I went through a particularly bad stretch of sadness and grief in late August, which lingered into early September. But on a pretty autumn day mid-month, a switch literally went off in my head, and I was happy. It was so sudden, so swift and so powerful that I literally remember thinking, “This is what it must feel like to be bipolar.”
What has been unexpected is that it has largely remained that way ever since that day.
I have been reluctant to share this widely because it is a feeling that seems so much at odds with that of a “man who has just lost his Beloved,” as one dear friend so kindly put it to me. A few other close friends have noticed and been drawn into my upbeat little world; to them it is good to see me so buoyant after years and months of hardship, sorrow and loss. But it still seemed wrong to me, and I struggled to understand why I would feel such joy with so little guilt.
After a great deal of thought and consideration, I have come to embrace this special state of grace. For that’s what it is, and I am entirely at peace with it.
My wife is gone. There is nothing in this world that will bring her back to me, and no amount of magical thinking will change this.
For the two months immediately following Lee’s death, I felt as though I were living on a plain outside the entrance to a long tunnel. That place was cold, wet and lonely, and, although I knew that there was no hope of Lee ever returning home, I was compelled to grieve for her in that place. It was the last bit of duty I truly owed to Lee, and the sadness and despair that hung over me was as necessary to me as gravity.
Then came the happiness. And with the happiness came a surge of confidence that was both invigorating and terrifying. I resisted these emotions at first, but in the end, I took my hands off the wheel and let them drive. In truth, I was exhausted from eight years of cancer, pain and caretaking, and tired of the grief that had been building up like plaque on my soul.
And so, I turned back on the road home again, away from the place of my mourning. It was a comfort unlike any I had felt in ages.
I truly enjoyed the initial stages of this sustained energy, but I was also disturbed by it. It occupied my mind for quite a while, without any resolution. But, in the middle of an email conversation with a friend, she made me realize that what I was feeling was honest, and it was based entirely on love.
Pondering her words, I came to understand that I have carefully been placed on the road that I should be traveling.
I refused to characterize it as such while living amidst it, but Lee and I walked together through hell, knowing all the while how our story would end. For more than three years, we counted out time, embracing tiny moments of love and tenderness amidst a river of sorrow and pain. And while it is easy for me to look at our last years together solely as the two of us trying to provide comfort and care to each other on the slow glide path to death, I now know that we were also preparing me for life. But I truly was so focused on helping Lee live in our diminishing world that I wasn’t paying attention to her kindnesses.
She and I spoke quite frequently about my life ‘after.’ I resisted as much as I could, but Lee persisted. We ended up joking about it: after Lee died, Famous Beautiful Actress would magically find and fall in love with me, and all would be right with the world. (Then FBA got married, and that was that; I don’t want to break up a home.) I now look back on many of our conversations, and I have a much richer sense of how much Lee wanted me to know that it was ok to be happy, to fall in love again, and to move on. It was a gift that I did not fully discover until after she departed, and it is the foundation of the grace that is woven so tightly into my life at this moment.
This perspective also helps me understand why I don’t need to worry about joy and guilt: it means nothing to the presence of Lee in my heart, which will always reside in a safe place. If anything, the honesty with which we both dealt with our love and her death tightens the bond that keeps those walls strong.
Kindness has truly been the sustenance of the grieving process for me. It has nourished and warmed me, regardless of where I lived in relation to the tides. Close friends have provided so much love that I struggle to comprehend the enormity of it all. I have had people previously unknown open their hearts and give up a little part of their life to help me carry on. There are friends I haven’t seen or spoken with in decades who have reached out with simple and profound messages of love, hope and care. My families, dealing with their own crushing losses, have still taken the time to keep me in their thoughts. I will never adequately be able to thank everyone who has reached out to me, but do want them to know that they have all contributed to this place that I’m at in this world right now.
Since the arrival of joy, the sadness has poked back at me at times, but I am much better at recognizing the movements of the tides. My newly resurgent confidence lets me rise defiantly above the water and send an empty boat back out to sea. And each time this happens, I let a little bit more of Lee go, which she — and I, despite my reluctance — recognized long ago as something that had to happen for me to be able to move on in the world without her. It is a kindness that I can only repay by continuing to move along this new road with integrity and love.