Guilt

This is going to be a hard one to read. It’s been almost impossible to write.

At 6:30am on January 1st 2018 my alarm went off. I had set it so I could get up and call the hospital to check on Christine’s status.

The days leading up to New Year’s Eve had been horrible. She had gotten mad at me about something and it escalated into a full blown attack.

She spent a night in the car, and then locked herself in the bedroom, not coming out except to go to the store.

I tried to reach out to her on several occasions but it was always the same response.

Her: You ruined everything.

I canceled our plans, telling our friends Christine was sick and we couldn’t celebrate with them. I tried to make the best of a bad situation, getting games out and playing with the kids. I invited her to join us.

Her: I’m going out

She came out of the bedroom around 10. She looked amazing. A sequin dress, hair done up, heels. She made her way through the house and out the front door.

My heart dropped. I didn’t know where she was going, but trying to find out wasn’t worth the screaming that would follow.

I let her go.

About an hour later the texts started.

She was alone. Her car had died. It was cold. She was just going to die in the car. It didn’t matter.

I begged her to tell me where she was but she refused. Just saying she was going to go to sleep and not wake up.

This went on for a while. Her saying she would die, me begging her to live. I promised her anything she wanted. I said I’d leave if that would make her come home safely. Her life was more important than my happiness.

She wanted to die. She just wanted me to find someone who made me happy.

Finally, in a panic, I called 911. I gave them a description of the car, told them what was happening.

I told her the police were looking for her. She became enraged again.

Then she walked through the front door. She had only been parked a couple streets over. She was furious at me for calling the police.

I tried to call them back and tell them she was OK but they said they would come by the house anyway to check on her. They refused to stay away.

I told her they were coming. She flew into a rage unlike any I’d ever seen. She grabbed a kitchen knife. I was still on the phone with the police, they heard me ask her to put the knife down.

She swung it at me. I got between her and the kids, got them into a back bedroom. She threw the knife at me. Missed.

She lunged for it and took it to our bedroom.

When the police arrived they kicked down the door to our room and found her there, bleeding from the wrists. Superficial cuts. Not too deep, but deep enough to bleed a lot.

The kids were in the other room, crying. I went to them and we sat together while the EMTs treated her. They took her to a local hospital for observation.

I took the kids to the store. We bought ice cream and stuffed animals and rented a movie. We all slept together in the family room.

When I called the hospital the next morning they said I could get there at 8am but they weren’t sure when she’d be released.

I cleaned the bedroom, threw away the bloody sheets. I wanted her to have a relaxing place to stay when she got home.

The hospital was nearly empty that morning. They wouldn’t let me see her at first. I had to talk to a social worker. Then the social worker talked to her.

Finally they let me into the room. I didn’t know what to expect. She was lying in bed, her wrists bandaged. She looked at me.

Me: Hi

Her: Hi. I’m sorry.

Me: Me too. For everything.

We sat together and talked. Not about anything important. She told me about how she had been screaming at the nurses. I laughed because it’s just so much like her.

Her: Why are you being nice to me?

Me: Because I love you. I love you so fucking much.

That was one year ago today. One year from the day I saved her. I am often told by people ‘what happened isn’t your fault’ ‘you couldn’t have saved her’.

But that night I did. I did everything right.

I called the police. I loved her when she was better. I told her I’d never leave her.

I could have saved her again. But I didn’t. I didn’t think she would actually do it. I didn’t think she’d really leave us.

And worst of all I was so mad at her for trying to manipulate me with her threats.

And now I’m alone. I’m without her. Because I didn’t take her seriously and pick up the fucking phone.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get out from under this guilt.

I miss you babe. I’m so fucking sorry.

Seven

Hey Babe,

It’s been seven months since I lost you. Since you left me and the kids alone. I can’t believe that. Seven months. It seems like yesterday and forever.

At first I counted in days and it didn’t seem like I’d make it to the next one. Then it was weeks. Every Saturday I would be on edge, another reminder of your absence. At some point I started counting in months. And here it is again. Another month gone by. I guess I’ll eventually be counting in years.

That’s fucking awful to think of. Years. Years without you. Years of feeling so empty some days I just want my heart to stop beating.

I read an article after GH Bush died. It talked about the increased likelihood of a person dying 6-8 months after their spouse due to cardiovascular issues. Turns out you really can die of a broken heart.

This last month has been particularly tough.

Ha. Like all the other ones weren’t.

But all this holiday shit all over the place is really really difficult. I still haven’t managed to drag the stocking out of storage and put them up. Should I even put one up this year? I don’t know why I would. That’s another first, an empty stocking.

Is there anything sadder than that? I mean, not the stocking itself, but what it signifies.

