41. the ball in the box

written 11 months and 23 days after

I. On this weekend, a year ago, we were making pottery.

He had always wanted to take classes and we had found several studios in Vancouver that offered beginner options. We intended to take a class once we moved.

I was a typically poor first-timer. I couldn’t figure out how to shape the clay or strike it so that the air wasn’t in it and Kurtis had to do this for me. He thwacked the tan clay with such vigorous capability that I was frustrated with his innate ease. Then, on the wheel, I couldn’t get the clay to centre, or keep the wheel moving with consistent speed. Eventually, after several tries, I produced an unevenly formed bowl that was likely to break in the kiln.

Kurtis, unsurprisingly, was a natural on the wheel. Not only did he centre his clay pretty quickly but he immediately understood how to keep the wheel moving steadily so that he could move his clay up and down as if it were a living thing, fluid in his hands. He made not only a bowl that wouldn’t break in the kiln but also a tall, thin vase. I watched his hands, nimble and steady, draw the clay upwards to make the vase and wondered, once again, how he could just know how to do certain things. He looked up at me from over the wheel. He was breathing hard and grinning as wide as he could.

“I love this,” he said.

“Me too,” I said but I wasn’t talking about pottery.

I took several photos of him and each one I felt desperately almost wildly glad that he was mine.

When we got home, I was limping, my knee was still bandaged up from the fall I had taken off an electric scooter on August 1, and I struggled to hop up the stairs to our front door.

“Butt boost,” he said, behind me.

I felt his hands, gentle on my butt, lifting me upward. It was a silly, little thing that he did for me ever since the first few months of dating. On hikes, or going up steep stairs, or even if I was just tired of walking and he was behind me, he would push lightly on my butt and I would feel lighter, somehow more capable, as I moved against gravity.

II. I saw a woman in a parking lot yesterday. She was kissing her husband goodbye.

“Love you,” she said.

He was dropping her off at the park, presumably so she could go for a walk or something. Maybe they had kids. Who knows.

I walked on, thought nothing of the exchange. Twenty minutes later, I had to hide behind a tree because I was crying so hard.

At first, I couldn’t understand what triggered the sense of deep, terrible aloneness, of him being gone and then I realized it had to have been the woman, saying goodbye to her partner; it was so easy, without hesitation, without worry that he wouldn’t return, that he wouldn’t be there in a few hours to pick her up.

I miss being an us, a we, a part of something that isn’t just me. Behind the tree, I pressed my mouth shut as tightly as I could, half-convinced that if I opened it, even to breathe, the sound of my pain would come out all loud and screaming and wet.

III. Complicated grief is the term used for grief that has been deemed to extend beyond what is ‘normal.’

Largely, it has been described to me as grief that ‘never reaches a conclusion, a miring in a significant and unresolvable sorrow.’ ‘Normal’ is usually described to me, in contrast, with words like ‘acceptance’ and ‘stages’ and ‘healing.’ An example might be: ‘Grief follows a natural cycle, moving through predictable stages. The stages and their timing will vary according to the individual, but acceptance of the loss should be at the end.’

I cannot understand how all of us can know or know of someone who is experiencing deep, terrible loss and yet as a whole, societally, still perpetuate such grossly inaccurate beliefs about grief.

Continuing to grieve past four months, which is roughly one of the markers of ‘complicated grief’ is not wallowing or a mental health disorder or abnormal. Grief therapy quickly disabuses you of this notion, as does the actual realities of grieving.

Grief takes time; even though I was shocked and angry to learn that early grief is the first five years, I have also found that my grief therapist isn’t wrong. It is also true that there are no stages of it; it’s not a predictable, linear thing. Time does not apply to it. Grief does not reach a conclusion. There is no getting through to ‘the other side.’

I read, early on, that grief is like a ball that is always moving in a box that contains a pain button. When struck, the button delivers an excruciating amount of pain.

At first, in grief, the ball is so large and so heavy that it’s constantly striking the button but as time goes on, the ball changes shape, sometimes it’s slightly smaller, other times it’s not. When it’s smaller, it strikes the pain button less often, but you never know what way the ball is going to go or if it’s going to change its shape, so the next time the ball connects with the button it could be large again and so the button could be hit more often.

What is fixed, though, is that the ball remains in the box no matter what, it remains in motion, and regardless of how big or small the ball is, when it strikes the pain button, the amount of pain that is delivered is the same as the first time the ball hit the button—excruciatingly so.

That’s one of the only metaphors for grief that I’ve found consistently useful and accurate.

The ball isn’t going anywhere. Once it’s in the box and moving, pain is inevitable.

