Welcome back to At The Bottom Of Everything.
It’s important to me to say thank you so much to the many of you, my loved ones, who called me, wrote me, and connected with me throughout this past, harrowing month.
In this letter, I am focused on pinning down exactly what sadness so sharply rose up for me these past holidays, but this sadness exists alongside your love and the love of my family and friends and I am so grateful for all of you.
I started to understand how hard the holidays would be when I began to feel the creeping press of Christmas and New Year’s on me as soon as December dawned.
My attention, already ragged with grief, began to splinter even more and I struggled to write—even short emails made my eyes sting. My fingers on the keyboard felt clumsy, and I kept mistyping words—which I don’t normally do.
I found myself resisting the thought of the holidays without him, and flinching at media that emphasized merriment and joy-finding and gratitude. I felt myself bracing, as December moved closer to Christmas, for what the first winter season without him would bring, what fresh facet of loss would be revealed to me.
When I woke up on Christmas Eve, though I desperately wanted it to be just another, awful day without him, or even better, a day when he had finally come back, it was neither of these. My parents, graciously, did not play music or decorate or reference the holidays really at all out of deference to my sorrow, which I was glad of, because just the act of waking up on the Eve without him left me flattened by the morning light seeping into my room beneath the edge of the pulled-up blind.
In another life, one that sometimes doesn’t even feel like it was once mine, my beloved would wake me up on Christmas Eve and Christas morning with a child’s gleam on his face. He would hug me and I would hear him “HO, HO, HO” down our apartment’s hallway. He had such an impressive Santa voice. It was bellowing and large and guttural, exactly how I thought Santa should sound. He would brew loose-leaf black tea in the kitchen and last-minute check the gifts he had wrapped carefully.
He loved to wrap gifts.
Every year, he bought special paper and twine and labels and every Christmas Eve he would stay up until two in the morning carefully taping and edging. I would wake up to a gleaming tower of presents in our living room and I would watch him glow as I praised his skill with a roll of Scotch tape, the clean elegance of his folded corners. The paper was always smooth, nothing crinkled or mishandled, and the ribbons always crisply bowed, the labels written in his handwriting which was, wonderfully, strangely, beautifully, so similar to my own handwriting that at times we couldn’t distinguish between his script and mine.
Always, in the pile, there was an extra gift or two for me despite the fact that every year, I would insist that he stick to the budget we set for ourselves. Yet, every year, he would say, “Just a wee surprise gift baber!”
I would protest his generosity but he would grin and then I would too, caught in the gleam that it was to be lucky enough to love someone like him, someone who bore delight on his back, who had a small sun pinned to his shoulder. Usually too, I would be smiling because I knew I had my own surprise gift for him stashed away, his name scrawled on it in Sharpie because I never had the foresight to buy labels.
We were like this in our way.
My beloved and I were often in crazy and weird and total cahoots with each other. He worked to put me first, while I also worked to put him first, and together, we hoped to work to make each other’s lives easier and bigger and more glorious.
We didn’t always get it right, of course. Sometimes, the careful balance was disrupted and things got out of step: we fought, we misunderstood, we vented, we hurt. But, we tried. We worked to come back together each time we fell out of step, worked to find ways to say to the other: I see you. I hear you. I know you. I love you.
Once, for Valentine’s Day, we both proudly presented the other with our surprise gift, each protesting the other having done so. We remarked on the strange similarity and size of our gifts for one another. We eyed each other suspiciously as we unwrapped the gift paper and found the items housed in identical cardboard tubes.
“Did you?” I said.
“Kindah?” he said.
'“Limited edition?” we said as we both pulled out the exact same art print.
This is the print that my beloved and I both bought for each other
We talked over each other, laughing. We had both seen the print, newly released on Instagram, had both thought this would be the perfect surprise gift for each other. We debated whose copy to return (we returned mine as it was a later number in the edition run).
“Mind vibe,” my beloved said—his term for when we overlapped in uncanny ways.
“Totally,” I said, and then we looked at the twin prints and laughed all over again.
We surprised each other in other ways, too.
Often, I would write my beloved texts or letters or cards that detailed who he was, or what he meant to me, or simply celebrated the milestones of a life (a promotion! a raise! a breakthrough in therapy! a massive poop!). Other times, I wrote pages so full that every inch of the available space was covered in ink that blurred as my beloved cried (oh, his tender heart) while reading.
In turn, my beloved wrote me cards. He would make special, secret trips to card stores throughout the city just to find unique and unusual cards that he would write in for me. Every Sunday, a card would appear on my pillow, but usually, too, whenever something trifling, or stressful, or exciting happened to me, I would find a card against the kitchen table or slipped into my work bag. I would read the messages, carefully written, and feel a deep awe. I knew how hard he worked on them, how much careful attention he paid so that he could find the words. So much of what he would write down would resonate with me. Yes, I would think. That is me. He gets it.
