one year without my heart

A year ago, I saw my heart walking around outside of my body, and he kissed my cheekbones and grazed his thumb across my lips as I smiled back at him, confident that we would have a future full of simple things that would feel like adventures only to us. A year ago, I sat with his siblings on either side of me on the couch in the home he grew up in as they both held my hands and told me that in over 30 years of knowing their brother, they had never seen him look at someone with such intensity or heard him talk about someone with such tenderness, that they were excited to welcome me into the fold of pranks and holidays and pretend to be grossed out each time he kissed me. A year ago, his mother embraced me in the kitchen and confided in me that she knew I would be a permanent fixture in their lives when I showed up at the hospital with her son in the middle of our third date when his father died and he would not let go of my hand for even a second. A year ago, at a birthday party for his brother, Andrew pulled me away from everyone, led me outside and wrapped me in a blanket, and drew his forehead to mine and told me he couldn’t believe we’d found each other and that he couldn’t wait until a few months from now when we’d wake up in the same bed every morning, pet the cats, drink coffee, and start our days off dancing. He was struck by a drunk driver less than an hour after that moment. 

I’d never felt love quite like that before, one where I could say anything that floated across my mind, unguarded, and have the other person so enthusiastically want to dive into it and expand on every silly little idea in order to understand what was going on in there. He knew every single fold and wrinkle on my brain, and I had never been so entirely vulnerable with another person in that way. He found me at a time when I had retreated into the darkest corners of myself, but rather than try to pull me out, he sat there with me and brought a candle and matches, but left it to me to light it when I was ready. I was a wild, feral animal when I met him, but in time he helped me see that my wildness was beautiful and necessary for my survival. What he was, what we were, will not happen again, and the world will never be as great as it could have been with the limitless potential of the energy he put out, each particle of which was laced with a deep and radical kindness that bordered on sainthood. 

I think a lot about how every tiny action can change everything. Had our moment outside, wrapped up in the blanket, lasted thirty more seconds, maybe the truck would have missed his car. Had my last words to him been more expansive, more descriptive than merely, “I love you,” maybe it would have saved his life. If someone else had picked up ice on their way, he never would have left the party to go get some from just up the street. Had I not craved something sweet that one night and gone to the grocery store, maybe we never would have met and the course of our lives would have changed entirely, and who is to say if either of us would be alive or dead right now. 

A couple days after he died, his brother and sister came to me with a small velvet box containing a ring that he’d dragged them out of the house to help him pick out the day after Thanksgiving last year. He didn’t intend to give it to me until the first moments of the new year in 2020 with what surely would have been an unbearably adorable and cheesy pun about having a perfect vision of a future with me, and I would have swatted at him and covered my mouth and laughed and cried and said yes to becoming a wife, which has never been something I saw or wanted for myself until the idea changed from not just being a wife, but his wife. I wore the ring every day on a chain around my neck for months until the weight of it became too much to bare for everyday use.

Each year that passes, I seem to have more and more death anniversaries to dread, and this one filled my stomach with gravel for weeks. I kept replaying our last hours together over and over, then the hours spent in the hospital not knowing if Andrew would wake up. Every thread that held together my being came unraveled that night, every stitch came undone. I hadn’t realized just how much Andrew had been helping me carry in the six months since I had been raped, and all of that crashed down on top of me and mixed in with the smoking rubble of his death. I felt entirely pulverized and raw and even the gentle touch of loved ones trying to help me through it felt like glass being driven into my skin. 

Instead of staying under my covers all day like I thought I would, I spent a few hours with Andrew’s family. We all went to the place where the driver struck him and laid flowers by the side of the road. We went back to his mom’s house for some food, and they had prepared a box of his things for me. His clothes still smelled like him, and it was when I buried my face into his scent that I truly lost it for the first time of the day. His family held me like I was one of their own as we all cried about how truly unfair it is that the best among us had been taken. 

I was afraid of what this would do to me. For weeks after Andrew died, I was filled with anger that I did not think would ever dissipate. I thought that every soft part of me had hardened into something unrecognizable, but as time inevitably marched on, those soft parts came back and I found other parts of myself softening as well. In the last year, I have become the type of person to fill my bedroom with potted plants and spend time researching what is best for them, how to get rid of their particular pests and blights. Solitude is no longer a lonely thing, but a peaceful thing. I am writing more. I am spending time with people I care about and expending less energy on people who see my wildness as a negative quality. I am quiet more often in situations where I know my voice will not be heard no matter how loudly I scream, so my voice is clearer in moments where my words have an impact. I am a soft and wild thing, despite all that has happened. 

I feel Andrew in everything that I do. I sometimes wonder if ghosts are actually just the result of time felt in nonlinear fashion, because there are moments where I feel a tender memory from the past with him as though it is happening in the present, as though he is in the room with me. I bask in those moments; they are sunshine on my face after a long, grey winter. The nightmares that once plagued every hour of sleep I managed to squeeze out of a night have slowly been replaced by fuzzy appearances by Andrew, just lightly touching my chin and laughing. My sleep paralysis, which used to consist of me being involuntarily frozen in my bed while watching the disfigured silhouette of my rapist slowly creep towards me, have been replaced by Andrew appearing, turning the creeping figure into dust, then crawling into bed beside me and holding my hand, whispering to me to try and wiggle my toes until I can move again. Even though he is gone, he still shows up with a candle and matches when I need him. I will miss him for the rest of my life.

flower pic

The last flowers Andrew ever sent me.

Promises to Myself

I promise to never stop your heart from letting out a tiny gasp when the sunlight hits the leaves of the tree outside of your house just so in those quiet moments you take for yourself on the porch.

I will never prevent you from sighing happily when you see your cat curled against a pillow in your bed, slightly under the covers like she’s resting from a long day, her little toe beans outstretched with contentedness.

I promise I will let you cry when you need to. I didn’t do that for a long time, and I’m sorry that it resulted in you crying for an hour about the idea of non-native plants being homesick, even though we were really crying about everything else, on top of lonely plants.

I will never let you wake up in anger, maybe in sadness every now and then, but mostly in delight that you have another day laid out before you to extract as many smiles as you can from every person you see, because there is a special chamber in your heart that constantly needs refilling in the way of other people’s smiles. 

I promise I will believe people when they tell you they love you and/or think you’re beautiful. 

I will never let you feel badly for feeling so much or question whether you’re too sensitive, because your sensitivity has allowed you to survive in this often harsh world. 

I promise that I will always love you first, because you can’t love everyone else as well as you want to if you don’t have the full embrace of my love to hold you up. 

I will never let you make yourself smaller for another person, because you deserve every bit of space you take up, and if you are too much for them the way you are, you shouldn’t be letting them try to devour you anyway. 

I promise I won’t stop you when you get the urge to dance in public while walking home, even just a little wiggle of your shoulders (which is the one dance move we know), only if you remind me of all the times we have seen other people do that and wished we could be as free as they are. 

I promise to put more warm sweaters on you right after you get out of the shower. 

I promise to continue our search for the perfect hair dye that lets you continue to have auburn hair but doesn’t cover the gray strands that you have lived so hard to earn. I make no guarantees, as this is the opposite of what most hair dyes promise. 

I promise that I will not sink into myself when you have to be in the same room as someone who makes a joke about rape. I promise that if you feel safe, you will call them out, not to embarrass them, but to protect yourself and every other person who does not want to stand in a room with someone who thinks what happened to you has anything in common with something that is funny. 

I promise that I won’t be too hard on you for leaving a high-powered, high-paying director position in a field you care about in order to go back to serving wine, because you know that you would be compromising the type of person you are if we stayed. Please remind me of this when we are paying our student loans with tip money instead of a juicy salary. 

I promise to cut you a break. You’ve dealt with a lot in our relatively short life, and I forget that sometimes because you have been doing so well lately, which is something I am so very proud of you for. I promise to remember it has been difficult and to allow you the time and space to continue to heal when we unexpectedly have a bad day. 

I promise that if you want cake for breakfast, we will have cake for breakfast, even if you have to make one from scratch. 

I will buy you a new robe, one that is fluffier and more luxurious than you ever imagined, and you will spend a full day in this robe doing nothing but reading a good book and napping with the cats, who will be supremely jealous of the robe.

I promise to never apologize again for how loud your laugh is, and I will remind you of the time someone two and a half floors away at work ran down to see you because they knew you were in the building because they heard you laugh. I will remind you of how you felt when they said your loud laugh was like the happiest chime on a door that announced your arrival.

I promise that I will not let this winter get to you as badly as the last one. You have a lot more going for you this time around, so I will hold onto that for the both of us, even as the days only have 45 seconds of daylight and your ghosts come out to try and haunt you.

I promise that I will treat you like my best friend and not talk shit on you behind our back. I think that you are pretty great overall, and even if you annoy me sometimes, I promise I will still love you every single day and try and be better to you and everyone around us. 

I promise I will remember that you are not so different from a plant, and that you shouldn’t stay in the same pot for too long; fresh soil is good for you even if the change feels scary and it takes a while to adjust. I will gently pull the wilted parts from you so that the good, healthy parts aren’t weighed down and you can flower during all seasons, even the cold, dark ones. I will rotate you so that all sides get the right amount of light, even the sides that don’t feel like facing the bright light of the sun. 

hold onto your teeth: a wedding story

Today, I had the distinct honor of being the maid of honor for a lovely couple that I met in the senior living community where I volunteer, Gram and Marv. They met around a year and a half ago, shortly after I started spending time there. They were remarkably shy around each other at first, and it took them over a year to admit they had feelings for one another, even though they had both separately confided in me about how they felt. 

