When my beloved died, in the weeks after August 15, 2020, there was the flurry of funereal activities and my health crisis, and there was also the descent of a thick shroud of shock. I didn’t know at the time how dense it was, even though I was partially aware, on some level, that I was suspended in its miasma.
I am still excavating how much was occluded by this shock, how much it impacted me.
I spoke with a friend recently and in the course of the conversation, which included discussing what type of font should be used for the engraving on my beloved’s memorial bench, my friend told me we talked for over an hour on the phone the week after my beloved died.
“We did? I said.
He confirmed that we had. I asked him for cues, pieces of what we talked about, hoping that these scraps would trigger the memory for me, but even as he told me (“we talked about how he died, you were with your whole family”) nothing flared in my mind.
I asked my sister, who was in the room at the time, if she remembered this call that my friend was talking about.
“Sure do,” my sister said. “We were all there while you talked to him.”
“It’s okay,” my friend said. “When [my wife] asked how you were after I hung up, I told her that your voice sounded strange. It sounded like you were floating, somehow, like you weren’t really there.”
This is not the first time I’ve had a conversation like this, where someone reveals they spoke to me or visited me in those first few weeks and I have no recollection of it. It is frightening while also being embarrassing to realize what I think I mostly remember in full is in fact an illusion — shock and trauma have warped my memories, taken some parts away whole.
It is alarming to realize that what you have been through is, upon retrospection, incomplete to you. You can’t see its whole face, its whole breadth. Some parts are just gone. Unavailable.
I also found it strange that my friend described me as “floating” in those first few weeks. Strange, not because it isn’t an apt word, but because that’s the way I still describe myself. Just this week, I was telling friends, my therapist, my vocational rehabilitation consultant, my family doctor, and on, that I feel as if I am floating above my life, looking down on it from a great length.
Perhaps I am still in shock, though its degree has lessened, and this is why I feel severed from my life, or perhaps the shock has fully eased, the decrease in intensity revealing that when shock wrapped itself around me, it snapped my tethers.
Either way, I feel separate from my life. Sometimes, I feel like I graze part of my life with my hand, and I can hold on for a moment, but then I find myself letting go again, watching everything grow smaller beneath me as I float away.
Part of this floating makes it feel as if my life with my beloved, that flesh and blood lived experience of being a part of a whole, is illusory. A pale sheen falls over the recollection of our life and it feels like a wispy thing, the skin of a soap bubble before it bursts.
Did it happen? I catch myself thinking. Was I ever really a wife? Did he ever really wake up beside me in bed? Did we laugh together?
Of course, I logically know that the time we accrued together happened, just like I know that he’s dead, which is to say, both do not always feel true to me.
Sometimes, when I think about the felt unreality of my beloved and my life together, I think about my neighbours. My beloved and I live(d) on the ground floor of a duplex, and our neighbours, who live upstairs and who are very dear to me, and to my beloved, would often tell us how they would grin, hearing the burble of our voices through what was our ceiling and our neighbours’ floor. Oftentimes, they would tell us how much they heard my beloved and I laugh.
I asked my neighbour, once, in the Before, if we really laughed that much.
“Yes,” she told me. “You two do.”
Something about her assurance, now, makes the laughter real for me. Her certainty allows me to access a part of that joy. I say a part, because I can’t remember my laughter. That part is held from me still, but I can hear the echo of his laughter every so often. Only every so often because it’s still so painful to think about his laugh. He had such a symphonic bellow of one. It threw his whole head back, opened up the entire length of his jaw, built up and up in volume and intensity and infectiousness the more delighted he became. I would vamp for that laugh in all kinds of ways when he was still here. I can only grasp flickers of the vamping right now, but I hold tightly to my neighbours’ assertion.
We laughed. We delighted. We were.
When you’re floating, as I am, these stakes in the ground feel so important. These markers of place, these pieces that prove my life with him existed. And it’s not just markers of what has happened that I cling to. I also look for markers, for proof, that where I am now, as vacuous as it feels, is still somewhere.
This need for tethers, for markers, is not recent. I felt it even in the raw, fresh week after my husband died.
This need was why amid all of the shock and the health crisis and the preparations of those first few weeks, I reached out, indirectly, to a woman I knew only by association (we had both attended the same university for undergrad). This woman’s husband had also unexpectedly died, earlier in the year, and I asked for her contact information by direct messaging a mutual friend on Facebook. I didn’t really know the mutual friend on Facebook at all either, but she was kind enough to tell me she would ask her friend about connecting with me and report back.
“When my friend mentioned you wanted to be in touch,” the woman I now know through direct association said, “I was amazed. I thought ‘Wow, what a natural connector [Amy] must be.' I would never have reached out if that had been me.”
