An Investigation into the Responsibility of Grief
I’m about to leave the ground and fly half way across the world. The map is flat on the screen above me, splayed out like the hide of a hunted animal, with an iconic representation of our vessel shown to be about the size of all of Europe, and a neon green arch of dashes indicating our route from the Oslo in the middle to Los Angeles on the far left, where we will land on a target the covering all of Southern California. I have half an earth’s rotation to sit and think.
I’m reading an essay about pain. Wounds and their suggestion of penetration, scars and the boasting they allow alongside the shame associated with the suffering that made them.
I’m thinking about John, of course. I dreamt the other night, in a fitful sleep in my Scandinavian twin bed, that I was shot in the stomach in some situation while driving a car. I found myself sprawled out on the pavement and he appeared beside me in the chaos to examine my wound. He pulled the skin of my abdomen away from my body and looked through the bloody opening at the shiny pink walls inside. He could see the bullet but didn’t bother to fish it out. He said I would probably be fine. He was cool, inspecting my insides with casual interest and no apparent concern for my pain levels or emotional state. I was stiff with anxiety, and the wild seized feeling in my belly blocked out physical pain entirely. I was not safe in his arms but I was not safe outside of them either. People rushed around us and I felt frozen, not wanting to breathe for fear that he would leave me, not wanting to complain for fear that someone might notice the unacceptable predicament I was in and push him away. Traumatic injury, blithely apathetic caretaker, Snow White paralyzed and gazing with fear and desperate hope at an icy, unaffected prince. Maybe if I held still enough, we would look like a tableau of empathy instead of neglect.
I was trying to explain my state of heart to friends last night. “It feels like a failure”, I began and was immediately interrupted. “It’s not a failure.” chirped my companion, hell bent on seeing a silver lining in everything, living by the word of the Dali Lama and bringing everything back to a metaphor about surfing. Take a beating from the wave, let it nearly kill you and come up grateful for your life and full of joy. I don’t need to be told the truth. It isn’t a failure and it is a failure at once. Were this relationship our child it would have been born incomplete, hooked up to breathing tubes and kept sheltered in a plastic case while I prayed, bleary eyed and gaunt, on the other side of the plexiglass. When I lost it, it would have been a failure. Organ failure, system failure, God failure. Maybe that’s dramatic. But what I mean to say is that the truth is one thing and the way I feel is another thing and it is also the truth. I can know that the ending is right, that I have romanticized a man beyond recognition, that in not so much time I’ll be free of this iron attachment and feeling hopeful again, but that doesn’t change the depths of my current longing. I can know that perhaps I was praying at the bedside of a vapor instead of a living thing and still feel despair that it did not solidify into something real. I can know that it’s irrational to want nothing more than to climb back onto the deck of that sinking ship but that knowing doesn’t evaporate my desire. If an emotional wound is penetration then this need is lodged in my belly like a neglected bullet. He left it there because I’ll probably be fine.
While I listened to my friend return to his surfing metaphor, tearfully recounting the moments throughout his life when the ocean almost snuffed him out, when he opened his eyes and saw black and didn’t know which direction was up, and his relentless love and appreciation for its power and beauty and violence became his life force, I immediately connected to the times I have described the volatility in my relationship as a tempestuous sea, tossing me like I was weightless and eventually spitting me out with such force that I sailed into the silent, black chill of outer space, only to have gravity pull me back in again. I at once wondered if I was small and trivial for loving a man that way or if my friend was small and trivial for loving the sea instead of a person. The ocean may seem expansive and godlike and therefore a more noble lover, but how can you be in relationship with something that batters you through a sheer ignorance to your existence? A man can fling himself recklessly into nature and describe his brushes with death as transcendent, revelatory. A woman can fling herself into love for a man that way and her brushes with death are minimized, dismissed, labelled as bad judgment and low self esteem. My friend and I are suffering parallel breakups but he couldn’t talk about his lost human lover that way. He admitted that maybe that was his mistake, not living for her the way he did for the cruel and glorious waves. He never gave her the power to crush him and therefore could never look at her with that same awe. He skirts around his wound like it’s nothing, so temporary and necessary that it doesn’t even warrant inspection. He’s the happiest he’s ever been. He hasn’t been sleeping but he’s glad. I haven't been sleeping and I’m tortured. I look into my wound like my child-self on the edge of a creek, peering sharply into the detailed world under the water, trying to be quick enough to catch a frog or a newt to take home with me, away from its natural habitat and into the lonely cavern of my little girl’s bedroom where I would force it to be my ward. I long for a souvenir of my devotion, proof that it existed and continues to exist. I want to wear it like a talisman around my neck so that everyone knows I loved until I turned myself inside out and I may recover but I will never be the same. My friend’s wound weeps through its layers of hastily wrapped gauze while he lets the gigantic arms of the sea throw him down again and again. I don’t know who’s right but I felt like we were speaking different languages in spite of having everything in common. Did I truly want to take something out of the water or would I rather have flung myself in too?
