I’ve got a lot going on right now. Not a lot of it is tangible. There’s the sinus infection and then the broken toe. But those ailments fluctuate between annoying, and uncomfortable yet appreciated distractions. They aren’t at fault, however for making me queasy, stiff, a little shaky and so very heavy. My malaise has a source, but its meaning eludes my grasp the way a fistful of dry, fine sand eludes one’s fingers. There is something that approaches satisfying in continuing to try, maybe because for a second you have the sensation of something there. But ultimately, while you can recall the fullness of it all, it is now empty.
First there are the happy-sads. My baby turns two on Saturday. So he’s a baby no more. Today is the tenth anniversary of my wedding to the man to whom I am both inevitably and yet incredibly still married. And then, tomorrow is my friend Jennifer’s birthday. This is where it turns to whole-hearted ache, though, because Jennifer is gone.
Jen died less than three weeks ago. And the “why” will never be known. I feel adamant that there is no why. The notion that there is a design to this end makes me angry. I know that’s not true for everyone, and I feel no need to convert anyone to my anti-fatalist point of view. But don’t try and tie a bow on this for my benefit. I believe my friend has been released, as death will release us all. That’s the best I can do.
And so I am sitting here. Typing here. Blowing my nose because of my tears and this damn sinus infection too. Ping-ponging between feelings of everything and nothing. Because writing is my catharsis. I often write to places that I didn’t fully see coming. So I am hoping for a little of that grace today, that maybe my own words can shine a light on the deeper parts of my mind. Or at least I hope that what I end up with isn’t the narcissistic garble I fear it may be.
My life, in a vacuum, is really good right now. I’m not always good in it. But I’m not an idiot. I have healthy kids, a kind and respectful partner, a safe neighborhood and an almost disconcerting number of friends. I cannot wrap my head around ten years of marriage. I’m sad that it has slipped by so quickly but more so I am proud and grateful. Proud of myself because I have grown up a lot. No one should have married twenty-three year old me. But someone did. And I spent the first two or three years mourning every road not travelled. It plagued me. Every decision out there that I was not making me haunted my thoughts. And I had plenty of time to share (and share) those thoughts with my husband. Sometimes “sharing,” when you’re a twenty-three year old law student, is ugly. I don’t believe my husband was or is perfect. Nor that he is better than me in a wholesale way. But I am sure lucky he is who he is. Because it worked. Fiery, emotional, analyzed-to-death woman meets loyal, self-reliant, and takes-days-to-process-feelings guy turned out to be a good combo. And here we are today. Still imperfect. So much mellower. These days, a deep conversation is rare. But where fires used to rage, a calmer place has emerged. It’s not as exciting or driven. It smacks of no idealism. But it’s a livable place to be, and it’s a place I share with someone who I love and respect with all of my heart.
So with all of that, I’m in a place mixed with happiness, nostalgia, and awe, but also with that a stronger dose of that normally ephemeral sense that these days are not ours. I’ve never been particularly excited by the markers of the passage of time – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc. I’ve been fearful of the power of time since long before I ought to have been. No real surprise, then, that I am the mother to a four year old who routinely collapses into my lap, begging not to die. Begging me to tell her I will never die. And I say “I love you.” But it’s not only my little family-pod that is on my mind today. Not just a farewell to babies in the house, to skin free of wrinkles, and to those sweet, naïve kids who got married back in 2004. All of that would be enough to make me need a beat to reflect. But I wouldn’t feel like someone was sitting on my chest, as I do.
Instead, while my human insignificance is weighing on me, I am wracked with guilt for feeling as unhinged as I do. Because who am I to grieve this woman? She was a dear friend. One that did not pass through my life but came in with effort and delivery and made an impact I will never forget. But how do I get to miss her this much, to feel this angry that she is gone, to feel such great anguish over my own impotence to help those who she left behind? Me, who is so consumed with the day-to-day of my invented self-import. Caring for the babies I made. Picking up the toys I bought them. And still finding enough time to guard for solitary reflection. Now I get the gift of space to mourn, and I feel somewhat ashamed.
