I Forgot You Died

My husband’s sudden and unexpected death happened on a Wednesday.
July 13, 2011.
We had gone to sleep the night before, and I still don’t recall saying goodnight.
Or saying anything.
We simply fell asleep, in the exhaustion of having two jobs and being busy and life.

A few hours later, he had left for his volunteer job at the local Petsmart,
helping out with cat adoptions, and then stocking pet food.
But he never got around to any of that.
His manager found him collapsed on the cold, hard floor instead,
about 90 minutes after arriving to work.
(Just a side note; I don’t actually know for a fact that the floor was cold, but for some reason, whenever I describe it to anyone or write about it, I always describe it as a cold floor. I just picture it and see it as being cold. These are the kinds of things, big and small, that trauma puts into our heads.)

My very healthy and active husband,
who was a paramedic and saved other people’s lives daily,
suffered from a massive heart attack at only age 46.
No symptoms. No warnings. No goodbyes.
Here one second,
then
POOF!
Gone the next.
On that morning, I literally woke up to my new reality and the new life I didnt want, as my husband was gone from our apartment, and gone from Earth.

And since that catastrophic day,
I have been counting,
both consciously and subconsciously,
every month, week, hour, minute, and second,
since he died.
On the 13th of every month,
Every month,
my heart would automatically know it was the 13th.
On the rare occasion that I didnt know within minutes of waking up,
my body would remind me.
I would feel “off”,
or sick,
or really, really awful.
If it was the 13th of the month, and a Wednesday,
that was even worse.
I would re-live “that day”,
again and again
and Again.
Every 13th.
For over 2 years.

Until this week.
This week, someone innocently asked me,
“How long has it been since your husband died?”
And instead of blurting out, like a robot,
my completely normal response of:
“It has been 2 years, 4 months, 5 days, 17 hours, and 3 minutes since my love died” –
something bizarre happened.
I forgot.
For a few seconds in time,
I could not recall the exact time that had gone by since his death.
I had to think about it.
It required math.
I had to use my fingers, and carry the one.
That had never happened before.
Not ever.

And then I remembered something else,
that I had forgotten.
The 13th.
Wednesday.
For the first time ever, since his death,
the 13th of a month, that happened to fall on a Wednesday,
creeped by,
without me even noticing.
The only reason I even thought about it,
was because this person had asked me,
“How long since he died?”
So I counted. Did the math. Remembered.

But here is the best part:
I didn’t feel any guilt.
No guilt.
I didn’t feel bad or guilty,
for momentarily forgetting the exact date in time
that my world exploded.
Because why should I?
It is insane to think,
that I could ever really forget.
That’s not possible.
His death is in the rhythms,
of everything I am.

No.
I felt something else.
JOY!
Relief.
A new way of breathing.
I was happy to forget,
even for a few moments,
because in my world,
this is progress.
Achievement.
Healing.
I was excited.
I almost felt like singing.

And after that day, this week, where I had forgotten what I had always remembered, I noticed other things happening too. Small things, but still things. I noticed that lately I have been sleeping in the range of 3-6 hours per night, instead of the 0-3 hours range that used to be my normal, for the first 18 months or so of this new life.

I noticed a couple walking down the street, holding hands and kissing, clearly in love – and for the first time in a long, long time – I didn’t want to simultaneously trip them and watch them fall into a manhole, never to be seen again. I mean, I didn’t want to throw them a goddamn party or anything, but I didn’t feel massive rage at them for having time together, when my time with Don was up. It’s a start.

I also noticed that this year, on the upcoming Thanksgiving, which will be my 3rd one without my love – that I’m not filled with anxiety and fear and dread, as the day approaches. I wouldn’t say I’m “excited”, because, well, let’s not get crazy – but it’s not looking like the black, dark hole it used to be.

The other day, I was in the car, driving to meet my best friend Sarah for dinner somewhere, and I had the car radio on. Now, that in itself, is something that is very recent for me, in my new “after” life. Music is still very hard. Music was my husband, and my husband was music – so it’s very, very hard. Only recently have I been able to even listen to music of any kind in the car, and still, lots of times, many songs will send me into random bursts of sobbing, and I become an emotional dishrag. But on this particular day, for whatever reason, it was different. Not only did they play music, they played Christmas music. “Let It Snow”.

I sat there. Driving. There was a slight pause in my tiny, ginormous world. Nothing happened. And then, something did happen. I turned it up. Loud. And for the first time, in a long, long time – I sang. It has hurt too much to sing since he died, because I’m not singing with him. I’m not singing while he strums his guitar. I’m not singing to chords that he learned, just for me, that would sound melodic, blended with my voice. Music was my husband, and my husband was music. And we, together, were music. Like a duet. When he died, the music stopped. There just didn’t seem to be a point anymore.

