I do the yardwork. I have since we moved out of our apartment and into our first rented house. By then, John was already sick, but we were still long months away from his cirrhosis diagnosis. He tried to mow the lawn once, in the early days at the rental, and gave up after five minutes.
At the age of forty-four, his liver sneakily failing, he simply wasn’t physically capable of it.
Since then, we’ve been through a fair amount, the two of us, including a liver transplant/liver donation. Very much not like a couple’s day at the spa. But still a romantic notion: I can save him, with my own self, a literal piece of me much more valuable than my figurative heart. Permanent cellular togetherness.
We’re now in The Great After. It’s what I used to call that looming, unseen, unknown future, back before the transplant, when everything was squeezing down to a single day, a single set of suspended hours, that we would have to surrender to, contract and press ourselves through, past, and beyond to survive. The pivot point that all the days Before, trying to keep him from dying, led to.
We survived, a happy ending. But, starting to see, starting to know, The Great After is turning out to be stranger country than I ever could have imagined.
So even though he’s better, new liver, new life, I still do the yardwork.
I don’t mind. Although company would be nice…
I’ve seen the little gears turning in the neighborhood heads, on my little cul-de-sac, where four guys and I mow our little lawns. The little judgements. The little pities. I ignore it. The particularly obnoxious neighbor next door once asked for the “man of the house.” Not just because John was inside watching TV, and not just because I don’t have much use for sex-role stereotyping or gendered divisions of labor, I said, “Yo,” and I cut down the branch crossing the fence into his driveway that he was objecting to. (I mean, John wouldn’t have even known where to find the pruning saw.)
I really don’t mind the yardwork. But what’s bugging me today is the compost bin, a metal and black plastic eyesore, sitting in the back yard. I’ve planted shrubs and perennials, trees and bulbs. I mow and edge and weed, and that ugly thing has been in my way. Today, I’m tired of it.
I go into the house, and he’s briefly up from the basement making a cheese quesadilla. I’m sweaty and grubby, like I always get working outside in the mid-Atlantic summers.
“Can you help me move the compost?” I ask him as I get a drink of water.
“Move it where?” I can feel him digging in. So soon, too. I imagine his heels pressing down into the floor, the way the corners of his mouth are pressing down into his mandible.
“Behind the fence.”
“Because it’s ugly, and it’s too heavy for me to move by myself.”
“Nobody can even see it.” His voice is faintly exasperated. The toaster oven dings, his quesadilla is ready, and without another word he heads back down into the cool, dark air of the basement. The TV goes back on.
(I hear it, but I can’t remember now if it’s the episode of The Office where Pam and Jim devise the game of Flonkerton for the office Olympics, a tenth rewatch; the episode of Parks & Recreation where Ron finally comes out as jazz saxophonist Duke Silver, a seventh; or the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer buys a mile of the Arthur Burghardt Expressway, maybe a twentieth? Guesses, yes. Exaggerations, no.)
And there it is. Nobody can even see it.
I drink my water, and go back outside. The heavy compost bin stays where it is. And I can see it, in my direct line of sight from any spot I care to find in the back yard.
It’s my version of step 9, he tells me via text.
It’s almost midnight, and I’m sound asleep just down the road from him as he composes and sends the first part of his note.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my mental state since the divorce. Reading a lot and going over my memories. I think I may be a bit of a sociopath. Either that or I’m on the edge of the spectrum. I remember things from my youth that may lean more towards the spectrum. Yet no one has diagnosed me with that.
It’s waiting for me on my phone when I wake up the next morning. I think about it a fair amount during the day. There are a lot of things I’d like to say. Mostly, something along the lines of how hard it is to distinguish alcoholism from sociopathy during active use. That’s a bridge too far, though. “Are you drinking?” is not a question I plan to ever ask him again. Honestly, I plan to just assume the answer is “Yes.” It saves time, and energy, and makes up for all the occasions I assumed “no,” was sure “no,” would have (and did) bet my life on “no.”
(I wonder if he’d be pleased by the molecular level at which I’ve absorbed his most important lesson, his own life’s sad mantra: Don’t. Trust. Anyone. It was his, and now it’s mine, and I don’t remember wanting it, or coveting it, or taking it from him, until I wake up one day and I can feel it stitched inside me like some foreign and unwell organ. And that’s just it. This admonition is the antithesis of putting your living flesh in someone else’s body, trusting them to take care of it because now both of your lives depend on it.)
Anyway, I’m not sure what to say to this. So later that evening, I text him exactly those words.
His response comes quickly. He’s been waiting…
Just that I realize I am sorry for being a bastard. I figured out what gaslighting is and I did that. Also I have empathy issues. I either have extreme empathy or none at all. There are other issues as well, the paranoia, anxiety (kinda under control now). Anyway, it was easier to see the flaws being alone and not projecting a false me. So, sorry for being a jerk.
I stare at the little screen seated in my palm. When the words start to swim, I put the phone down.
Now I really don’t know what to say. So I don’t text back.
In a couple of hours, another gray box appears under his previous note that he can see I’ve read.
You do not have to respond. It’s my version of step 9. By the way, watching the dog trying to hunt and catch a fly is hilarious.
The fly dwarfs me.
It’s The Great After, and we’re strangers.
His god-awful substance abuse counselor, who he has continued to see, tells him something she thinks would help.
“She wants me to read your journals,” he tells me, looking positively miserable.
I am not fond of her, by way of understatement. But if she were here, I’d throw my arms around her, hug her, and mean it.
I have kept meticulous records. I’ve catalogued doctor’s appointments, failed tox screens, car accidents, falls, visits to emergency rooms, catatonia, arguments, jokes, dreams, nightmares, waking terrors. I have been comprehensive. There’s so much he doesn’t know about what I’ve been through.
I tell him it would mean a lot to me if he did read them.
You do not have to respond.
He wouldn’t read it if I did.
There’s a digital avalanche of information on Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps, at least from the perspective of someone working those steps. Step 9 is legendarily tough (the subject of its own Seinfeld episode). Following hot on the heels of Step 8 (make a list of all the people you have harmed and be willing to make amends to them all), Step 9 entreats one to then make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
After googling several dozen variations of “How the fuck do you deal with being Step 9-ed,” I can confirm that there’s very little information for us on the receiving end.
I mean, we’re used to that, right, we partners? We live in the shadow of someone else’s disease. It’s not about us. And that’s supposed to be a relief, somehow.
It’s never about us.
The nice thing about there being so much information about how to do Step 9 is that … well, I have some idea how to do Step 9. That’s a start. It gives me an idea of what I can fairly expect from an earnest and sincere effort. Any number of instructions note that amends don’t just mean saying, “I’m sorry.” You schedule a time to meet. You explain where you are in the process. You ask what you can do to make up for your past behavior, and you prepare yourself to do what is asked.
(My therapist always reminds me: “No expectations, Barbara. As in, expect nothing.”
I wonder about acceptations, though. Do I accept nothing? Perhaps I have less of a choice on that than I would like…)
Here’s the thing: I don’t even appear in the amends that were meant for me. They’re… not about me, the person he’s making amends to. Late at night. Via text.
There’s no acknowledgement of the completeness, the absolute comprehensiveness, of the betrayal.
Pretty on-brand for John, really. (He did say “his version,” after all.)
It’s an endless feedback loop, an unfunny Groundhog Day.
A few little text boxes appear on my phone, that aren’t even about me, and I’m sliding backwards, through time and tentative progress. I can’t even recognize where I’ve already been as familiar terrain already travelled. It’s as new and shocking and painful as the first time I snagged myself open on all the rough spots on the virgin way through.
It’s disorienting to lose ground so quickly. Gravity is stronger here. Moving is harder. Crying is easier.
I never knew how strong I was until I had to forgive someone who wasn’t sorry, and accept an apology I never received.
That’s a little quote that has popped up online recently, unsourced (the journalist in me apologizes for that). I love the sentiment, the idea, but it’s also a sharp stick in the eye.
I will keep working, I will keep talking, I will keep writing. But I am not there yet.
If you are ready to keep working, talking and writing, we hope you’ll consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery – our program for the loved ones of alcoholics.