I shook my head when my now-friend said this. I told her I wasn’t a natural connector at all — particularly in times of pain, my instinct is to withdraw, hole up, and go quiet until my mind and body have worked through whatever it is that ails.
I explained to her that when the fog of shock descended, as a career researcher of all things I do and don’t understand, I was filled with a longing for a map, with all its tidily delineated routes, its clear markers of place. I wanted some kind of guide, replete with guideposts, through this grief and she was the first person that came to mind in this wanting.
She came to mind because when her husband passed away earlier this year, it was at the start of the pandemic, and somehow, despite being several social circles removed from her, I encountered her husband’s obituary online.
I had read the obituary aloud to my beloved, tears dripping onto my writing desk.
“This is like if you died this year,” I said turning to look at him. “He’s the same age as you. This is like if you died.”
I felt a seizing in my chest then, feeling a brokenness and pain for the woman I did not know (yet).
“Don’t,” my beloved said, tears coming up into his eyes too. “That’s not our story. I’m right here. We’re right here, together.”
“It’s so awful,” I said. “He’s so young.”
My beloved agreed, yes, it was awful. He handed me a tissue for my snot and tears.
I thought, back in those early months of 2020, about trying to contact the wife of the man who had died, but I didn’t know her, and I didn’t want to intrude on her pain, so I didn’t reach out. Now, I wish I had. I wish I had known, then, that silence does not comfort the bereaved. It isolates them. That is something I have learned in these past few months of the After.
Still, when my beloved died, in the fog, I remembered that moment, reading the obituary to my beloved. I remembered the wife, now without her husband, as I was too. I thought she could give me a part of the map, perhaps even a clue as to how to make it through a minute or a day without the people who had chosen us above everyone else.
When I reached out, I thought she would have answers. I didn’t understand that no one, not even others in grief, have any answers to surviving or even naming a thing like this. There is just each second, each minute, each increment of time, accumulating, while also partially disappearing, an accrual that erases most of its tracks.
I did not get a guide when I reached out, but I do find having a witness to these accumulations, to these erasures is—what? What is the word?
I don’t want to say balm, or relief, or help, or comfort, because all of those feel too neat and too pat and too unlike what it is. Those words imply an entirety that is not felt, or at least, not felt by me right now.
Perhaps the word I am casting about for is simply friend. The woman who lost her husband, and another woman I have come to know who lost her life partner, are both my friends. They are tangibles who understand the exact, amorphous, and shifting nature of the intangibles of loss, of widowhood.
For example, when one of them tells me that she doesn’t turn on her alarms from the Before, she allows me to look at her saying, “Me either. I don’t do that either.” Until that moment, until my friend said what she said, I hadn’t consciously understood that I am not able to set any of the alarms I used to set every night in the Before. But I’m not. I can’t bring myself to turn on any of those alarms again, but I also can’t delete them. I just leave the alarms there, in the Clock section of my phone—remnants of a life when time mattered, when it was felt.
It bears discussing that, as it relates to time, these markers are ones that I am not particularly interested in. For all my mining of certain kinds of signposts along the way in grief, it is the signs of time that I do not notice, or if their presence insists on my noticing, sometimes willfully choose to ignore.
Willful ignorance has been my tack in terms of the approaching winter season, but now that it is December, there is almost no way for me to continue to ignore the reality of the holidays. Cheesy Christmas movies that I would normally have spent happy hours watching have flooded Netflix; Christmas music is inescapable no matter what I do; and Instagram is awash in Christmas trees, decorations, and Holiday Guides (though I have yet to see a Holiday Guide To Surviving Your First Holiday Season As A Widow—but I’m still holding out for one, fingers crossed).
My resistance to thinking about the holidays is partially, yes, a resistance of the reality that these will be the first winter holidays in a long while that I will spend without my beloved, and my first as a widow, but it is also a resistance borne of an unwillingness to accept that this year will end. Indeed, the end of the year is a marker that I do not want to accept.
I know my reluctance to allow that 2020 is going to end is likely not an attitude shared by a lot of people. In fact, TIME magazine just unveiled its December cover which declares 2020 “the worst year ever.”
Certainly, there is no doubt that 2020 has not been a great year globally, or personally, but while others seem to be experiencing an undercurrent of relief that 2020 will soon be finished in a few weeks, I am not.
This is a change, certainly. In the Before, in quarantine, as my beloved and I navigated the sole hallway of our small apartment, moving around each other like satellites, trapped, as we sometimes felt then, in the gravitational pull of our home, we spoke about our anticipatory relief at the close of the year.
