Sunday, February 3, 2013
how to mourn an ex
It's been over a month since I've blogged. My first blog of the year was supposed to be about the panchakarma/detox that I did for the first week in January. I was also going to write about seeing the documentary "Forks over Knives", which had such a big impact on me that I've become a vegetarian again, almost vegan even. I also started running again. My son and I have been learning Punjabi.
But instead, this post will be about my son's father, who died 23 days ago. He was only 39.
We had just seen him the night before, after not seeing him in 2 weeks. He often had 13 hour work days that began at 6, and he had been biking several miles to and from work. He had been telling me he was so tired that he had trouble remembering why he turned his computer on to write me an email. I'm terribly sad to admit this, but I sometimes wondered if he would make his 40th birthday.
I've read about the grieving process, but nowhere have I ever read about how to grieve an ex. I knew him for over 15 years, over 8 of which we spent together as a "couple". Someone told me the other day that he was my common law husband, which I hadn't thought about. He has been a part of most of my adult life, since my 20's, and he will live on in our son. Just the other day my son put on a jaunty hat that he loves to wear, and I saw my ex in his face.
I once read that it's tremendously damaging to trash the other parent in front of one's child because that child is in a certain sense half you and half the other parent. Of course that child is his or her own person, and yet children need to be able to be loyal to both parents and where they came from, otherwise they may grow to hate a part of themselves without understanding why. I'm deeply grateful that we worked hard on having a positive relationship for the sake of our son.
I still can't believe that we saw him the night before he left this world. I had our son stand next to him so we could see how tall he was getting. He was 6'4, and our boy is probably about 5'6 at age 12. He once told me that he grew about 12 inches between the ages of 12 and 18, so the sky's quite literally the limit. I had forgotten to give him the annual school photo which I always gave him at Christmas. He had to work through the holiday. I jokingly remarked about our son's cheesy grin, and he replied there was nothing wrong with that. He gave his son one of his bone-crunching hugs, saying that he needed to get to bed soon. It was 7:30 on a Wednesday night. I walked to my car, and something told me to turn around and wish him a good night. I don't know if he heard me. I noticed how tired his walk looked.
The very next night I got a call. Usually I turn the sound on my phone off when I get home, or I ignore it if it's been a long day. I happened to look at my phone and saw that it was him. He never called; we both preferred to text or email. I was almost annoyed, thinking what could it be when we just saw you yesterday? But it wasn't him. It was his sister, who said he had had an accident. Oh no, I said, as I looked towards my son's room, which is just off of the kitchen. She said, it gets worse. How could it get worse? He passed away at the scene, she said. His heart stopped. What? He was only 39 years old. He biked back and forth to work every day; physically he looked fit. And yet he had recently said he was having a hard time getting into a rhythm after having minor surgery, adding that nothing was going to slow him down.
And yet he had been more tired than I had ever seen him. He wrote me emails saying that life had been a blur and he couldn't see straight. Recently he said he was trying to quit smoking, as well as other things, which made me wonder if he tried to quit drinking again. He was smoking when I saw him that last night. I knew he was trying again to turn his life around. Someone told me that he had found love again.
I'm grateful for so many things: that he had happiness in his final days; that I didn't throttle him just 2 weeks before when he showed up an hour late to drop off our son, due to falling asleep and not hearing my phone calls; that we made our peace over the years. It took me a long time to make peace with him because we had always had a complicated relationship. It finally happened during our last reconciliation three years ago when we both made our apologies for how we had hurt each other in the past. He tried to quit drinking at that time, which is what made me want to reconcile with him. He had made several attempts to get back together, but what I wanted most was for him "to get better". I wanted to fix him and our relationship for the sake of our son, which I now realize is not the right reason to be with someone. When you see someone's potential shining so brightly that it is almost blinding, it's hard not to try to get that person to change and realize that potential for themselves. What I have learned is that we need to love people the way we find them, even if they want to be a better version of themselves.
During that reconciliation I finally believed him when he said that he loved me and our family. He thanked me for how I was raising our son, even after we ended up breaking up for good. He told me it hurt too much and that he would never be in another relationship; even then I knew that wasn't true. All I knew was that I was done. I spent too many years feeling resentful that I didn't get child support or help with our son's schooling. What he gave our son was actually more important, an abiding love, and I'm glad I could forgive so as to be able to see to the intentions of his heart. Besides, witholding forgiveness hurts you more than the person you are harboring resentment towards. I knew that he and our son needed their special time and bond no matter what else was happening. He encouraged our son to be true to himself no matter what, and this is something our son lives.
The day after I got the news, I heard the Cold Play song "Clocks" upon arriving at work, and I broke down in my car without warning. When I later looked up the lyrics, I saw that it had been released in 2002, the year we went to Amsterdam and heard it in a cafe. I'm not sure why they were playing an over 10 year old song that day, but that same radio station played it again the very next day. That same day my watch started acting up and was several hours off, even though it was still ticking. J had always said that watches didn't work around him. After attending his life celebration, I saw that I had somehow added 6 alarm clocks to my cell phone screen. I have no idea how that happened, but it made me think about how precious our time on this earth is. The line in the Clocks song that hit me the most was:
Am I part of the cure or am I part of the disease?
I understand now that I was part of the disease when we were together because I was always trying to get him to stop drinking. During that last reconciliation I had fired my ex as the bad guy in our story, but I hadn't yet fired alcoholism as the bad guy in my life's story. The time for that has now come. My ex used to remind me of how I wasn't in my father's life at the end of his life. My father was an alcoholic, and when I heard that he was drinking again after they said he could die, I realized I couldn't watch him die any longer, so I began to grieve him while he was alive. I always thought my ex brought this up this to hurt me. I finally understand that he said this because he was afraid that I would give up on him because of his drinking. And that is what happened when he wasn't able to stop during that last reconciliation. I knew that I couldn't participate any more, so I got help. Until now I didn't realize that I've been carrying guilt for not loving him as he deserved.
