Today is my birthday and here’s what I know: You learn about love not by falling in love but by having your heart broken, and you learn about joy, unalloyed joy, by being profoundly grief-stricken. Yes, grief, I have discovered since my last birthday, has an unexpected upside. It sounds facetious, I am sure, and may sound more so or worse when I explain where the notion first hit me: At the gym, right around this time last year. You look great, I kept hearing from fellow gym members, men who did not know that my partner of seventeen years, Steve, had died a couple months before. I had to admit, they were right, I did look pretty great, lean and chiseled. Grief had taken my appetite and I had easily shed ten pounds or more; I don’t own a scale and never weighed myself. But I could feel the loss; it seemed like nothing, relatively speaking.
In some ways, too, it seemed like a cruel irony: I was in the worst shape of my life emotionally, and, at age 46, in the best shape physically. I would work out for hours at a time, using the gym as an escape from the loneliness of my apartment and exercise as a way to assuage the grief. Well, that was the idea. The men who paid me compliments did not notice, I do not think, that I wept while running on the treadmill. Tears, I learned, can pass for perspiration.
Desire returned before my appetite did. I still feel badly, though, for the first guy I brought home. I had not thought about the fact that there were pictures of Steve, and of the two of us, all over the apartment.
“Boyfriend?” he asked nonchalantly and took a swig from the beer I had handed him.
“Yep.” I should have left it at that; he didn’t seem concerned; he probably had one himself. But without really thinking, I added, “Late—”
“No. Late.” This was turning into the weirdest monosyllabic conversation I’d ever had. “Died.”
“Yes. Dead.” The poor guy suddenly looked grief stricken himself. I tried to soften the blow, yet with each word I seemed to make it worse. The upshot was this: The hot-looking hook-up departed and I learned several valuable lessons, first among them being, it is not a good idea to tell someone that your partner died in the very bed in which you are about to have sex.
I eventually replaced the bed, a change of furniture fraught with raw emotion. Not only had Steve died there but we had shared that bed for many years. But there was an upside to this, too: I assembled the bed myself. This was exactly the kind of thing I had never done in our relationship. Steve was the fix-it guy. Now, I had little choice but to start becoming one. And when I finished making my bed—notice how I said my bed—I felt like I could build myself a house, if I wished. But I started small, putting up new Venetian blinds, figuring out how to refill the ink canisters in the copy machine and how to put oil and antifreeze in the car, all of which had formerly been the province of my partner.
I should probably add that, while I was developing new skills, a weird backsliding was also occurring. Things that Steve and I had always done together, no matter how mundane—especially the mundane—became incredibly difficult to do on my own. I could not go to Safeway without breaking down, so strange did it seem to be grocery-shopping without him. How was I supposed to decide on my own whether to buy a quart or a gallon of milk, or if the cantaloupe was ripe? It was too much sometimes. Likewise, walking to the ATM or Walgreens, just blocks from the apartment, was so painful, I literally felt disabled. Something was missing from my body, it seemed, as vital as lower limbs. And in fact, there was a part missing: Steve’s hand brushing against mine as we walked or on the small of my back as we crossed a street.
Seemingly overnight, I also developed the equivalent of an allergic reaction to certain words and phrases. I could not bear it when people used the word passed, as in, “I was so sorry to hear that your partner passed.” Gas is passed. Tests are passed. Partners, I wanted to scream, are not passed. Partners die. With no warning, no goodbyes. And, at just forty-three.
That kind of anger, white-hot anger, is but one part of the downside of grief. But if there’s an upside to the downside, it is this: Grief is like a fever; it can be reduced. Beauty, for instance, is a balm to grief. For me, nothing soothed like hearing a gorgeous piece of music. I could not listen to Björk’s Hyper Ballad often enough. That and cello music. (Evidently, grief is powerless in the presence of Yo-Yo Ma.) I found, too, that cooking was calming, and, though tentatively at first, began throwing small dinner parties for friends. The walls and floorboards in my apartment building are pretty thin, and the morning after one evening that went way past midnight, I went up and apologized to my upstairs neighbor for the late-night noise. Don’t worry about it, she told me with a serene smile. “It was nice to hear laughter coming from your place.”