Everything is taking so much effort. I’m totally exhausted. Like, completely wiped out.

I’m sorry I’m complaining so much. This is just so hard. It’s so much harder than I imagined it could be. I’m trying to come up with positive thoughts and remember you fondly but it keeps coming back to me never seeing you again.

7 months.

I learned denial isn’t what I thought it was. I just assumed it meant I would think you’d walk back through the door any moment. That isn’t denial.

Denial is my heart and brain not connecting. I know I won’t get to see you again, but my heart is confused and doesn’t accept it. There’s this part of me that doesn’t understand you’re gone forever.

I honestly don’t know what to do. I’m so miserable. I want you back so badly.

I’m such a mess.

There isn’t much to say. I just wanted you to know you’re all I think about, day in and day out. I wish so much I had known how little time we’d have together, how important each moment was. I could have done so much better. I could have put aside life’s little struggles and just known it was OK because I was with you and been totally content. Happy.

I love you, babe. I miss you so much.

– B

Normal

I’ve been making friends. This is something new for me, something I haven’t really done in years. The majority of my long standing friendship are still intact but they all live about 20 minutes away (or a lot further). Not insurmountable by any means, but not always easy to make work either. In the past I had Christine to keep me company, now I sometimes feel like I’m alone on a island.

So I’ve been going out and talking to people. It’s not very comfortable, and I’m not very good at it, but it’s getting easier and I finally know a few locals.

Last Saturday I went out with one of these people to hunt down a Christmas tree and it turned into a full day. We met around 10:30 for breakfast and left to find a U-Cut farm that is still open in the Great Christmas Tree Shortage of 2018. After a couple misses we found one. The old guy running the place informed us it was the only U-cut open for dozens of miles so we got to work.

It was pretty bleak, having been harvested heavily in previous weeks, but after hunting around a bit we found a nice one and murdered it.

The person I was hanging out with decided she wanted to check on another farm her friend worked at just down the road. When we got there it was open and she was incensed, but upon further inspection we found there were only pre-cut trees available. We got some cider and left.

I thought that was it for the day and we’d go our separate ways but she grew up in the area and offered to take me on a tour. We visited an old mining town now owned by a single person who resides in what used to be the local school. We explored a couple abandoned houses, one of them housing a rat as big as a raccoon. Then it was off to a bar I never knew existed and a drive to the top of a mountain.

We drove through country roads, under the canopy of huge trees. In between each unscheduled stop our conversation drifted. She talked about growing up in the area, how different it used to be before the Microsofts and Amazons grew Seattle to the breaking point, forcing up real estate, causing people to move to what had once been rural areas. I learned about her upbringing and her family life.

She told me about the people that have come and gone from her life. I named them strays and included myself in that number.

Her: Yeah, but you’re the normal one.

I was taken aback. Me? The guy who has spent the last several months falling apart? How could I be the normal one?

Me: That’s because you haven’t been around for my breakdowns.

Her: That’s what normal people do. They have breakdowns away from everyone else.

Me: I used to feel normal. I don’t anymore.

Her: All the stuff you’re going through is normal. You’re feeling the same things anyone would who went through the things you’re going through. You’re normal.

I dropped it.

We had a few more stops including hiking a trail in the dark along a ravine before we finally reached a waterfall we couldn’t see because it was pitch black by the time we arrived. She took me to a scarf party and then we found a cover band that wasn’t terrible. Finally it was back to the place we started our day for a nightcap  before parting ways. In the most platonic way possible. Settle down, I’m still on the no dating train.

It was a fun day.

When I got home I thought about what she said, about me being normal.

Wait, that’s a lie. When I got home I had a double Jameson and passed out.

The next morning was when I did my thinking. Normal.

I’ll admit to being a little bit upset by the tag at first, especially because I feel so incredibly abnormal right now. And I am. I’m not the person I was. I never will be again. So in that sense I’m not ‘normal’.

But that’s my normal, or it used to be (and for the love of God don’t you dare think or say ‘you’re finding your new normal’. I hate that one).

Now I’m learning to live in a post-love era. It’s different. It’s awful. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I think back a few years ago when we were broke and times were hard. How awful I thought life was, how difficult. But I always had her. I wish I could find 2011 Ben and shake him, scream at him ‘enjoy every second, you idiot’.

But that reaction and all the feeling and pain and heartache and tears, it’s normal to feel that way when faced with traumatic loss. I think I lost that somewhere. Or just never thought about it. While this is terrible, absolutely horrible, there are countless people who came before me that felt exactly the same way.

There’s something comforting in that. I’m not sure how else to say it. It’s comforting that as lonely as I feel, I’m not alone in my response to grief.

I’m normal.

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.