Life and Death

Dear M,

I don’t know what to do, so I am writing you. I sent your father an email for Father’s Day telling him how much you looked up to him and how much it made you happy when you made him proud. Your mother wrote me back a week later basically telling me in a “nice-ish” way (for her, at least) to not contact your father again because it is too hard for him and she also told me that your official cause of death was concluded to be a “heart attack caused by hypertension brought on by alcohol abuse” and she hopes that brings me some closure. Something still felt off with that, but I knew it was very plausible, especially with your history of high blood pressure.

Last weekend, my sister and I were at a store and ran into your uncle. As you know, he is just an open (very talkative) book and he told us that you died from an overdose of pills. When I managed to ask if it was on purpose, he said, “oh yeah, there was a note and everything….” I swear, it was the closest I ever came to passing out. I could not get out of that store fast enough. My sister was so upset, too.

What. The. Actual. Fuck?

My head has been spinning ever since. Without question, the most difficult aspect of your death is not knowing the details. Since day one, all I have wondered is when you died, how you died, how long you were alone, did you know what was happening, did you suffer? Those questions have plagued me. Not knowing how you died has made it very hard to move on or to properly grieve you. There is just no closure, especially without a service or obituary or anything to memorialize you.

But this? This is a whole new thing. You dying of a heart attack (or any other medical reason from years of alcohol abuse) is VERY different than you choosing to take your own life. And that means it is possible your mother has been lying to me for five months. I know you are rolling your eyes and thinking about how much she sucks, but can she really be THAT awful? I need to know the truth.

And a note? A NOTE??????? I feel like if I am in that note, I have a right to know that. I know that we were not together, but I took care of you for the almost decade we were together and then some. Even after I ended our romantic relationship, I was still the one who was taking you to the doctor and helping you when your family was in another state. I know, without a glimmer of doubt, that I was the closest person to you EVER in your life and yet I am the one who is being kept in the dark about your death.

Everyone keeps telling me that HOW you died does not change anything…that you are still gone. I understand that, I truly do. But, things have changed in my mind and I cannot just accept not knowing the truth. I just don’t know how to get it.

Gone, but never forgotten

Dear M,

One of the things I have had a lot of difficulty with since you passed away is the fact you did not have an obituary. At the time, I think your parents were so overcome by grief and the logistics of dealing with your apartment that they just were not even able to think about that. I know you said you did not want a service, which I reiterated to your mother, but I never imagined that you would not have an obituary. I kept waiting and checking online to see if one was posted. It feels so unfair. You had so many accomplishments, so many people who cared about you and it feels like your family just wanted to keep your death so private…almost like they were ashamed of you. I have never been ashamed of you, my love. Meg passed away a couple of weeks ago. She suffered much the same way you did and her family wrote and printed an obituary. She deserved that. You deserved that.

Many people, including my sister and my therapist, have recommended that I write one for you. Not to publish or for anyone else to read, but just for myself…and for you. I have put it off because I thought it would be too hard, too sad, but in a weird way it wasn’t. I kind of enjoyed writing it because I am proud of how much you accomplished and it reminded me of so many of your wonderful qualities. Just because someone struggled with addiction and mental illness does not take away from all of their positive traits and doesn’t diminish their achievements. Those things ultimately did not define you. But these things did:

MCH (1983-2021)

            Son of C. and C. Brother to A. and her husband, D. “Funcle” to G. and J. Godfather to M.E.J. M. is survived by many cousins, friends, coworkers, and the A. family.

            Growing up in BT, M. attended MLHS and the U.D., receiving a B.A. in Sociology. He later attended W.U., receiving an MBA. After successfully becoming a PMP, M. landed his dream job with MLB., where he was able to travel to Europe several times.

            An avid Yankees fan, M. attended games regularly. He loved bowling (and once scored a 298!), scuba diving with his father, and listening to music.  M. could often be found sitting on his deck, smoking a cigar, and streaming a baseball game, while simultaneously blasting songs by The Rolling Stones or Biggie Smalls.  M. was famous for his extensive shoe, sneaker, and watch collections and loved showing them off with pictures on Instagram (#sofreshandsoclean).

            M. is predeceased by his grandparents and his beloved black Labrador retriever, J.  No doubt she was waiting to greet him, and they are now reunited, playing ball for hours, taking long hikes, going for rides in his truck, and swimming in a beautiful lake. M. loved dogs “more than most people” and volunteered with the SPCA. In lieu of flowers, please make donations in his name to that organization.

♥️

Renovations

Dear M,

I am making some renovations to my house. I finally had the front steps and walkway redone. I think about how you used to drive by the house after we broke up and I can’t help but think about how seeing these changes would have affected you. Would you have liked them or would you feel despondent, like I was moving on without you?