I’m indignant about my grief. I refuse to push it away. I want to know about it, to study it’s landscape until it’s familiar enough to feel like home. When I am at my most raw I feel like there’s an entire universe of this sadness in a jar inside my chest. I cover it with a thin metal lid when I’m out existing in the world and whenever anything moves me towards vulnerability, the lid rattles and a little bit of it leaks out. I can’t wait to get home and open it up, let it expand into the space of my entire apartment where I can relax into it like a bath. There’s no joy in it, just necessity. Holding it in takes an exhausting amount of effort. I’m afraid that I’m wallowing, by which I mean taking too much time and turning it into an exercise in self pity. What I hope I am doing is honoring my emotions. Processing them, giving them their due, letting them take up all the space they need so they can move on. But I have a huge fear that I’m becoming a frail picture of despair, weeping too long at the grave of something long turned to dust, woefully self indulgent without even realizing it. Right now, as I fly across the world there is a constant sunset to the left of the plane. We’re moving around the curve just behind the sun, keeping us suspended in the ending of the day. I worry that maybe I’m following my grief that way, grasping at the gentle glow of my fading love affair instead of letting it turn slowly away from me, leaving me in the dark.
When I think of the way I behaved in my relationship, I like to think of myself as graceful. Poised, with my heart and arms open, generous but also firm and wise. A teacher, a nurturer, strong because of my ability to wield love selflessly and with renewing patience. That version of me could accept this ending, and the absence of reciprocation that led to it, with peace and self respect. But there is another version of me that wakes me up at night, demanding to be remembered, who can’t accept it at all. She is a more wretched picture, a weeping, desperately confused person, hunched over with need and endlessly crying out to be held. She’s the brave vulnerability I tried to master inverted into panicked, childish angst. She is inconsolable, arms left empty and hanging. When that sickening truth lands heavily in my stomach I curl inward with shame.
I remember when I first started to take control over my sexuality. I had a conversation with myself where I scolded myself for always acting like a blushing virgin. I was always replaying some sort of innocent rapture, passivity overwhelmed by novel desire, some sort of Blanche Dubois frailty that denied the true desire within and undercut my own agency to choose. Take ownership, I commanded. Admit that you want to be there, or that you don’t, then figure out what else you want to do instead of letting it happen to you. Participate equally. I noticed my own pattern of putting myself in the hands of men, letting them make the decisions, to have sex in the first place or not, and then how to do it. I trusted them to do what was best for me before they had displayed any ability or desire to do so. They always disappointed me by choosing to exploit the moment for all it was worth, saving nothing for later, taking no time to savor the forging of a bond. I guess I prioritized their satisfaction over mine. Instead of making demands or taking the lead I acquiesced to their desires, assuming that mine could be figured out later and often harboring secret resentments. When I met John I still hadn’t trained my passivity out but I was trying. The first night we slept together I said no a handful of times and then I told him to put on a condom when he persisted. The thing was, I did want to sleep with him. I was afraid to say yes, I was afraid to want it, afraid of what would happen after, afraid of him. I wanted him physically but I also wanted to be seen by him, to be intimately bonded with and I could feel the force of his aggression disregarding the nuances my heart was reaching for. Even if I had known how to verbalize my desire for connectedness in that moment, my instinct that he would refuse and run away scared it out of me. I was right to be scared. He was always only out for himself. With him I found a physical match so complete that I was able to use his body as a launching pad to my own pleasure. I didn't have to be brave enough to ask him to do things, I only had to show up and explore. My tendency to prioritize the pleasure of men never even surfaced in our sex life because we met naturally in the middle. I learned to participate equally once my basic needs were met automatically. I am obsessed with the sexual evolution I experienced with him. I use it to justify subjecting myself to the millions of instances he has let me fall to the ground in other ways. Like somehow this naturally occurring sexual compatibility is sacred, more sacred than a relationship where I am loved. I set the stage for that dynamic on that very first night when I decided not to ask for an emotional connection in order to allow the physical one. Through him I learned to be an equal partner with my body, but I am still presenting myself, limp and defenseless when it comes to my heart. I keep putting it in his hands no matter how many times he drops it. No matter how many times it’s been dropped by everyone in my personal history of love, I keep presenting it, forcing his fingers to close around it, and dissolving into spasms of grief when it inevitably shatters again. What’s even more confounding is my repeated disbelief at this pattern. “How could you?” I think, every single time. “How could you do this to me?” It’s a pattern of self destruction much like being recklessly promiscuous but on a grander scale. I seem to need to surrender myself to someone who will hurt me, why? So I can pin my pain on him? So I can make it more real than vague loneliness is? So I can play the role of defenseless, blushing virgin again? So I can be battered by a force infinitely more powerful than myself to the edge of my breath and finally emerge feeling more alive than I was before? So that I can be pitched into the disorienting blackness of space? So that simply standing again on trembling legs becomes an achievement worthy of celebration?
