Grief is an amputation, but hope is an incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.
Author’s Note: This is the very first piece I wrote for the Echoes of Recovery group, by way of introduction. The prompt was: How are you preparing for Thanksgiving?
I’m preparing by remembering.
I’m remembering the last hopeful Thanksgiving.
Two years ago, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my husband and I woke up in separate beds at four in the morning. Time to go. We slipped off our wedding rings. I stacked them on the bathroom counter and took a picture of them in the soft overhead light.
We couldn’t eat, so we joined my parents in Dad’s SUV. I offered to drive. Even pre-dawn, the city’s no fun for novices. Mom and Dad, divorced nine years now, arrived together from Maine yesterday, sat in back. John and I took the front. It was a quiet ride. Not that there wasn’t anything to say, but too much.
We got there in plenty of time, pulled into the garage, parked and got out. Crossing the enclosed pedestrian bridge over what would be a busy street come the light of day, into the hospital, together with my husband and parents, and very alone, my teeth started chattering, even though I wasn’t cold.
Arriving at the reception desk, I told them, “I’m reporting for surgery,” even though there was nothing wrong with me.
My teeth finally stopped chattering at the admitting desk, the flurry of questions distracting me. Who’s your emergency contact? My parents, of course. Do you have any advance directives? Yep, here’s a copy. Do you understand what you’re about to do and consent freely? Yes. John followed me for his own admission. His answers were roughly the same.
Cascading from there: John and I were brought to prep in two separate drape-enclosed cubicles, we took off our clothes, and gave them to Mom and Dad, along with our other belongings, got into hospital gowns, and obligingly got IVs inserted. Surgical preps done, we came together into my cubicle, and sat together briefly while we all waited.
When my surgeon arrived, I asked him how he slept, which he smiled at. “Probably better than you.” Mmm, probably. Then I was on a gurney, wheeling through the corridors into a cold operating theater. My teeth didn’t chatter. I listened while the surgeon and his team briefed together on the procedure, and when he asked again if I understood and consented, I said, “Yes.” It was the last thing I remember saying before I was under.
It took a total of eight hours for surgeons to remove my husband’s swollen, scarred, oddly tequila-sunrise-colored liver, and to put two pounds of my own ruddy, healthy organ in the empty spot left.
So, that was Tuesday. What little I remember of it, anyway. And not to spoil the ending, but we both lived. My parents have since assured me that it was the longest eight hours of their lives. The shortest of mine, though. Wednesday was a bit of a blur, if I’m honest.
Hospitals love to go all out for Thanksgiving, and I don’t even think they’re doing it mockingly. John and the family ate well, as I recollect, but I wasn’t able to eat quite yet. As our medical team had advised us before the operation: “He’ll feel better almost immediately; you’ll feel much, much worse.”
But we’d made it. It had worked. John, despite months, years, of trying his best, didn’t die on me. I’d saved him. I’d saved us.
I couldn’t have been more thankful.
I’m remembering the Thanksgiving in limbo.
Last year, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, I was awake at 4:30 in the morning, packing my bags and my dog into my car. I was heading to Maine for the holiday. My Mom was over the moon.
I would have left later, but woke up with travel nerves and was having trouble getting back to sleep. From my bed, I’d checked my Twitter feed (everyone but me knows not to do this, right?) and found a reply from my husband to a woman who’d posted a picture of her hand that the wedding ring she wore was a symbol of bondage. My stomach dropped, pulling the rest of my remaining insides with it: a sensation that, despite feeling more and more, I never seemed to acclimate to. At 4:27 a.m., I texted him the photo of our two wedding rings, stacked together on the bathroom counter the day of the surgery. Then I got up, got ready, and left without saying goodbye.
The first months after the surgery were like being reborn. Our recovery, while shit to experience first-hand, was also remarkable, fast and vigorous, the subject of great enthusiasm with the transplant team. We were poster children for living liver donation. We were the perfect couple. We were so happy. John ate so much food, it was amazing. He laughed. He grilled. He slept well. He started writing. I had a husband again.
I remember, standing at the kitchen sink, doing dishes, thinking how funny it was to be on this side of everything, after all we’d been through, and to be doing little quotidian tasks like dishes while staring out the window at the very normal suburbs on a very normal day in a very normal time. John came up behind me at that moment, and said simply, “Thank you for my life.” I realized then that nothing was ordinary, nor would it be again.
That was the end of January. By March, an ugly mutation began misshaping and distorting things, gradually at first. Mysterious to me at the time; I hadn’t yet let myself see the drinking tells for what they were. By the end of June I caught him on the basement couch, passed out with a beer. A search of the basement revealed cases. Many empty. Some still full.
Between that discovery and the Thanksgiving trip to Maine were a depressing litany of milestones in the collapse of an alcoholic marriage. Substance abuse counselors, outpatient rehab, a fun little return trip to the hospital that ended up lasting a week, Codependents Anonymous, abortive attempts at marriage counseling, and lies and lies and lies.
The trip north was therapy. Twelve hours or so in a car with my dog, who both hates my singing and is offended by farting, then family everywhere.
I’m sure I talked to John on Thanksgiving, but I can’t remember anything we said.
But I was so thankful for my family, who were so glad to see me, and so quietly worried about me.
I wonder how I’ll remember this Thanksgiving, my first as both a literal (if you count the liver) and finally figurative amputee.
The surgery is now complete.
The realization that is incrementally burrowing its way into my brain is that I have been alone for a long time. It just has taken my living situation and state law time to reflect reality.
I’m still occasionally taken aback by the bare skin on the ring finger of my left hand.
The holidays last year were fine as I could make them. Then the winter wait set in. Usually bad enough, made worse by the real sense of impending disaster, arriving like an awful promise fulfilled. Meanwhile, the transplant team called me in February and said they hadn’t had any bloodwork or labs from John in a while, but what they did have concerned them. They could see that he was drinking; blood incapable of deceit. The hepatologist was the first person outside of the family that I told. “We’re in the same house, but we’re not together.” I had always been hesitant, to speak it into existence.
“You’re a donor; you’ll always be our family,” was his reply.
The lockdown came in March, along with the last hopeful thing that ever occurred between John and me. A gift from him: a home breathalyzer. I cried when I opened it.
His first curbside booze pick-up was March 30. I found the receipt and kept it. I found the booze, and got rid of it.
And found the booze, and dumped it down the sink.
And found the booze…
And found the booze…
And even expecting to find it didn’t change that sick drag in my guts that I still haven’t acclimated to.
The last bottle I looked for and found was in July, and exhausted by that always-new, always terrible falling sensation, I told John I was filing for divorce.
And not to spoil the ending, but I did.
And here I am.
And it’s… good.
Not all the time, but mostly. Mostly.
I think I’m doing fine, think I’ve learned to move without that limb, to crawl, to walk, to run and twist and turn and to fill up my own life again. Then I put my weight down wrong and I’m on the floor before I even see it coming. Seems like the floor itself must even be surprised.
Sometimes that happens, and I think I’ll cry, but I don’t because I don’t have the energy. And then I get back up.
Sometimes I cry and cry so hard it scares the dog. And then I get back up.
I’m thankful now for things that would have terrified me even a year ago, things that I did everything in my power to prevent from coming to pass. I’m thankful for my divorce. I’m thankful for the solitude. I’m thankful for being alone, and for owning aloneness, instead of being alone in the middle of a partnership.
I’m thankful that I remember.
If you are the loved one of an alcoholic, we hope you’ll join us in the Echoes of Recovery program. There is a lot of healing in writing with Barbara.