Now, though, the end of 2020 simply means that I am headed towards a year that does not know my beloved, will not know him, will not hear him, or see him, or feel him in any way. This 2021 will be a total stranger to my beloved—an unknowing that feels empty and tenuous and uncertain. In blatant ways, 2020 has been as TIME claims, “the worst year ever,” but it is also the last year of my beloved’s living, of his life.
The first half of this year is the half that my beloved turned 32 in a birthday we thought nothing out of the ordinary of, thinking he would have many more. A birthday we cheered over glasses of wine together, at a restaurant we both wanted to try and then didn’t end up liking, a birthday we spent together, without anyone else—personal time I now cherish even more than I can say.
It is the year he and I spent almost four full months together, from sunrise to sunset, as both of our jobs moved to work-from-home, and COVID-19 shuttered up shops and bars and life as the world had known it.
It is the year we planned to move our lives and make a new one in a different city. It is the year we put ourselves on a waitlist for a puppy, talked about a future child’s name, sold a bunch of our old electronics on Kijiji—a business that my beloved was way better at than me, causing him to crow, “Kijiji King,” more than he should have.
It’s the year we ate sushi every Tuesday, and I bought a floral bike helmet to match the bicycle he bought for me (this helmet arriving in the weeks after his death, never to be seen by him) and it’s the year we stopped wearing clothes that weren’t fitted with an elastic band.
It’s the year I gained fifteen pounds of happy weight and genuinely didn’t care, and the year my beloved finally gave up on his sleep T-shirt that he’d had since his early teens. It was so old that it was disintegrating, holes sagging under the armpits, the collar separating from the shirt. One night, I caught at it with my hand, and when he looked at me, his eyes big and bright, almost laughing, and said, “Don’t you dare,” I did. I pulled and the whole shirt rent into pieces, which my beloved proceeded to tie around his body and dance around the apartment with while “I Will Remember You,” played on his phone. I filmed him dancing with the T-shirt, and it shakes with my laughter. I now watch that video over and over, sometimes unable to see it through a scrim of tears.
It’s the year that split into a Before and an After on August 15, 2020, and though it seems as if this fracture ought to have changed time’s course, the year is still ending, time’s continuing though I still can’t fathom how, his absence still endures, though I still can’t accept that it will. With the rising decline of 2020, for me, another tether to a life I had not expected to end so soon, is snapping.
It is another loss, in amongst all the others, and I suppose I will find out, when New Year’s Eve unfolds, how it will really feel.
Until then, I struggle to place my feet back in the earth of my life.
I try to grasp at tethers when I see them. I try to get outside, in what is unusually temperate and kind weather, and walk with friends. I try to accept that it is expected that none of my laughter goes past the surface anymore, that the inner reaches of my emotional interiority will stay leaden and silent and painful for some time. I try to do the work of staying, of processing, and seeing, and naming. It’s oftentimes invisible work but its burden is so great. I have a hard time articulating how difficult the work of grief is to others; I worry they think I am making more of it than I should.
“Grief is labor. It tires you out,” my mother kindly, generously, reminded me last week when I found myself mute, completely devoid of anything, especially energy. All I had managed to do that day was take my medications, drink 750mL of peppermint tea, edit a few pages of my manuscript, and then crawl back into bed until 5 p.m., when I got dressed and went to the hospital for an MRI—yet another appointment related to the ongoing question and management of my DVT. I also took a photo of myself, as I waited to be called to the MRI room, where I looked as tired as I felt.
During the MRI, as I lay flat on my back, earplugs stuffed into my ears, headphones over top of that, and a hairnet too, I felt the weight of the white cages that housed the machine’s cameras over my chest and my legs, and as the MRI bed moved me into a white, close tunnel and the rhythmic, sonic belting of the machine began, I felt faintly claustrophobic and a little afraid. In my ears, the dim voice of the technician in the other room told me to be as still as I could.
As the clicking, squealing, thumping, irregular sounds of the MRI hammered on, and time, once again, became indiscernible, and inessential and unremarkable, my eyes worked their way back open. I saw, affixed to the close surface of the white tunnel above me, a sticker in the shape of a green alien in a purple tracksuit. It was a bright, odd intrusion into this tunnel that moved me at its own will, that barraged me with sounds I didn’t know and couldn’t predict, that I was pinned down into by weighty cages that were seeing into parts of my body that I have never and likely will never look into directly.
I knew the sticker was meant as a comfort. The act of seeing it, of looking right at it, was meant to be an anchor in a weird, liminal space where the person who had to see and experience it had little to no control over what was really happening.
You are here, I thought, training my eyes on the alien’s stubby, three fingered hands. You are still here.
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