Robin Williams was 63 years old

Robin Williams

I am heartbroken. Robin Williams is dead in an apparent suicide. I did not know him, but I have been a fan ever since his Mork & Mindy days. More recently, I greatly preferred him in dramatic roles: Good Will Hunting, Insomnia – roles where his frenetic tendencies were held in check, lending his characters a seething intensity that jumped from the screen.

Every time someone well known takes his own life, I wonder, will this be the one that finally gets people talking? People seem to be shocked, and mostly because Robin Williams was so funny. Comedy and tragedy are different sides of the same mask, though. Tony was funny too, often hilariously so. Laughter can be a disguise. Comedy can be a defense mechanism.

I know all too well some of the things his family and friends are feeling now. They are wondering how this could have happened, what they could or should have done differently, why he didn’t call someone in that final, desperate moment before he took the action that could not be undone. They are in that unmapped landscape, together, but alone. They are sad and furious at him at the same time, probably. They are reeling.

My heart goes out to them. I hope they find some of the resources I found – most especially The Alliance of Hope  because there, they can write about their experience in anonymity and get help from people who understand their pain.

Much will be said and written about this in the days and weeks to come, I am sure. I am hoping that somehow, this will be the suicide that makes people willing to talk about it in a larger context. Not just this man, this suicide, but all people – all suicides. One is too many.

His name is Robin Williams. He was 63 years old.

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Today would have been ten years

wedding day

Ten years ago today, Tony and I got up early. We got dressed up and we drove to the San Diego County Recorder’s Office. We were first in line. We asked someone behind us in line to take a picture of us: the picture that accompanies this post. We had come the week before to get our marriage license, and when we went inside we only had to wait a few minutes before we were married by a lovely justice of the peace.

I cried. I said my vows with a heart that was full of love and optimism. While there were things about Tony that worried me, even then, my love was strong enough to overpower any fears I might have had. When I held his hands and looked into his eyes, I saw only love there for me. It was palpable. The justice of the peace could feel it – I know she could, because she positively beamed at us.

Afterwards, we drove to La Jolla Cove and went to a restaurant there for brunch. My sister Laura had pushed me for the name of the restaurant, and it turns out that was because my family wanted to treat us to brunch and champagne since they couldn’t be there with us. We had a beautiful meal, and then went out to the park to take pictures and call our families.

Time is a funny thing. On the one hand, these memories seem like they are part of another lifetime – and they are. They were from a time when Tony’s depression was minor, compared to what it became. A time before his more serious symptoms started to manifest themselves, and a time when I felt like we were really a team. On the other hand, it seems like yesterday. There are moments when I still can’t quite believe that he’s gone, that I will never see him again. As always, these memories are entangled with later, sadder ones.

Still, I’ll always remember how blue the sky was that day.

 

It was not meant for me

Do you remember two weeks ago when I wrote about crushing eggshells? And how I said that if someone couldn’t handle a little eggshell-crushing, they weren’t meant for me, and I was not meant for them?

That was the truth.

I alluded in that post to a situation that had arisen with someone I care about. I told you that I’d told him what I needed and that it hadn’t scared him away. That was true at the time, I thought, and yet, it is also true that the relationship is now over. He didn’t mention it, but while I think the main culprits are distance and logistics, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the eggshell-crushing played a small role, too.

This is when the resolution gets put to the test, because it’s hard to lose someone you care about. The good thing, though, about having had my entire life blow up at the end of 2012, is that in the end, it has made it much easier to put things in perspective.

I read this quote, attributed to Buddha, yesterday:

In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

It’s that last one that’s the hardest for me. It always has been hard. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but in the past my inability to let go of things not meant for me has kept me in relationships that weren’t making me happy, jobs that I hated, situations that just were not good for me. Over and over, I’ve made that mistake. I have held on too hard, put my own needs too low on my list of priorities, and endured treatment that would have sent someone with higher self-esteem running for the hills.