Going to see my ex's body with my son before he was cremated was one of the hardest things I've had to do, but my son said he needed to go. I hadn't seen part of my ex's family in many years, and I've often feared they didn't like me. They were incredibly kind. We spent about an hour together while my son screwed up the courage to say a last goodbye with a kiss. Afterwards he said to me that if he thanked me a 1000 times, he would not be done thanking me. I think he understood that it was hard for me as well, even though my focus was on him and his grieving process. He kept saying he knew his Papa was still with him, and when he heard Michael Franti's "Say Hey, I Love You", he decided it was a sign from his Papa. I heard that song again the next day; I hope that I will remind my son of this love for the rest of his life. After I heard the aforementioned Cold Play song, I remembered that Cold Play's song "Yellow" had always reminded me ex of our son. We both cried when I played it for him.
Going to my ex's life celebration was also one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I didn't know if I could keep it together long enough for my son to be able to stay as long as he needed. When we arrived, it was already packed in the small restaurant. My son wanted to get food, and then neither of us felt like eating after all. His head slumped on the table; he was overwhelmed and bored. A colleague of mine who understands my son very well came then and asked him to play some pool. My son perked up at that. As I watched my almost 13 year old son playing pool with our friend, I flashed back to when I had played pool with his father. I marveled at how confident he looked with the pool cue as he got the ball in. Not long after that he started playing more like me and missing shots!
It was time for the microphone portion of the evening, the part I had been dreading. I was afraid of what my son would hear. My friend Rick played a song, saying that my son was having to do a lot of growing up in recent days. The family had some beautiful things to say, especially my ex's father who concluded his speech by saying that his son always remained true to himself, to the end. I hope that my son will always remember this.
It was my ex's last girlfriend who upset me with her speech. She read private emails that reminded me of emails he had written me. The part that upset me the most was when she said he had finally found home with her. He had been living with his parents, and I know they tried to give him a home. I know he felt "at home" when he was with our son, the person he loved most on this earth. The problem as I see it was that he didn't feel at home within himself, which is where I believe that feeling at home begins. When we lived together, he always told me that he needed me to be there to come home to. It was so easy to believe that it was my fault he didn't love himself. And yet as inappropriate as I thought her speech was, I can't begrudge his love's need to grieve in her own way. Grieving is messy. I have no part in their story, so I cannot assume to understand it. Someone told me that he posted on FB that she was the love of his life. I'm glad he found someone who loved him just as he was. I had hoped that I could express my sorrow at her loss, but I couldn't. I will pray for her from afar.
I started to question what my role in his life had been. Had I mattered to him? I had been with him the longest - was it because I was always taking him back? I had met all of his demons, up close and personal. Did he come back to me because it was easy? I rather doubt that it was easy because I always seemed to remind him of his failures. He had a lot of ideals though, so he was always falling short of them. He laughed about it. Sometimes I wonder why those who have numerous gifts carry them as though they were burdens. I also don't know why we are so comparative when we describe our friends, lovers, family, co-workers, fellow human beings. Why do we use phrases like "best friends" or "greatest love" or "favorite daughter"? Is it because of what they reveal to us about ourselves? I believe that each love we experience is a significant chapter of our life's story because what matters most is that we loved and that we continue to love. This is what I told our son. When I talked to him about what the girlfriend had said, in hopes that he would understand that their story didn't diminish the love his Papa had for him, I was amazed and relieved when he said that he had never once doubted his Papa's love for him. What an incredible gift. The only speech he seemed to remember was a song that had been song by another ex: The Parting Glass. He wished that he had had his accordion along and could have accompanied her. That made me smile. I was so proud of him for talking at the mike twice. Hearing what his father's co-workers had to say (they all mentioned how much he had loved his son) seemed to prompt him to remember his father with humor.
Not long ago we went to the Sikh temple. My son was in the boys' group where they were having a rap session about role models. The teacher didn't know that my son's father had just died a few days before, and he shared that his father was one of his role models. This didn't seem to upset my son; in fact, he seemed to find it encouraging. Later when I shared with the teacher about his father's death, he asked my son how he could honor his father's memory. The members of that temple also know tremendous loss, for the shooting at their temple was less than 6 months ago. One of the men who lost his father gave us knowing hugs that day. How beautiful that my son chose this place just a few weeks before this happened. He seems to know that he needs these men as role models.
The teacher talked about how we tend to ignore pennies that we see on the ground because they seem worthless. And yet, like pennies, small acts of kindness add up over time. My son raised his hand to share about his jar of pennies at home, for he never walks past a penny without picking it up. I realized in that moment that it was a habit he acquired from his father. A few days later we visited his father's last bedroom, and sure enough, there was a jar of change that my son was allowed to take with him. His grandfather smiled and shared that he had always had a jar of change too.
May my son always have a jar of pennies and a heart filled with kindness.
Confusion never stops
Closing walls and ticking clocks
Gonna come back and take you home
I could not stop that you now know, singing
Come out upon my seas
Cursed missed opportunities
Am I a part of the cure?
Or am I part of the disease? Singing
You are, you are, you are
You are, you are, you are
And nothing else compares
Oh nothing else compares
And nothing else compares
Home, home where I wanted to go
Home, home where I wanted to go
Home, home where I wanted to go
Home, home where I wanted to go