Sometimes, it would take me days to call her back. When I was in town, after moving away from Michigan where Jen lived, I always saw her. But sometimes for just an hour. And I didn’t get to Michigan all that often. She made a few spectacular efforts to visit me, in all of the states and countries that I lived in over the eight-ish years that I knew here. But it’s not that I feel guilty for how I acted, per se. It’s more that I feel robbed. I have had to be less to a lot of people in the past few years, Jennifer included. And I have never had any delusions that I was needed by her. But I know she appreciated me. And I her. So when I sensed aggravation on her part for my flakiness or crazy schedule, or if I felt like I lousy friend from time to time, I used to say to myself, “We will get back there.” Nothing has taught me more about the rapid passage of time or how futile it is to take responsibility for the happiness of others than my life as a mom. As time went on these past few years, a sense of grounding and budding independence was coming on. Then when Jennifer told me she was pregnant, I had these vain and fanciful visions of it being my turn. My turn to help her, to show up and be invested in her life, and to get to see her become a mother. I should have had my turn. She should’ve had all that and more.
I know that thoughts of “should” aren’t useful. Jennifer would have been the very first person to say that. And she would’ve said it in an elegant way, no doubt. But I am a raw nerve right now and in that I can make no sense and believe there is no sense to be made, I don’t seem to have any ability to talk myself out of feeling this way.
I have tried to think ahead. To envision a place where the pain is surpassed by good memories and celebration of her life. Like if I can’t feel it, maybe I can intellectualize it and move in that direction. There are so many good memories, though the “good” of them is muted at the moment. It’s as if there is this stubborn part of me that feels like sprinkling fairy dust on sepia-tone memories is a lie on par with “she’s an angel now.” This sensation is familiar. I felt it when I lost my sister when she was twenty-eight years old. I had a similar aversion to deifying a person who deserved more than to be a caricature. Drop the superlatives and stop rewriting the past. As for Jennifer, with her insatiable hunger for meaning and authenticity, I have a feeling she would agree with me on this. But I can’t know. And I won’t pretend to.
So what’s the thesis? I want my friend back and I can’t have that. I have a great life that I so often foolishly allow myself to feel entitled to, and the passage of time marked by milestones like this one exposes my powerlessness. I want to be left alone and desperately to connect (hey, fun throwback to being twenty-three!). My life is what it is through an unknowable amalgam of luck and work, and none of it, good or bad (though it’s mostly good) is owed to me.
I cannot in good conscience say those throw away things you say to find the “good” in the tragedy of a life lost. How it reminds me to be a better friend. To reach out more. That I will appreciate my life. And I will never yell at my kids again, because I have my kids so what more could I want? I have thought of all of these things. But while I don’t think these events leave us entirely unchanged, I do not accept that the answer is that they leave us feeling even more deficient by reinforcing impossible standards. In this exposed and raw state, I feel distrustful of the world. Indeed, the world has never sought my trust, and my faith in it is only testament to all of the good I have fallen upon, neither deserving nor undeserving. If we have no true control in the world around us, then maybe what we can do is let go a little. Stop raging so much against the day-to-day woes, and maybe it will help us make peace with the bigger and more crushing blows, like losing Jen. This is not a resignation to complicity with evil or uncaring. But if we wasted less time beating ourselves up for our inadequacies, I’m betting we’d have more energy to be a light. Jennifer was a light. Not every minute of every day, and not to every soul she passed. But for the many of us who connected with her, we are better for it. The standards she held for herself were impossible, though she sought to be kinder to herself. If I had to make some attempt at a wrap-up, I guess it’s that I hope to use the light she passed to me to continue to try to be gentle and tolerant of myself. I don’t know, of course, but I like to think she wouldn’t mind that message.
I love you, Jenny. I hear your voice still. Thank you for that, and for many other things. Peace, my friend.