The change I can see in myself is this: there have been times that, on the verge of a breakup, I’ve tried to convince someone to be with me. I don’t know why I felt the need to do that, but I did. Not enough confidence in my own worth, I suppose, or fear of being alone. This time, I haven’t done that. I haven’t even WANTED to do it. I have many, many feels, don’t get me wrong. I am sad and disappointed and a lot of other things. I have things I want to say to him. But I haven’t, not even for a second, been tempted to try to convince him that he was wrong to end it. Why? Because I don’t want to be with anybody who’s not ass-over-teakettle for me. I’ve been down that road before and I didn’t like it the first time.

I wouldn’t say I’ve let go of it, not yet, but I have accepted that it was not meant for me. That he and I, we were not meant for each other. If we had been, this would not have happened. I don’t know how graceful I am at the moment, but even though I am sad, I am not undone. Even though I am disappointed, I know that letting go is the right thing to do.

I’m picking a new road.

With no map to guide us

mapless desert

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about grief quite a lot lately. I read some posts from newcomers to an online forum for suicide survivors, and I was struck, again and again, but the inadequacy of our understanding of grief. We are not taught how to deal with it. We fear it. Of course we fear it. It is an unwanted destination, barren and harsh, and we all know we are going to have to visit it – probably more than once – during our lifetimes.

It’s not something you can plan for, grief. Not even if your loved one is sick for a long time, and you know that soon, any day now, you will be dropped into that unforgiving landscape. There is no preparing for it. I know this from experience. My grandfather died suddenly not long before my tenth birthday. It was awful. My uncle, grandmother and mother-in-law all died after long battles with cancer. That was awful too. It’s always awful, nothing can make it easier. There is no map, and even if someone tried to make one, it would be useless. That miserable landscape is different for each one of us, you see. A few months ago my therapist said to me that the grieving process mirrors the relationship. I think that’s true.

When my grandmother died, my grief was powerful but not complicated. I had a very easy and loving relationship with my grandmother. She had dementia, but my last two visits with her were magical. She knew who I was. She told me the same stories I’ve been hearing since childhood, sometimes more than once in the same ten minute span. But she smiled, and I smiled, and we held hands, and I felt the purest love for her. I still miss her, every day, but somehow the process of grieving her was filled with the songs of the birds she loved, and hints of her Irish brogue, and memories of the cookies she baked. I still cried. I still didn’t know how I would get through it.

The landscape of my grief after losing Tony is like Death Valley, or the moon. There are no plants, or animals. It is carpeted with red dust – red, the color of anger, because I have so much anger. It burns even though there is nothing there to catch fire. Nothing about grieving anyone else I had ever lost could have prepared me for what I fell into on December 21, 2012. To say there was no map feels like a gross understatement. Certainly I did not have a map. I also did not have gravity, or limbs, or bodily functions. I drifted but I was weighed down. I looked around but lacked the will to even try to move.

There was nothing anybody could have said that would have made a difference. That’s what we all fear, isn’t it? Saying the wrong thing? There really is no wrong thing. Well, okay – maybe if a completely clueless socially inept clod said something like, “I’m glad he’s dead,” that would have been wrong. I think it’s best to tread lightly around religious proclamations unless you’re sure the bereaved shares your beliefs. The simplest things are often the best. You simply cannot go wrong with “I’m so sorry.” Don’t be afraid to say it. Don’t think it’s too simple. It’s not. It’s the only thing you can say, really. And believe me, it is better – far better — than saying nothing.

Thinking about this, I wonder if it’s maybe that people want to be able to say something to make it go away. To make it all better. And of course, that’s impossible. The only way to make the grief go away is to make the dead come back to life. That’s just not an option, unless you’re going to resort to necromancy, and frankly, even if you ARE a necromancer it seems ill advised. Those stories never end well. What people who want to comfort the grieving need to know is there’s no way to make it better, or to make it go away. There is only helping the person who is in that landscape know that, while she may think she is alone, you are there too. She may not always see you, but you know she is there. You see her, you will hold her hand. That’s enough, truly.