Gram, whose real name nobody but Marv knows, is the embodiment of a sweet grandmotherly figure who loves taking care of other people and baking for them. She says she never fit in with her peers as a young adult and feels she was built for old age. She had several serious relationships in her life, but she never married, and she never saw marriage as the only mark of a successful relationship. She kept her circle of friends as close as family and moved into the community after she broke her hip. She has a cookie recipe for every occasion (even a séance), and a hug from her can make all your troubles melt away. When she sheepishly told me one day that she thinks she might have a crush on Marvin, it was the first time I’d seen her look anything close to embarrassed. I drew closer to her and we engaged in some serious girl-talk. She thought that part of her life was over and had resigned herself to being alone but not lonely for the rest of her time here. She pressed her palms against her cheeks and asked if I thought it was a terribly silly idea. I convinced her that there was nothing silly about it, and she suddenly gasped and told me she hadn’t been on a date in nearly fifteen years. She didn’t even know how to ask someone on a date anymore. I jokingly told her she should pass him a note. 

Marv is a delightfully hilarious man who loves being called Marvin the Martian. He had a wife, but they separated when they were in their forties and he never married again. Marv is a lifelong learner and absolutely loves when I show him what he calls “computer tricks.” He likes to show the other residents his sleuthing skills on “the Google box.” Within the same week as my conversation with Gram, Marv pulled me aside and told me he had a problem that he needed a young woman’s help with. He told me he wanted to ask a lady out, but he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate or how to do it. I held my breath in hopeful anticipation and asked who the lucky woman was. He was a little reticent, but I told him I would need to know who in order to help personalize the way he asked, and he finally caved. It was Gram, because sometimes the world is a perfect place. Pacing back and forth and wildly gesticulating, Marv said it was stupid and that she wouldn’t want to go out with an old geezer like him and he didn’t even know how to date anymore. He told me this wasn’t the kind of thing he thought he should Google. I told him to sit down so we could come up with a game plan. We decided that since she was an old-fashioned type of gal, he should make it a formal ordeal. 

A few days later, I returned and they both pulled me aside separately again, and I got the full story. They were both giddy as teenagers when they told me what had happened. Marv knocked on Gram’s door wearing a suit and holding a bouquet of flowers as he read from a paper on which he had scrawled the reasons why he wanted to take her on a date. Gram let him finish and at the end, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the note she had written for him, asking him on a date. 

The months went on and they started spending more and more time together. According to the local gossips, they were often seen leaving each other’s rooms at “suspicious hours,” which in that community, means anytime after 6pm. They held hands everywhere they went and started eating every meal together. They’d go on walks together and listen to audio books and records and could be heard laughing together wherever they went. They started appearing at every activity together. A couple weeks ago, Marv proposed to Gram, and she ecstatically said yes. In his proposal, Marv told her that they were going to have to invest in more oxygen tanks, because she takes his breath away every single day. 

They were going to wait until after the holidays to get married, but they decided they had waited their whole lives for each other and didn’t want to wait much longer. They called me and asked if I would be their maid of honor and their DJ. I nearly cried out of sheer joy and feeling so touched, but I asked them why they chose me. Marv told me I had drawn a crowd when I first started spending time in the community and that they never would have interacted with each other had I not been there pulling them towards each other. Gram told me I had given her the confidence to take a chance and date again. I went from nearly crying to sobbing in my bedroom. Carl would be Marv’s best man, and Gary would officiate. The wedding was in ten days. 

I spent a lot of time with them in the week leading up to their big day to help with the planning and finding vendors on the internet. It was going to be a small ceremony within the community, but they wanted flowers and catering. They were both full of nervous energy and laughter as we combed through the details of what they wanted. I helped them both type up their vows in a large font so they could read them to one another. 

I went with Gram to pick out her dress. She wanted to get it from a thrift store, because she hated the idea of wedding dresses being discarded and left to hang amongst other rejected clothes. She tried a few on and none of them were really her style. We finally found one covered in lace and pearls that fit her like a dream. She emerged from the dressing room and shyly asked if she looked beautiful.  I clutched my face in my hands and told her she looked stunning. She grasped my hands and told me she hadn’t felt like a beautiful woman in a long time, but she believed Marv when he said it, which was every day. 

The same day, I went with Marv to pick out his suit. He had suits at home, but he wanted something brand new for his brand new bride to see him in. As I straightened his tie outside the dressing room and we looked in the mirror together, Marv asked me if I thought he was going to be a good husband. He told me he hadn’t been a husband in so long that he was nervous he would mess it up. He took me by the shoulders and said he couldn’t bear the thought of Gram being even the slightest bit disappointed. I grabbed his shoulders right back and told him he was going to be an amazing husband and that Gram loved him so deeply that she messed up a cookie recipe in nervous anticipation of their wedding. He laughed and noted that he was glad he could make a woman so scatterbrained even in his old age. 

The day arrived, and I did my maid of honor duties by helping Gram get ready. Her regular hair lady made a house-call and did her makeup as well. She looked absolutely amazing, and I couldn’t wait for Marv to see her. They had spent the night in their separate apartments for the last time and didn’t want to see each other until the ceremony. 

I led Gram out into the hallway outside the event space, and she took a deep breath and said, “I found my happily ever after, kiddo. I didn’t think it would happen.” I hugged her and joined Carl so he could walk me down the aisle. Cynthia began playing the wedding march on the piano and Gram entered the room. Marv gasped and blotted his eyes with his handkerchief. To no one in particular, he said, “Isn’t she the most beautiful sight you’ve ever seen?” Gram reached the altar and Marv took her hands. Neither of them could stop smiling. Gary began officiating, and it came time for the vows, which both Gram and Marv have asked me to include:

Gram:
“I have been in love with the idea of love since I was a little girl, and I always dreamt of my wedding day. Men came in and out of my life, and I loved some of them very deeply, but they did not feel like my husband to me. As I grew older, I became content with the idea of having known love throughout my life, but none of it sticking. There I was, perfectly happy with this life, when I came downstairs and heard you laughing. You were sitting at the computer with Taylor and you had just learned how to save a photo. Through your investigating, you had figured out how to find old friends of yours, and you found a photo of one man you served in the Army with. You saved the picture and printed it out and you just started laughing, so wildly and freely, and I found myself stifling giggles, too. That is the moment you disrupted my perfectly content life, because I realized I wanted to be able to make you laugh like that. I imagined waking up to that sound. I imagined it ringing out in the night when we both couldn’t sleep and decided to tell stories to one another instead. I was no longer content with contentment. When you asked me on a date, I thought my little old heart would leap out of my chest, and I’m still not convinced it won’t. I have spent my life taking care of people; it is my calling and it is what I love, but I have never felt so taken care of as during my time with you. My dreams of my wedding day pale in comparison to this day, this moment, this life with you. You feel like my husband. It is you I have been waiting for, and my fluttery old heart belongs to you entirely.”

Marv:
“I smelled your cookies for weeks before I even set eyes on you. Snickerdoodle, peanut butter, fudge, chocolate chip, newfangled cookies I didn’t even know existed. There was always something sweet wafting my way, and then they’d be set out in the common area for everyone. I ate so many cookies, just wondering what sort of person makes cookies with wild abandon, then doesn’t even stick around to see their creations bring joy to everyone. I thought about how selfless that person must be that they don’t even have to see that joy to know it is there. This is not just about cookies with you. I have seen you comfort every person in this building at one point or another. When Pauline and Larry were on their way out, you made sure everybody they cared about was informed and able to stop by to say their goodbyes before they passed. You know about the families of every member of the staff. You know the birthday of every person you’ve ever met, I swear. I tried marriage once, what feels like a lifetime ago, and I never thought I would want to do it again. Then I met you and I knew that I wanted forever with you. Our forever might be shorter than the average couple’s, but I intend to spend every moment of it moving through this world by your side. I don’t know what I did to deserve your heart, but I promise I will hold it so gently in these old hands. It will be the honor of my life to be your husband and have you as my wife.”

Gary wrapped up the ceremony and presented them as husband and wife. They sealed the deal with a kiss that felt so powerful and intimate that I had to look away. They walked back down the aisle, and I took Carl’s arm and we went into the larger event room to start the party. I put on the playlist Gram and Marv had asked me to make, filled with classic love songs from their youth. We all ate pasta and told stories and laughed. Gram and Marv had their first dance to “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room as we watched them hold each other so tenderly and sway while whispering secrets to one another. They finished their dance and everyone else joined them on the dance floor. The great thing about being the youngest person at a wedding by at least forty years is that I had the energy to dance with every single person who asked. As I was dancing with Marv, he looked at me and told me he had been smiling so big for so many days that he was afraid his dentures were going to fall out. Gram shouted, “Hold onto your teeth!” and cut in to steal away her husband for more dancing and twirled him around. I felt like I could float away.

I convinced Carl to dance more than once, which felt like a huge success. While dancing, we talked about the concept of love and touched on how many times we had been in love in our lives. If you had told the childhood version of myself that it is possible to be in love more than one time in your life, she would have scoffed and insisted that only one really counts, the one that lasts. I am miles away from that thought now. Carl asked me if I had allowed myself to feel love, or at least be open to it, since Andrew died.

I enter every relationship knowing that the only possible result is sorrow, which sounds more bleak than it is. One of us will feel more than the other, it will be unbalanced, maybe we will grow to hate each other, maybe it will all just slowly dissolve and the end won’t be painful but it will be full of sorrow at the death of possibility. Or maybe that love continues to grow over years or a lifetime and is steady and hums beneath the surface of everything we do and causes our skin to vibrate at the same frequency, but one of us will die before the other. It will always end, one way or another, and sorrow and pain is the cost of love. There are times when this does not feel like an even exchange and I tell my heart to burrow further down into my rib cage so it cannot be penetrated again. My heart has lain dormant since the night my love died eleven months ago, but it recently emerged from its dark cage as a man kissed my earlobes and told me that cooking is all in the hips as he swiveled them in my kitchen while pointing at me with a wooden spoon. My heart peeked out and started to curl upwards and outwards towards the sun like the tendrils of a hanging plant as I found I was hardly able to finish a sentence without interrupting myself by kissing him in the middle of it. Every moment with him already felt like a memory as it was happening, it all felt so laced with intention and vulnerability. I do not love this man, as there was not nearly enough time and there is now too much distance, which is an equation for yearning and not love, but he woke me up before he left and the tendrils are continuing to curl with the full knowledge that no price is too great to feel love pour outward and into somebody else, and you can have an infinite number of loves of your life. Knowing it will end and be painful and doing it anyway is what makes it love. I am bursting with love, romantic and otherwise, and for nearly a year, I forgot this, and if Andrew was still alive to notice I had shut that part of myself off, he would have thrown a pillow at my head. To know that my heart can keep growing for decades to come and to see that even in the final chapters of life, fresh love can be found and celebrated and shouted from rooftops and murmured into adoring ears while dancing is nothing short of a miracle, which I am so incredibly privileged to have witnessed. 

