Today I was poking around some of my old blog posts, just randomly following the “Related” links at the bottom of posts to see where the trails of written memories might take me, for better or for worse, and I came across this one, where I said,
I really want him to stay alive as long as possible, because when I say I want to spend the rest of our lives together, I’m not just talking about until JS turns 60 (in 12 years); I don’t want to be a widow at age 47.
Of course I was talking about Jack; I wrote that in late May of 2009, when he was hospitalized with a blood clot in his leg. I stayed by his bedside religiously, learning how to give him injections of blood thinners and memorizing the schedule of medications he’d take over the coming weeks. The nurse assigned to his room was one of “us,” a lovely man I’d see in meetings periodically over the next few years, including after Jack died. He was always kind to me, though we never grew closer than acquaintances. And although no one (even—perhaps especially—me) knew it at the time, by the time Jack was in that hospital bed with a red-hot and swollen leg, he had already been secretly drinking for weeks.
It wouldn’t be until the Fourth of July that I was forced to face the truth, but there were signs along the way I chose to ignore: the smell of alcohol on his breath he said was mouthwash (me: you might want to change brands or else people might think you’ve relapsed; him: good idea); unanswered phone calls at 8pm when he’d asked me to call to make plans (leading me to go to his house at 6am the next morning, hop over the porch railing, and let myself in through the sliding doors; we then came up with a “solution” of choosing an especially loud ringtone that would wake him up if he “accidentally fell asleep” again); his random spells of suddenly going missing or being unavailable when previously he’d been the most dependable person ever… the list goes on.
I saw what I wanted to see and heard what I wanted to hear… until the day I couldn’t get ahold of him at all, so I called his roommate, worried that something medical had happened. And, I knew exactly what it was when Thomas was hemming and hawing (he’s a proper Texas gentleman who doesn’t like to hurt a lady’s feelings): Jack had relapsed.
He relapsed again the day before my birthday, the day before he brought me the ring that he’d had secretly custom-made from a drawing I’d once casually said I thought was pretty and he intended to be my engagement ring. He gave it to me saying that it still held the same purpose, the same meaning, but he needed to be stronger before any precise plans could be sketched out. We both knew what the plans would be, anyhow. We’d known them for a while, ever since we held my graduation party at the Berger Park Cultural Center. It was going to be either there, if we decided to have a fancy tea party (the kind he was always teasing me I wanted to throw and have perfect for everyone), or eloping to NYC on our way to settle down and live there together. In any case, I posted a photo of the ring on my finger to my Facebook page, where it (and, oddly, my fingers, received many compliments); it stayed on my finger long after he died, and I often wear it now.
In August 2009 I decided I’d go ahead with my annual two-week trip to NYC. I’d had a pattern since 2005 or 2006 of heading there for 2-3 weeks once the boys were in school and before Fire Island closed for the season. I’d spent a week or so in the city and then the rest of my time on Fire Island, usually some time after Labor Day, when the rates were cheaper. I’d rent out my apartment in Chicago, which would more than cover the costs of my trip, especially because my job at the time involved reviewing hotels, and I’d be able to arrange free lodging in NYC without any problem. (In fact, I’d always come out a few hundred dollars ahead on every trip to NYC, which is how I managed to spend up to three months a year there, cumulatively, from 2006 on until I moved here… which is how I was hired to be a freelance “NYC expert” by three separate media outlets before even being a resident. But that’s an entirely different story…)
In early September 2009, I headed to NYC for two weeks. I left my apartment in Jack’s care (I had three separate renters who’d be coming, and he’d be overseeing the transition), and all seemed to be going well. He knew I’d been stressed by the situation and how restorative the trips to NYC were for me, and I was looking forward to seeing a couple of Broadway shows, walking across the Manhattan Bridge, eating vegetarian dim sum (not knowing that five years later I’d be living across the street!), and catching up with friends. But then it happened again. He wasn’t answering his phone, for hours and hours and hours. I was certain it was a medical issue, because surely he wouldn’t relapse a third time, would he? (To be fair, Jack had severe heart disease; he’d had three heart attacks in his late 20s, and with the blood clot incident in the summer, I’m not sure my obsession with his health was entirely due to my denial of the severity of his alcoholism.) But a phone call to Thomas, and that same hemming and hawing, confirmed that the unthinkable was true.
I’m grateful for many things surrounding Jack’s continual relapses. One is that his third relapse came when I was in NYC, a place where I felt (and for the most part still feel) strong and capable of making better decisions. I don’t know if I would have had the fortitude to take the path I did if I’d stayed in Chicago and foregone my annual trip. And I probably would have resented giving up something I valued so much for… what? Another is that his friends did an excellent job shielding me from Jack when he was drunk. They wouldn’t let him call me, they refused to let him visit me (or vice versa), and they wouldn’t let me even catch a glimpse of him while he was drunk, no matter how much I begged them to let me help. I cannot express how much this means to me; I will never know any form or image of Jack other than the sober one, and that is a priceless gift his friends gave to me. That they did so intentionally and consciously makes it that much more meaningful.
