I met Alison when she and her friend, Valorey, joined a book club to which I belonged. She came in a little late, wearing a 1950’s sundress–obviously a carefully selected thrift-store purchase–a huge hat, and a shawl. Her very eccentricity got my attention, and I always think of Alison as draped rather than just dressed. I found out recently that, for twenty years, she has had a life in Manhattan in which she walks, daily, into the front door of the high-tech office building where she works, dressed in pinstripes and heels.
I am getting to know her.
When I asked her to write for this blog, Alison responded, “Well, I have something I’ve been working on for a long time; it’s about grief.”
Turns out, as these things tend to do, that it is a profound time for me to think about loss and grief.
Meet my good friend, Alison Daniels
Alison Nearly two years ago now, I received the phone call that would shatter the future I had envisioned for myself. A dedicated loner, I had finally, in my fifth decade, met someone who seemed to be that elusive “soulmate” with whom I could actually imagine spending my life.
Gary lived in another state, and I was in the process of moving there to be with him. One day I wasn’t able to reach him by phone. Since we had first known each other, we always talked every day, and typically first thing in the morning. That was the ritual. It was ridiculous, how much time we spent talking on the phone.
I miss those early morning calls every day.
When I didn’t get my usual morning call, I rang him, but got no answer. Maybe he is just still asleep, I thought. Then I rang him again an hour or so later. There was still no answer. I tried again later in the day. No answer. I knew something was very wrong, yet I didn’t want to know. I called a mutual friend who lived within an hour of the home that Gary and I had bought together, and asked him to check on him. I didn’t betray how worried I was. Maybe he was just tired. Maybe a friend had visited. Maybe he just didn’t want to talk to me. More hours went by. I tried to have a normal day, telling myself everything would be all right.
That evening, I got the phone call. Nothing would ever be all right again. Our friend gently advised me to sit down, and broke the news. “He’s gone, honey.”
I called my mother first, of course. We always look first to our mothers for comfort, if we still have our mothers with us. I didn’t sleep all night. The world seemed surreal and I went into auto-pilot. The next day I flew down south.
We had adopted a shelter dog, Radar, we loved dearly. Gary had chosen him, probably liking the fact that he was named for the character in MASH. Radar had made him laugh despite his chronic pain. One of my best friends arrived to take him home with her. The deal was that one day I would take him back, that I would live in the home my fiancé and I were supposed to share.
Could I really do that? All my belongings had been packed for me to make my move. Now I felt frozen in time. I didn’t sleep for three days. I didn’t need sleep. There were arrangements to be made, and then I went back home. I had to tell friends what had happened. I cried, they cried. Everyone knows how you feel, and yet they don’t.
I went on with my life, my routine. Yet I cried all the time. I never seemed to run out of tears. Earlier that same year, a beloved pet had died. I still cried for her too. Tears are cathartic, but you wonder when you will stop grieving quite so much. You wonder when grief stops defining you.
I kept looking for answers, obsessively trying to determine the exact cause of Gary’s death. Since we hadn’t married, I was not the next of kin. I had no rights to information. I knew some things about the state of my Gary’s health and that it wasn’t great, but realized there was much he had hidden from me: his untreated alcoholism, and the years of neglecting his health. I felt tremendous guilt. I should have been with him when he died. I should have spent more time with him. I should have done more. I should have saved him. I should have cured him. I shouldn’t have lost my temper with him. I remember his last words to me, nothing of consequence: “I’ll call you later.” My last words to him? I think I said “I love you.” I hope I did. I hope he knew.
I kept flying back and forth every month. One evening when I was at the house I stood outside, under the stars. I heard a deep male voice saying my name just once. To this day I remain convinced it was Gary’s voice – the deep voice that had attracted me to him when I first heard it over the phone. I always said he sounded like Gregory Peck. Months later as I continued to return to the house, checking on it, having maintenance work done, moving more of my belongings slowly from one home to another, I heard a mockingbird serenading me from the top of the chimney. I took that as a sign. Everything became a sign when I was in the mood to be sentimental. I guess we want to believe that there is still a presence of the loved one remaining on earth. I kept many of Gary’s clothes in the closet. I kept many things as they were, where they were, where he had placed them. I still have a bottle of his aftershave, and sometimes I open the bottle and breathe it in. There are photos. There are love letters. He existed.