The party began to wind down a couple hours later, so we all gathered in the hallway leading to Gram’s apartment, which Marv would be fully moving into the next day. We showered them with flower petals as they walked past everyone who loves them, hand in hand, into the apartment where they would begin their lives together.

gram&marv

lightning bugs

Carl and I sit outside on the back patio of the nursing home and watch Audrey chase lightning bugs nearby. It is just barely dark outside, and the air is still heavy with the summer’s heat, but sitting inside felt too confining. Audrey carefully cups her hands around the bugs and watches them crawl along her knuckles. I tried to convince her to put bug spray on, but she said then the lightning bugs wouldn’t be her friends and that she was willing to get mosquito bites for the sake of friends. 

I read somewhere that the male lightning bugs fly around illuminating themselves while the female bugs wait among the grass and leaves, looking upwards at the bio-luminescent light show soaring above their heads until they see a flashing pattern that appeals to them. They study the pattern and repeat it back to the male until he flutters down into the grass with her, and they mate for hours, sometimes until dawn. I can’t decide if I love or hate this and wonder if I just wait to see something I like in a person and imitate it or if I’m the one setting my own patterns. 

Audrey runs over to show us a particularly impressive firefly and asks if we think lightning bugs fall in love. Carl tells her that everything can fall in love and she frowns and said, “Even spiders?” He exclaims, “Especially spiders!” and goes on to tell her about how some spiders fall in love so much that they won’t even let their mates leave the web. Before I can even object to this questionable example, Audrey scoffs and tells him that isn’t love because the other spider doesn’t have a choice, then runs off to release the lightning bug that has made its way up to her elbow. Carl raises an eyebrow at me and asks if I’m sure that kid isn’t related to me. Audrey whispers a secret into her cupped hands to her lightning bug friend, then opens her hands like a book and gently blows it into the air before doing a cartwheel. 

She tumbles over to us and asks if there will still be lightning bugs if the whole Amazon rain forest burns down. I tell her that we can just hope the whole thing doesn’t burn down and do our part to protect our planet. She plops down beside us in a chair and inhales deeply, as though she can smell the smoke wafting up from Brazil. My dreams lately have been filled with smoke and fire and I wonder if we are passively sitting through the apocalypse, idly sharing memes about it and refusing to use straws. 

I am not Audrey’s parent, nor am I the parent of any child, but I am still enveloped in fear every time I think about how we’re living and what we’re leaving behind for her. Her dad told me that in the first week of school, they had an active shooter drill and a tornado drill, as if the two were both natural disasters that we just have to learn to live with. I was nine years old when Columbine happened. We, too, had active shooter drills, but they were fumbling and new. Now they are part of the manual and streamlined and routine. I was taught of climate change and the mighty power of recycling, but I never had to watch on a screen as the lungs of my planet turned into black smoke before I went to recess. Audrey has always been very matter-of-fact. She wants solutions, not problems–action, not idle hands. I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t know how to fix this. 

She runs off again, and Carl shakes his head. He tells me that the world we’re living in is so much different than what he had hoped it would become. He says he doesn’t know how young people are able to keep from screaming every day. He shifts slightly and turns his chair towards mine. 

Carl asks me if I’m happy. He tells me that the other residents have been talking about whether or not I’m actually happy or if I’m just putting on a brave face for them. I sigh and tell him that even though I have a fairly ongoing battle with depression, sometimes I’m so happy that it hurts. I tell him how I don’t understand why or how I am still optimistic about a world in which so much has been taken from me. I don’t know how I still trust anyone, and sometimes I feel like the dodo bird in that my friendly tendency to walk right up to human strangers and expect the best will cause my extinction. I tell him that some days it feels like I am going to lift right off the ground because of the huge swells of joy my heart feels when I see something simple and beautiful. I have no reason to be this happy, and it isn’t mania, but it doesn’t feel normal. When I told my therapist that I thought there was a chemical imbalance, and I’ve suspected one since high school, she had to ask, if there was a chemical imbalance that was causing me happiness and no other side effects, would I really want to get rid of it?

I am happy, but there is a guilt that feels suctioned against it, like plastic cups stacked against each other. My world falls apart often, and this whole world feels on the verge of crumbling at any moment, but I remind myself of the goodness that surrounds me at all times. I recall the time I got caught in the rain while walking around a park and a family that spoke very little English ushered me into their shelter and fed me tamales and birthday cake and put a pointy cardboard hat on my head so that I didn’t feel so alone in the storm. I think about the elderly woman who saw me crying in the hospital after Andrew died and rocked me and stroked my hair and got me to match my breathing with hers so I could get down a sip of water, even though she had just lost her husband a few rooms down from where I said my goodbyes. I remind myself how lucky I am to have known love–that ground-shaking kind of love that makes the world feel impossibly huge but also like every bit of it is within your reach at the same time, because not everyone gets to feel that. Every moment is surrounded by goodness, even if it is not happening to me or for me in that second, and that is why I am able to get through a day without screaming at the sky. 

Audrey runs back, this time with half a dozen lightning bugs all over her arms. She is giggling as they tickle her skin, which makes Carl laugh, and I add that blended sound to the list of Good Things. Audrey asks how long lightning bugs live, because she has become obsessed with lifespans in the last few weeks. I search it on my phone and tell her that from egg to adult, they live one to two years. We do the math and determine that Audrey is still an egg and Carl is an adult lightning bug, and I’m somewhere in between–I’m not an egg, not yet a woman, in the words of Britney Spears. 

Audrey’s grandparents are about twenty-five years younger than Carl, and the people she has met in the home are the oldest people she has ever interacted with. Never shy, she starts to ask Carl questions about old age as she transfers the fireflies to his hands. She wants to know when he started getting wrinkles, when his hair turned white, how often he takes his teeth out, when he moved into assisted living and why. Carl answers these questions with patience and I’m still in awe of how lovely and kind his voice is after not speaking to anyone for so many years out of guilt and shame for something that happened decades ago. She asks about where his family is, and Carl freezes. He glances at me, panic in his eyes, and I open my mouth to say something but I can’t find the right words. Audrey sees this exchange and tells him that it’s okay if he doesn’t want to talk about it, because she sometimes doesn’t feel like talking about her mom with people who don’t know she died because she doesn’t like people feeling sorry for her. She tells Carl that she and I can be his family if he is okay with that. Carl gently pulls a lightning bug from her hair and puts it in his own white wisps and tells her that having the two of us as family would be the greatest joy of his life. 

I don’t know where the world is heading, but today I am thankful to be sandwiched between two people who have a 73 year age gap between them but have decided to be family to each other and me. They have both given me hundreds of moments of goodness to remind myself of when the edges of my world start to darken. Audrey puts a firefly in my hair and another one in her own so that the three of us match, then runs back into the field among the flashing bugs who are also trying to find their own moments of happiness in a world that is much bigger and scarier than they are.

Dear Organ Donor Recipient:

I am writing to you because a piece of someone I loved is now a part of your body thanks to the amazing world we live in where the death of someone doesn’t have to be a total loss. His name was Andrew, and if he knew you needed a part of him to make your life better, he would have carved it out of himself while standing before you. He was profoundly kind, and I don’t mean kindness as the default label that gets slapped in the obituary of everyone who has ever died. I mean the type of kindness that wrapped itself around a room like the tendrils of flowering vines, kindness that radiated off his skin in a nearly palpable way, kindness that made everyone around him want to be the best versions of themselves just to halfway keep up.

I met Andrew at a time when I didn’t think I would ever be happy again, but he elevated me to a level of happiness that I didn’t know was possible. I was afraid that same feeling of emptiness would return after I lost him, but the Andrew Effect has permeated life beyond death. I am certainly devastated that we didn’t get the future we planned together, but he would be furious if I stopped planning my future just because he was gone. Our time together on this earth was very brief in the grand scheme of things, but he forever changed the way that I feel things. He set the bar incredibly high for the quality of love I let into my life, and I just want to let you all know about the pieces of him you were fortunate enough to accept into your bodies as your own. 

To the Recipient of His Kidneys:
Andrew filtered himself extremely well in every aspect, so I imagine his kidneys are working wonderfully for you. Andrew was a lesson in the difference between filtering yourself and censoring yourself. He always knew exactly what to say to each person to make their day better, but he never withheld what was needed to be said in any way. He always joked that he would sell a kidney to do this or that, but I’m positive he would void the bill for you. I hope your life remains well-filtered and uncensored.  

To the Recipient of His Intestines:
Andrew trusted his gut over everything. Anytime he got excited about something, he would dramatically wiggle his fingers over his stomach, raise an eyebrow, and say, “I just have a feeling about it.” It was his gut that told him to tell me he loved me absurdly early into our relationship, and it was my gut that told me that when I said it back, I meant it. I hope you trust those guts, too. 

To the Recipient of His Lungs:
Every morning, Andrew woke up and took a deep breath with those lungs that are now inside your chest. It’s not something I ever thought someone could be particularly good at, but Andrew was an exceptional breather. He often took my hand and reminded me to breathe, and when I put my head against his chest, I would feel the steady rise and fall as he let out a contented sigh. Those lungs gave him the power to sing loudly and often, and they only stuttered when he got to laughing so hard that he would start wheezing, which was nearly every day, so I hope that in the first few months of your recovery, you warned your funny friends to take it easy. I hope you wake up each morning and take a deep breath and remember that sometimes that’s all you need to reset yourself.

