You would think I, of all people, would know by now that things do not go as planned.
Yet, somehow, lately, I have been acutely reminded of this and in such a way that I’ve realized that I still, on some level, count on certain things.
The first reminder about things not going as planned arrived when, a few weeks ago, the hospital called me, in what I assumed would be a confirmation of my surgery which was scheduled for less than eighteen hours away.
As it turned out, the hospital was calling to inform me that due to an unexplained scheduling error, even though it was not even an entire day before my surgery, the team slated to do the procedure was unavailable. I would be given a new surgery date, but they weren’t sure when that would be.
There were apologies while I did my absolute best to remember that the people that call you and give you news like this are not the people who are responsible for the reality of that news.
Through my clenched jaw I listened to the woman on the phone tell me that the hospital would be in touch with a new date (though the timeframe on that was not given). When I hung up, I was already lightheaded from the rush of panic and anxiety pummelling through my body (until my sweet man died, I never really experienced panic attacks, maybe only one or two over the course of my life, but that has drastically changed since his passing).
Out loud, but not loudly, I said, “are you kidding me?” (though to be totally frank, I added an expletive before “kidding”).
I sat on the couch and tried to breathe through the internal cratering. There is so much emotional work up and anxious anticipation before surgery, and to have the procedure feel certain, a dreadful but solid thing, sure, is one thing, and then it is an entirely other, awful thing to have that solidity suddenly dissolve.
I did not take it well, to say the least.
The surgery plan not proceeding as expected felt especially acute because around that time, as well, I was amid the process of slowly re-entering the apartment my sweet man and I shared for almost seven years together.
It was the apartment I moved into only a month or two after I met him. He offered to help me with the move, but I declined because I didn’t feel like I knew him well enough at that time. It is the apartment in which I have had some of my happiest moments, including, but not limited to, getting engaged to my sweet guy while wearing only a towel, my wet hair dripping down onto the carpet of our living room (a very good, very sweet story for another time); eating dinner with him every Tuesday, on the couch, in our comfy clothes; brushing my teeth while he sat on the toilet and laughed at Kook Slams on his phone; watching him dance while he made dinner; us laughing, laughing, laughing, laughing — so much so that our neighbours would stop us on the street and tell us how much they loved to hear our joy through the walls.
As I wrote about in my last letter, I had been back to the apartment briefly before to pack my beloved’s possessions and place them into storage for now, but, after that visit, I began my re-entry in earnest.
This re-entry was prompted by me, in the past haze of the second month after he died, telling my vocational rehabilitation consultant that I wanted to try to return to living in our apartment in early 2021. She told me, based on how reactive I was to the apartment, that seemed a bit rushed in terms of a timeline. Still, I insisted.
“Okay,” my rehabilitation consultation said reluctantly. “I’m writing that goal down.”
Over the course of the months that followed, my resolve began to wane. I had misunderstood how painful I found our living space. I couldn’t even drive by it. Weeks passed and I kept failing my ‘transitional exercises,’ which were intended to slowly build me up to getting in the front door. Things were not going as planned.
Sometimes, when I forced myself to do it, I would get through the door only to be flooded with a shuddering panic that would leave me crumpled on the carpet of the apartment. None of these transitional exercises were intended to last longer than a few minutes, but even at that, I couldn’t manage to regulate my grief and panic in the space.
“Maybe you just need to get a new apartment” — this was the advice of more than one person who cares about me: my therapist, my rehabilitation consultant, my family, my friends. It was reasonable advice, but not advice I wanted to take.
I insisted that if I needed to get a new apartment that I had to prove this to myself first. I had to prove that I couldn’t bear to live in the apartment that once felt so much like home that the pandemic months my beloved and I spent in it didn’t wear on me, or on him even, for a second.
Even months into the pandemic, after we’d go out for our daily walk, my beloved would often laugh when I would come back into our apartment and sigh, happily, and say, “It’s good to be home.” I just always felt so at peace in our home — would often look around at our things, at him, and feel such a deep, abiding joy that I could almost close my hands around it and hold tight.
