The other night the moon was so large it seemed as if the world had tipped off its axis and was, even now, on an unavoidable path towards collision with it, a moon so orange it seemed as if it was on fire. It was nothing but my perception making it seem this way, a perception shaped by the whole last year, and the year before it, how I could feel the way everything was crashing, breaking, my whole world ablaze, leaving me at last with nothing but ash, the ash of his body, two small film canisters I hide in a drawer next to a picture of us from years ago, two people I hardly even recognize.
On March 2nd, 2015 the body of my husband was found at the bottom of the steps outside the home we were trying to sell. From what the police could tell, it appeared he had fallen, hit his head, and succumbed to the cold. I would read too much on hypothermia in the intervening months. I would learn from the CDC that approximately 67% of hypothermia deaths in the U.S. were men. That those most at risk included those who suffered from mental illness. Or those who struggled with addiction. I don’t know that this helped me at all, all these facts that filled my head. Grief can’t be argued with. You can’t rationalize your way out of it. You simply feel it, a stutter in your breathing, something dark inside you that will not leave.
Ian used to tell me I was the strongest person he knew. In the beginning, that felt like a complement. He was referring to my drive, my ability to keep juggling multiple balls in the air, grad school, several jobs held at the same time, etc., my ability to weather personal tragedies like my brother’s death without (outwardly at least) falling apart. I got up, I showered, I put on clothes, I went to work day after day. To him, strength and survival were often conflated, not separate entities but facets of the same whole. In the last year of his life, when he was struggling with both, when my husband told me I was the strongest person he knew it no longer felt like a compliment. It felt like a burden, an expectation he was counting on me to live up to. As if he was saying that I couldn’t be vulnerable, couldn’t be breaking apart, because I was responsible for holding him together, for holding us together. That if I gave even one inch it would all unravel.
I suppose he wasn’t wrong.
But there is caveat to strength. It isn’t limitless. Tensile strength refers to the “maximum stress a material can withstand before breaking.” Meaning that everything has a point at which it will no longer be able to withstand the push or pull of other forces. Strength too, is a relative word. An ant is strong, able to carry more than 50 times its body weight. The tensile strength of spider’s silk is often compared to steel. Even a dung beetle too is strong relative to its size; able to pull a weight greater than 1,000 times that of its own body. Yet I could crush any of their efforts with a careless finger swiped through the intricate shape of web, crush their bodies with a simple step of a boot heel. In all likelihood, in my lifetime I have crushed at least a thousand insects without even being aware of doing so.
When my husband told me I was the strongest person he knew, I knew that he was wrong. I could feel myself falling apart, could feel the jagged, sharp places inside me, wondered how no one could see it, this gaping hole. I can remember too the day I realized I could hold no more, when I moved from wanting to be strong to wanting to survive, when I realized that they weren’t, in the end, the same thing at all.
What I want now more than strength is resilience, which is not necessarily the ability to never break, but rather the ability to recover your shape, your inherent self after. In the opening poem of her book Sinners Welcome, a poem titled “Pathetic Fallacy,” Mary Karr writes “When it became impossible to speak to you/due to your having died and been incinerated,/I sometimes held the uncradled phone/with its neat digits and arcane symbols (crosshatch,/black star) as if embedded in it/were some code I could punch in/to reach you.”
I understand this useless notion, staring at the phone, as if almost expecting it to ring. How it hurts so much when you know it won’t. My last 3 text messages to my husband went unanswered. They went something like this: “Can you call your mother?” “Please respond to me and let me know you got this okay.” “Please call your mother. I’m worried. You’re not responding.”
I will never know if he didn’t respond because he didn’t want to or because he couldn’t. There is a mountain of guilt and pain in the difference between the two. The last time I saw him was a week earlier from the window of a parked car. He refused to speak to me when I rolled it down. He refused to come and speak to our son in the backseat. I know he was so angry with me. I’m sure it was justified. But a year gone and now I don’t know how to stop being angry, how to stop grieving the loss of him so damn much.
This perception of me as strong is perhaps held by others beyond my late husband. How else to explain how everyone showed up for the funeral, how everyone showed up those first few weeks to help me pack up the house but then they were gone. Having lost my only sibling years earlier, I was expecting the anger I would feel, I was expecting the grief, though that does not make either of them any easier to actually process. But I wasn’t expecting the profound loneliness or the feeling that my entire social circle had suddenly vanished.
I can count a very small number of people not in my immediate family who checked up on me after that point to see if I was doing okay. Surprisingly, most of them weren’t actually people I had spent any time with in the last few years. The rest of my interactions with people were always initiated by me, inviting people to something, coffee, a music event, to get food, to get the kids together, to just hang out, etc. These invitations were, in general, met by a surprising lack of response. I was okay with the no’s, even though, repeated over and over again I was occasionally discouraged. It was the ones who didn’t even respond with a no thank you that I was mystified by. Did they think that I was asking them on a date? I wasn’t. Were they angry with me? Did they blame me for his death? Were they too afraid I would spend the whole time being sad? I still went to those concerts and bars and restaurants and plays and movie theaters and cultural events and coffee shops. But it was nearly always alone.
This isn’t meant as an indictment of the people I know. Merely a call for all of us, collectively, to do better for others. It is too easy to show up for a funeral and then go back about your life as if nothing has happened. But it has, and for some of us, those mired in the pit of grief or those of us raising children who will never again have another parent it is still happening. Every single day.
So show up, and keep showing up. Call us for coffee. Invite us to your barbecues. To your kid’s birthday. Text us just to say hi. Tell us that you heard a song and it made you think of them, the person we both lost. Tell us about your crappy day at work, the funny thing your kid said, a great movie you saw. In doing so, you let us learn the shape of ourselves again, our new normal. You can help us learn to be resilient, to, when we watch the moon in all its impossible glory, large and round and orange in the blue night sky, to simply think to ourselves, “how lovely,” and move on.