To the Recipient of His Eyes:
You are not the only one who Andrew has helped to see things more clearly. His outlook on the world was boundlessly positive, and he saw beauty in absolutely everything, even some of the darker parts of life. When I first met him, I told him a joke and he shut his eyes tightly while he laughed and when he opened them, all I saw was sparkling warmth. He could tell you entire stories with just his eyes from the opposite side of the room at a party and make you laugh. His eyes were eyes that could see through walls that people put up and cut to the core of a person. His eyes made you feel like the only person in the room worth looking at. I hope you look in the mirror and feel that love every single day. 

To the Recipient of His Heart:
You and I probably have the most in common in that we have both held Andrew’s heart, but we aren’t alone. He gave bits of his heart freely to anyone who needed it and never expected anything in return. I have no idea how doctors managed to fit it into your chest, because it is enormous. That heart got his blood racing daily, because he was always so excited and energetic about every single thing. On the night that I told him I would move to Nashville with him, he kissed my fingers and placed my palm against his chest and said that his heart had been looking for another heart to spill all of its love into and that he was glad our hearts had met. I hope that this new heart in your chest gives you the strength to pour out all of your love to the people in your life with wild abandon.

I think of all of you each morning when I wake up from a dream of Andrew in which it feels like he’s right there, but just out of my grasp, like seeing glimpses of the ocean interspersed through a thicket of trees while in a speeding car. I look to my left, the heart of my bed, where if plans had worked out, he would be smiling back at me, ready to face the world outside of our little sanctuary, and when I see that empty space, I think of each one of you. I think about the branches of people extending out god knows how far who are also waking up, thankful that they have been given more time with you, time that they lived in fear of being unable to witness. When I stood in the hospital room as the doctor asked Andrew’s family and me if we would consider organ donation, the four of us simultaneously shouted, “Yes,” and when we grasped our hands together, we were already thinking of you.

I hope you are well and out of the woods, health-wise. I hope that you celebrate your life every day with your people, and I hope that laughter comes a little more easily these days. I hope you know that I love you, and not just the parts of you that came from Andrew: the whole you.


With Love,
Taylor

Note to Readers: If you have not already, please register yourself as an organ donor. You won’t need them once you’re gone.

one-organ-donor-eight-lives

A Séance at the Nursing Home

Last week, Marv called me and asked if I had any interest in attending a séance led by Gary at the nursing home. I didn’t even ask for details, because I immediately knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. I’ve made it a rule for myself that if I’m able, I will never pass up the opportunity for a supremely weird opportunity. For the sake of transparency, I will admit that I don’t know where I stand on the metaphysical world and supernatural occurrences. I was deeply invested in the idea when I was a kid, so much so that I spent $20 of my hard-earned allowance on a good luck amulet that was allegedly so powerful that even a picture of it couldn’t be shown on the website. Turns out, I spent $20 on a polished rock that made no perceptible change in my life, but I still have it today. I would love for ghosts to be real and to be able to tell the future, or at least be told my future, but I’ve never fully been able to buy into any of that, just as I’ve never fully been able to buy into any type of faith. But still, I went with an open mind.

I went to the home this morning to help Gary set up, because when you’re dealing with a bunch of folks in their 80s and 90s, you can’t wait for nightfall for a séance. The staff repeatedly told us that this was not an activity that was sanctioned by the home and that if any of the other residents complained, we had to stop immediately. Gary gave a wave of his hand and called them a bunch of fuddy duddies but agreed to the terms. He had a whole grand plan that we would start with tarot card readings, then attempt to contact the other side. We set up one big table in one of the community rooms, and we arranged all sorts of candles and gemstones and tapestries. Slowly, the residents we had invited trickled in. Gram, the embodiment of a sweet, grandmotherly stereotype, surprised me by being the most excited by this foray into the occult. As she was laying out the cookies she baked specifically for this event, she told me, “I just love the idea of seeing something new after so many decades on this earth.” May we all be like Gram as we age.

Carl surprised me by even showing up at all. Carl and I have played checkers together since I started spending time there, but he had never spoken a word to me, or anyone else in the home in all the years he had lived there. He frequently passed me notes during our games that asked questions about myself. He always wanted to know about me, but he very rarely wrote down anything about himself. There was something profoundly sad about Carl, but he never gave up any information. Despite knowing nothing about him, I cherished our time together, and I found myself talking more to him than to many friends my age. He shook up my role as the friend who always does the listening, and it was disarming. He surprised me one day by showing me he had learned how to use a computer when he found out I had this blog, and therefore knows a lot about what has happened to me in the last year. I know he’ll read this, too, and I know he’ll know that I love him no matter what.

Eventually, everyone showed up, and there were nine of us in total. Gary seemed excited by the idea of our number being divisible by three, because apparently this is significant. He pulled out his tarot deck and started giving everyone readings. When he pulled the Death card on Carl, everyone else burst out laughing and agreed that in this venue, that isn’t the most intimidating or surprising card in the deck, but Carl still looked ruffled. Gary read everyone like a pro. I’ve always admired people who are capable of pulling little bits of people into a reading and giving them enough of what they want to hear and enough intrigue to make it feel real. Maybe it is real. I don’t know anything for certain. Gary told me that the cards foretold great excitement in my future, and perhaps a choice between lovers. I can now say that I have been hooted and hollered at by a room full of old geezers giving me crap about my love life.

death card

Everyone got their reading, and it was time to begin the séance. We lit the candles and turned out the lights and joined hands around the table. We had decided earlier that we were going to try and contact Mary Beth’s husband, Ulysses, who died a war hero. She missed him terribly and never remarried. She was pregnant when he died, so she wanted to tell him about their daughter and let him ask any questions he may have. She had brought photos of him, which we spread around the table. Gary recited some words and then we all closed our eyes and held the image of Ulysses in our minds.

There was a strange electric energy in the air that can probably be chalked up to nine people nervously existing together with joined hands in a small room, but Mary Beth suddenly gasped and said she could smell her husband–juniper with a little bit of citrus. I couldn’t smell anything, but Mary Beth started crying. We opened our eyes and Gary asked Ulysses to make himself known by knocking on the table or extinguishing a flame. We gave him ample time, but nothing happened. Mary Beth gasped again and said she felt something like a wisp of a hug on her shoulders, but that the smell was now gone. She told us with a smile that her husband had gone back, but she somehow knew he was happy. She wiped away her tears and Marvin passed her his handkerchief. We all took some deep breaths and I wondered if anything had really happened or if the power of suggestion was just as comforting as the real thing.

Gary looked at me with his dark, gentle eyes and told me the group had been talking earlier in the day and that, if I was willing, they’d like to try and contact Andrew for me. He said since he had died the most recently, it might be easier to get ahold of him. He explained that my fresh grief was a powerful tool and that the odds of him already hanging around close to this side of the spiritual plane were pretty high, since he was ripped away so violently. I closed my eyes and entertained the idea of feeling Andrew against my skin, hearing his voice, or even just smelling him. He always smelled slightly of sawdust and lightly maple-infused tree bark, and I would give everything to bottle that smell and carry it with me for the rest of my life. I told Gary that I didn’t bring any photos of Andrew with me, and he said I could just pull one up on my phone for everyone to take a look at. I agreed. I had nothing to lose, as I had already lost everything in December.

Everyone took in Andrew’s picture and closed their eyes. I put my phone away and joined them. Gary recited the same invocation and we waited. I wanted so badly for something to happen that my eyes welled up with tears. A memory of Andrew suddenly, almost violently, entered my mind, and it was so vivid that it almost felt like it was happening.

He was driving me home after Thanksgiving with his family, the day after I told him I would move to Nashville with him. The plan for the rest of the night was to watch the worst possible movies we could find, and to break the news to my cats that they were going to be Southern gals in a few months. We were discussing our future together and our hands were intertwined on the gear shift. He was wearing a mustard colored sweater that made his amber eyes glow even more warmly, and he was overdue for a haircut, but I loved playing with the long bits at the nape of his neck. We were talking about what it means to be committed to a person in a partnership, and I told him that I was afraid one of us would get bored. He told me if that started to happen, one of us would do something crazy to shake the other one up. I told him that he might wake up one day and want kids, and even if I decided I wanted them too, there’s a possibility that the brutality of my rape six months prior left me unable to support a pregnancy. He shrugged and said we would go adopt one if we couldn’t make one, and if he wanted kids and I didn’t, he promised he would choose me every time and we would just adopt a high maintenance dog instead. I told him that I was afraid he would get offended or find me cold and distant when I needed to be alone for a little bit. He told me he would buy me a house next door to ours so I could have a cats-only zone to escape to. I asked him what would happen if he woke up one day and realized he made a mistake and felt trapped. He didn’t say anything and pulled the car over. He took my face in his hands and said, “You can’t talk me out of loving you. I love you from the deepest parts of my soul, and it feels like it transcends this world, these bodies. I will love you through my entire life and beyond my death. I will not get bored. I will not feel trapped. If you feel those things at any point, you can leave me and I’ll even help you pack, but that won’t stop me from loving you.” He kissed me long and hard, and all doubt and fear left my body and I saw my entire future laid out before me with this man who made me feel invincible and infinite and really, truly seen for the first time in my life.

I opened my eyes and saw everyone looking at me, most of them crying. Gram was openly sobbing and sputtered out, “I just feel such love right now, I can’t explain it.” Mary Beth squeezed my hand tighter and told me she wasn’t sure what happened or where I went, but she knew that Andrew had been there with me. Gary smiled and whispered, “That was a good one. Andrew, if you are still with us, let your presence be known. Otherwise, thank you for letting us feel the love you have for our girl.” We all paused for a few moments, then released hands after nothing happened.

