As a warning, these narratives deal with painful subjects, such as death and grief. Please keep that in mind if you are sensitive to these subjects. Thank you for reading; it means a lot. ♡
Knowing that you must force a hasty goodbye while maintaining the resolve of a soldier just so you don’t turn around and change your mind about the whole thing is one of the harder things you may ever have to do because suddenly, nothing seems to matter more than not leaving. But you know should, because of obligations and such, so you distract each other by talking nonstop, even making a few phone calls to each other to make the feeling of being kicked in the stomach just a little bit easier to bear, trying to forget how hard this is, pulling out their shirt just so you can have something physical, because talking just isn’t enough in this moment.
What makes this even harder is the weight of the experience on your lover; and in a sense, you are lucky because at least you are moving. You are forced to occupy your mind with activities, but the reality of everything starts to set in once you stop moving, because when boarding the airplane, you happen to notice that this is the last time both of your feet will be on the ground in the same state again, at least until next time. Even so, whether it be two weeks or two months, at that moment it all feels equally terrible. The scenery starts to move as you depart, your tears moving as fast as the lights that go along with it. You share one last expression of sadness before suddenly losing signal – you’re forced to wait, forced to process everything that you’re feeling. The next few hours are another type of hell.
Yet a brief moment of repose occurs as you decide to look out the window, hoping that maybe, just maybe, you’ll travel past their house to have “one last moment,” thinking that somehow if you’re in the same space it’ll make it better, even though you’re 5,000 feet in the air – at least it’s the same air. So you search for any signs that might show where you are, hoping to recognize the roof of a building you’ve only seen from the ground, hoping that the road you’re watching the cars inch across leads back to them, because somehow that makes you feel closer, imagining the destination is where you had just left from.
But it doesn’t - because even if you did see their house, it just serves as a painful reminder that at this moment you still can’t share one more kiss. It’s impossible to look into their eyes, catch the scent of their hair, or even feel their hand in yours. There’s a sadistic irony involved in the recognition of how the lights down below, remembering how all those cities and towns seemed so much more full of joy when you’re coming in. But now, now they feel as if they’re mocking you, splayed out in such a disgusting manner only there to serve as a reminder of how far apart you actually are from each other, so you decide to satiate yourself with your vices. A flight back would be easy enough right now; how easy it is to imagine returning home.
The thought is shocking – home isn’t where you live, but where you would rather be. It’s cliché, but it is your thought anyway. The sound of your lover’s voice is just enough to quell the stirrings inside, so you make another phone call to ease the hurt just a little less from the airport bar you hope to never remember the name of. What seems like such a simple thing, a flight back to your own home, feels as if your soul has been eviscerated and spewed out across the varnished wood floors. More distractions, making small talk about things that don’t matter so this entire ordeal seems inconsequential, but you both know that’s not how it is.
The first night apart is always the hardest, because suddenly everything’s different – everything’s back to the normal routine. Before them. But what reconciles you the most towards this situation is that it’s one in which you're actively choosing. Departing wouldn’t be painful if the loss of each other’s company wasn’t worth something to begin with.
"I'm sorry for your loss," I replied with a giggle.
I've always giggled uncontrollably at death. My subconscious must think it makes coming to terms with it easier or can lighten the mood, but either way, it's uncomfortable.
I gazed into his eyes, and the half-second I did felt like an eternity. He was gone. I thought he wasn't. I almost said hello because, for a moment, he was there. But he was gone. He stared back, mouth open. Still. His right hand rested on his midsection, his left arm along his body. He looked as if he was looking into something, frozen in time. Not in pain, but surprise.
I looked at his skin. Yellow from jaundice. I leaned forward and almost fell over. The pain was too much to almost stay conscious. A friend of the deceased I hadn't yet met left, not even realizing that I had walked in on someone. I walked toward the bed and fell to my knees. I cried at his bedside, and don't remember how long. I don't even know when they left, but when I stopped, I don't think they were there anymore. I was alone for a moment.
I looked at his eyes because I knew I would forget what color they were. I always did when someone died, and hoped I wouldn't this time. I ran my hand on his forearm; he was still warm. I wanted to touch his hand, but I couldn't. I wanted to remember the last time I held his hand with the tight squeeze he gave me in the hospital, one that I had never had from him before. One I thought, at that moment, that I'd never have again. I was right. I didn't want to remember it as non-responsive. I just couldn't.