Her name is Vicki, and she has lived in my building twice as long as me. For years, Vicki and I hardly knew one another. We would say hello in the hallway and perhaps chat for a moment in the laundry room, but that was about it—the common courtesies of neighbors—day after day for fifteen years. Then one morning, just after 8 a.m., she and her husband, Jim, heard a commotion below. It was he who ran down the stairs with his bum knees to open the front door for the paramedics. And it was she who got another neighbor to drive her to the hospital, just in case Steve or I needed anything. I had no idea she was there until, just minutes after arriving, the ER doctor said to me gently: “You are free to stay here with Steve’s body as long as you would like, okay? Oh, and apparently there is someone waiting in the hallway? Shall I send her in?”
I knew it couldn’t be family—both Steve’s and my family live out of state—nor could it be a friend, as I had not had time to call anyone. But the moment that Vicki walked through the ER room door, she became both, friend and family member, and also—I can think of no better description—soul mate. She not only took care of me, virtually scooping me up off the floor and dispensing Kleenex and hugs in equal measure, but also of Steve. I can still picture the way that Vicki swaddled his naked body in a nice clean sheet, making sure that every edge was neatly tucked. Then she took his right hand in both of hers, and she prayed. Neither Steve nor I were religious, nor in the practice of praying, yet I would never, ever have wanted her to stop. She was praying so hard, with every fiber of her being, her eyes closed and small face scrunched up, she looked like she was in pain. She was in pain. She had lost Steve, too.
This is another amazing thing you discover when someone close to you dies: That he or she had created bonds you knew little or nothing about. Vicki later told me how Steve would often carry her groceries up the stairs for her, for instance, and they would chat about this or that, and once, when she asked if he would help Jim move a bedroom dresser down the stairs, Steve simply hoisted it on his shoulders and did it himself. “From then on, I always called him Superman,” she said, “it was our little joke.” Similarly, a clerk in the bookstore that Steve went to regularly, someone I had never met, sent me a sympathy note that read, in part, “Steve was incredibly kind, pleasant, and would hum along to music in the shop.” That last detail glittered. He’d hum along, huh? I didn’t know that. Such stories feel like prizes at the bottom of a very dark box. They let you continue to get to know your loved one even after he or she is gone. Even so, even as word of the death spreads and the circle of mourners grows, you quickly learn a harsh truth: No matter how heavy the outpouring, no matter how warm, grief cannot be shared. You are on your own, as never before. There is no guide. No map. No right way to deal with your grief. And that’s the thing, the most important lesson I learned: It is your grief, and what you do with it is your choice. You can let grief bring you down. Or, up.
For me, the turning point came about six months after Steve’s death. “I don’t want to forget,” I remember telling Dave, the beautiful tattooed man I’d met at the gym, on the morning after we slept together. “I don’t want to forget what I’ve learned—from this whole experience, from Steve dying, everything—and I don’t want to forget what I saw.” I paused, picturing Steve’s final moments. “As horrifying as it was, I want to remember: Death is not easy or peaceful, but it can be...so quick.”
Dave nodded. As a night nurse in an ICU unit at a local hospital, he had seen many people die. He knew exactly what I was talking about. I refilled our coffee cups and sat down next to Dave on the couch. “There’s something that’s been bothering me,” I said. “Can I ask you a question—a medical question?”
“Shoot,” he said in his laconic way. First, I described the clinical details of Steve’s death, how it had started with a freak episode of cardiac arrhythmia—his heart skipped a few beats as he slept—which led to respiratory arrest, then cardiac arrest. I was still confused about something, though, I admitted. “I don’t understand why the death certificate lists ‘respiratory arrest’ as the official cause of death, not ‘cardiac arrest.’”
Dave shrugged his shoulders. “Doesn’t matter what you call it—cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, heart failure, whatever. What it comes down to is, it’s a failure to live.”
A failure to live. Isn’t that the most amazing phrase? It took my breath away when Dave said it. Somehow, it opened up an entirely new view for me. What is death? Death is a failure to live.
And what is the flip side to that, I immediately thought to myself: What is a life unlived, a life devoid of love and joy, and yes, grief and heartbreak? Death. I hope never to meet that fate. Today is my birthday and that is my birthday wish.
January 6, 2008
Causes Bill Hayes Supports
International AIDS Vaccine Initiative