an answer to grief

It’s February, but the weather around here has been more of a false spring. Balmy rains and warm weather tricked the trees into blooming early, and I wanted to buy into it. Last Thursday, I propped open the back door while I was in the dish pit, and kept finding reasons to go out to the bailer. It was sunny and warm, and it felt like winter was finally at an end.

Two days later, I woke to a snowstorm I had no choice but to drive through. Four hours total, round trip. Heavy flakes coated the car as I packed it, and I looked up the road. The mountains before me were already white with snow, haloed in gauzy clouds.

I kissed my sleeping love, scribbled a note that I’d be home around four, and then I drove into the snow.

Coasting along 40 and 26 through that white, silent landscape, I felt small and vulnerable. There was a persistent clunk from the floorboards I had yet to identify, and every skid and slip of the tires tightened my knuckles till they hurt. The snow worsened, blinding in parts, and at one point, I pulled over to catch my breath. A hush fell over the car when I cut it off, and for a moment, all I could hear was that soft pitter-patter of snow.

I stepped out and looked up.

The dark rock wall beside me was coated in icicles half as big as my car. Snow blanketed the boughs of trees above me, a gradient of pale grey and dusky purple in the shadows, and I thought about a game my mother used to play with me when I was a child. She’d ask me what colors I’d use to paint what I saw. Black and white were not allowed. “You have to see past that,” she’d tell me. “What do you see?”

It took me a while to figure out the trick I use now. With the distractions of light and shadow, it’s hard to see the individual hues. If you unfocus and let it blur, all you can see are hues. A palette, a gradient of vivid color bleeding together, utterly devoid of outlines. I didn’t have the vocabulary I needed at first to know what paints I’d need, but I learned. Burnt umber, raw sienna, phthalo blue, alizarin crimson. The lesson stuck with me, and thirty years later, every time I see something so beautiful I wish I could paint it, I deconstruct it the same way.

What I saw: burnt umber, Payne’s gray, indanthrene blue, neutral gray, Prussian blue, all mixed with titanium white. The snowy world around me was cast in a strange twilight, a softness to it that felt utterly unreal.

I thought of taking a picture, but it felt wrong. I knew it wouldn’t truly capture what I saw. So I took that moment with me, and I left.

On my return trip, the snow had already melted. Sunlight returned, banishing that soft, strange world, and I felt a sense of homesickness for the moment I’d lost. The rain returned, and now, almost a week later, the trees are budding again. Violet crocuses have erupted along the sidewalks, and daffodils are slowly lifting their heads from wet earth. It remains to be seen which way the weather will go.

I’m not the only one wondering. Weather has become a common concern. All around me, people murmur about climate change and politics. Doubt and terror of living in a world seemingly governed by chaos.

“Everything is out of control.”

A block up, activists line Pack Square. The signs differ by the day, but they are always a call to action, begging the rest of us to wake up. Change things. Go vegan. Protect our earth. And I think about them as I pour ice into cups. I think about Antarctica disintegrating, of people drowning from floods and unprecedented hurricanes. I dump coffee grinds into the compost, over and over, and I wonder how many of the people around me know we are currently living in an extinction event. How many of them know the hard facts of what we’re in for. How bad it’s actually going to get.

I take the compost and the recycling out, and I remind myself of the reasons why I get out of bed.

Every day, I walk past a graffitied bumper on my way to work. GRIEF in red, stark against white concrete. It’s not the only one of its kind. That message is everywhere in this city, scrawled in the same hand, seemingly everywhere I go. GRIEF, like an answer to a question unasked. A confirmation of why I’m here.

A wave from an invisible hand.

I saw it again today. Yellow, this time, bright against the black plastic of another gas pump. I paused, as always, and wondered who it was. Why they wrote it. What they’d been through.

I wished I could wave back. Say, “I see you.” Say, “I see it.”

Say, “Me too.”

*

“Interesting test results” was the first thing my doctor said to me when I walked into his office. “Come on in.”

I sat down and folded my hands and waited. Worried. Watched him scribbling furiously. Worried some more.

“So.” He handed me a sheaf of papers. “I was right.”

I flipped through the papers, but didn’t understand.

“The reason your medications aren’t working is because they can’t. Go to the last page.”

I did.

This individual is heterozygous for the C677T polymorphism in the MTHFR gene.

MTHFR. My mouth quirked.

“Now, check out page six, upper right corner. See where it says ‘poor metabolizer?”

CYP2D6 enzyme activity: None.

“That combination right there is why nothing works. Your brain isn’t methylated enough to properly regulate your neurotransmitters. That second mutation? That’s where the weird side effects are coming from. Put the two together, and we have the reason why you haven’t responded to treatment. But it also tells us how to fix that.”

I turned the pages, trying to understand. I’d studied psychology as an undergrad, and I had developed familiarity with psychiatric medicines over time in treatment. Few, if any, had benefited me. Therapy was effective, but it wasn’t a cure. I’d manage to maintain a normal baseline for small stretches, and then inevitably crash again. The diagnoses changed, over and over, according to my reactions to medicines. The prognosis was never good.

