Thursday, 3 January 2019

The Mourning After

by Ellen LaFleche

In the summer of 1984, I sang Happy Birthday to the young man I was dating. I never sing in public because I can't carry a tune and have a memory of a frustrated teacher whacking my head with a rolled-up sheet of music. The young man blew out the candles, looked up at me, and said, "You have the sweetest voice ever."

I married him.

After our wedding in 1985, we settled into ordinary life. We bought a house, had a daughter, juggled work and family, argued over missing toothpaste caps. We shared values of social justice and community service but had differences that challenged us in big and small ways. A sampling of these differences, with my traits on the left and his on the right:

Ridiculously outgoing vs. naturally shy.
Thrifty vs. spend-y.
Night owl vs. morning person. (He got up two hours BEFORE the cat. Before!)
Hates being cold vs. believing the electric blanket is a medieval torture device.
Boston Red Sox vs. Detroit Tigers fan.
Pessimist vs. optimist, meaning my default emotion of anxiety clashed with his philosophy of “don't worry, be happy.”

Our first argument went something like this:

Him: Why do you talk to strangers everywhere you go?
Me:   Because they're there.
Him:  Didn't your parents teach you not to talk to strangers?
Me:    Haven’t you noticed? My parents talk to strangers all the time! It’s genetic.
Him:  Well, it makes me uncomfortable. I wish you wouldn’t do it.
Me: You’re asking me to change my basic personality and my genetics!
Him:  Well, just try.

Twenty years into our marriage, John began to experience strange symptoms. On the day of our daughter’s wedding, he couldn’t fasten his cufflinks or button his tux. Knowing my default emotion is anxiety, he tried to hide his increasing muscle weakness. He switched to pullover shirts so he wouldn’t struggle with buttons. He would scan a room before walking through it, strategically holding onto walls and furniture as he proceeded. I thought he had developed a strange OCD habit but he casually mentioned that he needed time to balance himself before taking a step.

He withdrew emotionally and spent his spare time alone, drawing illustrations on legal pads or listening to music in the privacy of his headphones. I experienced extreme anxiety. I described these feeling as knowing an asteroid is headed for earth but not knowing where or when it will strike.  After years of medical appointments, and several misdiagnoses, John was told he had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease, popularized by the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014). ALS is a fatal disease that causes progressive paralysis; death usually occurs when the muscles that control breathing begin to fail. Coming to terms with a fatal diagnosis required us to do what I called pre-grieving. We reflected on our marriage, on the beautiful family we had created, including our newborn grandson, Jackson. We pre-grieved together, drilling into our feelings and enjoying small pleasures: watching baseball, doting on our newborn grandson, having lunch at the local diner. John had spent his career working with old people as director of our local senior center. He’d always looked forward to growing “old-old,” believing the challenges of aging could be met with grace and joy. He was devastated to know that he would pass away in his sixties and would not be there to give grandfatherly advice to our grandson.

The neurologist estimated that John would live one to two years after diagnosis. But his disease moved at warp speed. Three months after the diagnosis, my daughter and her family moved into our house to help with end-of-life care. The phone rang, friends and neighbors dropped by with food, our cell phones beeped with text messages. The baby cried, we bickered over whether to turn on the TV or not. ALS paralyzed John’s throat muscles and in the last weeks of his life he could not swallow or speak. A musician who works for our local hospice set up her harp in the sickroom and comforted us with heavenly sounds. My daughter and I hugged each other and wept at the beauty of her music.

A few days before he died, I told John that I forgave him for anything he might have done to hurt me. “And I hope you forgive me for anything I might have done to hurt you, especially my cooking.”  He grunted out a kind of laugh. Our daughter leaned over the bed rails and stood there for hours, reading him poems by his some of his favorite poets – Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Wallace Stevens.  Our son-in-law shaved John and measured morphine doses.

John died at home on January 16, 2014. At his memorial service, people advised me to find comfort in the joyful memories I had banked. I hated that cliché. My grief was so raw that joyful memories were too painful to remember, let alone provide solace. When someone told me “He’s in a better place,” I cried out that he was now inside an urn. “What kind of a place is that?” I wanted to know.   

John’s death was bracketed by the loss of my dad two months earlier, and the sudden loss of my only sibling three weeks after John. Overwhelmed, enraged by the feeling that fate was picking on me, I sought counseling. The therapist explained that the fullness of grieving means taking time - years, not months - to understand the lost relationship in all its sorrows and joys. I learned that the best parts of a marriage can be the faults and foibles, the big and small differences, even the sorrows. Navigating those differences can be the heart of a relationship, the good stuff, the joy. I’m not writing this essay wearing a pair of rose-colored glasses. (I realize that not everyone can navigate their differences; also, none of this applies to relationships involving abuse). We had hardships – real hardships - that triggered less-than-perfect behaviors and the full range of emotions, including anger, despair, even moments of hatred toward each other.   

Early in the grieving process, while trying to fully understand our relationship, I focused on forgiving his faults and foibles. What a magnanimous feeling that was. There was the time he’d re-arranged my closet alphabetically by the first name of each designer. I came home to find an Abercrombie shirt hanging next to a Betsy Johnson dress next to a Calvin Klein skirt (items I had thriftily plucked from yard sales and thrift stores). I yelled and yelled. He calmly closed the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear my shrieks.    

My therapist helped me to realize that alphabetizing my closet was a creative way for him to let off steam after a stressful day at work.  In the comfort of her office, I was able to (mostly) laugh at the escapade. John’s OCD made sense to him in the same way my extreme thriftiness makes sense to me. The fullness of grieving forced me to acknowledge my own faults and foibles. There was our 10th anniversary dinner at an Indian restaurant. Our food sizzled on our plates, releasing the fragrance of saffron, curry, lamb. On the way home, John pointed out that I had ignored him during the feast. I’d been too busy chatting with the hostess, the waiter, the acquaintances sitting next to us. I’d even invited those acquaintances to push their tables next to ours, which they did. Our romantic table for two had become a table for four! I had to acknowledge that my relentlessly outgoing nature strained our marriage. John was painfully shy and felt embarrassed, even jealous, when I chatted with strangers.   

Shining a light on my own faults wasn’t an enjoyable endeavor. But it was crucial to grieving and healing. An unexpected benefit of this fault-finding expedition was a deeper understanding not only of myself, but deeper insight into how relationships work (not just romantic ones), and a tenderizing of my capacity to love. Many of the books about grief get it wrong. Grief doesn’t end after that mythical “six months to a year” deadline. It is a lifelong journey. A grueling, tear-soaked process (there will be setbacks, maybe even despair), the price we pay for loving someone.

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