And then there was. In the car. When I sang “Let It Snow”, all alone, and with him.
For about 25 seconds in a row, I decided to let Christmas in again.
It hurt.
It hurt a lot.
I’m still not ready for all of Christmas.
But maybe just a verse.
So I sang.
And then I cried.
But first,
I sang.

Running

I never really liked running. Never really saw the point. For exercise? Sure, but I’d much rather play a sport or go swimming or do just about anything other than feel the pounding of my flattened and worn-out feet, screaming for mercy against the hot and unforgiving pavement. Or feel my knees hurting and buckling and cracking with each breath, showing their severe weakness and obvious disapproval of this evil form of torture.

People who run claim that it’s “freeing.” I don’t know about that. To me, it feels the opposite, like a never-ending prison sentence filled with sweat, horrible cramps, and nausea. The only thing freeing about running is maybe the part where the race or the dash or the charity sprint or whatever other forced form of hell has ended, and I am now free to go and grab a drink and a burger somewhere.

Me and Don – in the life I knew

Despite this, I have been running for just over 2 years now. It’s not the kind of running that requires good sneakers, or keeping hydrated, or carrying a stopwatch. No. That sort of thing is for amateurs. This is much different. It’s much bigger than all of that, and much more complex. This is the kind of running that takes over your life, and that is caused by death.

I began running at approximately 6:30am on July 13, 2011, when I received the series of phone calls that would jar me awake, give me the worst news of my life, and change me forever. My very first sprint was the one that took me from the inside of a taxicab, into the ER section of the hospital, just down the street from where we lived in West New York, New Jersey. My run from the door of that car to the doors of that E.R., I can honestly say, was the fastest I have ever moved in my life. I don’t know what all the rushing was about. He was already dead. Then again, I didn’t know that at the time. Until, of course, I did.

And since that time, that day, that hour – every piece of my existence has been about running. Running from pain. Running from hurt. From loss. From love. Running as far away from the memories as I can, because memories sting and they stab and they reinforce what is now gone. I am not ready for memories. Memories are for 5 years, maybe 10 years from now, when I can feel them without intense sorrow, when I can “cherish them”, which so many people who have not lost their husbands keep telling me to do. Running from pictures, and triggers, and trauma. Running from my heart. My soul. My “before.”

San Diego paradise…

Like the time I packed up everything I own and everything he owned, and finally made the decision to move out of the New Jersey apartment where we shared our entire engagement and marriage and life. The 7 years that we spent there began to eat away at my skin and engulf me – the walls were closing in on me after 8 months alone, facing the nothingness of a life that was now over, a time that would not come back.

So I ran away from the homemade birthday cakes at our kitchen table, the small dinner parties and hang-outs with our core group of friends that shattered into bits of glass, the friendly neighborhood store owners that all knew Don and looked at me with sad eyes each time I crossed their path, post-death. I ran from the hospital where he died, and the other hospital where he worked as an EMT, and the Pet-smart where he collapsed on that cold floor, alone, while working his second job to help support us. I ran from the familiar-looking ambulances with his hospital’s name on them, and the uniforms I would see around town, on other tall men resembling my husband. I ran from our special bench where we would sit at night, and stare at the city skyline, laughing and dreaming and being. I couldn’t get away fast enough from the local restaurants we used to eat at, the movie theatre we used to spend Sunday matinees at, the tennis courts he would play tennis at, just like he did one day before he suddenly died.

So after 8 months of sitting inside of it, tripping over the piles and the stuff that used to be our life, I ran. It was either that, or stay there and be further suffocated by things and objects and items – when the person that made them come to life, was no longer breathing air. And the person that I was now, a widowed woman with only one, small paycheck, could no longer afford to pay rent and live alone. So I left.

But it wasn’t enough. Running or walking or crawling or kicking and screaming away from all those things helped, but it wasn’t enough. The pain was still there. Lurking. Hiding. Approaching. Waiting …

So I ran some more, and started to add new things into my new life, thinking that new things would hurt less than old and familiar things, things that I did with my husband. I have added lots of things, big things and small things, important and mundane things. Like the new comedy class I now teach in NYC. Or the new writing gigs Ive picked up. Or my new apartment, and my new roommate (my 2nd new roommate, and 2nd apartment, since his death). Or my new membership with ZIpcar, instead of our car, which I was forced to sell and get another, safer car, which I was also forced to sell, due to my new “broke widow” title in life. Or performing stand-up at Camp Widow. Or eating and making new foods for myself that I dont associate with foods that he loved. Taking a new walk to a new place that he never saw or went to. Seeing a new film, hearing new songs, thinking new thoughts. Making new friends, breaking new ground, facing new fears.

