Untethered

One of the effects of being suddenly alone is finding myself with a particularly awful new freedom. I hate using that word, because freedom usually denotes a positive experience, but when lacking vocabulary what other choice does one have than to attach an incorrect but nearly appropriate word to the experience.

Freedom. What do I mean by that?

More than anything else it’s been a freedom to make mistakes. I’ve lost my check and my balance. I believe I mentioned previously that I am nothing if not impulsive. In some ways this has treated me well. At work I’ve found myself to be among the risk-takers and it has generally paid off.

The same could be said to be true in some situations in life. After all, I asked Christine to marry me just a few months after we met. We were wed less than 12 months from our introduction. This allowed me the best 18 years of my life.

However, there are times the opposite is true. Buying a house on a whim, a new car. Walking into Costco to get food for school lunches and walking out with a TV and a new computer. Staying out too late. Drinking too much.

Freedom.

I met with a group of ‘wids’ recently, both men and women. We got together to play pub trivia. It was fun, but it was also strange. Not strange in an uncomfortable way. It was the first time I’d been in a group of people who could totally empathize with me.

We came in second place, won some money. Talk about our spouses was sprinkled throughout the conversation, but it was light in tone. However, when the game was over and there was still some beer in our glasses we reached the Shit Gets Real moment.

We all took turns telling our stories, or a least some small tidbit of it. We also took part in one of the strangest contests humans regularly take part in, especially people in great pain, the contest of telling another person their pain is much worse than our own. I don’t get that. Why do we try so hard to validate someone’s pain by downplaying our own, especially in a club like this one?

Eventually I brought up this terrible freedom. One of the people at the table suggested another word.

Him: It’s not freedom. It’s being untethered.

I immediately agreed, thankful for a better, more descriptive word.

However, that night I gave it more thought. What does that word really mean? To be untethered means one must have at one time been constrained. An image came into my mind of Christine holding a leash attached to a collar around my neck (get your mind out of the gutter).

But that wasn’t right. Christine was not afraid to let her opinion be known, but she did not work to coerce me or control me. She trusted me to make the right choice and I love her for that.

And there it was. I wasn’t chained to her, under her control. I was captive by choice, to serve her in love. To make her happy.

When I would be out, and my impulsive tendencies would threaten to overwhelm me I would think to myself ‘would Christine be happy with this decision?’

I was tethered. I was held to her, attached to her. My love for her kept me close and controlled. Anything for her happiness.

And although the love remains, the reason to bring myself to heel, the ability to make her happy, is gone.

I’m untethered.

Tilting at Windmills

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

                           ― Cervantes, Don Quixote

My dad hung a lithograph displaying the above quote in our basement bathroom when I was young. I must have read it thousands of times. It’s ingrained in my memory. I come back to it constantly when things seem out of control. I’ve thought of it often the past months.

When I was a boy I didn’t know anything about the source material. It wasn’t until I had to read it in a lit class did I get the reference. Christine and I also attended the musical years later.

The story is about a noble who reads so many chivalrous romance stories he loses his mind and becomes a knight-errant, a hero in the tradition of King Arthur in a world moved on from such ‘antiquated notions’.

In one famous scene he falls under the belief that windmills are in fact giants attacking the countryside and rushes to face them.

Since the book was written the phrase ’tilting at windmills’ has come to mean attacking perceived but imaginary enemies.

I think I do that. I think I have become so ready for something new and painful to come along that my first instinct is often to fly into battle, attack before I can be attacked.

That might be a poor description though, because just as often I flee. Flee from feelings. I also tend to take an imaginary issue and find my way to the worst possible outcome and assume life will become what I’ve just dreamed up.

Overthinking. Fantasizing. Imagining. Expecting. Worrying. Doubting. This is how I tilt at windmills.

Back to the quote at the top of the page. It’s been on repeat in my head for months, especially the last bit.

‘And the maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!’

This is the moment when Don Quixote realizes his madness, when he realizes he’s been fighting the imaginary. It’s poignant prose.

