It’s no secret that when it comes to binge watching, I am a repeat offender. There are decades old series, and even game shows, that provide me great comfort from time to time. My ability to re-watch and continue to enjoy certain shows and films drove my husband bonkers. It is one of the very rare upsides to being alone that I can indulge in these vapid pleasures without judgement. This past year, my living room has been screening The West Wing and N.Y.P.D. Blue. The comfort derived from a fictional White House staffed with civility, reason and stellar intellect is clear. The appeal of “being back on the Blue” is a bit more elusive. It is not for everyone, I admit that. But for me it is all about the relationships. The dialogue and acting are always so spot on. The directing and editing capture silent moments sometimes far more powerful than the dialogue. There is a realness to it all.
I don’t relate to all of the characters. I have clenched my jaw watching the character of Diane as she uses her childhood and family of origin to justify her weakness and bad choices. I almost have to avert my eyes as she wallows in widowhood having been married a whole week before her husband dies. I’m always more of a champion of those that don’t bask in victim-hood.. At various times I have various favorites. I like to watch these “people” overcome their demons and evolve. This go around I’ve been drawn to the character of Andy Sipowicz’s ex-wife. Katie is played by the enchanting Debra Monk and for the first few years is mostly annoying. The loss of her marriage and their only son, shatters her. She finds A.A. and gets in touch with her religion, and becomes a different sort of annoying but not longer a victim. The other night I saw the most heartbreaking moment between her and Andy. The bareness of her need and the depth of history and feeling Andy has for her were evident in about 5 seconds of film. I gulped and let go of a flood of tears. A few episodes later Andy gets into bed with his preschool aged son who is sleeping with “Aunt Katie”. He cuddles the boy and they drift off to sleep. The camera moves to Katie on the other side of the bed and we see that she is awake. Her face registers serenity. The thought bubble says “This moment, all I need is this moment.” For this night she has her old life back. He’s no longer her husband and that is not their child, but it feels familiar. It reminds her of a time she had it all.
It is almost five years since my husband died. I have had boyfriends and relationships and I’ve no doubt that many if not all, have been the result of my seeking to reclaim my old life. I’ve sought comfort in the rhythms of a coupling rather than the dynamic between us. It mattered less how I felt about the person than how I did about the mechanics of our coupling: to wake up and have coffee with someone, to spend holidays together, to discuss the highs and lows of our day. That’s what I craved. I don’t have the sense that these men appreciated me anymore than I did them. I was able to ignore many shortcomings and red flags in pursuit of the rhythm. It is akin to an addiction, the drive to recapture what was lost. Even when I was doing it I knew what I was doing. I am pragmatic and hyper-aware so have never had the luxury of deluding myself. I silently narrate my experiences, no matter how emotionally intense. (You shoulda heard the monologue when I was told my husband was dead!) My most Katie moment came two years ago on a speedboat in the middle of the Caribbean. My boyfriend and I were traveling to a remote island to spend eight days together. The last time either of us had done anything remotely like this was on our respective honeymoons. Before we left for the trip I had already seen the signs. I knew we were not going to go the distance. On paper it really was a great match. But I knew. So there we were on the speedboat and the captain told us to hold on it was about to get rough. Without warning my partner wrapped me in his arms and held on tight. I watched the distant island grow closer and thought; “Remember this feeling, it may never happen again.”
Predictability is comforting. Mr. Howard Johnson knew this. I’ve never been an adventurous soul. Edgy for me is trying a new flavor of frozen yogurt or seeing a musical written after 1980. I never grew out of the Mr. Rogers song; I Like To Be Told. Surprise or newness can throw me into a full-blown tizzy (for reasons we can explore in another post). So when something happens, or doesn’t happen, or when I embark on something new, I can get a bit floopy.