By early October 2009, I’d had it with Jack. It had become clear, if not to him than at least to me, that his only hope for survival was if we put our relationship on hold. He couldn’t stay sober for more than a few days at a time. Once he called me as he was walking to Jewel to buy vodka. I knew where he was, and I also knew there was a church on the way. Why don’t you go into the church to pray? I asked. Can you say a prayer for me, maybe? He was having none of it. Fuck God, he said. I was so frustrated. I said, Why don’t you just fucking throw yourself in front of the first bus you see? It’ll be faster and hurt less for everyone around you. And he said, Maybe I will, and I burst into tears, but he slammed down the phone (as much as anyone can slam down a BlackBerry, that is) and kept on going to get his vodka anyhow.
After I calmed down we talked and agreed we couldn’t be together until he’d been sober for a few months, at least. He tried to promise he’d get sober for me, but I asked him not to do that. I didn’t want to be his reason. I couldn’t be his reason. I just asked him to please not to die on me. And he said he’d try not to. Because he really wanted to make me his bride one day. I had a deep fear that he wouldn’t be able to keep that promise, but I also knew that if we were to have any chance at all, it would only be because I had the strength to walk away for this (I hoped) short while. The biggest gift I could give him, and myself, was to love him enough to let him focus on getting well. As much as I wanted to be selfish, and as many times as I look back in retrospect and know I would probably have made a different decision if I’d known he would die only three months later, I somehow was able to fight every intuition I had to stay and try to fix/help/soothe/whatever his sickness.
I didn’t see him much after that. I think once between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Another time a week or so after. Each time he looked like a shell of the man I loved. Uncle Eddie kept me updated on his day counts. The highest number of days I think he got was six or seven. I remember crying a lot, wondering if I’d done the right thing. I had mindless sex with a guy I got sober with sometime around Halloween to try and get my mind off things (it didn’t; this always works better for men than women). We’d always danced around the idea but there was never a time when we’d both been unattached. The sex was technically phenomenal, but I’d rather have been holding hands with Jack on a park bench fully clothed than fucked thoroughly by anyone else in the world, and it was patently obvious.
Jack and I stayed Facebook friends (I was the one to “memorialize” his page after he died), and he kept tabs on my Twitter feed and blog. He tried to bring me a soy hot cocoa when I was guerilla street marketing in front of a Walmart in Niles but showed up after I had to leave because they threatened arrest. When he heard I was sick with the flu he dropped off a care package in the lobby of my apartment building. He sent cards and a Christmas gift “from Santa, with much love.” As sick as he was, he never stopped loving me, and what little he had to offer, he gave generously. Even after putting things on hold, I never had to convince him that I mattered, the one and only time I’ve ever experienced that in a relationship.
January 22, 2010 was supposed to be a wonderful evening for me. I’d had an article published in Time Out Chicago, one based on the growing popularity of my now-defunct blog (CheapFreeChicago). The idea for the blog had grown out of a conversation with Jack, who noted I always had such great ideas on what to do and where to go without spending a lot of money. He initially joked I should have a website called “What Should Jack Do?” since Jack is such a generic name, but I wanted Chicago and its flag incorporated into the concept. Less than a year later, the site was booming, I’d been a guest on Vocalo (a subset of Chicago Public Radio), and now was having an article published in Time Out Chicago (where I’d later go on to become the Kids’ Editor). That night, the magazine was having a launch party for the issue, and I’d invited Jack.
I went to a meeting beforehand with my friend Ann, and about 15 minutes before it ended my phone started blowing up. Uncle Eddie called multiple times. Then texted again and again. CALL ME. I went outside and called; when he asked if I were sitting down, I knew immediately. It was either Jack or the boys, and he wouldn’t be the one to call about the boys. His roommate had come home from a business trip and found Jack on the floor of the living room, dead from a heart attack. No one can say for sure where he was headed, but he had his car keys in hand and directions to the bar where the launch party was being held were next to his body. I’d like to think his last thoughts were of me, but that’s romantic nonsense; his last thoughts were probably of excruciating pain beyond belief, of wanting his mother, wanting to be comforted and held, for the pain and sadness and constant struggle to be taken away. I never could do that; no one could. Everyone said, after he died, that death was a blessing, and I hated them so much for it that I fought the urge to spit in their eyes so much it made my tongue bleed from biting it. Now, though, I can see the truth in such a statement; there are pains so deep that death is the only relief possible. You just have to have known or loved someone afflicted with such a deep pain and sadness to believe that such an utterance is a blessing rather than a vile curse.
I’d been afraid of becoming a widow at 47. Instead I became an unmarried one at 36. I’ll let you guess which one I would have preferred.
