I’ve never been good with endings. Whether it was staying in graduate school for an entire year after I fulfilled the program’s requirements or staying in a horrible relationship long past its expiration date, “good-bye” just isn’t an easy part of my vocabulary. Even when I leave the house for a simple trip to the store, I linger in the foyer, scared that once I make the move forward I’ll be leaving someone—maybe part of myself?—or something behind. Most of the time, nothing bad happens, except perhaps I’ve forgotten my coupon books or the Post-it Note with directions I’d meticulously written down. But once in a while, something happens with such finality that it knocks the wind out of me and leaves me in a constant state of panic. And that something? Death.
The first time I encountered the death of someone I’d loved was when my grandmother passed away in April 2000. We’d had a falling out some months earlier, and so while I’d been extremely close to her the first ten years I’ve lived nearby, those last few months were ice-cold and distant. She’d survived lung cancer and somehow I felt I had all the time in the world to reconcile. Turns out I had about an hour in the hospital with her—and we made our amends, said our peace, and renewed our love—the day before she died. It was sad, it was horrible, and I nearly ended up committed to a mental institution when the level of loss and depression in my soul reached an unmanageable point.
Lest this sound melodramatic: I grew up in a fairly dysfunctional home, and my grandmother was the one person I could count on to love me no matter what mess I’d gotten myself into. She wasn’t perfect, by any means, but she knew the promises of unconditional love, and she was the only adult in my entire life that ever thought I deserved it from the get-go. Everyone in my life, I know, was doing the best they could…and she filled in the cracks they left with a special sort of grandma-love that I still can’t comprehend.
Since 2000, I haven’t dealt with real loss. To be sure, a cat died (which devastated my son); my graduate school mentor died (which reminded me of how grateful I am he touched my life); some people I know from my work in recovery have died of alcoholism or addiction or plain bad luck. But no one has touched me deeply and then died. Until last Friday, when I received word that Jack had been found dead from a massive heart attack.
It’s a cliché, this idea of repairing bonds and making amends in case someone dies and you wouldn’t ever have the chance, again, of setting things straight. When I walk away from a situation, I never think, “This is the last time I’ll ever see X again.” It’s true that I’ve said to many people many times that I wouldn’t be surprised to get the phone call about Jack. But that’s a far cry from expecting that, any day now, that phone call’s coming. And when it does come… it’s nothing like I’d ever feared.
In some ways, I’m detached from this situation. I haven’t seen Jack in weeks, haven’t had a real discussion with him since late October. I’ve kept track of where he’s been, how he was doing, and whether he needed anything from me that I could give…but that’s all. I’m just an exgirlfriend who made the self-serving choice to walk away temporarily—now permanently—so he could get his act together. It doesn’t matter (much) that I still loved Jack all along, or that in the back of my mind I always hoped he’d get sober so we could go along with the plans we’d been dreaming up: vacations, marriage, growing old together. I remember when we were early on in our dating, and had the following conversation:
Me: I get scared sometimes.
Jack: Of what?
Me: That you’ll decide you don’t really like me and go away.
Jack: Really? Because I think of being an old man and cutting the grass in our lawn and you bringing me cold lemonade.
That’s the kind of person he was. I went to his house yesterday afternoon and found a small book—yes, an entire small Moleskine notebook—I’d written for him, called Brain Food 2009. It was filled with quotations and pictures I’d taken, little love stories, and random lists, including “20 Things I Like about Jack.” I was reading through it last night, and while I couldn’t get through it all, I was able to remember the true love I did feel for him, and the ways in which we worked and fit together, ways I don’t know anyone else understand but, nonetheless, were real for us. We made a good team—he inspired my website, and he always believed in me and thought I was fabulous just for being who I am. He was the first real sober relationship I had, and the first time I had to make the terribly horrible tough decision to walk away from the man I loved and wanted to marry and saw myself growing old with.
And the tragedy is not only that he died alone, probably in a lot of pain, or that he struggled to stay sober for so long. No—it’s more that he was loved by so many people, who now only hold hopes and dreams and memories of the kind of man Jack was. I don’t believe I’ll ever find another man like him, nor do I think I want to. He was a one-of-a-kind, and though he was only mine for a little while, he’ll be in my heart and soul forever.