In those early pandemic months, my beloved and I talked about all of the things we would do with our new apartment in Vancouver, which we were supposed to have moved into in December 2020. We perused new couches online and decided we would get a blue, velvet sectional. We talked about warming the color palette of our apartment up, adding more jewel tones, getting a round kitchen table instead of a rectangular one. We browsed bookshelves and he argued for shelves that screwed into the wall while I pointed out that was unlikely to guarantee we would get our security deposit back. We looked at EAMES office chair dupes for his study that he rejected summarily. He wanted to wait until we could afford an original.
“We’re going to be waiting a long time,” I said.
“It’s worth it,” he said, grinning.
I couldn’t say no to that. So, the dupes were abandoned. We returned to imagining the new life that was stretching before us.
Of course, things did not go as we planned. This was the original moment that I came to understand this. The flaw in the design.
I can’t say why I am so resolute on trying to return to the apartment we lived in. I think I just need to know one way or another if it is still my home. I need to know if I can definitively no longer take the deep breath I used to in it.
Still, despite this conviction, as early 2021 began to grow closer, I began to waver.
“Maybe later in the year?” I said to my rehabilitation consultant.
She shook her head, kindly, but firmly. We talked about how afraid I was of the space, how traumatic I found it. My consultant’s idea was to start building up to doing 2 hours in the apartment each morning, only 2 days a week.
“You set this goal,” she said. “I think we should at least try to build up to it.”
So, I began to try. By the time I eked my way to the first day of 2 hours (a Monday), I had learned that the whole process of returning, even if it was returning to leave, was going to be much more difficult than I thought.
I spent part of the first 2 hours on that initial Monday imagining how to re-decorate the apartment. I knew that it would have to look different. If I was going to live here, even for a short while, the space would have to reflect that I was in a very different life than I was before.
Over the course of the ensuing 2 hour, 2 days-a-week exercises, I began to change the space — the blue velvet couch arrived, as did the new bookshelves (that don’t screw into the walls); a new, round dining table came too, a credenza on spindly, walnut legs. I moved our media console in as well, and brought our coffee table too, all of which had been in storage for our upcoming move. I shifted his beautiful architecture books, which he asked me to display, out into the main living area, and settled some of his prized music equipment around the place.
Sometimes, I had to stop, because the juxtaposition was so painful.
If things had been different, we would have been doing all of this together. We would have been decorating a different apartment, in a different city, in a different way of being. He would have been beaming as I placed his books out for public display, insisting that I sit on our new couch while he took photos. We would have thought we understood what the word difficult meant — would have talked about the madness of moving during a pandemic to a city where we didn’t know anyone. He would have worried about me. I would have taken him snacks during his lunch break at work. The axis of the world would have still tilted at roughly 23.5 degrees.
These are the kinds of remnants that trap me in the apartment, turn me into my own ghost. I end up wandering the hallways, touching things that used to be ours — anything, really. The walls, his pillows, the light switch, the wine glasses, and on. I would know I would need to leave, but I couldn’t. I would end up crumpled up, sobbing, always asking the same question (how can you be gone?) over and over again.
By the time I would finally leave the apartment, usually because of plans made elsewhere, as I would pack up, I would catch my reflection in the mirror and be startled to see that I had gone a stark, eerie shade of pale. Usually, upon seeing the pallor of my skin, then I would notice the way my hands were shaking, how my stomach pinched as I hadn’t eaten or hydrated in hours, the low throb of a stress headache in my skull.
One day, after a particularly brutal few hours in the apartment (I had to remove my sweet man from all of our networked streaming accounts, which, it turns out you can’t really do — you can just Add A User, so now his Apple ID floats beside mine), I capitulated to the pain.
I looked up new apartments on padmapper and rentfaster. I got so far as entering some of my requirements before I stopped because it felt like I was going to throw up all over the keyboard. I closed my laptop. The apartment was not good, to be fair, but this avenue was still far worse.
I think I was at the apartment, in fact, when the hospital called me and informed me that my surgery had been re-booked for March 10.
“And you’re sure this one will go ahead?” I said.
The woman on the other end of the line laughed.
“I’m sure,” she said.
This time, I mentioned the new surgery date to only a few people. This time, I thought, I had learned the lesson I kept having to learn. This time, I braced for things not to proceed as I had been promised.
