New Year’s Eve

Mark died 16 months ago. I was struck mute. Words escaped me, and still I find myself functioning moment to moment – sometimes a generous day to day – as I did for so long during his illness. Grief and trauma intertwined to swallow my communication abilities whole. 

At this moment, it’s 7:30 pm on New Year’s Eve. Earlier today I moved my bedroom to a new room – again – in my new house, as renovations continue. I’m lying in bed, my mattress on the floor, in the smallest room in the house. It feels like a cozy nest. A scented candle is lit, “Frasier Fir,” and lime Bubly is at my bedside. Duppy is tucked into her winter curl, and Flo and Bob are splayed in the nearby doorway. Matthew is out with friends. I am alone, but as always, I do not feel alone. I am accompanied by memories and thoughts that swirl relentlessly in my mind. 

Mark died. He used to be alive, and now he is not. Part of him is in my room, on my bookshelf. Ashes. Part of him is in a cemetery 15 miles away. Part of him is in pottery glaze, in the icy waters around Iceland, in the Canadian tundra, on his way down the Ohio River. His photo smiles at me from the shelf. His name marches on in typeface on papers on my desk. One of his sons has their dirty laundry on the bed floor down the hall, and my Christmas tree holds ornaments from the childhoods of three orphaned boys. 

What is grief? This thing I’ve been trying to understand, live with, integrate, endure and befriend. 

Mark left us in August 2022. All of time since has been some version of a blur. For much of that time, and as frequently as possible, I was supine, prone, fetal. I lay down at any chance I could get. During a lull in parent-teacher conferences, my colleague covered me with a blanket when I laid across the tables. If I needed three naps a day, I took them. There are still days like that. “Your body needs rest,” my therapist affirmed. It did, and it does. 

As per the norms of life, it’s only after an experience that you more clearly see what occurred, and for sure I can now see that the amount of trauma I absorbed was, frankly, massive. “You’ll never forget the things you see,” Mark’s sister told me in his first stint in the ICU, as he gagged up blood while trying to rip his intubation tube from his mouth and she guided me out of his room. She was exactly correct. It all replays now, like a film I’m watching of someone else’s life. “What do you feel?” my therapist asks. “Nothing. No emotion,” I say. In waking hours, that is most often the case. When I sleep, my emotions fight to be heard. Last week, I dreamed that Mark was gasping for air, unable to get a breathe, mouthing, “Help me!” In my dream, I looked over and saw the boys and yelled, “Look away! Don’t watch!” 

And then, in my dream, I watched him die.

Because in my life, I did watch that. 

We saw so much. 

Occasionally, rarely, in the light of day I find that a feeling breaks through. A song comes on the radio, a memory abruptly pushes to the forefront, and I’m struck again with the facts: Mark died. He died after three years of a horrible illness that left not much more than the stubborn core of his being for me to care for, nurture and love. I held on tight, watched, learned, instructed, was led, endured, navigated, and felt helpless through every moment of it. It was a horrible, horrible experience. It was pure love, and it was a nightmare. 

Now, I just try to get through every day. “Do you have family traditions you observe around the holidays?” an acquaintance asked a couple nights ago. I stuttered to answer, taking a quick mental scan of how unstable my family has been over the years. And that’s because of Mark, his life and his kids’ losses, and because of my life before Mark. Divorce and it’s own set of traumas.  It’s hard to keep traditions with such constant morphing and disruptions of norms.

Here’s what I do now. I take care of my dogs. I drive forward with decisions about house repairs. I teach students about the natural world. I love all my kids. I navigate changes, as the matriarch of the family. In the year and a half since Mark died, Matthew started college, Michael moved to Arizona, Ben moved out. Adam graduated law school, Alma quit and did six months of self-care and then gained a job, Anya built me raised beds and is working with my contractor on my house repairs. I traveled to northern Manitoba to see the Northern Lights. Alma, Adam and I explored the endless wonders of Iceland. I dug into cowboy life in Texas with my brother and his wife, and I drove to Chicago for an amazing visit with old friends. I sold the family home in Upper St. Clair and moved into the City of Pittsburgh. I’m working on renovating this house to make it a home. I gained an amazing housemate who is already a part of this complicated, messy, perfect family. 

I am doing so much, and somehow, someway, I feel that I am exactly where I was 16 months ago. Frozen in the moment of Mark’s passing. 

I have written almost nothing in all this time. It’s felt impossible, like it might feel to look at a singular stone and know it’s the first stone to move to build a retaining wall. I’ve felt like I want to write about Mark’s actual passing, the sacred experience of being with him as he crossed the threshold from here to there. I will someday, I’ve promised myself and Mark that. And so far, every day has not been that day. 

Grief. What is grief? Hope. What is hope? Loss. Trust. Grounding. Future. Possibility. Stability. Safety. What are all these things? I’m a year and a half past the loss of Mark, and here’s my honest answer. I don’t know yet. 

It’s 8:00 pm on New Year’s Eve. I’ll think about it more tomorrow.