TW: this post contains explicit reference to suicidal ideation
This past Tuesday, I was trying to decide between two art prints by Luisa Salas.
I couldn’t decide which one I wanted. I went to ask my husband which one he preferred. My phone was in my palm, his name partially typed into the text bar before I remembered.
I closed Salas’ website.
I cried hard enough and long enough that my eyes stung the rest of the day. I opened a tab on my phone and I learned exactly how high a bridge needs to be in order to yield an above ninety percent chance of death. I translated feet into metres and noted the number down. I kept crying.
This is an example of one of two grief modes that I have.
One mode is detachment. If I picture my grief like a house across the street, detachment is when I see the house, but I keep myself on the other side of the street. Sometimes, I do such a good job of staying on the other side that people comment, surprised, on my ‘good spirits.’
The other mode is overwhelm. Sometimes, I walk across the street and open the door to the house. The door opens onto more doors which replicate like the reflections of an infinity mirror. All these doors are portals into the many different losses that, together, create the seemingly infinite thing that is my grief.
Sometimes, like on Tuesday, I can’t control the approach. I crash into the house, sent spinning through the door(s) by things unexpected or small, such as typing my husband’s name into my phone so I can text him and ask which art print he likes better.
Neither mode seem survivable or sustainable to me.
Yet, I can’t seem to find an in-between. I can’t seem to find a balance.
This is a feeling I’ve had before.
From twenty until twenty-five I felt this same pervasive uncertainty and instability. I worked jobs I didn’t love, and I was in school, but towards what? I was lonely, most of the time. I worried about money. I scorned my body. I kept myself safe, mostly, through strict adherence to internal codes of behaviour that I designed to keep me from revealing too much about myself and thus alienating myself from those around me.
Then, when I was twenty-five, I met my therapist.
I was tired when I met him. I had recently resigned myself to the reality that, without some kind of chance and change, what I had was what I would have: a shifting roster of friendships and casual relationships.
In our first session, my therapist asked if I was seeing anyone and I told him I had a blind date in a week. I’d run into the girl that lived next door when I was a child. We hadn’t seen each other in years but we’d grabbed coffee, and she’d asked if I was single.
“I think my boyfriend’s roommate’s best friend could be perfect for you,” she said.
“Sure,” I said, unconvinced, “give him my number.”
Three days later, a random string of numbers texted me and asked me if I wanted to get together at a local cafe. The numbers and I talked about Michael Bernard Fitzgerald and the sound of live music in the rain.
My husband would later tell me that he would always remember the way in which I came flying up the stairs of the cafe that he chose for the blind date. I was running a bit late, my waist-length hair whirling everywhere. I wore a black V-neck tank top under which I had elected not to wear a bra. I don’t know why I chose to do that. I usually wore one. I argued this detail when my husband told me but he assured me I was wrong, and he would know.
I drank tea, but I can’t remember if he did too. I talked and my beloved listened and laughed in all the right places. He had long-lashed brown eyes and when they were fixed on you, they were fixed on you.
After a few hours, he asked if I wanted to go for a walk. He wanted to show me something. On the walk, he talked. He told me about his job—architect; his family (two brothers, one older, one younger; his father who was Japanese, his mother who was Ukrainian), his favourite places he’d travelled to so far (Japan, Spain). We stopped walking once we reached the courts building downtown.
I remember his rapture. He had his face pressed up against the glass of the building, neck craned upward (the building was closed). He was talking about the soaring, glass panels which stretched upward towards a high, domed ceiling. He loved the way the design made it seem as if the building stretched seamlessly into the sky, like a gleaming exhalation.
Sometimes you have to watch someone love something before you can love it yourself.
I never noticed buildings, or their design, until I met my husband, until he went right up to the panes of that building, and pressed his face to it, sang its song to me.
Now, I notice buildings and their designs all the time.
Now, because of my husband, I love the brick and mortar world.
Our second date was a disaster, though only by my husband’s definition. This is because my beloved spent hours hand-making food that was doused in cheese (which I can’t eat because of severe lactose intolerance), and then he put the food in a backpack and us on road bikes, and off we set up a hill that I couldn’t handle. I ended up blacking out, falling off the bike.
I came to with my beloved’s worried face hovering like a gentle moon above me.
He offered to turn back. I insisted that we keep going out of sheer embarrassment. Eventually, we reached the park where he spread out a picnic blanket, food I couldn’t eat, wine I wouldn’t drink, and turned on speakers to play music that I didn’t recognize.
I sat with him for maybe half an hour before I admitted that I had to go. I hadn’t thought the date would take up so much time. I had made plans for the evening. As we biked back to the house in which he was living, I could tell, though he didn’t say it, that he felt bad.
He thought it was the worst date ever. He told me later. He was chagrined.
But I loved it. I told him that every time he mentioned it.
Until that date, no one had ever gone to so much trouble for me before.
From the very beginning, my husband let me know that even if there were other options out there, they weren’t for him. I was it. His best thing.
It’s not like I didn’t try to warn him. I wanted him to be informed.
I told him about all the other people that had come and gone. I told him about my intensity, my overthinking, my tendency to talk a lot, but also my long periods of silence, my aloofness. I told him that I like things a certain way, that sometimes, I want you to leave me alone, and other times, I want to spend whole days with you, uninterrupted by anyone else. I let him know that I do not like television in the morning, or small talk, and I could care less about cleaning base boards. I told him I like to be the one who gets to hold the remote when I watch television.
I would go on, listing all of the minute and major evidence that I had accrued for why I was, ultimately, not the kind of person that he should choose to stay with for what he would call ‘the long haul.’