As he’s recovering, as he’s raising himself from the depths of mental illness, his conclusion is that life, by its very structure, is mad. It doesn’t make sense.

And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s why we wonder, it’s why we think to ourselves ‘How can this be happening?’.

How the fuck can my wife have killed herself?

She should be at work as I write this, finishing lunch, thinking about our evening plans, stressing about her holiday party coming together. But she’s not. She’s dead.

It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense.

And there, in essence, is my windmill. Trying to find reason, logic, anything that will bring me some type of understanding of how she could do this.

The answer is simple, of course. It doesn’t make sense. Not to me. It never will. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a place so bleak you see no escape. To be unable to recognize how loved you are, how incredibly important you are to so many people and how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone.

It doesn’t make sense.

And so I tilt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ups and Downs and Downs and Downs

I haven’t written for a while, mostly because I’ve been struggling to adequately explain how I am feeling and because, if I’m being totally honest, I’ve spent a lot of time in avoidance mode.

Last week while in Costa Rica I decided to do some things for myself. First, I booked an 80 minute massage. I’ve only had one of them in my life and that was a relaxing couples massage with Christine. I didn’t know what to order and thought ‘Deep Muscle’ sounded like the right one. It wasn’t.

If you’ve never received a deep muscle massage but want a similar experience, just ask someone to alternate between beating you with a broomstick and tickling you with a feather for an hour.

Anyways, as I lay there I decided to think about Christine (like I think about anything else), but not in regards to how I feel, more about how I should frame my thoughts about her. I made a decision to stop thinking about what I could have done differently, and stop dwelling on how I feel. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s a step.

As soon as I made this agreement with myself a warm sensation overcame me and Christine’s face came into my mind. She was smiling and radiant and beautiful. I felt calmer. I felt better.

The next day I got up early. The local team was taking me on an ATV tour. We rode them up muddy hillsides, through the jungle, along cliff tops, across shallow rivers and through the surf on a white sand beach.

I was speeding through the river, water fishtailing behind me, smiling like an idiot, when I thought to myself ‘I am so lucky’… ‘Oh, right’.

This is an issue. I have a moment of happiness. A moment where I’m not dwelling on Christine or her loss, and then I reflect on the happiness and ‘poof’ gone. It’s like my soul is telling me I’m not allowed to be happy.

We finished the ATV ride with a beer on the beach. The plan was to make the short drive to the beach resort town of Jaco for lunch. This had been the plan for weeks, but when we got in the car one of the guys changed his mind.

Him: Let’s go to Playa Hermosa instead. I know a good restaurant there.

Playa Hermosa was the beach Christine and I stayed at when we visited. I just knew in that moment we were headed to the same place she an I had eaten. Panic spiked.

No, that’s not true. It wasn’t panic. A better term would be ‘pre-panic’. It’s something I’ve been experiencing a lot. Anxiety caused by the fear that I will enter a trigger event. I haven’t had one of those since Maine, but I am regularly nervous of it happening again.

I was right, we pulled into the same place… and it was OK. Totally OK. I mean, it was reflective. I thought a lot. I walked the beach where we walked, looked out over the same horizon. I shared stories about our trip with my team members, the things Christine and I did. It was OK. It was good.

I told her goodbye.

That night as I was reflecting, trying to remember good times I found it was almost impossible to think of specific events that could be classified as ‘good times’. It was difficult. I realized just like bad times, I needed a trigger to bring them up. I went to Ireland, I remembered our trip. I went to Costa Rica, I remembered the adventures we had.

This sucks. This really sucks. Why didn’t I do a better job of storing these away for the future?

The answer is obvious of course. I thought there would be more. When you have unlimited money, why worry about saving?

So instead I started thinking about her in general terms. Her smile, her face, those freaking moles on either side of her nose I loved so much. Her laugh. For people that met her that laugh stood out. It was so pretty, so loud, so passionate. Then I remembered her other laugh. The one that was the most real. When she was surprised by hilarity she would have this loud raucous bark. We classified it as her crazy homeless woman laugh.