They Are Meant To Be Broken

eggshells

Most of us have heard, and probably used, the term “walking on eggshells.” We use it to describe a delicate situation or a precarious one, usually when we’re dealing with someone with a short temper or a thin skin. Or a mental illness. I have used it frequently, here, to describe what it was like being married to Tony. Every day was an obstacle course as I tried not to crush the fragile eggshells of his ego and self- esteem beneath my too-loud voice, my too-emotional emotions, or whatever ‘too’ he felt was the culprit on a given day.

The thing is, it wasn’t just walking. It was talking too. Talking on eggshells sounds a little strange, but I don’t know how else to describe the feeling that every word that comes out of your mouth is a potential grenade. I got very good at it. I rarely said, flat-out, what I meant. I could do an elaborate verbal tap dance that would rival anything Ann Miller or Savion Glover could produce with their feet.

What I didn’t grasp, until recently, is that I am still doing it. I am still fighting it. I am still inclined to dance, even though I don’t have to any more. I realized it, finally, because I was upset with someone I really care about. I thought I had raised a particular issue very clearly, more than once, and he just wasn’t getting it. That’s what I thought.  But then, I took a minute and thought back on our conversations.  I went back and read what I had written to him, which I thought was SO CLEAR, and admitted to myself that it… wasn’t. I was tap dancing. I said a lot of words – I am wordy – but none of them were the precise, true problem I was having. I was dancing around it, shuffling, step-ball-changing all over the place, but I never actually hit my mark. I never actually said, “This is the problem, and this is what I think we can do about it.”

The realization hit me like a sucker punch. I AM A WORD PERSON. How could I have been so wrong about what I had written? Then it occurred to me. I was talking on eggshells. Talking around the problem but afraid to step directly on it for fear of breaking something. So afraid.

Here’s the thing about eggshells. They are MEANT to be broken, are they not? How else would the baby chicks get out? How else would we make a birthday cake, or breakfast in bed? HOW ELSE WOULD WE FERTILIZE THE DAMN ROSES? So what I did was, I walked up and crushed those eggshells. I stomped all over them, verbally speaking. I sent a message saying EXACTLY what I meant, because really, it’s not fair to expect anybody to read my mind. Half the time I don’t even know what the heck is going on in there! How could I expect this man, who hasn’t known me very long, to do that without an Aimee-to-English dictionary, a headlamp, and a month’s supply of food? Good grief.

You know what? It was terrifying. It was terrifying. It took every single ounce of courage I had to send that message, because I was so afraid that stating my needs, my wants, would anger him or cause him to reject me.

Reader. It didn’t. He heard me. He did what I asked him to do. I am stronger, and WE are stronger, because of it.

The moral: speak your truth. Stomp all over those freaking eggshells, because they are HOLDING YOU BACK. They were always meant to be broken. For women, especially, I think this is difficult. The newsflash for me is that directness does not equal selfishness, or rudeness or any other –ness. If someone doesn’t like it, THEY ARE NOT FOR YOU. YOU ARE NOT FOR THEM. You are a mighty, eggshell-crushing force of nature. You want someone who will get in there and stomp some damn eggshells with you. And then share the cake.

The Unexpected Seance: A Skype Nightmare

Seance

I bought a new computer this past Sunday. The old one had been overheating to the point where I had actually burned myself touching the side of it, as had my sister Stephanie when she borrowed it one day. The new one’s pretty slick, it weighs about half of what the old one did. I was a little annoyed at having to spend the money, but admiring of the new machine’s sleek silver look.

I sat on my bed, plugged it in, logged in with my MSN address when prompted, and started to go through all of the things you need to do with a new computer. Register it with the manufacturer. Install Anti-virus software. Update Anti-virus software. Install programs. And finally, I went to Skype, to log in so it would be on when I needed it.

I have a Skype account. It’s linked to my MSN account and it’s the one and only Skype account I’ve ever had. All of my contacts are in there. For some reason, the arbitrary computer gods decided that instead of linking to my existent Skype account, I needed a new account linked to the same MSN address. Since none of my usual contacts were there, it pulled some names from MSN Messenger, which I haven’t used in probably five years. Tony and I used to use it.