I don’t know how to explain what happened. I’m a skeptic, so I’m hardly convinced that there was anything supernatural at work, but I cannot discredit the power of human emotion. I think being in a room full of people who were focused on one person, combined with my desire to see him, forced this memory into my mind, and it was so vivid that I felt exactly the way I felt in that car. I think it’s entirely possible for people to pick up on the emotions of others, especially in such an intense setting, and I think that’s exactly what happened. I don’t really believe Andrew’s spirit was in that room, partially because to think so would give me a dangerous amount of hope, and I don’t think I would ever be able to move on if I thought I could reach out to him.

We were silent and reflective for a few minutes, until Carl looked across the table at me and spoke, “I need to talk to you in private.” Cynthia stood up and shrieked, “Holy shit, Carl’s possessed! Gary! Get the demon out!” I would have laughed if Carl hadn’t looked so forlorn. Gary settled Cynthia down, and Carl and I excused ourselves while everyone else whispered amongst themselves. Not a single one of them had ever heard Carl speak.

We went to another room and sat down. Carl wouldn’t look me in my eyes and stared at the floor as he started to tell me his story. He explicitly told me that he’d like me to write about it whenever and however I saw fit. 

Carl began by telling me that he has been an alcoholic since he was a young man, and that he hasn’t had a drink in decades, but he has wanted one every day. In his late thirties, Carl drove home from the bar and ran a stop sign directly into a car holding a young couple that had been married less than a year. The husband died on impact, and the wife survived. Carl got very little jail time, and he said he deserved a life sentence. His own wife left him and took their son, and neither one has ever spoken to him again. He doesn’t even know if they’re alive. He wished he had put down the bottle right after that, but he spent several more years in drunken misery, praying to forget but knowing he deserved to remember every moment for the rest of his life. He only stopped drinking when the young widow recognized him in the supermarket a few years later and smacked the whiskey bottle out of his hands and told him if she ever saw him drinking again, she would kill him. He hasn’t had a drink since that day.

Carl told me he wishes he could say he spent the rest of his life making up for what he had done by volunteering at charities and rebuilding homes for orphans, but he didn’t. He has lived the rest of his days in a lasting depression and has only continued to live because he doesn’t feel like he deserves to die. He told me that God has cursed him with a long, healthy, dementia-free life. Carl recites his story out loud to himself every night, but that’s the only talking he does. He wasn’t going to tell me, but then Andrew died at the hands of a drunk driver. He watched in real time how this specific type of grief deteriorated me, and he felt that each day that went by without telling me was a betrayal. He told me he understood if I never wanted to play checkers or speak with him again.

I didn’t know what to say. I have spent so many hours of these past seven months hating the man who killed Andrew. He received a sentence of three years in jail, which didn’t feel like enough, but looking at Carl and suddenly understanding why he always held such sadness in his eyes made me realize that a greater punishment had been put on that man. I regretted all of the ill wishes I had towards the driver, because that is not the kind of person I am. I hate that he is the reason Andrew is gone, but I don’t wish for him to live the rest of his life as an empty shell who chooses not to speak to anyone. I want for him to change his life and make his corner of the world a better place. I want him to pay for what he has done by putting as much good in the world as Andrew would have. I want him to balance out what he has taken away. I’ve always felt that kindness was one of my most cherished qualities, but Andrew’s death made it hard for me to find my way back to that, and I have felt lost in some dark expanse of smoking rubble. It is the driver’s fault, and it was Carl’s fault, but this does not inherently make them bad men, and my anger and unkind thoughts will not bring Andrew back. I don’t want to carry the weight of this anger anymore, and I don’t want the man that killed Andrew to spend 50 years doing nothing but spiraling downwards.

I took Carl’s hand and told him that I want to continue playing checkers with him, but only if he promised to tell me more about himself, because he is more than his worst mistake. I refuse to believe he stopped experiencing life in his late thirties, and I want to find the parts of himself he has hidden from everyone so I can write him a proper living obituary, just as I have for so many of the other residents. I thanked him for telling me and assured him that he couldn’t get rid of me that easily. I hugged him while we both cried, then walked him to his room, as he wanted to be alone for a while.

I returned to the séance just as the group was discussing whether or not they should try and get in touch with Pauline, a resident and friend of ours who passed in October. Marvin groaned and said, “If we let that dirty old woman back into this home, her spirit is going to find a way to give us all simultaneous orgasms just for the hell of it, and that is not something I want to see from any of you. Veto Pauline.” The weight of my conversation with Carl lifted off of me and I sat back down with the strangest group of friends I have ever collected, who have taught me so much about what it looks like to grieve but still make room in your heart for more love. They are an extension of my family, and there’s no one else I would try to raise the dead with.

bloom

It has been a year since I was raped and beaten in a public bathroom, and I didn’t know if I would be around to see this day. I recently re-read the wildly public confessional I posted on facebook (here), and so much has changed in the last 365 days that I hardly recognize myself, but I find myself being more thankful than I have ever been.

A little less than a year ago, I bought a jasmine plant because I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do, and it was the only way it felt like I was able to survive. I needed to tend to something and to love something because I no longer knew how to do either of those for myself. I had never had much luck with plants, but I hadn’t slept in weeks and I’d heard that jasmine helped. I brought the plant home in its little plastic carton and carefully re-homed it into a peaceful-looking blue ceramic pot. I cried on my back stoop as my fingers dug into the dirt and I made a mess everywhere. I cradled the plant in my arms as I carried it up into my bedroom and placed it on my nightstand and waited for it to take root.

A couple of weeks went by and my plant was looking a little limp and looking at it made me feel as though I was incapable of taking care of anything and it felt like as soon as that plant died, I would, too. I started taking it for walks through my neighborhood and humming to it as I went. I thought maybe it was stifled by the same scenery, the same air, and maybe it just needed forward motion and fresh air to thrive. It was just me and my jasmine plant in the July humidity, the pot perched on my hip like a toddler. I would whisper good-night to it every night and hope to wake up to a happy plant, because I had decided not to die and I couldn’t have my plant die either.

Six days after I was raped, I went to the Ozarks for a long weekend with some of my closest friends. I told them I had been attacked, but I left out the rape part, and it would be months before I told them. I was in tremendous physical pain for the entire weekend, but I had refused anything stronger than extra-strength ibuprofen, because I knew I would abuse it and make myself check out of my own life indefinitely. Getting away from the city and being outside sounded like a good idea. On my second night there, long after everyone had gone to bed, I walked down to the dock and laid on my back and looked at the stars. My body felt like a house that had been broken into; it no longer felt safe, but I was trapped in there and had no idea how to re-arm it. I took the sling off my arm and lowered myself down the ladder into the lake, barely holding on. Letting go felt like the only option, so that’s what I did. I slipped beneath the surface and sank. Moments after I decided I wanted to die, something in me woke up and I pictured what would happen to the people in my life who loved me. I thought about what this would do to my mom, how horrible it would be for my sleeping friends to wake up and just not know what had happened or why. My brothers would no longer have a sister. My friends’ kids would never hear me read them another story again. The reaches of the pain that I would cause exceeded my own pain, and I am grateful for that split second of clarity that allowed me to weigh that out.

I’ve never known how to swim, and I was even worse off with a broken collarbone. I don’t know how I made it to the surface again, but I did. I wrenched myself out of the water and back up the ladder and sobbed on the dock. My shoulder and ribs were screaming in pain, and I felt thoroughly hollowed out on the inside. I didn’t want to die, but I certainly didn’t want to live like this.

It would be nearly two months after that trip to the Ozarks before I told any of the friends that were there with me what had really happened, but that’s when it felt like I started to regain some measure of control over my life. By telling the story, I owned the story. I connected with other survivors because I opened up. I got close with unexpected people. Through my interactions, I went from wanting to die to wishing he had killed me to realizing I didn’t want to die to wanting to live to being grateful to be alive.

I would not be where I am had I not been met with supernatural kindness in the past year by friends, strangers, and everything in between. I will never stop being grateful for the nurse who went above and beyond on that day and stayed by my side throughout my entire rape kit experience. She chattered away to me about her daughter and kept me focused on her while every part of my body, inside and out, was scraped for evidence and while I stood naked on a sheet while photographs of my injuries were taken. She held my hand after my nails were scraped and thanked me for getting a piece of my rapist, and she looked into my eyes and told me this was a win, that not all women get pieces of their monsters, that she didn’t get a piece of hers. She was so proud of me for fighting back that I was almost proud of myself. She didn’t look at me with pity once, only admiration. She diligently stood guard as I sobbed and scrubbed my skin raw in the shower, and she had soft, warm clothes waiting for me when I got out, because even though it was June, I couldn’t stop shaking. I hugged her and she smelled like fresh apples, and she respected my wishes not to call anyone. She made me feel safe and seen, and she did more than her job.

I am thankful for the female officers who arrived on the scene and barked at all the male medics and officers to back up, because they saw me, wild-eyed and covered in blood, holding the weapon my rapist had tried to use on me and recognized that I was in shock and didn’t need anymore men around me telling me what to do. They approached me like a human approaches a stray dog, spoke in calm tones, tentatively held out their open hands. They gently took the knife out of my hands, got me wrapped in a blanket, and escorted me outside to the ambulance, where one of them rode with me upon realizing there were only men in there. I am thankful for the female officer who reamed the detective when he told me that I was lucky it hadn’t been worse. She told him what I couldn’t–that nothing about me being there giving a statement was lucky and that he needs to stick to gathering facts instead of giving his opinion. I am thankful that the police believed me and that they didn’t ask what I was wearing or how much I’d had to drink, as they have asked so many of my friends.

I am thankful for my rabbi, who I told in the fall, who listened as I cried and asked questions about God and destiny and luck and anger and told him that I just felt so unrecognizably different. He gave me some Torah portions to read in times of darkness and assured me that it is perfectly fine that even though I converted to Judaism I am still unsure if God exists. He asked me if I had grieved for the woman that I used to be. When I told him I didn’t know how, he suggested a modified version of sitting shiva. We came up with a plan together. I took the outfit I had been wearing when I was raped and tore the cloth. I covered the mirror in my room, lit a candle, and sat on the floor. I took the torn pieces of my clothing and pinned them to a black canvas, and I recited the mourner’s Kaddish and said goodbye to the woman who had existed moments prior to walking into that bathroom.

shiva

I am thankful for the countless women and men who have heard what happened and trusted me with their own stories, whether they whisper it to me through tears in a produce cooler at work, write me an email after stumbling across my blog, give me a silent look that says everything we need to say, or scream it beside me on a stage at a survivor’s storytelling event. An absolutely horrifying percentage of people I know have a story wherein their basic bodily autonomy was taken away, and I’m thankful that I am in a position to tell them that it is all bad and that we cannot separate this trauma into gradients because that will only allow people to minimize it into non-existence.

Since I was young, people have always found themselves telling me more about themselves than they meant to, but in the last year, I have become a beacon for the sad to flock to. Between the rape and Andrew’s death, so many people, from strangers to close friends, have taken their sadness and put it in the palm of my hand; they do this, not to unburden themselves, but to show me that I am not alone, and for a moment, neither party has to pretend to be doing okay or just taking it day by day, because we are not doing okay and we are barely taking it moment by moment.

My jasmine plant soon stabilized. It may not have been flourishing, but it was mostly green and it was no longer wilting. I still hadn’t told anyone besides Andrew, a man I had met mere weeks after I was raped and immediately fallen in love with. Looking back, he treated me like I treated my plant. He nourished me and softly sang to me and pulled me out of inhospitable soil and into something better. He helped shake the dead parts off of me and always brought me into the sunshine. Up until the day he died, I told him he had saved my life, but he insisted that I had made that decision for myself and laid the groundwork for him to come in and help me rebuild.

There was one night in the late fall that I spent surrounded by friends who had come over to my house to drink wine and sit on my porch and get just tipsy enough to talk about what felt like big things. I laughed so hard that night and suddenly realized that my laugh no longer sounded hollow and foreign. It felt like it came from inside of me rather than someone else for the first time in months. My heart still felt like a tangle of Christmas lights that I couldn’t work the knots out of, but it was finally illuminated. I went upstairs to my room to catch my breath at the idea of becoming a functioning person again and noticed that my jasmine plant had tiny white buds, some of which were beginning to open up. We were nearly thriving. We were blooming.

I still have difficult days, and I imagine I always will. It has only been a year/it has already been a year. What once felt like holes in myself are starting to feel like spaces for something new to grow, and my body is turning into a garden that is rooted in gratitude. What happened to me should not have happened, but it did, and I live with that in every moment. I was filled with dread for the actual anniversary date and put a lot of thought into what type of symbolic act I should perform. Burning things was suggested, a party, taking a trip, revisiting the scene, reading, sleeping all day. I chose to spend it like a normal woman in her twenties would and went out the night before, successfully flirted with a wildly attractive man, stayed up too late, and came home long after the sun had risen. I felt confident and alive all day and I took my jasmine plant for a celebratory walk around the block. Every single thing I chose to do with my body, every single step I took that day was an exuberant choice, and that felt better than burning anything possibly could have. The day felt like the close of the worst of it and the beginning of a brand new year. The past year felt impossible, but this year feels stuffed to the brim with possibilities. I am alive, and I am happy about it. 

thoughts on death with an 11-year-old

I had barely gotten home from work when I hear a rapping on my front door. I open it to find my friend’s 11-year-old daughter, Audrey, standing before me, looking cross. I let her in and ask what she’s doing here, and she says, “I’m absconding,” which has been one of her favorite words for the past two weeks. She tells me she climbed out of her bedroom window to avoid the babysitter her dad has left her with. I ask her what was so offensive about this babysitter, and she tells me this woman talked to her like she was a kid, her lip curled up with disgust at the idea of it. She then tells me this babysitter wore clothes that looked like her mom’s clothes.

Audrey’s mother abandoned her when she was barely a toddler. After that, she only met her a handful of times due to her dad’s optimism that she had finally gotten clean. Audrey’s mother died of a drug overdose a few months ago, and her father has supported her through her grief amazingly, but that kind of complicated grief is impossible for anyone, especially a child, especially when this is the first time she has had a brush with death.

I bring her into my living room and I sit down but she paces like a caged animal, back and forth through my house. I call her dad to let him know I’ve got her for the evening, and then I ask her to tell me what’s in her brain when the words come to her. She takes her time, wordlessly pacing. She disappears on me. She is lost for the moment. This is something she has been doing with more frequency over the last year or so. It usually happens when she’s reading or drawing or writing in her sequin-covered journal. She disappears into herself or whatever world she is in the middle of building because she does not accept the one before her eyes. I have done this since I was her age and I worry that she will also continue doing it and also come close to the edge of not being able to be found. But for now, I let her disappear.

She finally returns to me and sits at my dining room table, eyes shining with the beginnings of tears that she is too stubborn to release. She looks at me and asks how long she will be sad for. She asks why she even has to be sad when she didn’t know her mother. She asks me how long she will be sad about everything, not just her mom. I sit across from her and tell her that it is entirely possible that a small part of her will be sad forever, but it won’t always be the biggest, loudest part of her. I try to explain to her that everyone has parts of them that are sad, but we get used to the noise so much so that most days, we can’t even hear it. It’s background noise. It’s the highway you’ve lived next to your whole life.

I tell her that it is sad that she didn’t know her mom and it is sad that now she will never have the opportunity to know her mom. I tell her that it’s even more sad that her mother never got to know her, because she’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Audrey already knows about my dad and how he never got to know me when I was her age, and she asks if I’m still sad about him, even though it’s been a year and a half since he died. I tell her the truth. I tell her that I was more sad six months after he died than I was right after he died. I tell her that I’m still sad sometimes, but mostly because he never really got to find out who I am and I never really got to find out who he was. I tell her how lucky I am to have one amazing parent, and how she shares in this luck because her dad is also a wonderful parent. She frowns because she did not want this answer. She wants her sadness to go away.

We go for a walk through our neighborhood and talk about how school is going. She tells me that she doesn’t really like hanging out with her friends anymore. I ask her why and she says, “We aren’t sad about the same things.” I tell her I feel that way about a lot of my friends, too, and I’m struck by the accuracy of language and emotion of this child, as I always am each time I have seen her over the past five years.

She tells me she has been learning sign language because one of the girls in another class is deaf and doesn’t have very many friends at recess or lunch because she has no one to talk to. She teaches me what she knows and I watch as her hands create the language she so keenly wants to share with the world. Her fingers move quickly and I am envious that she holds the entire alphabet in her hand. She is equally excited to teach grown-ups something they don’t know and to have a new friend who also knows what it’s like to not be understood by her peers.

After I got off the phone with Audrey’s dad to let him know his escapee was safe and that he could send the condescending sitter home, he texted me to see if I can get anything out of her about the fights she recently got in at school. I point blank ask her about them and she furrows her brow for awhile. Finally, she tells me that she is angry all of the time and doesn’t know what to do with it. I tell her about how I’ve been angry a lot of the time too due to the events of the past year and how I sometimes take it out on the wrong people because it doesn’t have a place to go. I tell her how I write about my anger and that sometimes helps, or I go for a walk, or I make up a stupid song to sing to my cats.

We explore this for a bit and I ask her if I can make a phone call to see if we can go on an adventure. She agrees. I call my friend Ken, who I cancelled plans with once the runaway showed up at my house and ask if we can drop by since he lives in the neighborhood, too. We arrive at his house and he already has all of the necessary supplies loaded in the back of his truck. Audrey sticks out her hand in introduction, and they are fast friends. She starts to teach him a little sign language as well, and he surprises both of us by being fluent. He tells us that his wife was a sign language instructor, then casts his eyes to the ground. All three of us intimately know what loss is.

We pile into Ken’s truck and he drives us to the Sunfresh grocery store parking lot and pulls out a box of empty glass containers and sets it down in front of a huge Ripple Glass recycling bin. I hand Audrey an empty pasta jar and take one for myself. I put my mouth near the opening and shout something that made me angry that week into the jar, slap my hand over it to contain the sentiment, then slam dunk it into the container. I hear it break against the other glass in there and already I feel better. Audrey gives it a try. The first attempt, her shout is barely at normal speaking volume and she essentially gently lays the jar into the bin, but by the end, she is shouting to the sky and shattering things with all her might. The three of us look like lunatics, shouting into glassware and recycling in the most ridiculous way possible. We empty the box and Audrey high-fives us both and runs around. She is a kid again, just like she is supposed to be. I watch her with wonder as she whoops and hollers in the parking lot, circling the bin and stomping around in some ritual unknown to anyone but herself.

The three of us go into the grocery store to grab some food and someone tells us what a beautiful family we are, and none of us have the energy to correct them. We grab our dinner and return to the scene of our environmental activism to pile back into Ken’s truck.

We return to my house to cook dinner together and eat at my dining room table, which is a rarity in my house. After dinner, Audrey almost disappears again but pulls herself back and asks what it’s like when a person dies. She knows that I often sit with the elderly in their last moments, and she knows that I sat with my boyfriend in his last moments this past December. She wants to know if it’s peaceful and easy. She wants every death to be fulfilling like Harold’s or Larry’s.

I pride myself on being honest with Audrey, and it’s something her dad has encouraged me to do, no matter the topic. I don’t talk to her like she’s a child, which is why she absconded to my house, after all. But I couldn’t bring myself to be fully honest about what has been plaguing me about death: that not all deaths are emotional affairs with everyone gathered around talking to the nearly deceased. Some go quietly after growing weaker and frailer for days or weeks. You don’t recognize their spirit at the end, and you don’t get to hear their life’s story. They don’t sum it all up with anecdotes and bits of wisdom and beauty to pass onto the next generation. They slowly fade out, they collapse in on themselves and fizzle into a great, blank nothingness. And that’s if they’re lucky and die of old age and aren’t ripped violently from this life, by accident or illness, all alone.