Always, too, my beloved would label the envelopes with my name drawn in all caps, tall and spidery and crooked letters, a distinct way of writing that I have never seen anyone else do, and I believe, indeed know, was a style of inscription that was unique to my beloved. By the time my beloved passed away, he had written me well over one hundred and fifty cards.
In this way, and in many others, we spoke each other’s languages.
On Tuesdays, I would happily spend time thinking about what kinds of dinners to plan, with the hope being that my beloved would so enjoy them that he would noisily declare, “DELICIOUS, baber, I think you’re a chef!” or I would search for ‘artsy movies about architecture’ that we could watch together. On other days, in other months, I would also set aside time to do the things he really cared about that I only did for him, like clean the counters as if they were operating room tables, or organize our reckless Tupperware cupboard. I continually saved memes and GIFs and news articles that I thought would make him laugh. By the turn of each season, I would surprise him with what he called “cool clothes,” which he would wear with particular pride, and often, when he asked for my help, I would aid him in working through his thoughts, help provide him language for his particularly thorny emotions or problems.
More often than not, on those Tuesdays of meal planning, I would open the white plastic bags of our sushi order and find my beloved had ordered extra sashimi for me; or I would come home from work and see that he had spent hours with an Exacto knife custom-cutting mats for my art prints and settling them into frames he had carefully chosen; or every Saturday night, my beloved would take over the kitchen and cook special meals that always required a thousand different knives and cutting boards, and a specific plating process, but that, in the end, were always delicious and beautiful and he would do all the dishes after too; my beloved, also, (almost) always let me choose the movie and whenever I released a particularly satisfying stream of gas into the bed at night, he would say with genuine warmth but also amusement, “Good one, baber!”; and, at any given time, my beloved would ask me, “What about you?” because he truly, always wanted to know what I thought, what my take was on things. It didn’t matter what the thing was—he was always interested in what I had to say about it.
All of this came to me in a sharp, acute brightness over the holidays, a wash of pain that once begun, spread over me in a thick, remembering film as the holidays progressed.
I recalled how, once, my beloved decorated our whole home in small, foam hearts for one of our month-versaries in our first year of dating. The hearts lead me from station to station on a scavenger hunt of our relationship—pictures, trinkets, cards—all kinds of little monuments to our (then nascent) love littered the house.
And another time, on my birthday weekend, the friends I had invited for dinner all ended up cancelling in the hour before the restaurant reservation, which was a disappointment that left me quiet and crying, insisting I didn’t want to do anything, when my beloved asked. Still, my beloved bundled me into the car and took me out for a dinner where we over-ordered on food and wine, and he was so celebratory, so eager to make the night beautiful, that eventually, I found myself believing him, found myself inordinately glad that I was with him.
And there was earlier in 2020, when my beloved couldn’t get a hold of me for much longer than usual (my phone had died) and so he drove around the city checking places he thought I would be: my parents’ house, one of my best friends’ apartments, my sisters’ place, an exhaustive search that eventually brought him back to the apartment where I was sitting on the couch, wondering where he had gone. When he told me he had been looking for me, I remember crying silently, moved in a way I couldn’t place. Until that moment, I had only imagined it, you see. That kind of affection, the kind that goes out and searches for you, had only ever been theoretical, and yet for me, he had made it real.
This kind of attentiveness, this consideration, the small and large kindnesses and compliments that my beloved and I bestowed upon each other were part of the riches of our being.
Indeed, by learning to speak each other’s languages, my beloved and I carved out a weird and wonderful existence together. We wove together my language and his language and made a language of being that was all our own.
Of course, now, with my beloved gone, our language has gone extinct.
It doesn’t feel too dramatic for me to say that, though perhaps it is. I know if I asked my beloved about the line, he would tell me “it sounds good!” because he always thought I had the right words for everything. He thought this so firmly that, with the exception of the cards he wrote for me, I wrote all of our occasion cards to others, a task that showed up particularly during December.
My beloved would always carefully select holidays cards for his loved ones, and then he would leave them in a neat stack on my writing desk, year after year. I would write holiday messages inside the cards for him, and then, my beloved would carefully instruct me to sign my name, but not his name.
“I want to sign my own name,” he told me.
“Why?” I said.
“Because,” he would say, “then we’ve done the card together.”
I would gesture to all the writing I had done on my own, an eyebrow half-raised, “Together?”
“Yes,” he would say with that easy grin of his as he took the pen from my hands, scratched his name beside mine on the surface of the cards. “Together.”
“That makes sense,” I would say, because whether it did or not, it didn’t really matter.
I knew what he meant.