You may guess what happened next, but in case you haven’t, here it is: my new, unwanted Skype account opened up, with Tony’s picture front and center. I sat for a minute, shocked and unsure what to do. I looked at the Skype ID and realized this was not the Skype account I’d been using. I tried to log out, but when I did it told me I’d need to log on to my computer under a different MSN address, which of course, I don’t have. I started crying. To make matters worse, this was also a newer version of Skype than the one I’ve been used to, with significantly fewer menu options. I tried clicking on Tony’s picture, thinking maybe I could just make it go away. “Connect with Tony?” came the helpful reply.

Connect with Tony. There’s no connection to be made with Tony, not any more. I couldn’t delete Tony from my memory, not even if I tried, but I did actually want his name and picture to disappear from Skype. I was getting more and more hysterical as I tried different options and none of them worked. I went to the Skype website and logged in under my old account. I tried to log in under the new one, but since I never set it up I didn’t actually have a password. After nearly an hour of complete panic, I finally realized that the password was the same as the one for my MSN email and once I got that figured out, I saw that there was an option to merge the two accounts.

This is, in its way, a perfect metaphor for grief. I am trying so hard to move on. I am arranging my new apartment, opening up my heart again, writing and creating and learning who I am without Tony. I am rediscovering my voice, my actual voice (cackly laugh and all) and my creative voice. As hard as I strive, I cannot undo the ten years that I spent with Tony. I can only merge that time with my present and my future. Grief is like that. It will have its way with you, when you least expect it. You will be skipping along, thinking you’re fine, and suddenly you’re flat on your face and crying and begging the universe to please, just stop. Just stop. I could barely connect with Tony while he was alive, especially toward the end. I don’t believe in séances or things of that nature, but if I did, the temptation to at least ask the one big question, WHY?, would be strong.

Some part of me felt – still feels – guilty that I was so eager to get his picture off my screen. Why, though? Why should I feel guilt? I tried my best to connect with him when he was here, I gave everything I had – more than I had, sometimes – to making our marriage work, to keeping his head above water, to keeping him HERE. It didn’t work, because he didn’t want to be here. He made that decision, there’s nothing I can do about it. That being the case, though, it felt intrusive to have him on my Skype page. I set up this account after he died, it never had anything to do with him. It had to do with me connecting with my family and my friends, both old and new. Yet still, I cried as I have not cried in a long time. I cried myself dry and merged the accounts and saw the people who are still in my life fill in the contact list. I blessed each one of those names as they appeared. Those names are the ones that link me to my new life. I reached out to one of them and shared what had happened, and had a moment of communion that made the last of the tears vanish.

Merge successful. At least for now.

 

Nothing is infinite, not even loss

Image

 

A couple of months ago, I shared a poem that included the title of this post.  At the time, it didn’t seem possible that the sense of loss I feel could ever be anything other than infinite.

Last week, I shared another poem.  This one is by James Wright, and the last lines are:

Suddenly I realized

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

 Here’s what the past month has taught me.  Loss is not infinite.  I can’t lose Tony any more than I already have.  In many ways I lost myself in my relationship with Tony, and not in a romantic, oh-I-love-you-so-much-I-just-want-to-drown-in-you way, but in a “what the hell happened to me?” sort of way.  This is not a slam at Tony, far from it.  What it is, is an eyes-wide-open realization that I spent my entire marriage taking care of Tony’s needs and ignoring my own.  This is not his fault, nor is it mine, really.  It is, simply, truth.  It was the combination of the truth of who he was, and the truth of who I was.

It is not the truth of who I am.  Not any more.

I haven’t written much here lately because I have been undergoing such an intense breakthrough in terms of who I am and what I want that I haven’t known how to write it.  I have spent most of my life taking care of other people to my own detriment, and I can finally see that.  It’s written on the walls, everywhere, so much larger than life that it’s hard to believe I didn’t see it sooner.

I have spent most of my life feeling unbeautiful, undesirable, unworthy.

I don’t feel that way anymore, and it feels like a miracle to me.  I’ve used butterfly imagery a lot, in my jewelry and art and in my writing.  I felt like an ugly caterpillar for a long time.  I’ve had moments of feeling better about myself, but they’ve always been tied to someone else’s opinion of me.  Tony sensed that, and perhaps because of his own battered self-image, he would sometimes use it against me.  I don’t think it was deliberate.  I think he was so sick that he couldn’t see how he was treating me, and how it hurt me.  I think he couldn’t see beyond his own pain, and neither could I, to temper his words with any knowledge of my own self-worth.

I understood the idea of a therapeutic breakthrough, but didn’t get how deeply profound it would really be.  My relationships with men in particular have been fraught with self-loathing and bad decision making.  I have not thought about myself.  I have not had much fun.

In the wake of all of these breakthroughs, a funny thing happened.

Someone on Facebook started flirting with me.  Paying me compliments. I started having fun, and the breakthroughs and the flirting flipped a switch in my brain.  All of a sudden, I know that I am beautiful and I know that I will never again settle for a relationship with anybody who doesn’t know that I am too.  I never liked pictures of myself, and suddenly I can see beauty in every picture of me.  Suddenly my curvy body and my unruly hair and my dimpled chin are things I like.

Can I even possibly put into words how huge this is, for me?  I spent years hiding, ducking my head, not looking people in the eye.  I spent years feeling terrible about myself.  And now, at the age of 45, I am breaking into blossom.

 

For Angela, on a Hard Day

first flowers

Today my friend Angela, who I met through a support group for people who have lost someone to suicide, is dealing with the same horrible anniversary that I had to get through on December 21st.  Her love Jon took his own life a year ago today.  Like Tony, he chose a Friday, so yesterday was a very hard day for my friend, too.  Like Tony, he locked the doors. 

There are so many parallels between Angela and me.  So many similarities.  We are close to the same age.  We lost the men we love in similar ways.  We started emailing each other, and then moved to Skype.  I’ve never met her in person, but I love her.  I’m hoping that I can get to where she lives, in Scotland, in the coming year.

Last year when I wrote about grace I hadn’t met Angela, yet how can I fail to acknowledge that she is part of the grace that has surrounded and supported me since Tony died?  She and I, we understand each other.  We can speak in a kind of shorthand because we are traveling the same horrible path. 

I’m writing about her today because I wish I could be there with her, to hug her and let her know that she really can get through this day, even though it may not feel like it.  Her experience leading up to this day has been much like mine – a sense of impending doom, unwanted thoughts about this time last year and all of the doubts and questions about what signs we might have seen, or worse, SHOULD have seen. 

Grief is not linear, and yet there is something about this anniversary that feels linear.  It feels repetitive, like being forced to relive the days leading up to the worst day.  I doubted, many times, that I could get through it; but I’m still here. 

I love you, Angela.  You can do this.

Roses Are Red. I Am Blue.

blue rose

Two weeks ago my therapist told me that it will probably be another two years before I really feel that I know who I am again.  Before I know who I am without Tony, who I am as myself and not part of a couple and a writing team.  That might sound depressing to some, but it actually cheered me up a bit.  It’s not that the thought of two more years of deep grief is good news, but it IS affirmation that I’m not the only one who has gone through this.  Not the only one who’s felt lost and alone and so sad that getting out of bed in the morning just seems like too much damn work.

The hits do, in fact, just keep coming.  The one-year anniversary of Tony’s death was followed quickly by his sister’s birthday, his birthday, and now, Valentine’s Day.  What’s funny is I’ve never been much of a fan of Valentine’s Day.  It’s an invented holiday, and I truly did find it more romantic when Tony would do the dishes every night, even if he left the pots out on the stove – which drove me crazy – and didn’t scrub as hard as I would have.  It meant something that he did it. 

We did celebrate Valentine’s Day, though, because Tony cared about it.  We exchanged cards and usually cooked a fancy dinner together at home.  It was quiet because we really didn’t have the money to go out to dinner and I REALLY couldn’t stand the hearts-and-flowers over the top displays that would be part of such a celebration. 

Last year my sadness on Valentine’s Day took me by surprise.  Because of my lifelong apathy to the holiday, I thought that would override how much I missed Tony, or at least make it so that I didn’t miss him more that day than I did any other.  It blindsided me.  Somehow this year it’s managed to blindside me again.  It’s like getting my period.  I’ll find myself in horrible mood, hating everyone and everything and barely holding it together, and then it starts and I’m all, “OH.” 

