The world as I knew it came to a crashing halt on October 17, 2006.
She sat facing the doctor. He said “hold your hands out like this and push against mine.” Then he took her hands in his, turned them this way and that, looked her in the eye, and in the most compassionate voice I’ve ever heard, said “You don’t need that biopsy, you have ALS. I’m sorry. Take all the time you need.” Several years of chasing down a mysterious weakening in her hand had led us from one neurologist to another and finally to this expert in Lou Gehrig’s disease, as it’s more commonly called. I don’t think I had ever seen my wife defeated before. I will never forget the look on her face.
We didn’t tell the kids. She didn’t want them searching the Internet and finding out the truth. She wouldn’t get better. Ever. They wouldn’t find out for sure until almost two and half years later. I don’t know when she actually told them but it wasn’t until after she had officially “retired” from her social work position and was spending most of the day in a wheelchair. Before the end of the summer she was unable to eat and was getting all of her nutrition through a feeding tube. There was some sort of issue with insurance and Medicare so the eye-gaze activated computer wasn’t delivered until mid-October. She didn’t have the energy left to spend the necessary time training it to work well for her. She passed away on November 23, 2009, three days before our favorite holiday.
I didn’t cry before she died. I think the only other time I had shed tears was the day my father died, almost thirteen years before. Now, I have a very difficult time telling the story without tears streaming down my face. Sometimes, I don’t even need to say a word and the tears come.
But life goes on. I had four kids to raise, a mortgage to pay and a full time job to keep. Grief would just have to wait.
A year and a half passed before I met her. I acted like I was okay. Hell, I thought I was okay. I even started doing some volunteer work. Because, for the first time in my life, I realized some people needed help. I just couldn’t accept that I was one of them. And I had some serious skin hunger. She was also widowed and pretty hungry herself. We stretched it out to four years, even living together for half of that time, but in the end neither one of was happy and I left her pretty abruptly. She would have made a great wife to a healthy man. But I wasn’t a healthy man, not at all.
It only took me three weeks to fall into another ill fated relationship. The chemistry was undeniable, from the very first. But it was a rocky relationship. Over the next two and a half years I would end the relationship multiple times. I couldn’t seem to decide if I wanted her or not. But she wanted me and for some reason that seemed enough to keep trying. She even got me to accept that I needed help and encouraged me to find and start seeing a therapist. She was an even better catch, in many ways, so why couldn’t I take what was freely given and love her as much as she loved me?
The answer to that question is because grief will not be denied. It also doesn’t follow a schedule. There is no real point in time when you are actually, undeniably, beyond the loss. Particularly, if you’ve never really acknowledged it anyway. Even once you have accepted it and made steps to deal with it, there are times when you just hit it, like a big pothole in the middle of your carefully reconstructed life.
There are other times when you feel like maybe you’ve finally come to terms with it. Then, you meet someone for a drink. You spend the evening laughing and having fun. At some point you drift into a conversation about your past and the story sneaks out. You find yourself sitting in a bar with tears streaming down your face. If you’re lucky, she looks at you and says “you still miss her” in a soft voice that you recognize as the voice of a person who believes they will never be missed in that way. If you’re not lucky she looks down at her watch and makes the quick observation that it’s late and she really needs to get home. Either way, you leave realizing you have no business even thinking about dating. You can’t even have a beer without grief coming to the party.