I just finished reading Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking. This heart-wrenchingly sad book is about the few days leading up to and the year following Didion’s husband’s sudden death from a massive heart attack while her only child lay in a coma in intensive care.
Didion explores grief in a way that is very reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed except without the hope. Not that Didon’s book is a hopeless book by any means, but Didion doesn’t try to soften the blow of agonizing loss by pointing to the comforting promise in a hereafter. For Didion, her grief is all here and now and what does it matter what happens next if what’s happening here and now is so terrible and painful?
Please, Stick With Me. I’m Getting to the Point
So, as I said before, I’ve cried my last tear. Not my last tear ever, but my last tear over the loss of my best friend and all of the other relationships she intentionally destroyed in the process of our break-up.
And a break-up it was. Just as painful and just as nasty as any romantic break-up ever could be, but without any of the usual emotional support a girl can typically depend upon in matters of the heart. No. When you break up with a boy, all your girl friends gather around you, but when you break up with a girlfriend people pick sides and tell you to get the fuck over it. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I actually feel my feelings deeply, and I feel grief when I lose relationships that mattered very much to me. But it wasn’t just the loss that stunned me; it was the cruelty that went with it.
I’ve been hurt before. I’ve been hurt badly. But I don’t think I’ve ever been hurt intentionally.
My father was a terrible father. He did very damaging things to me and my mother and siblings. But I believe with my whole heart that he did them out of his own pain and ignorance, not out of any malicious intent. He never meant to hurt us; he just couldn’t help himself. If he could have done better, he would have. And I suppose this is the way I’ve looked at all the people who have hurt me in the past; they would have done better if they could have.
And through believing this I’ve always been able to find my way to forgiveness.
The boyfriend who hit me? He didn’t want to hurt me. He wanted to control me. He didn’t know how to love appropriately, and neither did I. But in some twisted way I think he felt that if I would simply mind him and do what I was told and never upset him that I would be as happy as he imagined himself being. His blows weren’t meant to actually hurt me, they were intended to help him relieve his own emotional pain by making me behave.
But last year, for the first time ever in my life, I experienced what it feels like to have someone actually want to hurt me. To want me to suffer. To try to destroy me by using weapons they specifically crafted to pierce my weakest vulnerabilities. And it took my breath away. Fuck. It took a year of my life away.
People kept telling me “get over it” “move on”, blah, blah, blah. But how do you move on when someone you once loved turns out to have hated you so much? Hated you enough to call people you both knew and tell them awful lies about you? Hated you enough to insist that people you care about chose between you and them or they’d be thrown out of the midlife blogging community along with you? Hated you enough to know that what they were doing was killing you inside because they knew you well enough to know where to stick the knife?
You better believe I cried.
I cried for the loss of a good friend who helped me pick out my mother-of-the-bride dress when I was in Tennessee helping my mother recover from her cancer surgery. I cried for the loss of the couple friends my husband and I traveled with to London and Puerto Vallarta. I cried for the loss of a dear friend who once trusted me enough to text me after the first time she got laid after her divorce, but didn’t care enough about me to give me a freaking phone call before lashing out against me publicly in a private group where I couldn’t even defend myself. I cried when I realized that women I’ve known and cared about for years were just going to stand back and let me be treated this way and say or do nothing to defend me.
I cried for the loss of these relationships, but I mostly cried because not one of these people cared enough about me to listen to my side of the story. I had thought I mattered to them, but I didn’t. And that hurt.
And for the past year I’ve cried for the loss of so many other relationships, newer relationships that I’d believed had mattered, but turned out to only be expedient relationships based on what they thought I could do to advance their blogging careers because apparently mean girls grow up to become mean women and those old foolish games from the playground where we insist that girls must pick sides if they want to be our friend—or risk social ostracism–still happen even when you’re in your 40s and 50s. Dammit, but I cried.
So many people cautioned me to keep my tears to myself. Yeah, like that ever works. What that generally meant was that I stopped writing much because what’s there to write about if you can’t write about your truth? And the truth is that I was crying.
Now, I wasn’t only crying. This last year has also been a huge blast of adventure.
First of all, there’s been the sex. It’s been the most amazing year of sex between my husband and myself. Sex in your 50s is this amazing secret you never thought could possibly exist, but when you find out it does it’s like discoverying that Santa Claus really does have a toy factory at the North Pole.
We happily walked away from our house and started over in this little fixer upper we started off hating, but now love. I started a new career. My husband and I have been seriously busy building a financial future that hopefully won’t include me standing on a center divide on a cold, windy day with my dog leashed to the traffic light pole while I hold a sign begging for food or work because I’m starving and have frittered away my final and most productive working years pretending that Generation Fabulous could ever be financially successful enough to support three women.
And I traveled. As an RN. While getting paid very well to do it.