I am the woman who put everything on the line, who risked it all, knowing there was a chance I would lose and all of my worst fears would come to pass. And when I lost, and those worst fears came to pass, I walked through the fire, and I made it out alive. I. Did. That.
I am far from perfect (I practice the recovery trope: “Progress, not perfection”), and though I’m likely to be stubborn about it and stomp my feet a few times, I’ll admit I’m wrong when I’m wrong (sometimes more readily than others). I’ve been taught over the years to apologize when I hurt people’s feelings and make amends when I do especially shameful things. But all that being said, I have a lifetime filled not only with heartache and misfortune but also with people (mostly men, but women, too) literally trying to beat the goodness, the light, the height and the depth and the bigness out of me. I’ve survived broken bones, black eyes, bruised skin and bruised ego; I’ve gone from a little girl forced to write “Amy is smart” in tiny letters on the far wall of her closet because she wasn’t allowed to say those words out loud (sin: Pride) to a woman who isn’t afraid to publicly respond to requests for answers to questions on Quora about what it’s like to have a high IQ. It is a lesson that wavers and still bends in the wind, but I have mostly become a bad-ass. My Texas great-aunts who kept selling Avon and running hair salons and herding cattle well into their 90s, long after they became widows, might see some of their spirit in me. I might have seen it sooner, if not for all the broken bones and bruises and people who thought a smaller version of me would make them feel better about themselves. I suppose it never occurs to anyone that energy compresses becomes more powerful, and had they just let me be, I’d have done the same.
All these years later, the week of the anniversary of Jack’s death, I find myself once more besotten by grief and sadness. I can’t quite tell if it’s from last week’s events or in anticipation of Friday’s anniversary. I know it feels more like anger and indignation at being taken for a fool, at not seeing the warning signs, along with a tinge of loss. So maybe it’s both. I do know I’m better today than I was yesterday: I left the house, kept down a scrambled egg and a slice of toast, a cup of coffee. I can stop crying for a couple of hours at a time rather than mere minutes. I took a shower. I sat next to an older couple at the diner, clearly madly in love (she serenaded him, for Pete’s sake!) and it brought a smile to my face rather than annoyance to my soul.
When I get home, I’ll likely crumble into a mess again, and it’ll be difficult again. But I’m grateful I took the time to rearrange my room so it looks completely different than when he was staying there with me, which has helped significantly more than I expected when I came up with the idea (and I actually like the new layout better, too!).
All in all, I need to remember the lessons I’ve learned over the past six years, which can be applied here: I don’t need to know my destination to start walking; it isn’t that I’ll be okay but that I already am okay; things can and will and do get better; it’s okay to feel stuck (it doesn’t last forever; and one day this pain won’t even be the first thing you think of by association.
With all that being said, yes, the past months have been intense and I did fall in love but by no means does the pain of this breakup even come close to the devastation I felt when Jack died. The lessons above are Huge Major A-Bomb Level Life Lessons that will be helpful as I work my way through an experience I’ve not dealt with since April of 1989, when my first love broke my heart to the sounds of Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers’ “I’m Not Your Man” (I tell you, my life story just writes itself) in the front seat of his royal blue 1970 Chevy Nova on a weekend he was home from college. (For those who can do the math, no one’s broken up with me for 27 years; I therefore have worse coping skills with this sort of thing than my 18-year-old son, whose been dumped at least four times since he turned 15.)
In any case, life gets and is messy. People don’t always handle things with grace, especially me. I never claimed to be anything but human. No one should ever expect anyone to be anything than human (unless you believe in alien abduction or the like, in which case you should probably be reading a different blog & pick up some aluminum foil on your way there). But humans also come with the capacity to change, to express and possess needs and feelings, to give and receive love, and to perceive when people they care about are hurting or upset by our actions.
It’s up to us as individuals to take the time to work on ourselves (through therapy; I strongly believe everyone should have a course of it, even those who think they don’t need it—Rogerian might be best for those folks, though studies have shown that developing an emotional/limbic bond between therapist and patient is more important than the modality itself) so we can find the roadblocks preventing us from both becoming the people we want to be and the people others need us to be (as parents, siblings, sons and daughters, employers or employees, lovers or friends, etc.). As always, it’s progress, not perfection, and I mention this as somewhat of a coda because it has been this sort of therapy that allowed me to learn the lessons mentioned above (and so many others). And it’s these lessons I will rely upon to get through what currently seems un-get-through-able.
Check with me again at 2am, or as Friday nears, but for now I feel close to predicting that, before the 30 Days of Poems comes to an end, I’ll be posting a certain Maya Angelou poem that is familiar to many of my readers. Or, if not, it should me. For now, here’s a virtual toast to six years of progress, knowing this current pain with not last forever, a Hurrah! for my leaving the house today, and prayers I’ll make it through the night without too many tears shed. After all, I’m running out of tissues, and the bank account is low.