Thinking about that made me smile. Then by the time I got back to my room I was sad because I couldn’t have those things anymore.

I spent the remainder of my time in Costa Rica staying busy. During the day I worked hard, met with everyone I could. At nights I’d talk to friends, any friends that would help distract me from her. It was nice talking to them, it was distracting. I stayed up until exhaustion took me.

On my way home I was getting on the plane in Atlanta and I realized I had never looked back at her Facebook profile. There is a great place to see happy memories, I thought.

I started scrolling. I made it back to May and then started reading all the things people had said about her following her death. It’s so much fun when you realize you’re crying around a bunch of strangers and you’re pretty sure they’ve noticed.

I was watching the Alabama/Georgia game on the flight and there was a Chick-Fil-A commercial. It’s one of those ones where the guy comes back from service abroad and surprises his family. He was in their cow outfit getting pictures with his wife and kids. They had no idea it was him in the suit. Then he takes off the head and reveals himself.

The look on his wife’s face, seeing him again, the joy and confusion and whatever else. It’s exactly how I would look if I saw her again.

I totally lost it. I actually barked. Who the hell cries during a Chick-Fil-A commercial? Me, that’s who.

When I got home I said hi to the kids, hung out with them until they went to bed and then went to the bar. Weird stuff happened. Not going to go into it, but it was weird.

I stuck around talking to some people I’ve met there until they called last call.

Sunday was another Get up, Get dressed, Get moving day. Made it through. I was up that night, thinking about happy memories. Trying to remember any specifics I could. Then I had a thought.

What if the specifics are difficult to recall because almost all of our time together was happy?

And then I went to sleep.

Memories of a Happier Time: Costa Rica

Absence, loneliness. The Theme.

Just like Ireland, when I landed in Costa Rica I didn’t have anyone to tell I had arrived safely. Before bed I didn’t have anyone to video chat with and wish good night.

I’m not saying I don’t have ANYONE to talk to. I definitely reached out to a few people, but it’s not the same. I didn’t have her.

It was impossible to avoid Christine this morning. I was sitting on the hotel veranda, sipping coffee and looking out over a coffee plantation. My breakfast was made up primarily of tropical fruits, cold cuts and cheese. The experience was so similar to one we shared the time she accompanied me on a work trip to Costa Rica.

There was that loneliness again.

Instead of dwelling on her absence I did something different, I thought about our trip together. I can’t say this made me feel better, but it did make me feel different. And different is good.

I arrived a few days before her so I could get work accomplished. She was very nervous about this because she had never traveled alone to a foreign country. She took a redeye and arrived early Thursday. Her phone wasn’t working so there were a couple nervous hours where I imagined every bad thing possible happening. She finally got to wifi and let me know she was fine. It was a huge relief. She slept while I finished the day and when I returned to the hotel I took her to my favorite restaurant in San Jose. It was a place a friend and I found on a previous trip and the steak and wine are amazing.

See, this is the thing about not having someone to share my travel days with. The hotel I’m in right now is ridiculously nice. I love it. I’d usually take some pics, send them to Christine and then we’d immediately plan to visit together some day.

We stayed up late. Some super annoying guy at the hotel bar bought us drinks and then proceeded to hit on my wife. We laughed so hard about it later when we returned to our room.

We had breakfast together (similar to the one mentioned above) in the morning and then I had some work I had to wrap up before we left. I sat at the desk while she worked on packing up. I kept putting my laptop down so I could help. We finally left for the beach around noon.

It’s a two hour drive and we hadn’t had lunch so we stopped at a small cantina just off the highway. My Spanish is poor, Christine’s non-existent. I helped her order some chicken and a glass of mango juice. The food was delicious.

The young woman, maybe 16, who served us was starring at us, chin in her palms. Christine made up an entire backstory for her and was convinced the server was dreaming of a life away from the small village. It became fact in her mind, and we laughed about it later.

We made our way to the hotel. It was at the end of a long dirt road and totally isolated. I was nervous. But when we arrived the place was clean, the pool was nice, and it was right on the beach.

