I’m not exactly sure when my husband died, and neither is he.
He thinks it might have been during the surgery. “Sometimes I feel like I died on that table, and I woke up a brand-new baby. I had no idea who I even was.” I’m standing in his room, while he lies there, addressing the room at large, not really looking at me, the TV reluctantly paused. (I suspect this is the most honest he’s ever been with me.)
I chalk it up, his sense of having died while being decidedly not dead, to emerging from an encephalopathic fog. He’d been missing for so long.
He did pull through, but something got left behind.
My tears come easily now: grief has left me skinless.
I admit now, to myself as much as anyone, that I’ve been hurt in a way I am still working to understand, to get the depth of, to grasp the full measure of. I’m not looking for pity (I would hate that, actually). I’m just opening a window into my world (letting some light in?). I wouldn’t blame anyone for not really wanting to look, for wanting to leave, for maybe even wishing I’d close the damn blinds or something. But I live here. There’s nowhere I can go that this doesn’t come with me. That’s how I know that I have to look at it. Hard. There’s no sense in being a stranger in your own life, in not recognizing the things that have happened to you.
I’m familiar with the collective illusion that depression is indulgent, weak.
Just get over it.
In truth, it’s burly work: the heaviest lifting imaginable.
My tears come especially easily now in the car, with Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years playing over and over. I could listen to something else, I guess. But I’m hooked on the memories of the tipsy trailer-park cabaret feel from another time, and the attendant sensation of falling that comes in waves like nausea.
Perhaps it’s a bit like desensitizing yourself to a fear of dead bodies by looking at nothing but piles of corpses (I mean, knowing what I need to do doesn’t necessarily make me particularly good at it).
Frank’s Wild Years featured heavily in the car on our cross-country move. Everything we owned that couldn’t be sold for moving cash, or mailed ahead to my uncle’s Mid-Atlantic farmhouse, was in the Toyota Celica hatchback with us. We were digging up our own new roots, leaving the left coast for the eastern frontier. We took Interstate 40 backwards over what had once been a west-bound wagon trail, then had become parts of the legendary Route 66. We took our time at first, wandering the painted deserts and petrified forests and caverns and craters. By the time we saw the signs advertising 72-ounce steaks in the Texas panhandle, we were starting to rush. My grandmother had been admitted to the hospital up in Maine, and my uncle and I would travel together to see her as soon as we reached his place.
(In our memento box, years later, I would find a note I wrote on motel stationery: Love is… giving you my last drops of liquor in a dry county. Shamrock, Texas, February 4, 1999. We were amused to note that in this particular dry county, motel rooms came with bottle openers as fixed pieces of furniture.)
My grandmother died the next day, the day the odometer rolled over 100,000 miles, just past the Mississippi, between Memphis and Nashville. We only found out when we stopped for the night, still ten hours away from the farmhouse.
On our very last day, coming to the end of three thousand miles, we couldn’t stop taking wrong turns. In that unthinkable savage wilderness before Google Maps, we’d scribbled directions, dictated by my uncle over the phone, onto the back of an envelope. Exhausted and repeatedly turned around, we started to squabble and spit, until he pulled over and said to me, “You drive, then.” I’d gotten out and was walking up to the driver’s side door, just as he banged it shut. Then he looked at me, sheepish and oddly soft in contrition. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to slam the door,” he offered quietly, as he opened it back up for me.
And for years, that was one of the things I loved the most about him: worn out, a whole country away from where our home used to be, mid-tangle, with an expanding and contracting new family on his horizon, he couldn’t bear to shut a door on me.
Twenty-one years and change later, he will tell me that by the time he opened that car door, he’d already fallen out of love with me. (If that interval were a person, they would be old enough to drink.)
It feels like a kind of particle-antiparticle annihilation.
Particle: I love you so much I couldn’t imagine life without you, and I would do literally anything to keep from losing you.
Antiparticle: I haven’t loved you for a long time, I never wanted to get married, and we should have been done two decades ago.
Particle. Antiparticle. Annihilation. Everything I thought I knew about us, about the past two decades, is suddenly blasted into unrecognizable pieces. For anyone who doubts the atomic power of words, look no further than history unspun by a drunken, angry handful of them, thrown out from his bed, the TV reluctantly paused, now staring straight at me, through me.
I still haven’t figured out how to be okay with this. Amnesia seems like it would be kinder.
What we built together, the love of my life and me, our great adventure, turned out to be my own sad self-insert fan fiction for an unrequited crush.
Last week, my therapist said, “It’s because he’s poisoned his brain.”
It took a minute before I could say, “I wish knowing that helped.”
It was the first time I’d shared that sentiment with anyone.
So many have told me, it’s not you. So many have said, it’s not true. So many want me to know that the disease is the reason.
But knowing why helps surprisingly little. A person saying a long goodbye to a partner with Alzheimer’s must find little comfort in knowing it’s an abnormal buildup of amyloid proteins in the brain that makes the love of their life forget their face. Why, mechanistic, backward-looking, obvious because we’re facts-smart but feelings-stupid, isn’t the question this grief is trying to answer. How, with an injured and doubtful eye on the future, is the question now.
At first, such utter annihilation was almost motivational. All the energy released in that collision, I could re-dedicate with great enthusiasm to doing, in a space that was brand new. But in and around all the doing I’m starting to see the shifting shape of the mountain I’ve hidden under the rug. I can’t walk around my carefully re-crafted home without stumbling over the metastasizing landscapes of the wounds that are emerging, vying for attention.
Suddenly, there isn’t around. There is only through.
And oh my God, through is like that first weightless moment on a rollercoaster, before your body catches up with the drop (only slightly less fun)…
With my addict, feints at recovery were ploys to be left alone while he figured out novel ways to sneak alcohol. There was no recovery; his body (was) never recovered.
There’s never been closure.
The widow loses her husband; the news appears in the paper. Family and friends and neighbors know, and the loss is observed. It is seen. The widow buries her husband, and there is then a place where he is, stopped in time, where she can remember, memories intact. Not necessarily merciful, but she will always have had the life they had together.
My husband and I are done. And worse, undone. It is very much as if he’s died, perhaps not on that table, but somewhere else along the way back, or maybe even sometime long, long before. But there’s no safe place from which I can mourn him, either in the world or in my mind. I am alone in my memories of us; unseen. He. Is. Not. There.
I’m jealous of widows.
I tell this to my friend, the one who’s predicted so much of my own path but quietly let me walk it, the one who’s a proper widow, the one who’s own addict did up and die on her. Miraculously, she does not get up and storm off, or tell me that I’m selfish and I give terrible gifts. Instead, she nods slowly and surely, like she knows she’s the lucky one.
Meanwhile, the texts from my un-husband keep coming, jabbing holes in my soap-bubble armor with offhand notes about his property tax bill, or about an extra order from Butcher Box that he hadn’t planned on, or about the deer he just saw, nothing big, nothing at all, and it’s all like nothing’s happened.
It’s like nothing ever happened.
The sensation, the realization, is like throwing up, thinking it’s out and feeling better for a second, until that next wave of nausea hits. And the less there is left the harder it is to bring it up, get it out, but it keeps coming, harder and harder, until it’s just the hot horrible bitter bile that’s the color of his eyes during the worst of the sickness.
God, just let me bury him.
Recovery for the loved one of an alcoholic – married, divorced, or a widow – involves a grieving process. If you are looking for community that can help you grieve the partnership that alcohol took from you, please consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery.