An open letter to my grief

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Dear Grief,

You’ve been here for a while now, and while I wish you would leave it seems that’s not an option. I hope you’re not planning to stay forever, but you are the Kato Kaelin of emotions. You’ve taken up residence in my guest house and no amount of persuasion will get you to leave. I wish I could say I’m enjoying your company, but I’m really not. You’re not that pleasant to be around.  

Here’s the thing, Grief. I really actually sort of hate you. Don’t take that the wrong way. It’s not your fault, exactly. Well, okay, it IS, but you can’t help who you are. Can you? CAN YOU?! Because if you can, I’d like to cordially invite you to cut it out. You’re on my last nerve, Grief, and I’m sick of the sight of you. You have on occasion spurred my creativity, but I was creative before I met you and I’ll be creative after you leave. You are leaving eventually, right? Because I’m not even charging you rent and you never clean up after yourself and did I mention you are the overflowing toilet of emotions?

Grief – are you listening to me? Pay attention when I talk to you! Seriously, you are the misbehaving toddler of emotions. I would like to hit you but that wouldn’t be appropriate and it wouldn’t teach you anything, either. I’d like to give you a time out but that doesn’t seem to work. There is always something there to remind me, so even when I’m watching The Princess Bride in the park, there are lines of dialogue about suicide and goofy emcees named Tony and people kissing and… I mean, how do you have SO many people working for you? I’m sure you’re not paying them well. I’m sure you don’t give them any vacation time. You are the Ebenezer Scrooge of emotions, Grief, and NOBODY likes a miser.

And yet… even with all your faults, Grief, you have been unexpectedly good to me. Oh, you’re surprised? Well maybe you should be, given how I’ve railed against you and cursed your name. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fact that you are the misguided but generous fairy godmother of emotions. You bestow the kind of gift that is not recognizable as such when first unwrapped. How could I have known, at the time, that the howl of pain that escaped from me when I first learned that Tony was dead was the beginning of me reclaiming my life? It did not look like a gift. It did not feel like one. It still doesn’t at times; but in my clearer moments, when I am not on the floor and in tears, I can look at the road I have traveled and see its beauties.

I can see the love and compassion and grace of my friends and family, and of acquaintances, and of strangers. I can see the bonds that join me to those people and feel how much stronger they are than they were, before. I can see that the world is overflowing with love, if we only let ourselves recognize it. I can feel the expansion of my own heart, how much easier it is for me now to extend compassion and love to others without fear of hurt or rejection. It’s not that I want to be hurt, it’s simply that I know I can survive it. I also know that a life lived without the risk of pain is not worth living. I know now that my heart is an ocean, a universe. You gave me that, Grief.

I look at the scars you have given me and they are medals of valor, awarded by you on the field of battle. Even as you flayed me and burned me and wrung me out, you decorated me with reminders of how hard-won happiness can be. I’m sure I will have days in the future when I look at these scars and regret them, but in this moment I am proud to wear them. Thank you, Grief. Thank you.


Finding Love in a Few Beans

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Yesterday I bought fava beans at the farmer’s market. 

On the surface, a small thing.  So what, you may ask?  I bought some fava beans.  Big deal.  You may think of Hannibal Lecter and wonder if I’ll serve them with liver and a nice Chianti.  You may think that fava beans are a lot of work, and you’d be right about that.  In order to eat them, I’ll have to first strip them from their pods, and then I’ll have to painstakingly peel each individual bean of its bright green, slightly rubbery coating.  By the time I’m done, what looks like an enormous bag of beans worthy of Jack’s beanstalk will have been reduced to less than a cup of unassuming pale green ovals.

What you can’t know until I tell you is that every moment of that preparation, every moment of the cooking (simply, in a little butter and salt) and every second of eating them will be a song about Tony.  That small cup of beans will be made of memories, mine and Tony’s.  Tony told me that his father grew fava beans in the garden of the house where he grew up.  He grew a lot of things, but there was something about the way Tony talked about those beans, picking them off the vines and peeling and re-peeling and eating them raw right in the garden, that made me want to try them.  It made me share, but then just as eagerly dismiss, that I hated lima beans as a child and even though I’d tried fresh lima beans as an adult and liked them, I still thought I probably wouldn’t like fava beans.  Tony’s story made me stop in my tracks in Bristol Farms when I saw a bin of those beans, grab a bag and scoop big handfuls in so that we could try to recreate that childhood memory for him.