I don’t know. I do know that I have to take responsibility for my choice to put myself in the care of the unqualified. I seem to have a resistance to taking care of myself exclusively in romantic attachments, an aversion to taking it on and a desire to assign the task to someone else. In friendships I am more of a stoic analyst, sharing in the format of a report while the lid to my emotions remains screwed on tight. With a lover I let it all spill out, whether they’ve earned it or not. I don’t think I have a desire to be a victim. The realization that my relationship was abusive sickened me. Horror lived in a pit in my stomach. If my sadness at the loss of him had been a blinding, heavy fog, the revelation that I had not lost love but rather the opposite of it, turned my pain into daggers of icy hail. Their constant pelting made me sharp too, angry, feral. Sadness made me feel weak, transparent and ghostlike. Anger made me a knife slashing in all directions and there was no romanticizing that. There was no tending to it like a quiet, sick thing. It made me feel rabid and ugly and I wanted it to end quickly. The moment I identified as a victim was the moment my condition became intolerable. So why did I walk back into the trap like a hypnotized waif? I spent countless dark nights of the soul coming to terms with the betrayals I have willingly and repeatedly suffered and then buried while in this man’s care, and then once I had steadied myself he came to me weeping his regrets and I resumed my stance of martyrdom almost immediately. I couldn’t shake my desire to fix. I needed it to be made right, not by finding love with someone else but by directly causing this man to transform into the person I needed. Still now, after the initial breakup, the reckoning, the redemption/reunion and then inevitable failure to change the ending resulting in another devastating breakup, I feel the pull to return to him. As if there were anything left to say or do. As if one drop of love has ever been squeezed from that boulder that crushed me over and over. What is this personal validation I must need that sends me on kamikaze missions to make this man love me? How many scars will I bear for my foolish efforts?
Maybe I’ve somehow been taught that for things to be worthwhile they have to be difficult. Maybe it’s not just him I want to transform but myself. In the hero’s journey the protagonist always comes up against impossible odds, gets knocked on his back and then prevails after mustering up a superhuman effort to keep fighting in the face of those odds. He finishes the journey a fully realized version of himself, with love and happiness at his fingertips. There’s no heroic story where the lesson is “Stay Down”. So maybe it’s less about the need for my lover to transform and more about my need to suffer through the effort to transform him as proof of my strength and perseverance. If I can stay committed and prevail, I’ll win and also become deserving of love and happiness. My partner's collateral happiness would just be a side effect. It might be worth pointing out that whenever I scooped a small reptile out of the creek as a child and took it home to build it a carefully assembled retreat at my house, it invariably died immediately in captivity. Me taking those animals out of their preferred environment was always about my need to care for them. They never needed my care and it’s clumsiness proved tragically terminal for all of them. Maybe my narrative about “fixing” my boyfriend, saving him from himself by teaching him about love, is really not selfless at all. It’s just me acting out a need to be useful, nurturing, pure, maybe even superior and in turn subjecting us both to the pain of inevitable failure.
The icon of the plane is taking up half of North America now. It’s nose is actually touching the target. We’re also now ahead of the sunset, the sky a desaturated blue and white. Things are clear, we are close. When the screen zooms in it turns out that we’re still in Canada, about to pass Calgary, still several hours from home. When we arrive the sunset will have caught up with us. I guess that’s how grief works too. When you zoom out you can see that you’ve traveled an impressive distance, but it rotates like the earth and when you look yourself in the eye in the mirror you can see it right over your shoulder. The sunset signals the end of something but the ending lasts forever.
I guess my concern about my suffering is based in a need to know whether or not it is earned. Did I bring this situation entirely on myself or is there nobility in the love I gave? Is that even relevant or does pain matter regardless of it’s cause? Can I wear my broken heart like a badge of honor, deserving of the respect and sympathy of others or did I orchestrate this entire situation with my own pathological ego? If I created this grief by sacrificing myself at the alter of something I should have known better than to mistake for love, then how can I be sure I’m not constructing a world of sadness to live in now? How can I be sure that I’m moving through it instead of moving into it and letting it become my identity? I think I long to be healthy and happy and partnered with someone loving and safe, but how do I know? What if the story that I tell myself is so deeply embedded in this mechanism for the maintenance of my pain that I can’t be objective? On the other hand, maybe my own paranoia about the legitimacy of my sorrow is just shame. I can’t let myself sit in pain over love lost or never won without questioning it because I inherently feel that I am not allowed to be weakened by such things without being a pitiful cliche. I have no map for this. I don’t know how long I’m allowed to want to run back to the man who hurt me. I don’t know how long I’m allowed to cry at night over the times I degraded myself by weeping at his feet when he denied me. I don’t know how long I’m allowed to equate him with my own sexuality, to be incapable of having a physical urge or sensation without immediately conjuring him and feeling gutted by the reality of his absence. How long is it honest feeling and when does it become pathetic, or a slow unraveling towards death due to a failure to heal? I am simultaneously afraid that I am suspended in an eternal false grief and also that it is so real that it could kill me, if not literally then figuratively by surrounding me like a force field and keeping me from the happy life on the other side.