What I do share with her is the one thing that has given me hope. I tell her that everyone I’ve sat with at the end has the same something that I can’t name in their eyes that I manage to catch when they barely crack them open. I flip over the cross-stitch I’ve been working on and tell her that it looks almost like the backside of that. So many bright colors tangled together in an unruly mess and you can just almost make out a silhouette, but you’re on the wrong side, you don’t have the context you need. You can’t see the other side, but something in you knows it’s beautiful, even if only for its stillness, even if it’s not a place or a destination. You see this in their eyes, only for a split second and then it’s gone and they’re gone and you’re left on the side of the living having just stared death directly in its face.

Audrey asks if her mom saw the other side of the cross-stitch when she died as she inspects the one I’ve been pecking away at, one of wildflowers with uneven and missed stitches because this is my first attempt and I don’t know if I have the patience for this kind of delicate, precise work. I wish I had something more beautiful for Audrey to hold in her hands and look at. I tell her that her mom probably did see the other side of the cross-stitch at the end. Audrey asks me if we will see the same cross-stitch when we die, and I tell her that I don’t know but that I’d like to think everyone has a different cross-stitch based on how beautiful their life has been and how we can strive our whole lives to have the most colorful, complex, vibrant cross-stitches at the end.

Audrey finally gives into her tears and lays her head on my lap. She has always been hesitant to display any vulnerabilities, so I let her sob and simply stroke her hair without offering any meaningless platitudes. She puts her hand in the palm of mine and starts finger-spelling things against it. I don’t know what she is signing. Perhaps she’s hoping that this language that is new to her will hold the vocabulary she needs to grapple with the weight that is on her. She cries until she has nothing but empty shudders left and I get her to sync her breathing with mine to calm her back down. Ken has politely excused himself, recognizing that he did not need to be a part of her breakdown, and somehow magically produces hot chocolate by the time Audrey has settled. We wrap ourselves in blankets and sit on my porch, sipping our cocoa and watching the dusk settle around us. When it gets too cold, we go back inside and Audrey dozes off in my lap, having taken it out of herself. Ken carefully carries her up into my bed, where my cats surprise me and snuggle next to her.

Ken and I go back downstairs, where I immediately burst into tears that I didn’t know were coming. Ken silently holds me and doesn’t ask questions, for which I am thankful, because I can’t form words for why I’m crying and I wonder if people who only use sign language run into the same problem. I’m crying because I can’t imagine any person not wanting that incredible child and I don’t want to forgive Audrey’s mother for being an addict or for dying. I’m crying because Audrey reminds me too much of myself and it feels like I lied to her when I told her the sadness grows quieter when the truth is I don’t know if it does because it still roars around me and drowns out the other sounds, and I pray to anything that will listen that I was right and it will eventually become background noise. I’m crying because I miss all the people that have died and I’m crying because Ken lost his wife at such a young age and he’s the only one I can stand to be around for longer than a couple hours at a time. I’m crying because I don’t know if I said the right things to her about death and anger and friends not understanding. I’m crying because she is so creative and strong and I don’t want for her to feel that she has to disappear sometimes. I want for her to stay visible so that the ones who are sad about the same things she’s sad about can find her. I’m crying because I don’t know if what I see in the eyes of the dying is real or just what I’ve tricked myself into seeing to somehow make this all somewhat bearable.

A little while later, Audrey’s dad shows up at my house. I know he’s angry at her for sneaking out of their house and walking by herself without telling anyone, but I ask him to save punishment for another day. I tell him all of the things we talked about and did and now it’s his turn to cry. Like any parent, he constantly worries that he’s doing it wrong and that he’s messing up his kid. He doesn’t know what to do with his own grief or how to help her carry the weight of her sadness. I tell him that I know nothing about parenting but can tell he’s doing amazingly just based on how expressive and open and deeply kind that kid is. Audrey promised me she would talk to him when it gets overwhelming, and we set up a kid-safe messaging app on her tablet so she could send me messages anytime she needed to talk to someone who is often sad about similar things as her. I assure him that I also made her pinky-promise never to sneak out again, and we take our pinky promises seriously around here. As her dad carries her sleep-wilted little body out of my house, she lifts her head and blows me a kiss and I blow one right back. We sign “I love you” with our hands and she falls back asleep, safe in the arms of the good parent she will always be lucky to have. I feel myself starting to disappear but Ken lightly touches my shoulder to keep me there with him since he, too, knows what it’s like to disappear and because we’re sad about the same things.

backside

 

Life and Death of a Prankster

Ever since I wandered into Harold’s hospital room nearly two years ago, I’ve spent more time with people in their last moments than I ever thought I would. I started volunteering at a nursing home about a year ago, and I have since witnessed the deaths of a handful of my friends there. Each time is a very different experience, but they’re always surrounded by their fellow residents and favorite staff members, and if they’re lucky, a family member or two. They often make jokes or reassure the younger people that they’ll be okay. Very rarely do they seem scared. Sometimes, a few regrets will bubble up, but every one of them has seemed bone-tired and ready to rest.

We had a death today, Larry. He was in his mid-90s and had lived in Kansas City his entire life. His wife, Linda, who he met at the home and married nine years ago, passed away a little over a year ago, and he was just biding his time until he could join her. I met with my usual group and we all went into Larry’s room. He was hugging a picture of Linda to his chest and he smiled when he saw us all. Each one of us squeezed his hand and found a seat to chat with him. The first thing Marv said was, “How can we be sure you’re not faking it this time?” which caused the entire room to erupt in laughter. Larry was the resident practical jokester and had faked being dead more than once. He nearly gave multiple people heart attacks when they saw him haphazardly sprawled out on a community couch with chicken-and-stars soup dribbling down his chin with his eyes rolled back in his head. It may sound cruel to an outsider, but to know Larry was to accept his brand of humor entirely. He once threw a big, hairy fake spider at me and laughed so hard he needed his oxygen tank after I screamed and nearly ran into a wall. One time he asked for my help with a prank; we printed out a bunch of pictures of Charlie Chaplin and put them inside as many framed pictures as we could find. Larry responded to Marv by saying he was hoping to hold out until tomorrow so that he could die on April Fool’s Day as the ultimate prank.

charlie

This picture still haunts several forgotten picture frames in the nursing home.

Larry had spent his life trying to make everyone’s lives a little lighter. In his early twenties, he fell in love with a woman who had two small kids. He raised those boys as his own, even as their mother slowly let addiction take over her life. He stayed in their lives for ten years and tried to help her as much as he could. He paid for multiple trips to rehab, but she eventually took her own life. Larry fought with everything he had to get custody of the boys who had grown to call him Dad, but their biological father showed up after the funeral and won parental rights. He moved them across the country and forbade Larry from ever contacting them again. Larry kept track of them for several years, and he secretly contacted them as they were reaching the end of high school. They were desperate to get out of the living situation they were in, so Larry offered to pay for their college. The older one graduated high school and the younger one dropped out and got his GED, and they both moved back to Kansas City to be with the person they chose to be their real father. He had been saving for their college education since he’d met them, and he now has the privilege of being a grandpa to four and a great-grandpa to three. His sons now live on opposite coasts but they all remain incredibly close.

Larry had been a high school English teacher for most of his life. He loved working with teenagers because he believed they were the most open-minded age group that still felt they could save the world. Some of them did, or at least their corner of it. Larry felt teenagers, despite their resistance to authority, were the most receptive to new ideas and constantly offered new ways of looking at old literature. He taught the same books for years in a row but always had different conversations about them. He said that he learned as much from his students as they (hopefully) did from him. He had a habit of taking in strays and some of the students that had parents that just didn’t give a damn or parents who didn’t accept their children for who they were ended up living with Larry for awhile. He housed several gay teenagers in a time when it was nearly impossible to be gay in the Midwest. Kids who lived in abusive homes often sought him out as refuge. He would never admit it because he is far too humble, but Larry saved countless lives just by being a caring adult for a bunch of kids who didn’t have any of those in their lives.

Overall, he lived a happy, simple life. He taught during the day and went for walks with his dogs in the evenings. He loved to cook and often hosted dinner parties with elaborate meals. He dated here and there, but nothing really stuck. He was content growing old on his own, despite criticism and insistence that he had to find someone else to be truly happy. Larry felt whole on his own and was plenty social, even as, in his words, an old geezer. He retired and traveled around a bit. He visited his kids and grandkids a few times a year and went to corny tourist spots. As he got on in age and started having trouble doing things on his own, he moved into the nursing home.

One year later, Linda moved into the nursing home. One of the first conversations they had, Larry mentioned how much he loved brownies. The next time he saw her, Linda handed him a glass pan covered in foil. Larry unwrapped it and found paper E’s cut out of brown construction paper. Brown E’s. They were married within six months and played pranks on each other and their fellow residents for eight years. He liked to joke that instead of finding someone to grow old with, he had just found someone to be old with. He preferred recent pictures of her to pictures of her from her youth, even though she had been a model. He insisted he thought this version of her was more beautiful, and I believed him.

I first met Larry a couple of months after Linda passed away. While he was certainly sad, he expressed relief that she had died first, because he didn’t think she would be able to handle being alone. She died in her sleep, in his arms, and he was thankful she didn’t have to face even a second of it without him by her side. He said that when his time came, he was okay with being alone, or at least with friends. He’d spent most of his life with just friends, and he hoped to see Linda after he died, even though he had no idea where he would go or what form his self would take after death, if any at all.

