A good friend of mine lost her father this week. He had been dealing with some health issues for a while, but death always comes as a shock even when we think we are prepared. She has been soldiering through, trying to be the rock for her family to rally around. Even for the most stoic and strong among us, being the rock takes a heavy toll. Holding things together for other people can often mean that you yourself don't get a chance to grieve in realtime in a healthy way. If you are not careful about it, your support network will assume that you are "ok" and will move on. Then, in 6 months, or 6 years, that unpaid grief bill will come due with all the associated interest.
I bring this up not as an admonition of my friend, but rather because I am realizing that I still have some unpaid debts from last summer. Seeing my friend's family go through the terrible business of medical examiner reports, meetings with funeral home directors, notifying friends and family, locating important legal documents, has been bringing back memories that I thought I had buried a long time ago. From the onset, I have tried to be a supportive, to be there, present to help out where possible, but it is all still a little too much to take. A road that I'm not quite ready to go down. I am left with guilt for feeling like I should be doing more to help, and a sense of foreboding brought on by my own experiences.
Melissa used to have a saying for the short period between sunset and night. She would call it "nighttime in the trees". The tops of the trees become dark masses, but the early evening sky around them is still illuminated enough to see. Trees become silhouettes against the horizon. The first weeks after a death feels like kind of a dusk. Things are starting to get dark, but you can still see all of the granular details for little while before they disappear. Eventually you are just left with the memory of what things looked like while it was still bright out.
Those first nights are the darkest ones of your life. You experience life by the second. To see that moment occurring to a friend, after you yourself have been through it, leaves you with a special feeling of helplessness. There is nothing that can be said or done to reverse things. All you can do is be there, to offer a kind word or action. Ultimately each of us will have to start that road on our own, learning to accept and appreciate the kindnesses and moments of levity offered along the way. Over time your eyes adjust to the darkness. You begin to see the world again. Sometimes as you would on a night with a full moon, sometimes not.
We are coming up on close to a year now. Almost one full revolution around the sun without my Melly. That is something that still feels so incomprehensible. Aspects of my life have completely changed, other parts remain abbreviated, stuck in the same place they were last July. As I enter year two I have more questions than answers. I am stuck between feeling like an old man and realizing that I still may have 40 or 50 years left to go. I still have a desire to be in and of this world, but feel that pang of guilt that I am somehow leaving a part of my life behind. Everyday I ask myself the question "what comes next?".
I received some perspective on Tuesday night from a semi-unexpected place. I went to my friend's house for a late dinner, a chance to give them a break from their own high gravity. We had Chinese food and watched TV together, feeling free to let the comedy we were watching play out without conversation, each of us lost in our own thoughts. At the end of the meal we pulled our fortune cookies. As with all things sweet, there was a little bit of bitter truth hidden inside. The fortune, for all to read and absorb:
"Minutes are worth more than money. Spend them wisely."
This road that we are on does not have an end, nor does it have a map or any guideposts along the way. It is winding, at times doubling back on itself. As much as I'd like to find a shortcut or figure out where I'm headed, any attempt to get off track leaves me lost in the bulrushes. It is cliche', but life is what happens on the way. It is who you meet, where you go, and how you learn from the experiences you accrue. It is so easy to get focused on the metrics that do not matter, the things that are essentially infinite in the tedium and incomplete in the fulfillment, that you can lose track of the things that are finite and irreplaceable. These moments in the dark are what help us appreciate the light.