More so than the front of the house, I have been preparing the back deck in order to repaint it. I remember years ago when you painted it for the first time. I can’t even remember if it was before or after you moved in…I think it was after? Some of my fondest memories of you were just cool summer nights where we sat out on the deck together, listening to a baseball game, grilling, etc. I know that I was still teaching summer school at the time, because I would get home and change and help you with the deck. The freaking spindles took 1 million hours to painstakingly paint. It was not the most enjoyable job, but it looked great afterwards.

Over the past couple of years, the paint has been peeling and chipping off and I decided it was time to do some touch-ups (which naturally turned into a huge project where I am now repainting much of the deck). I feel guilty and sad. I don’t like having to re-do something you did because it makes me feel like I am replacing something that you worked hard on and took pride in. Since we broke up and you moved out and now especially since you passed away, each new thing I do without you feels like I am moving further away from you, but unfortunately that is inevitable as time moves on. I hope you know that me scraping away your old paint is not an attempt to erase you or your memory.

I asked my students to select and write about a quote about life that was meaningful to them. I shared with them the Robert Frost quote that has been in my classroom for years and years: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” I have always liked this quote and I used to interpret it to mean that even when life is difficult and you feel hopeless, you have to persevere.  After losing you, I interpret it differently.  Now when I read it, I think about death and how when someone’s life ends, the world doesn’t stop.  You may want it to because you are grieving for the person you lost, but the world around you keeps spinning, other people keep living their lives, and you just have to accept that even though there is sadness and loss, you cannot just sink down into it…you have to keep going.

It is hard at times to try to “move on”. I hate that phrase- I do not think I will ever, nor do I really want to ever, move on. Moving on sounds like another way of saying “get over it” and that is impossible. I will never move on or get over your death, rather I think it will just become a part of me. A new sidewalk and a fresh coat of paint do not change the structure of the house, just the cosmetic appearance. The tiny cracks in the foundation are still there, deep underneath what the eye can see. That is just what happens to an old home…things are replaced and repaired…it is a never-ending cycle. And that is like life- every loss and traumatic experience adds a little crack to your heart, but that doesn’t mean the whole of the person is damaged. There is a Carley Simon song that has a lyric that really resonates with me…

“So don’t mind if I fall apart, there’s more room in a broken heart.”

Sixty seconds

Recently, I saw a post on Reddit that asked the question: if you could go back in time and had ONE MINUTE to give advice to your past self, what would you say?

I have to admit that I have spent way, way more than a minute thinking about this question. Part of me rejects doing this because I know everything I have gone through made me who I am today. But then I think, fuck that cliche…why not tell myself all the things that will help “past me” be able to avoid pain, heartbreak, rejection, loss, and negative experiences???

So, here is what I would tell my younger self in sixty seconds:

“Listen to your gut. When your gut is telling you to run, run. When it tells you, don’t marry him: DON’T. MARRY. HIM. Don’t lie to cover other people’s mistakes or behavior. You think that you are protecting them, but you are really just hiding the truth, from the world and yourself.

Don’t settle. EVER. Forget having to kiss frogs and all that dumb shit. Kiss the frogs for fun, but when it comes to relationships, don’t settle for less than you deserve. Please, please do not be with someone who drinks. Promise yourself this and then DO NOT BREAK that promise. You cannot save anyone who doesn’t want to be saved. Don’t ever put yourself in a situation where you put someone else’s needs above your own. Don’t lose yourself in someone else. And always, always have an exit strategy.

Be nice to everyone. It isn’t a weakness. You never know what someone else is going through. When you think to yourself that you should call or text someone to check on them or see if they are okay, don’t assume you will always have the time or chance to do it.

No one has a perfect family or perfect life. Make the best of what you have. If you focus all your energy on the bad things, you will miss out on enjoying the good things. Forgive people, especially your dad, who don’t deserve it, even if they never apologized. Try to be the bigger person as often as possible.” *

*Okay, I literally timed myself reading that aloud. And I did not go back and edit it because I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. At first, this seemed really easy to do, but it much more difficult than I thought it would be, because how do you sum up twenty years of advice and lessons learned into one little minute? It is an impossible task. And really, how much do young people really listen to anyway? Lol! I teach 11th grade (so mostly kids that are 16 and 17 years old) and as much as I would like to think they hang on my pearls of wisdom, I know that they will have go out into the world and learn life lessons the hard way, just like all of us did- I guess that is a rite of passage. But really, why didn’t anyone stress to 16 year old me the importance of not settling…that would have been REALLY helpful 😉

The tooth (and truth) hurts

My father has been having some dental issues lately and had to have a tooth pulled. We were talking about it the last time I saw him and I was empathizing with him, as I have had dental woes of my own. He then casually asked me if I had my wisdom teeth removed. I told him that I did have all four removed when I was a teenager, to which he responded, “I don’t remember that at all.” I was SHOCKED because although I do jot remember a lot from my childhood, it is one of my most vivid memories.

