A couple of weeks ago while I was unloading my dishwasher, I dropped a plate and it shattered to the floor in a hundred or so pieces. A hand squeezed my lungs and I couldn’t breathe. It was one of the plates from the set my husband and I selected on our wedding registry and received from one of our guests (though I don’t remember who). All of the utensils and kitchenware that my husband and I shared in our house together–including the remains of a plate set he had in his home before he even met me–have survived five moves since my husband died, two of which involved a trek across five states, and in one clumsy move while transferring a plate from the dishwasher to the cupboard, I managed to break the first one. I felt inexplicably sad about the loss.
I know it seems overly dramatic to get upset over one broken plate. I suppose over time, this original plate set would have been broken or aged throughout the normal course of its life with us. We would have thought nothing of it other than the nostalgic remembrance of the plate as part of our original dining set–a gift given to us when we got married and began to start our new life together. But with my husband gone, even the loss of one piece of a dining set feels so much more abrupt. It’s like losing a part of that dream life all over again, a painful reminder that my life took an abrupt turn from what I thought it was going to be when I said “I do” on my wedding day. It reminds me that my best friend–my lover, my confident, the only person on the planet who really knew me–is dead.
There seems to be a pattern throughout the (almost) nine years since Mike died in which I want to keep everything exactly like it was, freeze my environment and continue in old habits, as if to hang desperately onto every last thread of that life I shared with him. Even though I’ve moved on, slowly, and have accepted that he’s never coming back and he can’t just slide back into this life as if he never left. In fact, it’s probably unlikely that we could share a space together in the life I have built since him. I’ve changed and I’m not the same person I was when we were together. With all the time that has passed, if he were still alive and this were all just some big mistake of understanding, he would be changed too. Could it be that a certain place and time defines love more than the attraction two people share? Is it true what they say sometimes about timing? Sometimes a relationship doesn’t work because it wasn’t the right time for either party even though it very well could have worked in another time (which is how I always feel about my ex-boyfriend Steve). Sometimes a relationship works only because it is the right time and place for both people. And when the right person comes at the right time for both people, it true that only then can they stand a chance of growing together and accepting the growth in each other?
Slowly over the years, I’ve adjusted to my new life and started doing things that made more sense to me. I stopped using the detergent that Mike and I would always buy because it was the only one he wasn’t allergic to. I went back to leaving things around the house instead of always putting them away as Mike preferred me to do. I started getting rid of things we shared in our house together that were more his choice than mine, like this rock water fountain thing we used to keep in our living room to entertain the cats (it doesn’t really match my more modern decor). I stopped pretending I would ever learn to play chess, or that I even wanted to, and I gave away his marble chess set. I bought new sheets and comforter for the bed since I changed the color scheme for my bedroom in my new house. I stopped saying “it’s an issue” or “Issue?” to people when something was happening that needed explaining, which was a phrasing I’d picked up from (and adored in) Mike. I stopped buying the same shampoo he always bought. I stopped locking the cats up in the basement at night and let them–shock of all shocks–sleep in the bed with me. I bought a new computer when the one we had as a married couple broke down. I threw out some of his old t-shirts when they became to ragged for me to wear anymore.
These seem like a lot of little things, I know, but each and every one of the items I listed was a conscious and dramatic choice for me. Each one has been a painful decision in some way to change, adjust, just some small part of the habits of a life I shared with Mike. I had to stop myself and ask, “Does this make sense anymore?” when I found myself clinging to some old tradition as if it were a religious rite. I had to start finding my life as single Mars Girl and defining it as I am sure Mike had to define his own bachelor life at the start. Since I’d had very little of a bachelorette life before I got married, I didn’t really have any household habits of my own; I acquired all of Mike’s. They became a part of me as much as they were a part of us. The process of separating myself from us didn’t just end in that hospital room on April 14, 2001. It still continues these eight, almost nine, years. And I’m sure a lot of old ways do make some sense to me still and have become a part of my own ways.
From Mike, I learned an inexhaustible love of nature and the outdoors. I may have dropped hiking from my preferred activities–which was what he and I used to do–and acquired cycling instead, but I still see the world through Mike’s eyes. I always had an interest in activities in the outdoors, but Mike taught me how to stop, breathe, and experience the moment. He showed me how exultantly beautiful the world is when you pause to observe every detail like watching the colors in a prism. I still struggle to slow down and experience a moment but whenever I do consciously make the effort, I conjure Mike’s patience to help me see. He is sometimes the strength in my legs as I’m nearing exhaustion on a long bike ride; he is the force that calms my shaking legs when I’m scared in the middle of steep ski slope; he is my breathe when I inhale the chilled mountain air while exploring the vistas of a mountain view somewhere; he is my eyes as I watch people while I sit in a coffee shop trying to write. Mike didn’t give me any extra confidence in myself; he merely showed me the strength and confidence I didn’t know I had within myself. His best lessons are still with me. And sometimes, if I imagine that he can see me, I imagine he’s proud. Even if he is a bit disgruntled about some of the other parts of our life together that I’ve abandoned (especially the “leaving my stuff around the house” part).
So I’ve become my own person. Not that I wasn’t my own person. I just mean, in a good marriage, a person–and all their little daily habits that don’t seem very significant–becomes a part of the couple entity. A shared life means a shared vision. Every decision, right down to what clothes detergent to buy, becomes a committee decision. These little things all add up to make one complete puzzle of a life. When the puzzle is tossed to the ground suddenly one day, there are still some pieces in the aftermath that are stuck together without any connection to the once-perfect whole. The surviving person is left to pick up these pieces and make sense of them again. Which pieces still go together? Which pieces must be traded for new?
I realize that throwing out the disparate pieces is a healthy part of letting go. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when I come to that fork in the road where I have to choose a different path than the one on which I was headed with Mike. The little things–like a plate from our dining set breaking–just serves to remind me that life continues to go on without Mike or our married life. I can’t freeze time, I can’t contain my environment to keep him closer to me. Life can’t be contained, time can’t be stopped. Plates will break, clothes will get worn, a car will be stolen, objects will be lost, hiking equipment will rust. I will change. Life moves relentlessly on. I have to cope with each new change and the loss of breath it invokes.
I know all this. But I have to acknowledge the pain of loss until nothing more of that shared life remains. I wonder how long that takes. And if I truly want it to stop.