I gave him a hug and laid my head on his chest. I searched for his heartbeat. I knew what it sounded like; I listened intently when I gave him a hug at the hospital. I remember being struck by how fast it was, much faster than mine. How exhausted his heart must have been. I waited, but there was nothing. He was lying there, and he was still warm.
The only thing missing was his heartbeat.
Simmering in the carafe was the smell of burnt black coffee, the scent of tobacco incensed the air. The sun was shining and birds were chirping away, unaware of any issue in the world but their own song; it was a beautiful day on most accounts.
It was our one-month anniversary. While not a particularly significant day, it was new and shiny. Excitedly messaging between our classes – an exercise of procrastination and affirmation on both of our parts - I contemplated mentioning our one month when I saw the browser flicker and noticed I had a new message.
"My dad has cancer, and they're only giving him a few months."
I don't think those are the exact words. No, they're not, and I'm sure of it, but that doesn't really matter. The smoke suddenly weighed heavy around me, the stench permeating every ounce of my being. Suddenly, it wasn't so beautiful anymore. Time stopped, and suddenly, all of my problems were insignificant. The day didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
I was insignificant after that point, yet somehow expected to carry all of this burden. His burden. To be blamed for everything even if I had no power to change any of it. To feel the wrath of "it's your fault I didn't have enough time with my dad," months after the fact. To have the support I gave to him and his family, that he chose and asked for, used as a weapon.
There is no manual for being the partner of someone whose father is going to die. If there was, I would have thumbed through the pages every single day to get a sense of how to deal with the emotional hell that had broken loose. All I know is that bracing for the impact of impending death does not make the impact less painful. I think, in fact, that it worsens the blow. I sat in silence in the wake of the news. He's going to die before his time, and there wasn't anything to do about it.
I couldn't stop crying. Tears pooled up in my hands, and I remember looking at them in disbelief as if I had never cried before. I felt like I couldn't breathe. I needed one of those damned oxygen masks they tell you about when you get on an airplane, you know, the ones that may not fully inflate, but still provide you what you need.
"In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are traveling with someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person."
My problems are different from his, mainly because he's not my father, but a man I had known personally for less than a month. Yet because I was this man's partner, he was suddenly given the title of My Dad without my consent - and because of that I was forced into the role of support for people to help with this loss. I didn't want that; I hardly knew these people. But they insisted. They needed me to get through this. Suddenly I because so engrossed in the process of other people's grief, I lost myself. Even though I needed to put my oxygen mask on first, I never had the chance to grasp for it. I was suffocating.
I recall my first experience with a dead body was almost intimate - a cadaver, splayed out on the table, ready for my eager hands to explore its intricacies. I held their heart in my hand, once beating now limp, now a fleshy paperweight. I traced their arteries connected back towards their arm, stumbling upon the nerves clustered in the armpit, threaded in-between my index and middle finger down the arm.
The muscles peeled back as I pulled on the nerves like loose strings in a piece of clothing. Tugging on a tendon made the fingers move, and I remember playing around as if manipulating a marionette. An evening's entertainment. Glancing up, a formaldehyde smile stared back at me. I held the hand of a corpse, flesh dissected for examination, but I was struck in awe at how that hand is still a hand, once capable of experiencing the sensations I felt with my fingers entwined with theirs.
I wonder what sorts of things they felt when they were still alive. What it would have felt like for them to hold someone's hand.
Would I feel like this one day, too?
My best friend, Kris, passed away ten years ago. I remember hearing the news he was in the hospital on Facebook. I was angry. Not at him - well, at first maybe a little bit for getting himself into a mess he couldn't get out of. At first, everyone thought it was a drug overdose, but no. News came about and it was suspected suicide. I think a lot of people get mad at people who kill themselves because we think we could have helped them before their Ultimate Decision, but really, we can't, because it's their Ultimate Choice, and no one else's but their own. But people have always been so cold when it comes to suicide. Indifference, confusion, frustration. Irreconcilable pain.