I love traveling. I once told one of my (former) friends that in my dream life I’d get paid to travel. At that time I couldn’t imagine how I, a labor and delivery nurse, could create a life that would entail being paid to travel. I knew I didn’t want to do travel blogging. I’ll leave that up to professionals like The Gypsy Nesters (whose book is coming out very soon!). For me, having to write about traveling would take all the fun out of it. I don’t like having to have to write. It gives me terrible anxiety. In fact, I don’t like being in a position where I have to live up to anyone’s expectations because I’m sure to disappoint them every. single. time.
Because I’m Deeply Flawed
This has been a year of coming to terms with being deeply flawed, and facing the fact that some of my worst character defects are never going away.
For instance, I’m going to have to deal with this paralyzing anxiety for the rest of my life. Unless it magically disappears, just like it magically appeared when I was 42, it likely isn’t ever going to go away; I’m just going to have to learn to live with it.
I have a temper. When I get pushed into a corner and feel threatened, I lose my temper. I lost my temper when I felt cornered into a business and financial arrangement that I knew would end badly for me. I could have handled it better, but I didn’t. I should have never let myself get cornered in the first place. But I was so afraid of losing my best friend that I wanted to do whatever it was I needed to do to please her.
Only in retrospect can I see clearly that a real friend would never want you to put yourself in harm’s way.
Only after the fact did I understand that a real best friend would care if you were miserable and frightened.
Only too late did I realize that no friend would ever coldly tell you to your face that they didn’t care how miserable you were, or how much it was costing you financially and emotionally, but if you didn’t keep doing what they wanted you to do for their benefit that they would destroy you.
Learning to be Brave
The wonderful gift of a year of grief is the opportunity to reflect that it gives you. This year of feeling socially ostracized, of seeing numerous friendships end in a blaze of indifference, and watching others who I cared for move on blithely as though I haven’t been left in the dust bruised and bleeding, has been the biggest blessing in so many unexpected ways.
Didion writes in her book about the olden days when people understood grief and made room for it. Widows were expected to put on black, eat small bites of food, and feel very, very sorry for themselves over their loss. Grief was a gift others allowed you. No such luck today. Those who are grieving are told to “get over it” “move on” “let it go” even before the body is cold in the ground.
“The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new ‘ethical duty to enjoy oneself,’ a novel ‘imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others. …to treat mourning as a morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”
Reading Didion’s book allowed me to put a name and a face to what I’ve been through: Grief. A year of grief. But like a present you didn’t know you wanted or needed, finding yourself alone with only your thoughts and feelings is a pearl of great price. The price I paid was the sense of belonging with other women that I’ve always so desperately wanted. The pearl is that now I know that I can live very happily without it.
I am enough.
72 hours ago I got a tattoo. I really should say I got THE tattoo because I don’t foresee another one anytime in my future. This tat (can 52 year old women use the word “tat”?) has been a long time coming.
The first time a dragon appeared to me in a dream was when I was maybe 3 or 4. It was, like dragons are prone to do, chasing me through a forest, and I, like a good little girl, was running away. Over the years this dream dragon came again and again, and each time I ran away. Many years ago, I had a psychic reading. Now don’t get your panties in a wad, I’m not encouraging anyone to see a psychic, but she did say to me, “You know, you have this dragon. It’s been trying to get your attention for a long time now.” She tried then to tell me what the dragon was trying to say, but I laughed her off.
This is Where I Talk Crazy
Over the years, things sometimes would happen. Like the time a would-be attacker grabbed me as I was walking home from the bus station at night after a long day at work. He pushed me up against the wall of a building and leered down into my face. And all I felt in that moment was stark fury. Suddenly, the look on his face completely changed as though he’d seen something he hadn’t expected to see. He let go of me, stepped back, and said, “I’m sorry.” And ran off. I felt if didn’t see the tail of my dragon disappear behind me.
Last year, my friend Rebecka Eggers and I did a visualization exercise before I left for Haiti. I had mentioned to her that this dragon had haunted my dreams for years, and had turned up again to frighten me, likely as a result of all I was going through with my former friend. She suggested maybe I stop running and ask him what he wanted to say.
Turns out he didn’t want to eat me after all. He was offering me an invitation to hop on and take the ride of a lifetime, to bravely go where few women ever dared, on a journey to be completely themselves.
I am not perfect, and I’ve never claimed to be. But I am kind. I am generous. I am gentle. I am good. I am also bad sometimes. But mostly what I am is brave. And I am fierce. And I long to live a life that means something. I want to be the sort of woman who deserves to wear a dragon tattoo.
Next Stop, West Africa?
Yesterday, I was short-listed to go to Liberia as part of the CDC’s strategic response to the epidemic currently happening in West Africa. There is a lot that needs to happen before I get on a plane, but it is definitely a huge, looming possibility in my future. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that everyone should do at least one thing every day that scares you. For the record, I am scared shitless. I keep trying to put this idea down, but like a boomerang the notion that I should go keeps coming back. I’m definitely frightened, but I’m also excited. But most of all, I’m happy to be done crying.