Believing you are an unsolvable problem is bleak at best. I’d been more worried the results would come back completely normal. But there on the page were answers. Entire classes of contraindicated medicines that I’d known from my own reactions didn’t work, but doctors had run me through anyway. Years of treatment that had been a waste of time, and we didn’t even know.

I fought back tears.

“This is fixable?”

He smiled.

“It is now.”

*

2019 wasn’t a kind year.

But neither were the years before it.

Between 2016 and 2018, I lost just about everything. Friends. Family. My home. My car. My hopes. My dreams. All of it crumbled. I couldn’t make it make sense, and my attempts to cope with it were poor at best.

I don’t think anyone necessarily copes well with huge losses. What you thought was solid no longer exists. You start to doubt whether it ever really existed in the first place. Others attempt to help, advise, console, but they can’t get through it for you.

The person who has to learn how to live with it is you. And that means a lot of grief, a lot of redefining what you thought you knew. A lot of burials. Rethinking the choices you made, and whether, in hindsight, they were the right ones.

In 2019, I spent a lot of time sleeping in my car. I drove between Greenville and Asheville, trying to outrun my own grief. There was so much of it. I’d spent so much of my life in Greenville. I had so many memories there, and after Pru died, too many of them were painful. It was easier to sleep in my car on a cold February night before a work shift than sleep in a warm, comfortable bed in a house I didn’t belong in, because it reminded me of the person I’d never be again.

I was becoming someone else, but I didn’t even know who that was. It was terrifying.

Now, a year later, I know why it scared me.

I am the one who decides who and what I become.

The last time I posted here, I’d decided to move to Asheville. I didn’t have a solid plan, but when was the last time a solid plan had worked out? I knew what I needed in order to make the move, and as long as I could keep up with my bills, I could make it work. It would be difficult and scary, but difficult and scary were the norm. Things have never been easy, but if I’d survived that far in Greenville, surely I could do it somewhere else.

I found a job in Asheville. It didn’t work out. I clawed my way through three weeks of interviews and zero callbacks till I found another that did. I’ve been slinging coffee in a cafe in downtown Asheville since then, surviving mostly off tips. Serving isn’t easy, especially with chronic fatigue, but I manage. I walk the mile back to my car, and on the drive back, I call my mother just to hear her voice.

Ten years ago, I was living in terror of watching her die.

But she made it. She’s healthy and well and tells me about her latest project with the gardening committee, the latest news with my siblings, all the things she did that day.

I started this piece with the idea that I’d say something about grief. If anything, it’s this:

My mother saying “I love you, too” before she hangs up is worth every ounce of grief I went through ten years ago.

An unexpected hug from a new friend is worth the struggle of trying to get close to people after being hurt.

A suspended moment of awe on the side of the road, marveling at snow in a warming world, makes me want to fight for it.

Finally getting a solid answer on what’s wrong with me, after years of feeling hopeless and unfixable, was worth fighting this hard to stay alive.

And struggling to write this, after months of feeling like I’d lost my voice, reminded me why I say anything at all.

To the artist who reminds me why I endure grief:

Thank you for telling me I’m not alone.

Thank you for reminding me why I’m doing this.

It’s a scary, chaotic world out here, isn’t it?

But we’re alive, and we’re in it. We can change it. We might not be able to fix it, but we can remind each other not to give up.

Thank you for that.

Maybe I’ll buy a marker, so I can give you my answer. Same as yours, just one word.

seven months

unnamed

The date took me by surprise today.

I was scribbling down my schedule–I travel so much these days, it’s hard to keep the days straight–when I realized I’d forgotten what the day was.

Grief is funny like that. It’s taken seven months, but here I am, finally at the point where it’s no longer piercing my prefrontal cortex. It’s sneaky, hidden in muscle memory, and when I thought “oh, oh, that’s why I’ve been so upset,” the pen fell out of my hand.

Last month, you hid me a message in a fortune cookie. And because this is how grief works, I knew, like, deep-down, gut-deep knew. Something was coming. I hoped it was good, and it was.

The car eats up a lot of miles these days. I traverse a circuit between Greenville and Asheville, and the only time I stop moving is when I’m asleep. I work, I write, I struggle, ineptly, to build new connections in a new city, and work toward the idea of living the life I want to live.

It’s hard, without you.

There’s that stretch of 25 through Flat Rock and Fletcher, right after the NC border, where you and I first talked about moving up there. We were on our way to a book signing, to meet authors who were the exact sort of people we wanted to be. It was a time when I believed without a single doubt we’d get there together. 

Seven months now of struggling toward that without you.  It still doesn’t feel right, but I’m doing it anyway.

Listen, I know you were worried, but the advice you gave me last year about staying soft was solid. 

You’re the armor around my heart, now. And I’m doing just like you said. It isn’t easy. I’m not the person I was. Everything is new. Everything is awkward. I feel helpless at times. 