OH.  Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.  My husband is dead.  I don’t like Valentine’s Day, and yet at the same time I am heartbroken and sad and angry AND apathetic.  TOO MANY FEELS.  I don’t begrudge anybody else their hearts and flowers and chocolates (well maybe the chocolates) but at the same time, I don’t want to hear about it either.  I don’t think every kiss begins with a subpar mall jewelry store, I don’t think the only way to show someone you love them is to overspend on roses, and I wish I could venture out of the house without being assaulted by cornea-searing displays of pink and red. 

In short, blah. 

Hope is the thing with feathers

1221 pic 2

The 21st happened.  I am still here.  It was a hard and soft day.  Hard in the moments when I missed Tony so much that my heart hurt.  Hard when I thought back and could feel every sensation of that Friday night a year ago: the cold concrete steps under me as I sat waiting for the police to break in and find Tony’s body, the warmth of Sheri’s car as I talked to the medical examiner and crisis counselor, the harsh bright lights of Bristol Farms where Sheri took me to get something to eat and I stood helpless, unable to remember what it was to eat or to fathom what one might eat after the end of the world.  Wasn’t all the food radioactive?  Wouldn’t it hurt me?  Wouldn’t my body reject it the way it tried to reject this horrible, horrible news?

Hard when I remember emailing Tony’s cousin to ask her to call me in the morning, because I knew I couldn’t give his sister that news over the phone. 

Soft when I hugged my sisters, my mom and my nieces and nephews.  Soft as my eyes took in the beauty of the drive: the tall trees, the snow softly ploshing from them onto the windshield of Stephanie’s car.  Soft when I felt the love of my family and friends, who checked in throughout the day, fold around me like the warmest blanket.

And then there were the other parts, the ones that were messy and unexpected and foggy.  The first place we stopped along the river, we saw no eagles.  The river was breathtaking beautiful, and the cold itself somehow felt right too.  river sidewaysWe stayed a while, soaking in the beauty all around us, and then moved on to another spot near a fish hatchery.  Just as we pulled in, a huge eagle soared right by us.  We were still in the cars, so none of us got a picture, but it was gorgeous and so big and gone so quickly.  After that our only glimpses of eagles were from a long distance and through the fog.  three eaglesEven that, somehow, felt right, because isn’t that what it’s like when we’re grieving?  We are lost in the fog and it feels like we’ll never get out.  But then, somehow, we get a quick glimpse of something beautiful.  It’s far away, or maybe we get a little look at it up close, just for a minute.  But the point is that now we know it’s there.  We know the beauty is still there, and we just need to wait for the fog to clear to be able to enjoy it again.  There’s no way for us to return to the way things were, not exactly; but the beauty is still there, waiting for us to be able to see it.

We finished up at the hatchery and went back to our first location, because I still had something to do.  On my favorite television show of all time, Northern Exposure, there’s an episode that deals with grieving and closure.  The character Maggie is turning thirty, and she’s sustained quite a few losses in her young life.  Another character, Ed, suggests that she go camping and mail letters down the river to those she has lost.  It’s a Native American ritual, as he describes it. 

I wrote a letter to Tony yesterday.  It was not long, and I didn’t keep a copy.  It was for him alone.  I wrote it, and carried it with me.  We worked our way down to the river’s edge and perhaps not surprisingly, even this most simple task ended up being complicated by the presence of a socially inept adolescent boy who wouldn’t take any of our cues that we wanted to be left alone and grilled us incessantly about our mode of transportation and offered up unwanted advice about what we should do.  Even that seemed like a metaphor for the grieving process.  Sometimes we have to put up with a lot of unwanted advice and platitudes along the way.  Finally he wandered off, and I crouched down and kissed the letter and let the water take it.

I’m not done grieving.  I have a long way to go on this river.  The river is carrying my message to him, and it will carry me, too, through the fog.  One day, and there’s no way of knowing when, I will be able to see the river and the trees and the eagles and my own future under sunny skies.  One day.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep swimming.