Life is short. It’s the longest thing you’ll ever do. ~ U2, from the live versions of “Moment of Surrender.”
It’s a strange thing to be able to tick off parts of your life in decades. I’m just getting used to that. I’ve known my best friend, Melissa, and dear friend, Sarah, for over two decades. I graduated from high school nearly two decades ago; college, nearly a decade and a half. All of this is so much more time than the 12 years I spent in school, from age 5 through 18, which seemed like the longest period of my life. I don’t know what strange warping of time occurs as you get older, but the days speed by fast. These days run away like horses over the hill… –U2, “Dirty Day,” a song that defined my feelings the summer between graduating high school and beginning college. Still truer today than ever.
Ten years ago, I was widowed. A decade. A lot has happened since I was 26. I’ve fulfilled a few lifelong dreams: I went to Germany and Amsterdam in 2005–a trip Mike and I had one day planned to do–and I revisited Europe two years later to tour Italy. I’ve taken up cycling–become quite the fanatic, putting between 2,000 and 4,500 miles per year since 2007. I’ve skied new places–Utah, Whistler. I’ve been in four romantic relationships. I’m not stagnant. Far from it, in fact, because losing Mike taught me to appreciate what days I do have here, to live for the moment, and to do what I want to do NOW instead of putting it off for a future I can’t promise myself will be there. I’ve continued the lessons Mike taught me about loving life. I’ve taken life by the horns and wrestled with it. What he taught me has meant more in his absence than it did when we were together. Because I’ve had more time by myself than I did with him. But his lessons were lasting. I love him for what he taught me about life–both in the way he lived his life and in his much too early death.
I guess it’s hard to believe that a monumental “anniversary” like ten years would go by without much of a pinch to my emotions. I went into the day not expecting much. I didn’t pressure myself to emote, like I tried to do last summer in celebrating the anniversary of our wedding. (I surely didn’t need another cut chin and poison sumac, ha ha!) Fortunately, the day brought a lot of distraction–a full day of work followed by a company meeting and dinner. I did observe a day of internet silence (which I only broke with a few quick posts to the U2 forum–my one allowable exception.) I did this mainly to avoid writing anything depressing if such a compulsion came over me. Which it didn’t. Still, it was refreshing to take a break from the internet again, much like I did on my vacation in Whistler. It forced me to think. Like a moment of silence held in respect.
I got home around 7:30 or 8pm. I lit a candle on my dining room table and did some writing (in my novel, not memoir-related) while listening to a U2 bootleg. I allowed myself to break my weekday fast from alcohol to have one beer. I smoked the last cigarette in a pack of cloves my best friend sent me a few Christmases ago. I’d been slowly working my way through them. I wanted to swear that I would never smoke again, in memory of Mike, but I realized as smoked that last one that it was a promise I’m not 100% sure I can keep. (I’m not a regular smoker these days–I just have one or two on occasion, maybe once a month, which is how it’s been since college with an exception of a year or two when I was grieving heavily and didn’t care. Still, I know I should stop completely. I just like the way it feels, tastes. But it’s one pleasure I really need to quit for longevity and the fact that I have asthma. I know, please don’t waste your typing with admonishments. My conscience is noisy enough.)
I will try harder to keep that promise, though. Mike never liked it when I smoked. And I couldn’t keep it from him–he always sniffed it out on me–and when I tried to get around that by taking a shower whenever I returned home after having one, he grew naturally suspicious. I wondered vaguely if I should use his guilt to stop. Maybe look at the picture of him that I still keep in my wallet (with my Grandma H’s prayer card) every time I think of having one. If only to remember that the land of Death where I’d like to meet him is not a place I want to go for a long, long time.
Anyway, I know it sounds dramatic. But I was just taking it easy. I didn’t feel anything, and I didn’t expect to feel anything. Life goes on. Still, it did feel like the end of something.