When the news reaches a heartbreaking crescendo, I, like many others re-watch The West Wing. Imagine my giddiness when I discovered (through the miracle of Twitter) that others clung to President Bartlet’s leadership as if it was real. I’m up to Season 3 (for the third time) and it’s not all smooth sailing. Coincidentally, after recently making a change in my life I discovered there’s a channel rebroadcasting N.Y.P.D. Blue (a bizarre choice for an elixir, I know). The exquisite acting and emotionally laden storytelling draws me back when I need comfort. (I refer to these periods as “being back on the Blue.”) In what can only be called a macabre perfect storm; there were two gut wrenching partner losing episodes on both of these shows this week. I saw them coming (that’s the upside of re-watching!) and did not avert my eyes.
I clutched my dog as the gunman made his way through the courthouse. I heaved an audible sob, tears running down my face as Sylvia said; “Take care of the baby.” Watching Sipowicz move through his days as if the air was made of cut glass, brought it all back to me.. Later watching C.J. collapse after hearing the news that Simon was gunned down, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah playing over the scene, brought out a whimper and tears. I poured myself a drink and thought about what I’d just done. I had voluntarily exposed myself to two scenes that were gut wrenching and emotionally very familiar. I know with every fiber of my being the shock of sudden loss. But it is only now, almost five years on, when I can watch these things and gain comfort. I am not re-traumatized, as I once would have been. Why would I put myself through the sobbing and gut wrenching? Well, it’s like picking at a scab. It’s strangely satisfying to be past the original injury and be able to control a teeny aspect of the healing..
A few months ago I lost interest in dating. It’s not that I checked it off my bucket list once and for all. It’s that I lost the same interest I once had. It ceased to seem important or even worthwhile. Maybe it was the two thoroughly disheartening experiences I had in May. Maybe after over three years of it, I’ve had enough. Potato Potahto.
I still keep a hand in (not the best choice of phrases, I know) but do so in a very different manner. I sort through, looking for the one profile/person I might be able to tolerate hearing from; not date, not partner with, but hear from. I no longer consider choosing to stay home a sign of anything but self-knowledge. The world isn’t watching and my worth is not predicated on someone wanting to buy me dinner. Quite frankly I’d rather not eat than sit across from someone uninteresting or unpleasant. I am done feeling as if I’m being auditioned or worse, not being seen at all. None of us walk through life as kind and compassionate as we could be. But if you can’t treat a friend or date with interest and care, what are you doing with your life? Don’t paw me, don’t ask me to wear something sexy, don’t begin a communication (when you’ve never met me) with “hey sexy.” I am not a prude I am a person. Seeing me as a potential conquest is so dehumanizing.
I haven’t joined an order. I am still open to dating from time to time (okay, once a month) but I do so with a very different mindset. I no longer assess men’s characteristics for long-term partner worthiness. I take them as they present themselves. Does a man express interest in me (which is NOT the same, in fact often the opposite of; does he want to sleep with me!)? Does he appear to see women as equals not adversaries? Is he interesting? IS HE KIND? The intangibles are now meaningless. I don’t care where he lives, what his faith is, what ages his children are…it just comes down to; would I rather watch TV or go out with this man?
Thus far this new approach has resulted in two simply lovely dates. Both men were kind, funny, interesting and seemingly emotionally intelligent and engaged. I may see them again, I may not. But to have spent a June evening debating the appeal of Chekov and a July evening discussing gender as a social construct, all while laughing and feeling a kinship, is enough for now.
There’s a glossy studio portrait of my little family. Set in front of a dark backdrop, my husband and I stand holding our “boys”; Jacques and Maurice (a Bichon and Maltese). It was a marketing device for when we were a Faculty Family in Residence for college freshmen. That photo was replicated into posters and plastered in the elevators and hallways, advertising our events to “our” students.
I came across that 5×7 photo a few years ago and let out an audible gasp. I am the only surviving member and have authorized the cremation of everyone else. I tucked that photo away along with that life. I loved being a wife and “mother” more than anything else. Ever. I have worked (what feels like tirelessly) for the past few years trying to reclaim happiness and create some sort of life. I’ve taken jobs (paid and otherwise) and partners (worthy and not). I’ve traveled and homesteaded. I’ve had more false starts than I care to track. I have confused taking care of people with creating a life for myself. And at the end of the day, it’s the end of the day. There is no one waiting there for me.
