First there’s the sick sensation that creeps out of your stomach and crawls through your entire body as you realize they’re leading you into the room with the dim lighting and the soft chairs, the one unlike every other waiting room in the hospital, the only one that has a box of Kleenex on every table. This is the room where they bring you when they’re going to sentence your loved one to death, when they’ve run out of options, when you’ve reached the end of the line. The Grim Reaper is undefeated, and the game clock is about to hit 00:00 for the last time.
Then you’re overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Because there’s no getting over it. There’s no getting around it. Death has come for your loved one, and that’s all there is to it. Maybe you’re in a position to say your good-byes, maybe you aren’t, maybe you’ll never know if they even heard you. Maybe all you have to go on for the rest of your life is what looks like a tear forming in the corner of one eye after they pull out his breathing apparatus. And then they bring in some chaplain you’ve never seen to say a prayer over someone he never met in words you don’t even hear, and you grasp for something, anything to anchor you, and you have somebody call work for you so you can tell your boss that you won’t be in for a week or so, because you have to feel like you have some agency over something, anything at all.
And then it begins, the great numb conveyor belt. Funeral home. Cemetery director. Casseroles. Funeral home again. More casseroles. The church, the service, the graveside, shake hands with the pallbearers, leave so the gravediggers can bring in the backhoe to cover the hole. And then go home to stare into a different hole. You don’t know it now – and if you do, you don’t get it yet, how could you – but that hole will be there for the rest of your life, and you’re just going to have to figure out how to build a walkway around it and put up the plywood and the guardrails to keep from falling in. You can’t fill it, you can’t cover it, you wouldn’t even necessarily want to – you just need a way to safely navigate by.
The dreams start a couple weeks later. Always the same – you realize too late that he’s actually gone, and that this is a dream, and you wake up before you can say anything or ask anything or remember anything that would give you even the illusion of a few more moments. They grow fewer and further between. You find yourself an uncontrollable puddle at the strangest things, like the cellphone bill a month later that shows where you called them for their anniversary for twenty minutes. You spend the whole summer walking on a wire, barely able to push yourself through your routine. What you don’t grasp at the time is that this was a pivot point for your whole life. That having been plunged into a deep dark place, the person that eventually surfaces with your name and face won’t be the same person who went down. Won’t relate to other people the same way. Won’t want the same things out of life. Won’t be on the same path as before. This will potentially damage your relationships with other people, in ways that will not be repairable and which will linger for decades.
You’ll change your signature. You’ll change your facial hair. You’ll keep both pretty much the same from then on.
The years will go by. The first anniversary will be a scheduled day off so you don’t go to pieces in front of everyone, and you’ll find yourself in the office anyway to do a favor for one person and spend your planned mental health vacation day making sure a non-standard laptop can call into an AOL number in Budapest. Eventually you’ll think you’ve stopped dreading the approach of the day, consciously at least, but it’ll be bound up in a parade of other dates – with Mothers Day and college graduations and your parents’ anniversary and Father’s Day, always fucking Father’s Day, Dads and Grads, in what amounts to an annual six week orgy of everything in your life you’re most conflicted about being paraded right through your subconscious, every single year.
You wonder things. Would you have felt differently about having kids yourself if he’d been around? What shtick would he have come up with for your wedding? How much worse would his health issues be given another twenty years to deteriorate? Could he somehow have staved off Fox Geezer Syndrome, or would a long retirement of slow days with cable TV have eventually driven out the time spent on fishing shows and Andy Griffith reruns and made him as unpalatable as so many others? What would he have made of Nick Saban, of Barack Obama, of Donald Trump, of Roy Moore? Of hybrid cars and iPhones and Facebook and Railroad Park, of a world unrecognizable from 1998?
Would he have been proud, and would that still even matter to me?
It says something about the world we live in now, in 2018, that so many of those instances of “I’ll never know” have been replaced with “at least I’ll never have to know”. It also says something that back in November of 2016, I felt exactly the same shock and pain all over again, right through the grieving process and disorientation and surfacing as a different person with different priorities and different goals. In both cases, it was the same thing: your world has changed and you can never go back to how it was before, and now you just have to learn how to walk forward again.
If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll dread every “new normal” that ever comes along. Forever.