Yesterday (or today, since I’ve yet to sleep) was the five-year anniversary of Jack’s death. All day, I’ve been trying to remember things about him, and all that comes up are shadowy reflections of things I think might have happened at some point in time. I know what we had was real, and I know I wrote a lot of it down, but that’s mostly all that remains now: words on paper, words I read to remember things that I once felt so viscerally I thought I’d die when they crept back into my mind, things I wished I could push out of my thoughts but they wouldn’t leave no matter how hard I tried (or cried).
Grieving reminds me a little bit of having a baby. When you’re a new parent, people tell you that time will go by so quickly, but in the midst of midnight feedings and sleep deprivation and changing your 10th poopy diaper of the day (or in the middle of your baby’s first Really Big Sickness), you can’t imagine how minutes—seconds, even—could ever crawl more slowly. And then the next thing you know, you’re watching that baby walk across the stage of a high-school auditorium to get his diploma and he knows how to build a computer from scratch and he talks to his friends about things so surreal/interesting/culturally adept you’re shocked to be in the presence of a mini-adult, and when you read his Twitter feed or his Facebook page, you realize he has a life that completely transcends anything you ever could have imagined for him, that he has surpassed you in his capabilities, that he doesn’t need you anymore, at least not in any ways he can comprehend (and it may be years before he will be able to comprehend).
When someone you love dies—someone you really and romantically love, the kind of love (as I’ve said before) that makes you want to crawl into their casket to cuddle with them just one last time, not like Grandma or Grandpa love—people tell you that one day you’ll look back and the pain will be a memory, or at least faint, or at least familiar and semi-predictable and easier (if not easy) to handle. But just like when that baby is screaming at 2am, you can’t imagine how that can possibly be true. But it hurts so much! you think and say and sometimes even holler out loud. There are times you’re the one screaming like a baby at 2am, except it’s usually at the moments when no one is awake to comfort you, when you suspect everyone else is tired of witnessing your grief and wishes you’d just get over it already, when you’ve begun to doubt yourself and wonder if you imagined the whole thing anyhow and grief is just stupid.
But just like with raising kids, time does pass quickly with grief. It doesn’t feel like it in the moment (sobbing has its own time-warp properties, just as infants’ illnesses), but it is true that there comes a time when you see or smell or taste something that triggers a memory, and where once that memory would have you going through a half-pack of tissues, instead it’s just… okay. It’s a weird sensation the first time it happens, almost what I imagine it feels like to get a cast off of your arm or braces off of your teeth; suddenly an encumbrance you’ve grown used to and have expected to just be there all the time has—poof!—gone away. And it isn’t as though you want it back, necessarily, but it also isn’t as though you don’t miss it, either. Because—unlike with a cast or braces—missing it brings its own problems, like wondering if there’s something wrong with letting go or feeling guilty that you’re no longer as sad as you used to be.
This is what I’ve come to think of as the adolescence of grief: those teen years of parenting are brutal, almost more so than infancy, and you’re once again left wondering if you’ll get out alive, if the yelling and head-butting will ever end. (I don’t even live with my teenage son, and there have been many times I didn’t think we’d both survive; I put my money on him most of the time, frankly.) But all growth—and, really, that’s what grieving is: growing into a version of yourself that is present and whole in the absence of someone you cared about—comes in fits and starts, and no one grows perfectly.
I can’t say I’ve fully grown out of this stage yet. I still feel guilty that I’m not as sad as I used to be, and I’m still not entirely comfortable with letting go. I’m reluctant to date, and go out of my way to avoid doing so as much as possible. (I don’t miss it, either. Maybe I’m just happy being alone. I suppose it’s a toss-up.) I’m grateful that thinking (or talking) about Jack doesn’t bring me to tears like it used to, but I’ll be honest and say that there are still times when I’m upset about something—bad news with my health (which I’ve received a good deal of lately) or a job loss or random other stuff—and my first thought is “I wish Jack were here.” My next thought, though, is “I don’t even know that we would recognize each other.”
Because the truth is that we were on different paths when he died, and there is no guarantee he ever would have gotten back on the path I was walking. In fact, there’s a very small chance that would have happened. The probability of Jack getting and staying sober and then convincing him to move to New York City with me would, in reality, have been close to zero. He said he would do it because he loved me, but he was a Chicago boy through and through. And after moving here, I don’t think I would have been happy in Brooklyn (our plan) for long. I’m not a Brooklyn person. And he definitely wouldn’t have been a Manhattan person.
Of course, all of this is pure projection. He’s dead, and he has been for five years. There’s little use wondering what would or wouldn’t have been, and thinking about it only serves to soothe my conscience. I’m okay with that, though. Fits and starts. Fits and starts.
In any case, it’s been five years today (or yesterday, however you want to count it), and other than mentioning it this morning on Facebook, I haven’t mentioned it to anyone. I’ll probably touch on it briefly in therapy tomorrow, but not for too long; we’ve been embarking on the project of my childhood for the past few weeks and I don’t want to break momentum. So this is it: this is five years later, and a day(ish), and everyone was right: one day you do look back and the pain is still there, but it doesn’t hurt so much anymore, and it’s something you can live with, and it’s even something that you have learned to cherish, because it means that you once had something that most people can’t even imagine.