Larry’s sons finally arrived, and it was time for the rest of us to give them their space. As we were saying goodbye, Larry grabbed me and asked if I would be writing about him. I told him I could if he wanted me to, but only if he wanted me to. Tears suddenly sprang to his eyes and he said, “As long as you make it beautiful. Because it was. The whole thing. Even the hard parts.”

I kissed his cheek and said my final goodbye. I joined the others in the common area. Some of them were praying, some were laughing with each other about memories of Larry, others were going about business as usual. Death is so common in this building that nobody has a problem talking about it. It’s just the next step for them. They all acknowledge how lucky they are to have made it this far, because not everyone gets that chance. It’s no secret that many of them will die relatively soon, so the attitude around it is far different than anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s almost refreshing and certainly reassuring to a twenty-something that has a paralyzing fear of death.

Larry passed away several hours later, flanked by the two boys that had grown into excellent men thanks to his guidance and love. Larry will be missed by the residents of this building, by every student he ever taught, by the family he chose that chose him back, and by the generations he has impacted. There’s no way for me to emphasize just how beautiful he was, but there’s also nothing I could do to detract from that.

Echoes of My Ghosts

A few weeks ago, a drunk driver robbed me of my future. The man I love went out for ice during his brother’s birthday party and never came back. For the first time in my adult life, I had a clear idea and goal of where my life was heading and who I was heading there with. Andrew understood me better in six months than people I’ve known my entire life; he was the first person in a long time to understand even a whisper of who I am. I was confident about our future, and that is perhaps my biggest regret–how much I believed in a future. I had so much more I wanted to say to him, an infinite amount more I wanted to learn about him and from him. I thought we had time.

I met Andrew at the most vulnerable time in my life–six months after my dad died and twenty seven days after I was brutally assaulted and raped by a stranger in a public restroom. Andrew and I had seen each other around and knew we had mutual friends, but neither of us had ever had the courage to approach the other. We officially met in a grocery store parking lot and shared a cart as we went shopping together. It was the most intimate thing. He cooked me dinner after grocery shopping, and I may have been in love with him the moment he showed up to my house with garlic bread for me to eat while he prepared our meal. After his dad died during our third date, we spent the night together sharing our darkest secrets and cracked each others ribs open to have a look at what was inside.

We helped each other out of the dark pits we had fallen into. Andrew carefully helped me tuck back inside the parts of me that had come undone and sprung outwards with frayed ends. He had this incredible way of not having to ask questions to pry things from me, but of gently extracting things from me that he needed to know to help me through it. He made me feel like my body belonged to me again. I went from feeling like a wild animal to feeling as though I would eventually be okay. He asked about my complicated grief and I assured him it was okay to feel relief from a parent’s death. We got matching knuckle tattoos and mimed gagging at each other the whole time because we knew how cliche and ridiculous it was to get a tattoo with someone you had known a matter of weeks. It was stupid, but when I looked at him, everything suddenly made sense to me–everything had been necessary to make him possible. With him, there were no limits to how excellent we could make life seem.

He moved away to run his dad’s studio in Nashville, and we fell apart only briefly before realizing we couldn’t do this without the other. We made plans for our future together, bigger, scarier plans than I have ever made. Over the last year, I have realized that I have worn out my welcome in Kansas City and need to move to the next place, but I was terrified, even though this city feels like it has gone from slowly trying to kill me to rapidly trying to meet that goal. Andrew made it feel easy to leave and start over in a place that didn’t hold ghosts at every corner.

And then he died. I held his hand and sang him our song and said goodbye before doctors ripped out his organs for strangers who I would never be able to look at without resenting, even though it wasn’t their fault. There are two strangers walking around right now with Andrew’s eyes in their sockets. They are viewing the world with hopeful eyes, they are able to see their parents, their children, their grandchildren, their loved ones properly for the first time in who knows how long. His heart is pumping blood through another person’s body; when they see the person they love, it is his heart that will flutter for them. He saved eight lives that night and improved the lives of at least a dozen others, but I would have given the rest of mine to bring him back.

Hours before he died, we were goofing around in an antique shop and I pointed at an absurdly large diamond ring and noted that it would be uncomfortable to wear. He joked that the ring he had picked out for me was in no danger of giving me carpal tunnel. I rolled my eyes and told him that if he gave me a ring anytime in the near future I wouldn’t say yes or no, but I would wear it for years until one morning I would drag him out of bed to the courthouse and get married that day. He laughed and told me that sounded about right. Two days after he died, Andrew’s brother and sister came to my house with a small velvet box. His sister told me he had picked it out the day after I spent Thanksgiving with his family and was planning on giving it to me in the first moments of 2020 with some lame pun about having a “perfect vision” of forever with me. I asked why he got it so early if he was just going to sit on it for over a year. His brother said he had asked the same thing and Andrew had told him it was to remind him what he was working towards and working for, and also, that you never knew when you would need to propose to your girl.

This is too big for me to handle. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, I don’t know how I’m supposed to heal. I’ve lost people before; I’ve lost people I had known for years and years longer than Andrew. Was it like this with them? Has my mind shielded me from those memories? I don’t know how I’m functioning. I laughed today. I made jokes. I solved problems. I got dressed. None of it felt real. Time feels slowed down, as though there’s a buffer for my brain to figure out the appropriate, normal reaction to keep people from looking too closely. I feel like I have separated from my body and I’m an outsider watching myself go into autopilot while the real me screams from above, unheard.

People don’t know how to move around me. Very few of my immediate friends have ever lost anyone this significant to them, or anyone at all. They want to check in on me, because everyone seems to think I’m on the verge of offing myself, but they don’t want to be too intrusive. They want to give me space, but not too much. They are trying to be themselves, but not too abrasively. Everyone keeps asking me what I need, as if I know that answer. My family doesn’t know what to do. I’ve already traumatized them with horrible news once this year, and now this. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. Everyone has been excellent to me, and I am constantly amazed that despite my consistently terrible luck, the people who have stuck by my side are of a truly excellent caliber. People have offered me food to eat, babies to hold, animals to pet, shoulders to cry on. I am so supported and loved that I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t blame anyone, as I wouldn’t know how to act either, but it is an awful feeling to walk into a room and see and feel the pity in everyone’s eyes, because the only thing worse than being sad is for others to know that you are sad. Nothing erodes a friendship faster than pity.

I can feel everything Andrew helped me tuck back inside of myself unraveling. All the progress I’ve made is coming undone, and I don’t know how to stop it. I’ve woken up every day wishing I had been in the car with Andrew so I didn’t have to navigate this new, emptier life. I wish I had told him that gas station ice is unsanitary and that it’s cold enough that no one really needs ice. I wish I had kissed him goodbye for a few moments longer so that his car would have been narrowly missed. I wish that our last words to each other hadn’t been merely, “I love you,” but “I love you so much that your absence will make my usually loud and all-encompassing laugh turn into something hollow and foreign, so please return safely.”

Everything has changed so much in the last year. On the second day of 2018, my dad died and that’s just how the year started. I had a series of intense but unsuccessful flings that left me burnt out and assuming I wasn’t built for long term relationships. Halfway through the year, I lost ownership of my body and had to come to terms with what it meant to be a victim of rape. Then there was hope that burned so brightly that it hurt to look at. Now this. I can’t stop looking at every single person in my life and wondering when they’ll die. I know you can’t protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness, but right now it’s so goddamn tempting to distance myself from everything and everyone so when they inevitably die, I won’t have to do this again.   

I don’t know who this person is that is left over as 2019 begins. I never used to be an angry person, and I always prided myself on being able to shake things off. The past few weeks, I’ve let things get to me. My company very graciously and kindly helped pay for my travel to allow me to spend some time with my family in Chicago, because my area director and general manager felt helpless and wanted to do something. It was a lovely trip, and it was nice to get my mind off of things, but when I returned, one of my coworkers, who was fully aware of why I received a ticket to Chicago, made a distasteful and insensitive joke and left it on a post-it on the receipt for my train ticket on my desk, not once, but twice, and pulled other coworkers into it with her. I know it’s a pretty fucked up thing to do to me, but I also know that I have more important things to worry about right now. A few weeks ago, I would have let something like this roll off of me, but now I can’t look at any of them without wanting to either cry or punch them. I find myself wanting to cry or punch things a majority of my day. I don’t know how I can simultaneously feel everything so intensely and still be so numb.

I haven’t gone a day without crying since he died. I’ve never been much of a crier; I usually get one good shower cry out of the way, and grieve in other ways, like eating everything in sight or nothing at all. Every single song ever written reminds me of Andrew. We shared Spotify passwords, so every playlist I have has pieces of him in it as well. We must have made fifty playlists together, and I can’t stop listening to them, even though they make my chest feel like there’s a hot poker digging into it.

I feel as though I am surrounded by the echoes of ghosts of possibilities–lives that could have been if not for the rape, the accident, the death, the decision. They are non-corporeal and distant, but they still exist and they still haunt me. I find myself wanting to believe in traditional ghosts. I want to feel Andrew, his presence, his gaze, catch a whiff of him, have him knock books off my shelves, make my house have cold spots, rattle my cupboards. I want to be haunted by an actual person instead of just my own emptiness.

As much as I wish I had been in that car so that I didn’t have to deal with this, there continues to be something in me clinging to life. That’s how I know that I will eventually be okay. I know that I still have things left to do, things left to write, before I think about giving up. In a way, I hate knowing that I will be okay. I know that I will find the floor of this endless descent into grief and claw my way out, but that means the sharpness of these emotions will dull, as will the intensity of my emotions towards Andrew during our short time together. People love to tell you that the dead will stay in your heart, but it’s never in the same way. They get neatly stacked on a shelf and carefully and cautiously pulled out a few times a year. I know it will happen, that it’s inevitable, that it’s human nature, that it’s survival, but I would rather be collapsed and sobbing on my bathroom floor than acknowledge that my life will go on reasonably well without Andrew and that I will have a future. I will be happy again, despite my best efforts. I know that I will be okay, and that makes me cling to these last violent emotions before they fade away.