was about 9, my son said to me that you never stop loving anyone that you ever really loved, and he was right. And grief is a part of that love. We should respect that.
Every day, I wait for Ray to come home.
I know that he’s dead, but my body doesn’t.
Thirty seven years of waiting:
for him to get home from work,
to finish sweeping the kitchen late at night,
and hardest of all,
for him to come back to bed most mornings, coffees in hand, that special smile that came after his first few sips, ready now to tackle the day, talk schedules or errands.
So many adjustments to each other over the years, such different people,
Bound deeply by passion and a never broken sense of belonging to one another- as family, through lifetimes and difficulties, passion and pain.
We were Earth and Sky to each other- hurting and wanting, fiercely protective and connected in ways that made no sense to me at times.
My easy-to-leave-men-self perpetually stunned by my unflagging devotion, and he, always and proudly, “as constant as the Northern Star. “
I miss the giggle I could invoke in him,
his warmth, his sweetness, the stubborn side that few could see.
I miss his eyes of love, his happiness to be my audience, the touch that never ceased to arouse my fire. His joy in being my man.
There was never a time that I didn’t love him, no matter what my feelings were at any given moment. He was my joy, my sorrow, “frustration on two legs walking.”
My sous chef and line cook, I even taught him to bake brownies, although he remained intimidated by baking. He lived to watch me make pies and loved the eating of them more. He learned to love gardening and walks, classical music, Thai coffee, volunteering, and the people that I brought into his life. My friends became the sisters he always wanted, and he loved making coffee or piña coladas for them, loved hearing us talk and laugh.
He loved being in community with people. He was a good neighbor and a sneaky look out, knowing everybody’s business and licenses. He was the guy you wanted when danger broke out- he knew the exits and every way to avoid any trouble. He was first to know that something was going to break out, and he’d quietly say “Time to go” and lead our little troupe to safety. Only love for me got him to join me at protests and picket lines. His distrust of police was intensified over the past few years and his outrage led him to volunteer to translate and help in any way he could. It was the first time I’d seen him offer to do something as overtly political (outside of voting, which he never missed) without being asked.
His desire was to be of service and he learned the importance of asking- finding out what was needed, not just what he wanted to give. That was hard. I put tasks before him that forced him to go deep- confront his fears, hurts, insecurities and doubts. He’d worked hard to wall that up and only Love could lead his way.
I knew who he was and loved him- a scenario he’d never imagined, couldn’t believe, and sometimes feared couldn’t be true. He thought he had secrets, but I knew his soul and all the ways that he was damaged. I knew him in ways that gave him strength and sometimes wings. I didn’t have to like all that he was, but I loved him beyond any person, place or thing outside of my son and his family.
And they were father and son in ways that drew me back to him when things threatened to tear us apart. He cared for my son and they bonded in ways I couldn’t, but that love reminded me that his devotion went beyond our mutual passion and other ties. And I think my love for his mother endeared me to him in unexpected ways. We met each other in places that no one else had ever reached.
So I wait: his death is unreal, impossible to “get”, an unacceptable reality that brings out the Cosmic Karen in me, wanting to speak to God about this mismanaged mistake.
He can’t be gone. It’s unacceptable and I won’t have it, pure and simple.
That’s how I feel. That’s the rage inside me.
Fuck everything I ever thought or believed in. No Ray? No fucks left to give.
I live because I don’t know how to die. I know too much about the risks of self annihilation, and hurting myself makes no good sense to me. I want him back: my Ray. I want to smack him for dying and leaving me to find his body- so cold, so clearly dead, a PTSD scene that reverberates as I hear my own screams and wailing- sounds my body had never made before.
I see it all sometimes- Now, sitting in my car, weeping and hurt and angry.
Bereft. A word I use- the only one that fits the tearing pain I feel where he was severed from me. It never wanes. Months pass, life appears to go on, but I am dead in that part of me. Not dead as in quelled, but dead like a constant, ripping, searing pain that screams inside my body, night and day, 24/7. Like having my heart and viscera ripped from my body, every waking minute of my day. Prometheus having his liver eaten by the eagle every day seems preferable or certainly comparable.
I sit here now- cold as fuck: haven’t eaten and have no appetite. I eat once every day because I promised I would. Because the body is strong despite the pain of walking and being, it continues to live. How long, I wonder? Will we be reunited then? What if he’s gone- reincarnated or otherwise oblivious to my pain? “What ifs” and other scenarios run through my head despite my current lack of belief in anything. He seems alive to me- I hear him all day long, as I would if he was here. I talk to him, fuss at him, laugh with him, and try to do the things he’d want of me. To live. I don’t know why, but I do.
And that’s part of the pain: that he’s so much with me, but not here to kiss, glare or roll my eyes at. He’s not here for me to love and I am full to overflowing with love for him. It could be frustrating when he was alive, and it’s unbearable now. He grounded me, allayed my fears, made the doing of things doable. He praised me in some way every day for 37 years, and I made it safe for him to be.
Two Geminis bringing our seesaws back to center.
So I wait. Until he comes home to me, I’ll wait.
This morning as I started taking my shower, I reached for the washcloth and realized it wasn’t anywhere in the tub. I was completely confused until I realized that that was the cloth I had used to clean Raymi’s blood-brown stained face, one week ago today. That it had been a week since I’d fully bathed. That a day or two ago I’d washed my hair in the kitchen sink because he’d come to me two days after his death, and after a long night of memories and healing and love, he’d told me to wash my hair, and I did, but downstairs, in fear of being unable to stand in the tub long enough to wash my substantial mop of locs without the chronic pain I’ve been in since falling from a ladder.
That one week ago at this time of day, things were normal and I hadn’t yet awakened to find that we had not both overslept, but instead I’d find a cold, dead husband.
It will get better. That’s what they tell me and that’s what I know after nearly seven decades of cycles, phases, and changes. Ebbs and flows, round and round. Earlier this morning I laughed at something funny a friend had posted. It came naturally, but felt and sounded odd. Why do I even question the need for joy and guiltily shy away from a thing he loved to hear me do? I hate this culture that denies everything real, but pain will not be denied. Physical or mental, pain is non-negotiable.
It’s spring and everything except my Rayo-Mateo is springing into life (is that why it’s called spring? Never got that till now, or if I did, it was forgotten in the vast array of trivia and minutiae that make up a life. Surely Miss Mason would have taught her first grade pupils such things, way back in the days of a fairly classical education in public schools.) You can see that I drift a lot now. I also sit on the side of the bed we shared, trying to focus on things that needed doing but I don’t care about now. That includes the subtle errors in grammar my Sarah Lawrence trained ears note as I write this.
It is spring and the blue jay is calling, robins are chirping, and the bird that sounds like a whippoorwill but probably isn’t is sounding its sad song. It’s not the mourning dove- I hear her too, but later, when the others are more quiet. There’s a bird whose chirp sounds taunting, but it’s not a mockingbird. I don’t know what orioles sound like but I’ve seen them in the trees at times.
The hens need tending, I’ve meds to take, and sun’s up now, waiting for me to get dressed. Innocent Black people are still being murdered as regular American life just goes right on.
It all goes on. I’m not sure how or even why, but it does go on.