I was angry because it was all over Facebook. People crying, begging him to come back. Now, it would not be so bad if they were personal messages, but they were status updates that, had I not caught a glimpse of at that moment, who knows when I'd find out. Learning my best friend was dying via someone's status update on Facebook was not the first time it had happened, and it certainly hasn't been the last. My aunt died at thirty-two, from a heart attack. Facebook. My great-grandmother died. Facebook. My uncle died while at sea. Facebook. A half dozen friends who I don't have the capacity to name right now. Facebook. A display of "woe is me" for sympathy, without regard to who is affected. So many people I've cared about, loved, and cherished - suddenly gone, only to learn about it through the happenstance of logging in. It's so incredibly impersonal...and so very, very painful.
I sat in Kris' hospital room as he lay in a coma, breathing staggering, clammy. I sang songs to him, and combed out his long, beautiful hair. I remember him groaning when I started to sing the chorus of "Precious" by Depeche Mode. We had a lot of memories together with that band. I wonder what he was thinking, if he was able to think at all, or if it was a coincidence. I laid in bed with him, hoping that hearing my voice and feeling the warmth of my body against his would somehow rouse him.
I put my hand in his, but that day Kris felt like that cadaver, and I knew that he wasn't coming back.
I left five hours before he died because I had a final exam I couldn't get out of. I tried to petition to take the exam at a later date but was met with indifference, almost as if they didn't believe me that my best friend was dying. As if I only wanted to skip my exam.
I still hold resentment towards myself for that, years later. And of course, I failed the test, because who could concentrate when your best friend is actively dying? I would give anything to go back in time and be there with him in his last moments instead of thinking about fucking valence bonds.
Grief allows me to appreciate, accept, and understand the life I am living. Death is one of the few certainties of life. If we don't grieve death, we cannot turn it into acceptance, or something that is not to be feared. We need a reminder to be meaningful because it often knocks on our door when we least expect it to. But even with that awareness, it doesn't make death hurt less. Bracing for the impact doesn't make the impact less painful.
I know I still needed a mask, but not one that provided oxygen anymore. I needed a mask that hid how I felt. One that would allow me to function, while remaining insignificant in the greater scheme of things. A mask to turn me into a machine designed only to survive.
A week passes by. We don't talk much about his father, because doing so creates a sort of downward spiral of despair. He refuses to grieve with me. I suspect that because if you grieve, it becomes real. So instead, we argue. We complain about things to distract us: school, work, terrible drivers. Mundane irritations hold no meaning. We complain more than we appreciate, and it drags us down.
He says to me, "Complaining is a coping mechanism for grieving life. It's all anyone does. Living is traumatic." What purpose does the complaining serve to mitigate the trauma? It is not unlike having a toothache; we complain about our pain to gain pity because the attention makes us feel good. We acquire pleasure from our misfortune, continually pressing on the bleeding wounds to remind us that we are still alive and that we need affirmation of our suffering to find a place in the world we are stuck in until, we too, die.
We drink, we sleep, and we neglect self-care, destroying ourselves to escape the trauma of living. And we complain to make that trauma seem more comfortable. And we still refuse to grieve. It's funny, thinking about the idea of grief. It's absurd, really, and we mirror this absurdity in how we process our grief.
Anger. Sadness. Pain. Self-abuse.
But we won't acknowledge that we are grieving, because if we do, then we must reflect upon what that means. So instead, we express our grief without saying we are grieving. We crave permission to do so in a world where grief is forcefully private. If we are told to grieve, we refute it to remain strong, starving ourselves from healing, much like how a dehydrated man begs for water and, if given it, vomits it up. Incapable of the acceptance of grief, we instead hold faith to try and separate the situation from reality, creating our own reality in the process.
"I need to do something drastic," I joked, misquoting Camus. "Suicide isn't an option, we can't get married yet, and l'illustration has been out of print for years."
The next day, I chopped off all of my red hair. I had wanted it to my hips. I couldn't handle the stress of caring for myself anymore; it reminded me of better days. Eleven inches long, now shaved on both sides. Black, reflective of my moods lately, but I left a bit of red, in hopes it would cheer me up. My hair was always where I felt the most confident in myself. I felt mangled.
External grieving because I cannot show my pain otherwise. But every time I looked in the mirror, all I could see was how I was becoming someone else because of someone else.
"It's when we're busy, distracted, sought out, exteriorized, that we suffer most," Barthes notes in his book, Mourning Diary. I wonder if it's because we can't focus our attention on it like we should be able to. Everything else takes precedence, and we are supposed to grieve on our own time, but that time never comes. We aren't allowed that time given all of the other obligations: school, work, family, friends, and relationships. If we grieve, we neglect our responsibilities.
