“Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing.” – Cheryl Strayed
I have four magazine deadlines in six days and I’ve been away for a long time, but feel compelled to write here again.
A scrap of conversation keeps floating over my head. Months ago, as Jon was falling asleep, he murmured my name and asked, “What will ever happen to us?”
When I was still in grad school and before I knew Jon the way I do now, I wrote a short story about a woman who hacks her boyfriend’s Facebook account only to discover evidence of a long relationship with another woman, now dead. The last lines, in which she poses an unanswerable question to the man, have been haunting me: “And do you miss her? Do you wish, maybe, it had been me who died instead of her? If life is a river and you are the lifeboat, who would you choose? Please, me. Please say me.”
A year and a half into a real life relationship with a widowed man, I see the futility of even asking.
We’ve spent the last month in Guam, a place so extraordinary it belongs in its own write-up, but here are some snapshots:
It’s great to be in this place Jon used to call his “other life.” He’s got a million friends and a business and a house and a history here. I never gave much thought to this “other life” before but, now that I’m here, I’ve become an inevitable part of its fabric.
His Guam house is a house that he lived in with a woman he loved who died nearly five years ago, and while he appears unfazed and whole on the outside, and while our home and life in Missouri is fully shared, I was stunned to walk through its doors and find the place stuffed with artifacts from shared life with an other.
To be fair, I ought to say “others” — because the furniture all belonged to his first wife, who is still living, and there are scads of photo albums to testify for the fully-lived life (and girlfriends, so many!) that preceded me. I’m not particularly jealous or weird about those things. Curious, if anything.
“Life is very long.” — T.S. Eliot
But then there was the bathroom shelf filled with the deceased’s face wash, useless deoderant, hair spray, a used razor. There were framed photos and love notes on display on his bedroom dresser. Her jewelry in the drawer. Half-burned candles, expired food items, medications bearing the indecipherable language of her home country, kitchen tools that belonged, surely, to her.
Items of utility, fine, fine. Pointless to fuss, though I can’t shake the sense I’m a borrower tasked with the responsibility of care every time I use her wok. Or her coffee maker, slow cooker, pie tart tins. Strangely, sadly, I feel uncomfortably closer to this enigma whose name Jon can’t bring himself to say.
On his living room coffee table was a centerpiece of candy rendered inedible by sheer time, origami birds, toys marking the private jokes of intimate language between two people. When I met the woman who cleans his house, she greeted me joyfully, shouting, “You! So happy! So smiley! Jon needs you! Before he is so sad!” then pointed to the candy shrine and, jutting out her hip, asked, “So can I finally throw this away?”
I didn’t know what to say, because although I live with and love the man and know with certainty that he loves me back, every object in this house belongs to him and spoke for the love of an other.
The longer I stayed, the more I felt like an intruder surrounded by artifacts left behind by a woman who didn’t want to go; dark comedy makes it seem like she simply packed her clothes and went away for the weekend. The sad, unbearable truth is that’s exactly what she did — left for vacation and died, never permitted to return.
That the house sat virtually untouched all these years both unnerved me and flooded me with compassion for Jon’s quiet grief. To be fair, he’s barely lived here the past two years, most of which has been devoted to me. To be fairer, he’d shared this house with her. But after three weeks, I finally mustered the courage to ask him to put the sentimental objects away. Without protest, he did.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I wordlessly took care of a lot — the toiletries, for example– but left what seemed most precious and personal to him. Less than a day later, those were taken down, too.
I’ve been thinking long and hard and guiltily about my request. I was afraid he would resent me — after all, they’re just objects, just pictures; That he would falsely believe I intend to erase or replace her completely.
‘You’ll get over it…’ It’s the cliches that cause the trouble. To lose someone you love is to alter your life forever. You don’t get over it because ‘it’ is a person you loved. The pain stops, there are new people, but the gap never closes. How could it? The particularness of someone who mattered enough to grieve over is not made anodyne by death. This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no one else can fit it. Why would I want them to? — from Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
If Jon died and some new other demanded his toothbrush, his photograph removed from sight, I’d find the task impossible — so how could I ask that of him? After losing so much already, how could you bear to lose any more of a person that you loved?
But I had to. Had to, because there are certain things that we must live with and others we shouldn’t have to, and waking up daily to a framed display of the two of them trapped in photographs was not one of them. I don’t know if that’s the universally correct thing to do, but I know it’s true for me. It was still terrifying to ask him to do that, and humbling to watch him follow through. To say ‘thank you’ hardly seems enough.
One supposed secret to a happy relationship is to leave three things unsaid each day. Jon and I leave so much more than that unspoken between us. I never breach the privacy of his grief, and just mustering up the words “I love you” brings me to tears nearly every time.
To call him mine assigns me the duty to bear witness. In exchange is the privilege to love not in spite of a tragic past, but in accordance with it, with everything that brought him to me now as he is, all of it, all of him, and I do.
I wish it could go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I didn’t throw away Ami’s belongings to make room for me, even though I know she’s never coming back to claim them. After all, the dead feel nothing.
So where does that leave the living?
Wanting, of course. Wanting everything.
Last night we rode his motorcycle to a Tumon beach bar to watch the sun sink while we sipped florescent margaritas, then carried Thai take-out home in pink and white-striped plastic bags. I loved the moons of anonymous faces strolling the sidewalks, loved the long puddles of rainwater on the asphalt, how the humid night left damp impressions of contact on our clothing.
We ate in the living room and laughed at the cheap reenactments on that show, Deadly Affairs. Later, he dimmed the lights and crossed the room. Lifted the blanket from my body to join me on the couch, rested his head on the bony ridge of my hip. Closed his eyes.
“Do you love me?” he asked.
Before I could answer, a sound rose from his throat, something soft, barely audible. I ran my thumb over the coarse track of his eyebrows as he fell asleep.
In perfect fiction, I stop here to let the scene speak for itself. But this is not fiction. This is real life. Even though another small grace always eventually arrives, I mourn every departure as it slips away. Looking at his sleeping face, I lingered over the swelling in my chest, grasped at the acute particularness of that moment, the privacy of it, the joy.
Jon unwittingly teaches me this lesson every single day, but its lightning strike of recognition never fades:
Intimacy is made precious by mortality.
This is love.
The pain, the plenty. Every day is a song.