Today would have been Jack’s 55th birthday. Many years ago—I can’t give you a specific number; grief is like that, almost like a magic trick, poof! taking things away while you aren’t remembering to notice—I stopped pretending I had any idea what we’d be doing if he were still alive. In fact, I stopped allowing myself the delusion that our lives would have played out in entangled comfort and delight, as we’d imagined in the months during which we were both sober. I think he held on to that delusion longer than I did; it was years after he died that I realized I’d given up on it after his fourth or fifth relapse. Much to his credit, and I hope it offered him some comfort, I think he hung on to that idea until he died.
This makes me sad, in some ways. It also makes me feel as though he might have been a better person than I. And for someone who was so angry with God, he sure had a lot of faith in us. I’m grateful to have loved someone who loved me that much in return, even if I sometimes wonder whether I imagined it all.
Each year, I inch closer to the age he was when he died (48). He was not an old man. But he was a man who didn’t take particularly good care of his health, and those men die early. He was the one to find his own father dead from a heart attack at age 47 when he was only 6 or 7 years old. When he talked about it, he’d dismiss what surely must have been the traumatic and terrifying aspects of finding one’s father in such a state at such a young age.
I was 36 when Jack died, and no one would let me see his body before they took it away to the morgue. At the time it felt as though they were stealing from me an experience that might help with saying goodbye, with closure. Six-and-a-half years later, I know that decision was made out of love, sparing me the trauma of seeing the man I loved—who only a few hours earlier I was certain I’d marry once he got his problems under control—sprawled out on the floor, lifeless, his bladder and bowels having relieved themselves, the stench of death already setting in.
All of that seems like a lifetime ago. When people hear I lost someone I loved and offer condolences, I’m not quite sure what to say. It was so long ago that the outright pain and devastation have long since passed. There are times, yes, I am crying and wish he were in my presence to give me a hug and make things easier, like he used to do. But that’s when I’m already upset about something else. Mostly Jack is a tiny crack in my heart that aches every so slightly, with a deeper twinge when I see an elderly couple holding hands and very much in love, or a younger couple clearly on a first date, or at the movies by myself on a Friday night, when the preponderance of couples is difficult to overlook.
Once you lose someone, you aren’t ever quite the same. I like to think I’m stronger, because I know I survived this, so men not calling when they say they will or guys who decide I’m not for them are papercuts in comparison. I learned how to be alone in the aftermath, during all the grief. I’ve become braver, more willing to take risks and chances and leaps of faith. Once your world is turned completely upside down, what’s to lose?
People told me I’d get here one day. I didn’t believe them. But I did, so it’s also easier for me to believe people who’ve lived through difficult, even unthinkable, things and tell me that one day I, too, will look back and realize that things have changed or gotten easier and I might not have even noticed. I pay attention now to people who have walked through fire and have healed scars to prove it.
There are dozens of things wrong in my life, so much insecurity (housing, job, financial). I could choose to stop trying. I could choose to end it all. Instead I choose to keep going. Because Jack’s death—not all at once, but in fits and starts and definitely in retrospect—taught me that I have a talent for continuing on. Sometimes it’s only treading water, but that’s moving, too. I still miss him like crazy, but I know that wherever he is, if such a place exists, he’s happy for me and knows that I’m the consummate fighter. I’ll always love him; that never dies, just kind of gets sealed away for safekeeping so you know that it was there.
So happy birthday, Jack. I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend it together.