When you try to talk to your partner, he retorts over and over, "I don't have the time to think about this." You process the events without him then, trying to be gentle to yourself saying that it's not what you're thinking, but how you're thinking about it. If you believe as he said before that life is traumatic, then it will be. So...if you can adjust your own perception, then maybe what's happening is not traumatic?
No, that's not right at all.
But you're free, right? "Man is condemned to be free." The sentiment makes you laugh. Whoever thought freedom was a blessing hasn't ever had it. You question the meaning of everything, finding it hard to make meaning, and what the hell does that mean anyway? Becoming overwhelmed by the idea of having the freedom to make meaning out of anything results in you doing nothing instead.
You sit disheveled, unable to care enough to eat. Chain-smoking watching as the rain pounds your windows, only getting up because you feel sick from all of the nicotine and whiskey. You slag about just enough to get a cup of coffee, and then melt back to the couch.
Your look down; the cup is dirty and has bits of lipstick from the last time you washed it. Tuesday? Was it that Tuesday? What day is it today? How many days has it been? You don't care.
You don't even know why you bothered, because it all just feels like hell. Existential angst consumes your soul, but you're still not sure what it even means, if it even means anything, but you know you have to choose to do something. You have to search for meaning in whatever your choices are, because if you don't, then it's all meaningless. What's the god damn point of living? Albert Camus said famously, "Do you choose to kill yourself, or do you simply enjoy another cup of coffee?" But the irony is that it doesn't matter what you choose. Either choice is absurd in context, and all you can do is accept it. But when you do accept it, you become free. Hell if we aren’t condemned for our freedom.
When you try and talk about processing grief and feeling like something is wrong, you talk to a friend. They confirm that things are falling apart, obviously, but never advocating to leave because "he's the best you've had," even though there are so many red flags you'd think you were in the USSR. You bring the concerns up to your partner, he says it's "too abstract to care about." I know he's angry - his dad's actively dying in front of his eyes. So I remained, always wanting to do the right thing, even at my own expense.
He proposed to me while his father was still alive, and reminded me of how no one else would have loved me the way he did. Coerced to give up my freedom on where I wanted to live (which was not there,) and give up on finishing my education to be his support system. This felt all too familiar, reminiscent of a relationship I had just left for many of the same reasons, but I was stressed from graduate school and whatever "this" was, so when he said he "needed" me, I did not have the energy reserves to see that his need was designed as a suck. I don't know why I was still with him at that time, or how he would end up living in my home later because it was clear I was miserable. I was so exhausted from being used as a soundboard for people's grief that everything had happened so fast and I don't even remember feeling like I had any agency in any of it. I did not expect that saying "yes" would be so painful and dehumanizing.
He frequently told me that I was "just" trying to deal with what he's dealing with in my own way, disconnected and philosophical instead of experiencing the real, the visceral, like he is. That always stuck out to me, as if my experience was not as real as his. Rambling on about how nothing matters was "just" another way to keep me busy so I didn't have to confront grief. Because if it doesn't matter, then it doesn't exist, and it won't hurt, because "nothing" can't hurt you. The "just" always stuck out to me and felt invalidating. Implicating I had not experienced the loss of someone I loved deeply - in his eyes, how could I have ever experienced a loss as painful as losing a father? Sure, mine was still alive, but we haven't spoken for many years. And the grandparent who raised me died from cancer, the only savior I had while my mother was serving in a war, leaving me to fend for myself at 15 and causing a life trajectory I would wish on no one. No difference. He said I was inexperienced with tragedy, and at that moment I realized he had no idea who I was.
A few months go by and everyone was still alive. I felt smaller than ever, and only wanted to hide. My room was once again filled with a cloud of cigarette smoke. I don't remember if there were birds chirping, or what the weather was like that day. It wasn't important, I suppose, after everything. Suddenly a message appeared:
"I have no time to decompress. I've been going every moment for what feels like weeks. Now I'm wondering if the two of the most important people in my life will be around to see me marry the woman I love, and what does that mean? What do I do?"
What do I do?
John Berger once said that "at some point when tending someone you love who is in pain, you reach the edge of a lake, and you look at each other with such joy at the stillness." The lake beckoned us, and I craved its calm.
Thankfully we never did reach the shore together, because I'm sure he would have drowned me if we did.