A few weeks prior to the 14th, I had what I’m now thinking of as my last fit. I had drunk a little too much (which rarely happens anymore) and it was late on a Friday night. I was jamming to U2 (some bootleg) as I’m wont to do when I’ve overindulged, and I was smoking one of the few remaining cigarettes in that pack. I stood on my back patio, looking out into the yard. My normal ritual was to try to provoke Mike’s ghost. I’ve done it a lot of times when stressed. I’ll just start saying (usually not aloud), “C’mon, Mike, if you’re still out there, show me a sign.” I keep hoping for thunder cracks or shooting stars or falling tree limbs. That night I kept thinking about white squirrels, remembering the time that we saw one run across some lonely back road in South Carolina on our way to the highpoint in November 1999. I thought about a white squirrel and begged to see one as a sign. I threatened that I would never quit smoking if I didn’t see a sign. I was pulling out all sorts of stops. Pleading to night. Insisting that if I saw just one sign of life after death it would change my life forever.
Of course, as usual, all I got was silence in response. Not even crickets since it’s still too early for their song to fill the night. I guess some people would not take this as a definitive sign that there’s nothing more to life than what we experience, but the old atheist in me came running back to its comfort zone of disbelief. I’ve always been sure that knowing how much I need proof, surely someone who loved me–Mike or my grandma H–would have given me a sign to let me know everything is okay after death. This girl cannot live on faith alone.
Something changed in me that night. I decided I was done pleading for signs. I realized how ridiculous it was. I mine as well wish to win the lottery so that I can support myself and spend my days writing. I am finally ready to just continue to deal with the unknown as unknown as it is. I think, too, I lost a little bit of my make-believe faith that night. My agnost-o-meter now leans a little bit to the atheistic left again.
Maybe that’s what happens when you reach a decade after the loss of someone. You finally realize all the answers you were hoping you’d somehow get are really not ever going to be answered. You accept that what is, is. And it’s been that way for a long time now. It’s like I finally snapped out of a spell. Reality.
So by the time the 14th rolled around, I was already feeling as though I’d stepped across some line. I’d had an epiphany. Now what?
Time moves forward. Memory fades. The love remains in my heart, surfacing every once in awhile when I watch a sad movie or a song on the radio provokes a memory. I am thankful that I no longer feel as tortured as I did in 2001, or as lost as I was in 2002-2004, or as angry as I was in 2004-2006. After having at last moved through all the stages of grief, I’ve spent the last several years reshaping my life into something new. I’m whole again. But I’m not the same girl I was at 26. Or even 24 before I met Mike. I’m something wholly new at 36. And it’s good. If not slightly jaded. But with jaded comes some self-protection too, which I didn’t have when I was 24.
I know that I’m complete by the fact that I’m not even actively searching to date anyone. I just don’t care, really, if I ever meet someone to be with again or not. Sure, every once in awhile, I miss the excitement of new romance, intimacy of a relationship, companionship in general. I’ve got my own goals and my own plans for my life. I’m actively pursuing the things I enjoy most–writing, cycling, traveling (in that order)–and I’m happy. The relationship I’ve rebuilt with my parents has made me much emotionally stable than I’ve ever been because I feel supported and loved. I won’t take them for granted any more, that’s for sure. Blood is thicker than anything else on this planet and no matter what a huge asshole I may have been at times, my parents have always been there for me. I love them for who they are and I think they love me back despite the fact that we all know each other’s flaws. Unconditional love. When you have that, you don’t try to seek it in other people who are incapable of giving it to you (i.e., my in-laws).
I guess if I can look back on a tragic event and give it a positive spin, I would have to say that Mike’s death taught me the following three points:
1.) Life is precious. Don’t ever, for a second, waste a moment. Pursue your dreams and make the most of the adventure. We lived this in our lives together and I definitely have lived it in our life apart.
2.) Don’t forget the people in your life who are still alive. Cherish each moment with them. Appreciate the time spent together and make sure you do make time to be with them. Thus why every single one of my Christmas presents to my parents for the last few years have been activities rather than actual physical gifts. Time is more precious than anything you could ever hold.
3.) The mysteries of life don’t get revealed to you just because you beg and bargain with the dead. Regardless of what lies beyond this life (which may be nothing), the one thing I do know is that there is life before death. I’ve got proof of that every day.