Let me take you back and set the scene…I was probably around 16 and it was over the summer. My dentist recommended I get all four wisdom teeth removed, as they were all impacted. When an oral surgeon performs that surgery, you have to be put under anesthesia. I was very nervous. I had never had any kind of surgery or anesthesia before. I don’t remember anything from the actual surgery (although my mom tells a funny story about how in a panic I thought the surgeon removed my tongue when I woke up and kept touching it to see if it was still there).

What I do remember was how uncomfortable I was afterwards. I had stitches in four parts of my mouth, which was also packed with cotton. I had to take both antibiotics and codeine. When I got home, all I wanted to do was go to bed. My father, however, had different plans. He was incredibly drunk and a few hours later he began arguing with my mother. He told her, my sister, and me that we had to leave the house and forced us out of the front door, along with our dog. At that point the combination of anesthesia, painkillers and anxiety kicked in and I spent the next half hour vomiting into our front bushes. In case you ever wondered (although I doubt you have), throwing up with a mouth full of bloody cotton is absolutely disgusting.

Eventually, he must have allowed us to come back into the house, because I don’t really remember much else from that day or night. The bushes part is my most vivid memory.

Back to present day…I spent the whole rest of the night thinking about what my father said. I truly do believe that he honestly did not remember that night. It made me wonder how many other incidents that I remember, many of which scarred my childhood, he simply does not even remember.

For the past 30 years, there’s only been two times when my father was sober. One time was after he had a stroke and did not drink from October of 2013 to October of 2015 and the other time has been since December of 2019. During the first span, I remember having a conversation with him and mentioning a few of the things that he had done while he was drunk. It was clear that he was appalled and did not even believe that he was capable of doing those things. And I really didn’t even tell him any of the truly terrible things he did.

The immature part of me wants to stomp my foot and say that it’s not fair. If I have to live with all of these bad memories, he should be riddled with guilt and tormented by them also. Another part of me feels slightly comforted by the fact that because he does not remember doing these things, it was not really my dad doing them, rather it was this drunk monster that took over his body.

My mouth has long since healed and the memory of that experience has faded. Although I have to admit it did hurt a little to have him admit that he didn’t remember that day- added a little insult to injury.

Hostess with the…leastest

I had a weird epiphany today while on the phone with my best friend. We were talking about when I was going to open my pool and she mentioned how I never invite anyone over to swim…or really ever. To be honest, I do not really like entertaining or hosting gatherings, but I never really thought about why. I said to her (really nonchalantly) that when living with my father and then my exhusband and exboyfriend, I usually felt uncomfortable having people over. She was quiet for a while and then said, “that totally makes sense now, I never thought about it” and I was like, “oh my god, I never made the connection either!”

I infrequently had friends over to my house when I was a teenager. It was pretty safe to assume my father would be drunk and would either embarrass me or would act horribly. I grew up under the unwritten law of “don’t let people know what is going on inside our house”, which is obeyed diligently by most children of alcoholics. Having an “outsider” at my house was not a comfortable feeling.

Once I got married and bought a house with my exhusband, we did entertain a bit at first. However, as our relationship deteriorated, I became very nervous about having people over. Keeping up the facade of a happy marriage was exhausting. He would sometimes fly off the handle at the slightest comment I made or would ignore my family members. One time we went to the food store to buy appetizers for a party. He loaded up the cart with a literal armful of different cheeses. I made an innocuous comment about whether we needed so many cheese options. He left the cart, and me, at the store and canceled the party. Needless to say, I was never very eager to have company over.

Most recently, my exboyfriend lived with me. We dated for nine years and he lived with me in my house for the last five years. He was not outright rude to anyone, but he was often detached when my family would come over- constantly looking at his phone or disappearing for an hour. Over the years, his depression and alcoholism had a very negative impact on our social life. I never could predict when he was going to stay in bed for an entire weekend or when he would drink to excess or when he would be normal and friendly. I did not realize at the time that I was hiding his issues from people, “covering” for him with excuses about him being tired from work, etc. I never wanted to plan anything at the house because I did not know which version of him would be attending.

Now that I have lived alone for the past year, I relish my quiet, calm house. Often when I am at a party with a lot of people and chaos, I get overwhelmed. When I am at a friend’s house who has children, I feel relieved to come back home to just my two cats. I don’t think that I was comfortable in many of my past living situations, so I am very protective and territorial of my “safe space”.

I am quite social and I do love spending time with my friends, but I prefer to do it at their homes or a restaurant. I have so much appreciation for consistency and predictability and security and tranquility when it comes to my home. I did not have those things for the majority of my life and they have become things I will not ever jeopardize again…not for all the cheese in the world!