I had been given custody of his ashes and planned to scatter them on the beach, but for almost a year I couldn’t bear to think of even opening up the box that held what remained of the person I had loved. I waited. Finally, I scattered some of his ashes, and then placed the remainder in an urn for safekeeping. My grief feels self- indulgent. We had known each other only about two years. This was not a lifetime partner. My grief cannot compare to those who lose a husband of decades, who lose a child. It doesn’t compare to those who lose a loved one in the kind of senseless murderous rampages that assault us in the news all the time. But it is my grief and I carry it with me.
Grief marks you – things that used to seem important now pale in comparison. You feel you can handle anything as long as it is not a matter of life and death.
Gary had once spoken of his conviction that we would find each other in the after-life. I don’t know if I believe that, but now I am more at peace with dying, just in case he is indeed waiting. And he won’t be the only one. Some of my loved ones have gone before him. I hope we will all find each other. I like to think of my father and my fiancé meeting. That would have been an interesting encounter, the two most significant men in my love, the two men who had made me feel safe.
I knew I could survive it. There is no other choice. Time helps us heal but we do not forget. The bottom can drop out of our worlds, but we go on about the daily business of living. We even laugh again. Two years later, I am still recovering; I am a survivor.
I came to live in the house Gary and I were supposed to share. My mom lives here now, in her own guest house. My two cats came to the house kicking and screaming but acclimated after a week of hiding under the bed. Now it’s their house, too.
My friend drove up to return my dog; she cried saying goodbye to him because he’s easy to love. Radar is my connection to my other life. There are memories he and I share. He’s a great comfort, as all animals are to me. I feel stronger. I feel sad. I feel fortunate.
There’s a poem by William Wordsworth that captures the acceptance of grief:
What though the radiance
Which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass,
of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
Dean It is Thursday night, the 24th of September 2015, and tomorrow morning I will board a plane headed for the Atlanta airport. From there, a friend will drive me to the small town where I grew up. I am going to Cedartown, Georgia, to see someone I love, almost certainly for the last time. He is ninety-five years old, and he is dying. He might or might not know who I am; in fact, he might or might not live until I get there. Tomorrow morning I will board a plane headed for the Atlanta airport.
Last Thanksgiving I made this same trip to sit with my four cousins while their mother, Olin’s wife, lay dying. She did not regain consciousness while I was there, and she died before I left.
In 1962 my father died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 52. I was sixteen and a senior in high school. A mentor, an Episcopal priest, took me to the funeral home to see Daddy. All I could say was,”He needs his glasses.” I have never “viewed” the body of another person. I will be cremated.
Twenty years ago my mother died in Montgomery, Alabama, and my son and I took her ashes to Cedartown and, with our bare hands, we dug them into the dirt on my father’s grave. There were bone chips in the ashes, and there was a fine dusting of ashes on our hands and arms. I put one finger into my mouth; the taste was bitter.
More times than I can count I have held animals–cats, llamas, baby rabbits, birds–in my lap at the end. I have loved every one–friend, family, or animal, as if I would somehow never love again. In Robert Bolt‘s play, A Man for all Seasons, Thomas More, hours away from his own death, reminds the assembled court that, “Death comes for us all, my lords; even for kings he comes. . .”
Joan Didion describes The Year of Magical Thinking, written after her husband’s death, as “my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad. . . about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity.” She writes, “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”
Anne Lamott, in Travelling Mercies, bemoans the fact that “All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately. But what I’ve discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.”
And, finally, I shoulder reluctantly what many have called simply my share of the world’s pain.
“The vast universal suffering feel as thine;
Thou must bear the sorrow that thou claims to heal;
The day-bringer must walk in darkest night.
He who would save the world must share its pain.
If he knows not grief, how shall he find grief’s cure?” Sri Aurobindo
In the early evening of Monday the 5th of October 2015, Olin Jackson Bates “slipped out the back door,” as his youngest daughter told me when she called. I loved him as if I will somehow never love again.