On March 9, the day before the new surgery date, the hospital confirmed that they would see me the next day. They told me to get a driver, to not be alone for at least 48 hours after the surgery, and to wear a mask. There were other details that I wrote down in my phone so that I wouldn’t forget.
After I got off the call, I felt a flood of anxiety. It seemed this plan would proceed as promised. I scrolled Instagram mindlessly. I noticed I had a new email in my inbox.
puppy, read the subject line.
The email had come from the breeder that my beloved and I had chosen last year. Together, we had sent her a deposit and secured our position on her waitlist for a puppy in April 2021. Together, we had picked out a name and counted the weeks between then and now.
Puppy, I thought.
I opened the email and found a brief note written from the breeder:
I hadn’t expected it. I had forgotten, honestly, that he and I were supposed to get a puppy in April. I hadn’t been planning for it.
I read the email again. I wondered if I could take this puppy and raise it on my own, without him. I wondered if I wanted to.
I cried, of course.
I cried because he wasn’t here to shriek and scream and dance around the apartment with glee. I cried because he would have been capable of a joy, in that moment, that I wouldn’t have been, but his joy would have heightened mine and together we would have planned how to tell our friends and family that we were getting a dog. I cried because grief finds its way into everything, makes everything a part of itself. I cried because I hadn’t seen it coming, but now that it was here, I knew what I was going to do.
I hit, Reply and typed, “Absolutely. I want her.”
Immediately, a new email pinged into my inbox. No words, just this:
Looking at the photo, I had a thought, but I couldn’t say it out loud.
The next morning, at 5:30 a.m., my mother drove me to the hospital and we waited in the (wrong) waiting room for 45 minutes before my mother went and asked what was going on, a question which ultimately got us redirected us to the right waiting room.
Once I was in the correct part of the hospital, I was handed a white and blue gown and a pile of warm blankets that I wrapped around my shoulders. My blood was drawn and an IV inserted into my arm. Little x’s for my pedal pulses were drawn onto my feet and then blue booties wrapped over top.
Then, I was in the cold room, where I had been before for my AngioJet procedures. Then I was on the table. Then the interventional radiologist was telling me that the stent was going to be placed into my leg. After, I slept in recovery until I was released. The nurse insisted that I walk around the unit and go pee. My mother drove me home amid a thick scattering of white snowflakes.
I watched the snow dizzy around the car and I thought about how, if my beloved had been here, he would have been so concerned about me, asking me all these questions I wouldn’t know how to answer. He would be waiting for me, wherever our home was, his dark eyes still and serious, the way they got when he was really worried. He would have fussed around me as I settled into bed, where I will be for awhile, as my leg is tender and fragile and my healing requires that it be straight and not taxed for some time. He would have insisted on taking time off of work to take care of me.
As we pulled up at my parents’ house, and as I settled into bed to rest, my leg stretched out, my back already aching from the effort of lying flat on it (which is something I’ve come to learn is something that doesn’t seem like it should be agonizing, but is), I wondered if anywhere will ever feel like home again.
Maybe everywhere will always feel elsewhere — places delineated into a new binary: some, painful, others, less so. Maybe the deep content and peace I used to feel in the home I shared with my sweet man will forever remain elusive. Maybe that feeling of home went with him. I don’t know. I can’t make a plan. Even if I were to make one, who is to say what would happen?
Still, my mother brought me a heating pad for my back, and my father checked in on me regularly. Still, I opened my phone in the dark of my room, my leg aching, and looked, again, at the photograph the breeder had sent me.
I reminded myself, again, that things do not go as planned. My leg, which is injured, might not be healing. The stent might be closing, any number of things could be going wrong. My beloved might never come back (I know he’s not coming back). I may never be able to live in the apartment again. Another apartment may always feel alien to me. I was alone. If I said it out loud, if I let myself count on it, I would be just talking to the air. I would be unlearning the lesson, again.
And yet. And still.
I said it out loud, anyway. I counted on it, anyway. I told him, anyway.
“Kurtis,” I said, “She’s here. The puppy. She’s on her way.”
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