We took a dip in and walked on the beach a little, but it was already getting dark so we went back to the hotel and had dinner. The bartender was incredibly nice, trying to teach us Spanish through his broken English. We all laughed. We ended the night on the rooftop patio with the only other guest at the hotel, an aging professional surfer spending his retirement chasing waves. The stories were amazing.

I lied. We ended the night in each other’s arms.

The next morning we were up late. We had breakfast at the hotel, went for a swim in the pool and then made our way to the beach. The water was so warm. Neither of us had ever been to a tropical ocean beach and it just felt amazing. We reveled in it.

We walked to town for lunch, a little over a mile. There were some kids who were crawling all over the place. On the backs of our booth, the floor, whatever. Christine hated parents who let their kids do this kind of stuff so we left after our meal instead of enjoying a second drink at the bar. On the way back Christine realized she was getting sunburned. I pulled off my sunshirt and let her wear it.

There were also the lizards. They’re everywhere. Usually this would make Christine nervous but in her brave way she decided to embrace it.

Shade was over the pool now and a swim sounded nice but the place was filling up. We decided to take a nap and were awoken an hour later by claps of thunder. The pool was empty, because only idiots would go for a swim during a thunderstorm. We got in our suits right away.

The sun was getting low (it does that at 5 in Costa Rica) so we went back to the beach to play in the water and watch the sunset. A rain storm suddenly broke above us just as darkness fell. The other people on the beach fled. We sat on the warm sand, in the warm rain watching the lighting.

I don’t know how long we sat there. I know the tide caught us twice and we had to move back. There were little crabs rushing from the water. We talked about life, about our dreams. We kissed. We held hands. We talked about the future we were creating, how far we’d come, how maybe buying a little house in Playa Hermosa and spending winters there and summers in Ireland wouldn’t be a bad way to spend our final years together.

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt closer to her than I did in that rain storm.

Finally, fingers pruned, we returned to the hotel for dinner.

We left in the morning and stopped at a fruit stand. Back in San Jose we decided to eat the mangos. They were amazing but incredibly messy. We stood next to each other at the bathroom sink stuffing mangos into our mouths, juice dripping down our arms all the way to the counter. More uncontrollable laughter.

We spent a couple more days together, me at work until four and Christine exploring the city alone, a huge accomplishment she was very proud of.

Like everything else, it ended. She flew home, I joined her a couple days later.

It was such an amazing time.

A Better Man

I went to the bar the other night. Alone. There’s that word again.

Things were overwhelming so I took a walk to the nearest watering hole.

The new Queen movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, has this great line:

‘The human condition requires a bit of anesthesia’

Truer words.

As I sat I thought about a time before Christine.

I wasn’t a great guy. Not to say I was terrible, but I wasn’t great.

I was much more self centered. I didn’t have a lot of concern for others. I was impulsive. I lied all the time.

Being with Christine made me a different person. A better person. She was my catalyst.

And she didn’t do it through nagging or arguing or any forceful method.

She did it by believing in me. She trusted me. She saw something in me no one else ever had.

I loved her for that. Love her for that.

It made me want to be the man she thought I was, or at least could be.

It didn’t happen overnight. I was still working on it when she left me. It’s a process. But improvements were noticeable pretty quickly.

My mom: Ben has changed so much. How did you do it?

Christine: I didn’t.

She was wrong of course. Her love was what did it.

I’m telling you all this because I was struck by a thought sitting in that nasty little dive bar. I can be anyone I want to be now.

Of course I always had that ability. I could have remained as I was before Christine and for all I know she would have miserably powered through. Or just left. Who knows.

But in honor of my love for her I became a better man.

Isn’t that a funny term? ‘Better man’. I think we (as men) miss the point so often. A Better Man isn’t someone who just brings in more money or is a provider or whatever the fuck. At least not in my mind.

A better man understands his job is to give. To give unconditionally. To give when it’s easy, to give when it’s hard. To show kindness. To be vulnerable. To take everything on his shoulders. To give and give and give.