In each bean is the sunshine and water needed to grow it.  In each bean is the history of the farmer who tended the plant, the farmer’s present day routine and all of the ancestors who passed down their knowledge.

In each bean is my love for Tony.  As I eat them I will be wishing, inevitably, that Tony were here to enjoy them with me.  They are not madeleines, but their flavor will make me think of a particular passage from Proust about how the smell and taste of things remains long after everything else has gone, and about how they carry with them, invisibly, our memories.

He Would Have Hated This Blog

That is the truth.  Tony would have hated this blog.  He would have hated the idea of anybody writing about him, writing about us, on the internet.  I used to tell myself that he was intensely private, but it was more than that.  He was secretive.  He was afraid.  He thought that if anybody knew what really went on in his head, those who knew would shun him.  He feared his family would stop loving him.  He feared mine would.  He feared our friends would disappear.  When Tony’s mom was first diagnosed with colon cancer, his sister started a blog because it helped her deal with being her mom’s primary caretaker, and because it was easier than having to tell a hundred people the same information, over and over.  How many times can you repeat bad news?  I understood why she wanted to blog about it, and I applauded it.  Tony?  He didn’t get it.  He didn’t like it.  Fear.

When Tony first died, my overwhelming emotion was anger.  I am still angry at him a lot of the time.  But lately I am feeling that less of the time.  I still feel it, but more and more I feel sadness.  I feel compassion.  I had a dream the other night, and in that dream, I was Tony.  On the surface it was a classic anxiety dream.  We (me as Tony, and a woman who I guess was me) were trying to get to our car at a crowded mall.  We ran into roadblock after roadblock, until we ended up having to climb some scaffolding to try to get to the car.  I didn’t want to climb.  The woman was being, I felt, really mean about it, and finally I yelled at the top of my lungs, “¡Tengo miedo!”  For those of you who don’t know, that means “I’m afraid” in Spanish.

He was afraid, and I am so sad that he was afraid.  What I think the dream means is that he and I were speaking different languages.  I think he lacked the words or the ability to tell me what was really going on inside his head, and I lacked the understanding and perspective – or let’s be honest, the advanced degree – to grasp it.  Of course, I understand “tengo miedo,” because I speak Spanish.  But the truth is when Tony was alive, he wasn’t speaking Spanish to me.  He was speaking a lost language, one created in the lost world where he lived.  I couldn’t translate it.

When Tony was alive he would have hated this blog.  But now that he is gone, it is my gift to him.  I offer it up to him, and I hope that he can see it.  I hope that we are finally speaking the same language.  I tell the truth here, even when it hurts.  Especially when it hurts.  I offer up my love, my pain, my belated understanding of his fear.  I loved giving him presents when he was alive.  He had a childlike joy the first Christmas we were together, when I gave him a gift for every year he’d been alive.  Some were small, a few were big, but I still remember the way he reacted.  Nothing that I gave him then can compare with what I give him now.  What I want to do is give him the gift of understanding.  I want him to see that even when his sickness made things unbearably stressful; even when I was close to despair and wondering how we would ever get through; even when his fear kept me from doing things I wanted to do; even then, in the blackest of times, I loved him.  I loved him for who he was, illness and all.  I still do. 

Up until now, I have talked much more about the things about loving Tony that were difficult or sad or stressful.  If I am going to tell the truth here I have to talk about the good things too.  Right now those are hard for me to talk about, because there is a voice in me that whispers (sometimes shouts) that those parts are lies, because if they were really true he would still be here with me, to enjoy them.  That’s not the way it works, though, not in the real world.  Tony chose suicide because there was something inside him that couldn’t give the same weight to good things as to bad ones.  He tried, but that just wasn’t the way he worked.  It is the way I work, though, and so starting tomorrow I’m going to talk about some of the things that made me fall in love with Tony, and stay in love with him even when he tried so hard to push me away.  I hope that somehow he will see it, and know that my anger at him for leaving does not – never could – cancel out the love that I will always have for him.