Me with my “new” Network Comedy Class, outside Gotham Comedy Club, NYC.

But none of that was enough either. It helped, but it wasn’t enough to make the stabbing pains go away. It still wasn’t enough to take the hurt and the grief and the why away. So then I started replacing painful things, with better things, thinking that the good would eventually outweigh the bad. Like, if I felt a panic attack coming on while driving down a familiar road or seeing our exit on the Turnpike and instantly flashing back to that life – that death – I would pull over and try to breathe and think about something else. Or drive a new route next time. When the nonstop image of my dead husband’s body in that casket would appear in my heart out of nowhere, I would try and get rid of it by posting pictures of us together on Facebook, or in my blog. Happy pictures. Pictures of him alive and smiling and being. Or when I couldnt sleep at night or kept waking up with the  sweats and the panic and the anxiety, flashing back to that morning or the night before or the days after – I would get up and make myself some tea, and watch something silly on TV, like Three’s Company, to make the bad thoughts go away.

But that didn’t always work either. Well, it worked momentarily, for a short time. For now. But the panic and the stress and the thoughts of death and the cruel images would always, always return. They are burned into my brain and stamped into my skin, like a tattoo that I can never remove, and that I don’t remember asking for.

moving (running) out of our apartment …

So then I have thought to myself – I need to think bigger. I need to run away. What If I just left New York? Left my life altogether? Left my teaching job of 11 years, left my familiar, left my problems and my clutter and my stuff – and went somewhere new? What if I went somewhere else, where I wasn’t the widowed girl? I could run away to California or Colorado or The Moon, and just start the fuck over, right? What do I have to lose, when I have already lost it all? And really, anytime that I go anywhere, I instantly feel somewhat better. Lighter. Happier. The sadness still lives inside me, but there is more room for the joy whenever I go somewhere else. My week in San Diego at Camp Widow was so relaxing, so freeing, so healing. And I felt so close to my husband there, closer than I have felt to him in a long time. I slept through the nights, and I felt a sense of peace and comfort around me. New and beautiful surroundings created new and beautiful things.

But that’s the problem. If I am visiting San Diego, or anywhere else, they are new surroundings. It is a vacation. It is temporary. If I lived there, then the new surroundings are eventually no longer new – they are simply the background to where I live. And although moving away sounds nice, it only sounds that way because whenever I go anywhere for a short period of time, it is time away from what is the norm. It feels exotic. It suggests “better.” But it’s not. It only feels that way, because I don’t live there. If I moved somewhere else, my New York issues would just turn into San Diego issues or Moon issues or wherever I ended up issues. I would have their bills and their traffic and their stresses and their problems, instead of the ones I have now. On top of that, I would be losing the very things that help to keep me sane in my new and unwanted life – my old and lifelong friends, my NY connections, my comedy buddies and clubs, my job that is secure and mostly rewarding, my counseling sessions that fuel me with coping skills and hope, my family that is 4 hours away instead of much, much further if I were to move out West. I would be trading in problems for different problems, and Im just too exhausted to deal with that much uncertainty right now.

me, with one of my many new friends in the widowed community, Beth – San Diego

Like I said in my first sentence, I never really liked running. Never really saw the point.

There is no purpose to running in circles. No reason to marathon and finish where you began. No meaning to a race that cannot end.

I cannot run from the truth. I can’t run from the pain, or the hurt, or the grief. Whether I go to San Diego or Hawaii or stay right here in my new apartment, all that shit comes with me. It is inside of me, the same way that my lungs and my veins and my breath is inside of me. It is an unwanted presence, a giant scar across my face. I can keep washing it off my face, and it may appear to have gone away for awhile, but it never truly leaves. I can’t run from it. I can’t fight it. I have to live with it and through it and sit near it side by side, and learn to look myself in the mirror and not hate that ugly scar.

There is some good news though. The ugly scar and the pain and hurt and trauma and fear are inside me, yes. They go with me. They are me. But if they are a part of me, then so is the hope. So is the love. The laughter. The joy. The birthday cakes and the Christmas mornings and the walks along the Hudson.The music he played. The chords he strummed. The pets he loved and the people he touched. The lives that he altered. My life. The beautiful, epic soul that is my husband, that is now me. It is all inside me. All of it. Every single cell of it. Until the end of time, and then miles and miles beyond that  …

I just need to stop running.

 

(p.s. Been meaning to say this for awhile to my regular readers and anyone reading this now – I . LOVE. COMMENTS. If you read this blogpiece or any of my posts, please leave a comment if you can! Each comment is like a little Christmas present to me, and I love getting them. Lately, when my email informs me I have new comments, they end up being 90% spam that I have to filter through and delete. I love getting real comments from people. It lets me know that you are out there and reading and hearing me … and thank you for doing that. Thank you.)