And never ask for a single thing in return.

To do the dishes. To cook. To clean. To be MAN enough to take on everything and anything.

To me, that’s a man.

To stretch, to take a breath, and to carry more.

I don’t have that anchor anymore. Yes, I have my kids. It’s not the same. It really isn’t. I can be a great dad and still be totally self centered in the rest of my life. Love of a child is transformative, but not in the divine way. Not like a man and woman entering into a union by choice. At least not for me.

See, she chose me and I chose her.

So now what? Without her, without that reason, what do I do?

I can go back to the Other Guy. He had a lot of fun. Too much, probably.

But isn’t that dishonoring my love for her? If I return to my bachelorhood, or some semblance of it (I really am too old for that shit), what was the point?

So I look into the proverbial mirror.

I used to look at myself in a real mirror and say ‘Who are you?’

Now I ask ‘who do you want to be?’

If I regress, if I become someone who wasn’t chasing her love, trying to be worthy of her, then aren’t I saying she didn’t matter that much?

The worst thing is I’ve realized through events external to Christine I wasn’t even the man I thought I was.

Yes, thoughtful in my actions, but not thoughtful in my words.

Selfless in my actions but selfish in my thoughts.

So there it is again. The choice. Do I strive to be the man I wanted to be for her, the man I thought I was? Or do I take the easier path?

Me: Hey mirror, I choose her.

Get Up, Get Dressed, Get Moving

Saturday was difficult. I woke up feeling very low. I couldn’t summon the strength to get myself out of bed. It was too much effort to even think about it.

I can’t tell you why Saturday of all days was like this. What combination of factors was making me unwilling to start my day? The holidays could be part of it. Maybe it’s because this is the first day in months that I didn’t have anything I needed to do. No work, no soccer, no scouts, no plans. Nothing.

I used to cherish these rare days. Rather, Christine and I did. Now it’s just giving my mind more free time.

I lay there. I flipped through every social media platform I use, trying to find distraction. Nothing worthwhile.

That’s a big thing right now. Trying to find anything to take my mind off her for a few minutes. Not ignore her like before, but just a few moments of respite.

I rely on friends, but I don’t want to over burden them, so now I’ve started conversations with people I’ve never met in real life. Weird, I know. Some of these people are Christine’s friends from work, some are people that reached out to me after reading something here, there’s people from the ‘wids’ group I’m in on Facebook.

Then the same thing happens. I stop sending messages because I don’t want to wear that person down, but of course I’m so excited when they reach out.

Weird stuff.

A lot of it is also desire to have an intimate relationship with someone. By that I mean a companion. Someone I can bounce texts with, talk about the weekend, how much it sucks to pay a mortgage, fatherhood stuff.

I don’t have one of those.

After social media failed me I watched the slideshow video on my phone. This always hurts so much. It’s also one of the only ways I can really connect with her. The live pictures allow for sound and a couple seconds of video.

I didn’t realize until she passed away I didn’t have any video with her, or very little at least. These tiny snippets are what I have left.

In one she’s taking a selfie, and makes this funny face suddenly.

Today I laughed. I haven’t done that before.

My favorite one is where she’s looking at the camera and then her eyes drift down and this incredibly intent smile spreads across her face. I smiled back.

I needed to get up, get the kids food, pack for my trip. I couldn’t compel myself.

Me: Get up, get dressed, get moving

I repeated it. I repeated it again. Ten more times.

I put my phone down and got up.

It took me 45 minutes to shower and get dressed. I usually do this in less than 15. I kept forgetting what I was doing. But I did it.

T and E were watching TV. I got them something to eat.

My hair needed to be cut. I walked outside. I drove to the barber shop.

And kept driving. I was listening to music that reminded me of Christine and decided in that moment I would go visit her gravesite. Which is dumb because half of her ashes are sitting on her nightstand. Whatever.