But this softness isn’t helplessness. It’s a conscious choice to not be anything other than exactly what I am. To stop hiding, and own this thing that bleeds in plain sight.

I have always been this thing, I just…

I couldn’t be honest about it. 

That was the first lesson, and the hardest one.

Every defense I had was useless. Everything I’d ever used to keep myself safe didn’t work.

I’ve been helpless in various ways in my life, but it never felt as awful as it did to stand and hold your hand and know I couldn’t do a goddamned thing to save your life. The only thing I had control over was how I chose to let you go.

I tried, good buddy. But I’ve lost so much. I have lost so many people. So many things. 

Loss doesn’t make you better at losing things. It makes you worse at it. Because you can logically know exactly how it works, but the heart doesn’t get it. It never gets it.

You held my hand as long as you could, because you knew losing you was gonna smash me to bits. And it did. Exactly as much as it had to, exactly as much as was necessary.

Losing you could have destroyed me.

But here I am, trying to build. Continuing forward despite the unknowns. 

I’ve always been intimately acquainted with death; it’s always passed me by. It always chooses someone else. It brushes past me, and every time, every single time it’s like I go running after you. All of you. In my heart, I’m still that seven-year-old kid, returning to the same back porch night after night, hoping that maybe, just maybe you’ll come back. 

But I can’t do that anymore.

I got that offer you told me about.

This fall, I’m going to move. Me! Agoraphobic me, who’s never been able to move away from Simpsonville, who’s always been afraid. Who never had faith that I could take care of myself, that I could take chances.

I sure have taken on a lot of them since you left. Ugh. I know you had a cackle or two. I’ve got some scrapes, yeah. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I never did this when I was supposed to. I’m stunted. All those years of bowing over, braced for the wrong death.

God, I never thought it would be you.

And I never should have stopped living the way I did, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to survive the pain.

You were a shelter through the worst of those years. You understood, you knew why I couldn’t leave. Maybe you know my heart a little better, now. All the times I wanted to tell you just what that meant, but choked on it. 

You were part of my purpose, you know?

You were a reason I was here. Why I stayed here. Alive. You know it, now. I know you do. Whatever you are now, however you exist. You’ve seen my insides. You saw the full map. You know.

You know why I can’t stop moving, these days. Why it’s so hard to lay down and sleep.

It’s hard. I don’t know what I’m doing, exactly, but I’m doing it, based on a dream I refuse to let go of, even if you’re not here anymore.

Listen, I couldn’t tell you this while you were alive, but you don’t have to worry anymore.

I’m sorry I walled myself off the way I did.

I was in so much pain. No one could touch it. It was just this agonized knot of wrongness in the middle of my chest. Walking away took every ounce of willpower I had, and it just kept sapping me of everything. Every dream. Every hope. Everything I’d believed in. I crumpled in a way I never had before, and no one, absolutely no one could truly get inside my heart.

You tore one hell of an exit hole through me. It completely destroyed all of that. All the parts of me that felt wrong. All the parts of me that felt unlovable.

How could I be the thing I thought I was, when you held my hand like that at the end?

Thank you for still taking care of me.

Thank you for helping me protect this heart.

I thought I’d lost it, but you took me straight to it, you know?

Yeah, the fighter still remains.

And now I’m gonna move to a new city, read my work to strangers. Be an extraordinarily small fish in a big pond. I’ll work a lot, and write a lot, and keep at it till I get to see “For Pru” in print, in a physical book I can hold in my hands.

These days, I imagine my heart as an open cage, a ship in my chest. Door hanging open, so all the people I’ve loved can traverse freely. But when I think of you, I imagine you small, sitting in the doorway, your legs swinging cheerfully as I walk, as I continue, as I keep going.

For you, I’ll stay soft.

For Papa, I’ll keep trying my best to be “Miss Super Fantastic,” who could take one more step.

For Rosanne, who taught me kindness, and Mary Lou, who taught me how to laugh.

For Zeppy, Miles, Tober, and Pitiful. I’m trying to be the human you saw me as. For Tiffany, who should have had more time. For Gramma, who I think of every time I bake. For Big John, who sat me down so many times and told me to keep at it. For Eddie, who told me I had a bookstore with my name on it, and so much money I’d never be able to count it.

This list will grow longer. That’s just how this is.

I don’t know how much time will pass before I see you again.

But I hope when I do, I’ll have learned to love the way you did. 

I hope I leave the world better than it was. 

Asheville is going to be different than anything else I’ve ever done before.

I wish we were doing this together, on the same timeline. Maybe in another life.

Thank you for still being here inside me.

Thank you for the heads up about where I was going and what I’d be doing next.

Did you see Good Omens?

If you haven’t, I’ll tell you about it when I see you again. It’s gonna be a while, I think, but I know you’ll be there waiting, so I’m gonna keep trying to become the person you had faith I could be.

I miss you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.