My husband and I used to play different types of ridiculous “what if” games. Well, I would play them and he would humor me and my insane sense of humor by responding over and over to my absurd “what if” questions. It was so much fun, and I would do this at the most annoying or random times – always out of absolutely nowhere, and always starting the same way; with me saying his pet name in that sing-songy voice, where I would stretch out the word “Boo” to somehow make it two lengthy syllables, served up alongside some innocent, pathetic, puppy-dog eyes….
Walking along the Hudson River by our New Jersey apartment, where, in parts, it was very cliff-like and steep along the roadway …
Me: But, Boo-oooooo???
Him: Yes Boo ….
Me: What if … what if I jumped down this cliff right now, Boo? What if I hurdled my body over this low fence and jumped and slid down all the steep rocks, hitting my head on each one, landing in the grassy knoll?
Him: You would probably die.
Me: But, what if I didnt die? What if I lived through it, but I became severely paralyzed? What if nothing worked except my head? What if I was just a head sitting in a wheelchair? Would you leave me if I was just a head, Boo?
Him: No, Boo. I wouldnt leave you if you were a head. But I might have you commited to a mental institution of some kind, for leaping off a giant cliff for no goddamn reason. In fact, I may have you commited right now. Freak.
A lot of times, we would be in bed, and I would wait until he was just about asleep, and then I would tap him on the shoulder with another “What if” question ….
Me: (tap tap tap) But, Boo-ooooooo???
Him: (grunting awake) Mmmhgjmmzz… what, Boo?
Me: What if I gained lots and lots of weight? Would you divorce me?
Him: Seriously? This is what we’re doing right now?
Me: Like maybe 150 or 200 pounds. What if, Boo? Would you leave me then forever?
Him: (sitting up, eyes still closed) No, Boo. I wouldnt leave you forever. Youre my wife and I love you. Is that the right answer? Can I please go to sleep now?
Me: But what if I was like that lady we saw on TV? The one who was 600 pounds and you couldnt even see her face, and she lived in her bed for 4 years? What if I was her? THEN would you leave me, Boo?
Him: Yes, Boo. THEN I would leave you. (laughing at how dumb this is)
Me: But, that’s mean, Boo. I thought I was your wife …
Him: Yeah, well, at that point, you sort of stop being a wife and become more of a furniture piece. Besides, what are you gonna do about it? Run after me? It would be the easiest divorce in history! Can I PLEASE, for the love of God, go to sleep now?
Now, almost 20 months after his sudden death, I still play the “What if” game, but I play it alone. There is not really much joy in playing this game alone, because now I, much like my husband, have become the unwilling participant. I dont want to play this game, but my mind and my heart and my brain and everything else inside me just goes there. And it is no longer fun, silly “What if” questions. No. It is the kind of “What if” questions that make you sweat, and keep you up all night, and give you nausea …
What if Don never took that second job at Petsmart? What if he had gone to the doctor more? What if his dad gave him the time of day or had a relationship with him, or maybe informed him that heart disease was in the family and that he should get his heart checked out? What if he had stayed in Florida, where his life was more calm and less stressful? What if he never moved to New Jersey at all, to be with me? To marry me? What if he was at his regular job that morning, as an EMS, on an AMBULANCE? What if he had his heart-attack in the ambulance and was treated in time and survived? What if he got that second chance that so many others get? What if he was home with me that day? What If I wasnt asleep when my husband was collapsing on a floor at work? What if he wasnt happy – really happy – when he died? What if he was alone and scared when it happened? What if he wondered where I was? What if he was in pain?
Everyone who has lost someone plays the “what if” game, and everyone else tells us not to. They tell us to stop torturing ourselves. Stop trying to change things that cannot be changed. Stop trying to figure out a riddle that has no answer, a calendar that has no months, a bird that has no wings. Just stop.
The “What if” game comes and goes in my mind and in my heart, and lately, it has quieted some. It has silenced itself for awhile. Why? Not because my mind and my heart are finally leaving me alone and letting me live in peace. No. That would be too simple. Too linear. That would make too much sense, and we all know that the grief monster never makes sense. The game has stopped asking these endless questions about the day of my husband’s death for a much deeper reason: it has a much more probing question in mind …..
What if our roles were reversed? What if I died, and you lived?
It is a question that plagues me. It is a question that brings upon sadness. Guilt. Fear. Confusion. Sacrifice. Love. And, of course, death.
But what if, Boo? What if you had woken up that morning to that new, horrific reality? The reality that I was already gone? What would you have done in the following minutes, hours, days, months? How would you be coping? I know for sure that after the services were said and done, after the friends and the flowers and the dust had settled – you would pack up our kitties and pack up your chair and your guitars and your life – and you would go back to Florida, where you loved it, and pick up right where you left off. You would get your EMS job back in Pinellas County at Sunstar. You would find a nice, but humble apartment that had central-air and tennis courts in the back, like your old one, and you would walk along Clearwater Beach and ride your bike in the paths and just be you.
I know you would always keep in touch with my family – my brother and my parents – and you would all take care of one another as much as you could, and you would check on them, and they would definitely check on you. I think you would handle the pain so much better than I am handling it, Boo. I really think that. You would be devastated, of course, but you would know how to go forward better than I know how to. You know how to let things go, because you had to growing up, and so you would probably find private ways to honor me and remember me, but you would spend your life making the best of your life.
Our families would embrace you. Our friends would embrace you and hold you up and love you. And you would take our photo albums and our wedding things and our letters and our memories, and you would take special care of them. And you would be a much better papa to our kitties than I am a Mama. They put up with me, but it’s so clear that they want you. They want you to be here. I want you to be here.
What if I died and you lived? Its something I think about often. I dont like thinking about it, but it’s there. It lingers. It whispers. It taps on my shoulder, waking me up in the night, right as Im about to fall asleep. Just like I did to you, Boo. All those nights. Those wonderful, married nights.
It’s not that I want to be dead. I don’t. Its just that sometimes, I don’t really want to be alive. And there is a difference. And during those times, I wonder ……
What If I Died and You Lived?