But he was not swayed, my beloved. He nodded along, as if he were hearing me, but I knew he wasn’t.
“You’re not listening to me,” I would say.
“I am,” he would say. “You’re just wrong is all.”
This is how I ended up in a remarkable life, one that I never expected. One where my husband and I asked each other what kind of life we wanted, and I put my whirring mind to the task of helping us build it, while he filled in all of the rest with a constancy borne of his abundant and uncommon kindness.
Together (and with some help from my therapist) we chiseled out the steps it would take to achieve his dreams and mine. Together, we made our apartment our home. We chose chairs and bookcases and art. We established Saturday as movie night and found our favourite sushi bar from which we ordered takeout every Tuesday. We formed inside jokes and created internal language that we spoke to each other in weird, high-pitched voices. He made Japanese tea so that I could write during the weekend mornings, and he washed the dishes at night so that I could go to sleep early. I drew up business plans and study guides for him, and every so often I would give him vigorous pep talks that would set him running around our apartment, pumping his fists in the air, chanting, “I can do it. I can do it! I can!”
I began to trust that I was not alone. I grew so accustomed to waking up beside him that I ceased to think of it as marvellous and began to breathe it like air.
Now, my hands shake. Ahead, all I can perceive is an inevitable isolation.
I do not say this to be self-pitying—though perhaps it seems that way—I say this because I believe it.
“But what about your friends and family?” my therapist asked me this week when I explained this to him.
It would be painful, I allowed, but everyone would survive my extinction because they all still have their people. Their chosen. Their best things.
“It would take a miracle,” I told my therapist, when he disagreed with me, telling me that he did not believe I was destined to be alone.
He didn’t say anything to my rejoinder, because he is wise. Instead, he asked me about my routines.
I told him nothing’s changed.
I still don’t eat unless prompted, and I still can’t work, or run, or sleep. I don’t brush my hair, or wear clothes that aren’t made of elastic. I don’t wash my face with anything but water, or cut my nails, or try to connect with people, unless they are very well known to me, or unless they too are widowed.
I told my therapist that I took a test for my family doctor. The test is designed to measure how much my grief impacts my life, on all levels. I scored 74.4 percent.
“Is that good?” I asked my therapist.
“It’s high,” he said. “Really high.”
“That sounds about right then,” I said.
After all, I take medications for sleep, for blood thinning, for sedation, and for nausea.
I have a burgeoning care team: a family doctor, a vascular surgeon, a thrombosis doctor, a neurologist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a grief counsellor, and a vocational rehabilitation consultant. Probably, I will need to add in a physiotherapist, soon.
I listed my ongoing uncertainties for my therapist, too.
I am not sure when I will return to work. I am not sure if I will need to have surgery to put a stent in my leg. I don’t know how long I’ll be on blood thinners, or how I’ll manage my chronic migraines long-term as the primary pain medication (triptans) are no longer an option for me due to my DVT and PE. I don’t know if I can run again, or if I can return to the home my husband and I shared. I don’t know if the border will open and I can travel to the States for a writing fellowship I am supposed to attend next year, and I don’t know how I will ever or if I will ever, own a house, or have a child, or go on a date. I don’t know if I’ll live in this cold city where my family is, or if I’ll move to the sea, anyway. I don’t know how much I am going to hurt. I don’t know what depths and magnitudes of loss I will have to choose or not choose to bear.
I told my therapist that I know I am lucky to have access to so much health care, to have so much support. I told him that despite knowing this, I still cannot seem to be what so many people keep telling me that I am.
“And what’s that?” my therapist said.
“Strong,” I said.
I know people mean well, when they say that I am strong. I know that I would say the same thing to someone in the situation that I am in. But, I am not strong.
My husband, I told my therapist. He is strong. My family, my friends—they are strong.
After all, what strength it took for my husband to know, with such certainty, that we were for each other. What strength it took for him to accept love and give love with such a lack of conditions or fear. What strength it took to sincerely forgive those who wronged him, myself included. What strength it took to run until his body would not let him go on anymore. What strength it took to text me the day before he died and say of my dream of writing:
What strength it takes for my family, and my friends, near and far, to bear with me and alongside me, to find—amid their own pains—a capacity for empathy and witness that is heavy, but that they will not limit, even when I tell them to, even when I say, “Don’t carry me. I’m too much.”
What strength it takes for my people to send me fancy face masks to cry behind, and insouciant, soft slippers to wear around the house I don’t leave, and books and flowers and cards that I stack around me like protective talismans. What strength it takes for my people to remember and remark upon what would have been my second wedding anniversary, to check in with me by text or Facetime or email each week. What strength it takes for my friends to spend their precious time with me, to let me pick the food or the music or to let me convince them to create an account on Pottermore just so they can take the What House Are You? quiz at 1.30 AM because I don’t sleep and I’m curious about what Hogwarts house they belong to. What strength it takes for my friends to write poems for me and read them aloud to me while I cry. What strength it takes to go on long walks with me and at the end, turn to me, look me in the eye and say, “Amy, I love you.”
I don’t know how long I will or can endure, but I do know, though there is a pandemic, and though I think, sometimes, that I will not make it so far, that I hope to see all my people in their flesh and blood again.
I hope that when I see them, I can tell them how every night that we spent together, no matter what was going on, my husband would find my mouth in the dark with his, and so he would wish me a good night.
I hope that after I tell them that, the memory of it, of him, will make me strong enough to look my dear ones in the eyes, and say their names, tell them just how much I love them.
But I can’t make any promises.