I’ve tried basking in my untethered life. I’ve flitted and flighted and had some interesting experiences. About a year and a half ago I met a neighbor’s cat and was overjoyed to babysit whenever possible. How delicious to have this tiny creature roam my home and snuggle and suffocate me with love. When he would leave I would miss him and remind myself that only loaners are allowed. I cannot and will not put myself through that pain again. I cannot sign those papers. I cannot be the lone survivor yet again.
A couple of weeks ago I flighted to a childhood friend’s beach house. I was greeted by her tiny shih tzu Leo and I fell hard, it was love at first lick. She and I sat on the beach while I peppered her with questions about being a single mother. The idea was overwhelming and thrilling. Could I really do this? Have I become strong enough to let myself do it? Will this change my life for good or bad? What about my allergies, my travel, my…my…oh to hell with it, I’m getting a dog. Less than two weeks later, Marty the rescue Maltese is home. It’s been 72-hours of emotional roller coastering. I am utterly gobsmacked by how much I am missing my husband. We co-parented so well together and taught each other and the dogs so much. I look at Marty’s sweet face and start to cry. My husband would’ve loved him so much. Last night, when I once again acquiesced and put his crate on my bed, I could see my husband lying on his side of the bed and gazing adoringly at that tiny face. It took my breath away. In 4 1/2 years, I have never felt his presence as I do right now. I had thought that getting a dog would be a new beginning, and maybe it will some day. Right now it feels like a very big ending. Taking jobs and partners was just about me trying new things. This is different. This is making a new family without him and no matter how good it is, I know it would’ve been so much better with him.
Twenty(!) years ago my best friend died. It was a sudden death and I learned about it weeks later from an email. The loss was profound and the way I learned of it distressing. My beautiful, strong and vibrant friend was very important to me. We never dated but had agreed that come age 40 if we weren’t married to other people…you know how that promise goes. He never made it to anywhere near 40, and I married. But he was my BFF before BFFs. We had great adventures together and I’ve no doubt we would have had many many more. I can still hear his self-assured voice coaching me as I climbed astride a motorcycle for the first (and last) time; “Keep you spine aligned with mine.” I can see his face, when I stepped out of the dressing room in a see-through honeymoon nightgown and told him “avert your eyes but tell me if you like it.” My memories run like a video montage. I actually have him on video. He arrived at my upstate wedding at the last minute. I refused to walk down the aisle until he arrived. So there he is, ducking (he was quite tall) into the tent as the musicians vamped.
When I first read the email informing me of his death I thought it was a vicious joke. I called his office and no doubt traumatized his sobbing assistant. My husband rushed home from work, I looked at him and said; “I think I’m okay with him being dead right now, I’m just not okay with him being dead forever.”
I thought of that sentiment this weekend. My husband has been dead for over four years. I sense people’s impatience (including my own) with my grief. I don’t spend my days wringing a handkerchief or visiting a grave (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But once in awhile there is a trigger, say a beloved celebrity’s death, that will send me ’round the bend. I’m not willing to bogart a P.T.S.D. diagnosis, that would not be fair to true sufferers. However, a trigger is not just the usual crap we all deal with from time to time. A trigger will cut you off at the knees. It will bring your emotional self back to the beginning. It’s exhausting and defeating and utterly galling. There I am feeling as if I’ve got a handle on this thing called widowhood and BAM! “Not so fast girly, it’s me, your trigger!” – it’s best to picture a cartoon character similar to that little Bill that became a Law. So there I am triggered, treading water as tidal wave after tidal wave rush over me. I am all alone in my sadness as no one, and I mean no one can really understand. That reality compounds the loss of the one person, the only person who ever really saw me and understood me.
I’m not sure which is sadder; the trigger or the loneliness. Explaining my grief to people is exhausting and so sad. I don’t want to teach people how to be empathetic or how to be a friend. To me that’s like having sex with an inflatable doll. What’s the point?! So when I was mired in my sadness this weekend and heard; “are you okay?” from a couple of friends, I was reminded of what I said twenty years ago…My husband is still dead and I’m not okay with that.