Recently, I read an account from a widow who is in her seventies. She was writing about her first husband who died over forty years ago. She’d been re-married a few times since but she was speaking about how there was always and still a deep and tender part of her heart that held her first husband closely. She wrote about how she was one of the only people left that was alive that remembered him. She wrote of his favorite food and the way he had an unusual gait, an easy way with children.

She missed him, she wrote. He was always her favourite, even though she had loved her other husbands too.

The ball remains in the box, I thought, when I read her post.

IV. This past week, I told someone new to me that I was a widow.

It wasn’t a personal conversation—I was on a call with someone in a professional capacity—but tangentially the connection was made that my husband had died recently.

I knew the consultant was surprised, there was a slight hitch in the conversation before it moved on.

Later, when I told a friend about this, she castigated me (lightly).

“Why do you always lead with ‘widow’?” she said. “You’re so much more than that. It’s not all that you are!”

I tried to explain that while being a widow may not be the entirety of who I am, it is the part of my identity that is most deeply informing who I am. Being widowed means being in grief and being in grief means everything feels, indeed is, different. I am different.

I think, partially, people don’t like when I lead with ‘widow,’ because it makes them feel uncomfortable. They’d rather hear that I’m a writer or teacher or top knot enthusiast before they hear I’m a widow because then it’s more comfortable for them to contextualize me. If all they know about me is ‘widow,’ then they can’t find a way to get around the ball in the box. They have to look directly at it.

That’s why I lead with ‘widow,’ a lot of the time too. I am always, incredibly, painfully, brutally aware of the ball in the box. To not mention it feels like ignoring something so obvious that it requires an effort that I don’t want to sustain.

Not everyone deals with their ball in the box in this way. I know that. This is just how I deal with it right now, how I have dealt with it these past eleven months.

I don’t think this would surprise Kurtis, if he were here.

He always found it funny, probably because it was so different to his natural bent, how direct I could be, how willing I was to name things accurately and publicly.

(The only time, largely, he didn’t find this amusing was when I openly fought with him in public — he always preferred to fight, if we were going to, in private places, like the car or at home)

V. Lately, I’ve been especially exhausted.

I go to bed early and wake up late but I can’t seem to ever feel rested. My neck has gone out and I can’t turn my head to the left. My jaw has locked up. I spent most of one day trying to open my mouth even half way and failing. I’m terribly behind on emails and texts. I’m forgetting appointments and what day of the week it is. I take things personally that have nothing to do with me, like someone responding ‘great,’ on a text but not closing it with an exclamation point. An emptiness hollows out my insides so much that when the wind blows, I swear I feel it inside my chest, swirling behind my ribcage.

I look for him everywhere but he is nowhere.

VI. One time, in therapy, we had to write down a handful of things that bothered us about each other.

The lists were supposed to be private from each other, shared only with our therapist in separate sessions, but of course I bugged him about his list.

“Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me,” I said.

When he wouldn’t, I would guess; it wasn’t that it was difficult, I had been telling him since we’d first gotten together about the flaws I had that I felt would eventually make him wish he’d picked a different partner.

I’m a homebody, I said. I can be petty, I said. I don’t like you moving things around in the house, I said. I can be stubborn, I said. I am pretty intense, I said. I can be melancholic, I said (what’s melancholic? he said). I don’t handle change well, I said. I don’t think Ryan Gosling is good looking, I said (who’s Ryan Gosling? he said).

On and on I would go, but he never cracked.

“I love you baber,” he would say. “Just how you are.”

“I can be overly persistent,” I said. “Like now. That’s on the list, right?”

He just shook his head, smiled a little.

A few months ago, I found his list tucked in one of his many Notes on his iPad. I read it even though I knew he wouldn’t have wanted me to. Some of the things I had guessed were on the list but many of them weren’t. His list was only five things long.

While I was sorting through his documents that same day, I also found a timeline that Kurtis had typed of his life a few months before he died. I have no idea what compelled him to create such a thing. He never mentioned it to me. The document was titled ‘just cause.’

The timeline began at birth and then ran ahead with major milestones such as ‘graduated university.’ There was a marker in 2014 that said ‘met Amy,’ and then beside this, he had typed the word, Husband.

I scrolled down the timeline to 2018, when we were married, and saw that he had written, ‘Married Amy!!!’ and then I scrolled back up to 2014 and stared at the word ‘Husband’ that he had typed.

On the bed, his pillows crumpled up next to mine. I could see their outlines but not their whole shapes because I was crying too hard. I tried to remember the name of the street on which we lived, but I couldn’t. I tried to remember what it meant to live but I couldn’t.

Met Amy, I thought. Husband, I thought.

The details never mattered to him. He was always just so sure.

The last letter in this project will be published next week on August 15, 2021. I might sneak a few extra letters in throughout the year, so feel free to stay subscribed if you like.

For your readership, support, and witness, I am so grateful. Thank you for being here with me.

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