I was listening to Billie Eilish ‘you should see me in a crown’. I’ve been listening to it a lot. There’s one line that sticks out everytime:

‘Tell me which one is worse

Living or dying first’

I don’t pretend to know what she intends with that lyric, but I answer ‘living’ every time.

Wid brain in effect. I can’t keep a straight narrative.

I pulled up to the gravesite and turned off my car. When I do that the CarPlay stops playing and the radio comes through the speakers.

‘Happier’ by Bastille and Marshmello was playing. Of course. Of course it fucking was.

‘I will go go go’.

I had a breakdown, holding onto my steering wheel like a life preserver.

But it also felt… special? Like it was the right song.

This is the first time I’ve visited since the burial. Did you know there isn’t a manual about what you’re supposed to do?

Me: Hey Babe, a lot’s been happening…

I was only there for probably 15 minutes. Should probably bring a chair next time. I mostly told her about what’s going on with the kids, what she’s missing out on and then finally asking her for some comfort and relief.

Strangely enough, I felt better. I kept moving.

The night has definitely been better. Got food for K to eat while I’m gone, ran a few errands, got back to the barbershop.

My hairdresser today was trying to convince me to go to a medium. That was WEIRD.

She was so into it.

Sometimes I’m thankful for these easier stretches, like tonight. The problem is they also give me hope that it’s getting easier, and then it doesn’t.

I’m flying out early for a week working in Costa Rica. Just like Ireland there will be many Christine reminders. More goodbyes to say.

On to the next day.

Inspiration

I never listened to music much. I don’t hate music or anything. I just rarely played music for myself when I was alone.

Christine, on the other hand, loved music. She loved to sing songs in the car, listen to music on her headphones, blast something while we were cleaning.

When she left the silence was deafening (cliche alert).

So I’ve started to listen to music. A lot. It’s always playing. I dance to it, sing to it, travel to it. It’s become my constant companion. It’s a way I keep her close.

Some of the music is upbeat. I’ve listened to a lot of Queen lately. And alternative. And pretty much anything people suggest to me.

Some of the music is sad. I hear things that remind me of her in so many lyrics.

Yesterday someone suggested I listen to a song called ‘If We Were Vampires’ by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

I had been suffering from a condition I’ve termed ‘crystipation’. I felt absolutely dead inside after burying Christine. So profoundly sad. Deep, horrible longing. I was too sad to do anything, let alone cry. Just existing in void.

Then I listened to this song and it dropped me. In a good way. The emotions that had fled into nothing came back. I was hurting, but I was alive.

They’re singing about how if lovers lived forever the moments wouldn’t matter. How immortality would lead to indifference, but because we have such a short time together we have to cherish every moment with the person we love.

‘Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone’

It really struck me then. Every marriage is intended to end this way, with one person left behind, longing for the other.

Kind of fucked up, right? We do this knowing the outcome is sorrow.

Why? Why would we set ourselves up for this?

Because the moments we get to have before are worth the pain at the end.

The misery comes, but it’s a divine misery. It’s so hard, and so painful and so awful because what we had was so perfectly beautiful.

That doesn’t exactly give me solace. I’m not cured. But it is helping me hold her tighter, us tighter. All the best parts of us.

And then something else happened. I’m part of this group on Facebook made up entirely of ‘wids’. It’s a terrible club to be a part of, and I’ve come to need these people, none of whom I’ve ever met.

They talk about the person they lost, their recovery. They have some of the darkest humor I’ve ever witnessed.

One woman posted a long explanation of her beliefs about afterlife, and how thankful she was for her person. How before he left us he saved her.

Christine: I need you to save me.

She said that so often in our 18 years together. And I would. I’d stretch, I’d take a breath, and I’d carry more.

As weak as I can be, I was her strength in so many of those dark moments.

‘It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone’

I realized it had to be me. She couldn’t have done this.

Yes, we should have had so much more time together. So many more of those moments to cherish. So many more times laughing together, crying together. Being together.

But one of us had to go first and it had to be her. It’s the last gift I gave her. To be here when she’s gone.

So I stretch, I take a breath, and I carry more.