I missed you this morning.
The kids and I braved a sort of make-shift holiday for spring break and rented an airbnb down in SLC. When I suggested the trip, I was certain no one would want to go. Everything feels so strange without you, no one has really had the heart. But I think they were all ready to get out of the house, even if we would just move from one place to another and do the exact same things (play video games, sleep a lot, and eat too much pizza).
We had to check out of the airbnb at 11:00 am, which you know is not the easiest for your not-a-morning person wife or your not-morning-people children. My alarm went off at 9:30 and I did not go back to sleep. Instead, I pulled off my sleep mask and thought about all the things you would be doing if you were with us.
You would have been making noise tromping up the stairs with your already-packed bags, the car would have been half loaded, the refrigerator emptied, and the dishwasher running. You would have already checked beneath the beds for stray socks and collected all the toiletries from the bathrooms. You’d be poking your head in all the kids’ rooms to cheerfully bellow, “Time to get up! We gotta go! Get up and pack! Whose toothbrush is this?” And when everyone moaned and turned over, you’d repeat the whole process, getting louder as you opened blinds and turned on lights.
You’d let me stay in bed the longest, only coming in to shake my leg when the cleaning people had arrived and we were going to get charged an extra day. (Okay, slight exaggeration. You would have been chomping at the bit to get out of there before the maids came, but you still would have let me sleep the longest.)
The not-going-back-to-sleep thing is a new phenomenon that only exists in an Eric-less world. It’s like all the sleepy, sunrise-hating cells in my body had a meeting to discuss the fact that the captain of the morning boat had been lost at sea and they would now have to learn how to steer the ship. We do not do it particularly well, but we are doing it.
Sidebar: Maybe the book I will write about grief someday will be called, “Losing the Captain of the Sunrise Ship: How to lean into loss by building a life raft out of toothpicks you whittle yourself while crying over the sink because you are sad and lonely and miss your husband who used to sing while making pancakes, but not too loudly in case he woke you up.”
I got up and tried to be just as annoying as you were. I let in all the obnoxious early (for us) morning sunshine and clomped up and down the stairs in Jake’s size 13 shoes. I refused to take the kids’ grumbling personally, and just kept smiling and acted like taking out the trash and stripping the beds were chores worthy of Cinderella singing surrounded by fluttering birds. We probably left a phone charger, a sock, and at least one bottle of shampoo behind, but we were out of there a half an hour early.
I know, right? If you were here, you’d mime throwing some confetti and offer to celebrate by removing all my clothing.
I’m not any better at vacations than I was when you were with us. I thought maybe we would play tourist and pretend we’d never been to the city before. The weather was nice the week before and I pictured walking around the outdoor malls and maybe touring the Cathedral of the Madeliene. But by the time we got there, it was cold and the weather went from rain to sleet to snow to hail. The cathedral wasn’t doing any tours because of the pandemic, Temple Square was all torn up (the trees and flower beds in our wedding photos are all gone), and though we did walk around some of the outdoor malls, I don’t know that it was very vacation-y.
We did get to see your parents and mine, Ben went snowboarding, there was bowling with cousins, and I got to hug my own grandparents that haven’t seen me since you died.
I’ve felt reluctant to see extended family, to have them acknowledge your death, to admit that you aren’t here, beside me, where you should be. I’ve even felt a little bit of anger that relatives who are older than you are still here; still breathing in and out, still hugging their children and living their lives. It’s a weird thing to feel, since I don’t want anyone else dead, even if they might be getting old and tired and ready to go, but this hot little knot of anger seethes in my chest and I didn’t want any of it to come spilling out in front of anybody.
I needn’t have worried. I didn’t feel any anger when I hugged my ninety-three-year-old grandpa and felt his trembling arms wrap around my shoulders. When I pressed my cheek into his scratchy one, I was so glad he still knew who I was and who you were and what had happened. We both cried because you had been taken from me and none of it was fair. We cried because the pandemic and age and distance made it impossible for him to attend your funeral and because months had passed and we were only now getting to share and acknowledge this terrible thing together.
And I cried because the threads that tie him to this world felt thin and worn, like they might snap at any moment, and I was not ready to let go.
It was a healing sort of thing, even though it sounds mournful and sad. Something powerful occurs when grief is shared; I think it venerates and sanctifies it. I don’t think people expect to leave me feeling carried and held up after they’ve made me cry by saying your name or acknowledging your absence. But that’s exactly what happens.
I wanted to keep holding on to grandpa as I thought of all the people he’d lost: a baby right after her birth, an adult son, two grandchildren, both of his parents, and all nine of his siblings. Friends too, and cousins, uncles, and aunts. I wondered, if the afterlife exists like I hope it does, if he’d be too busy reuniting with all those people, or if he might be able to take a moment to find you; to ask you to please send me a firefly.
We don’t have fireflies in Idaho and if I see one drifting through the trees somewhere this summer as the sun sets, maybe it will help me hold on to the hope that you’re out there somewhere waiting for me.
Years ago, I sent my brother and sister fireflies in a jar from Pennsylvania and months later, flew home to to Utah to see one fly across the intersection as I exited the freeway in a rental car. So I know it’s possible, and I also know it’s explainable in a way that will make me question whether or not you sent it, but I still want you to send me one anyway.
Grandpa and I let go and wiped our eyes. I didn’t ask him to find you or deliver a message; I didn’t want to acknowledge those thin threads and the fact that he might be joining you soon. I can see how much he’s changed, how his eyes look a little too large for his face, how he couldn’t quite remember any of our kids’ names. I know it might be time, but I can’t face it.
It’s 10:45pm now. We made it home and picked Molly up from Sheri’s (she jumped all over us, of course, and checked behind me twice, looking for you). I don’t know where I was at 10:45pm four months ago. In the parking lot staring at the ambulance lights? Watching them try to revive you? Already on the phone with your parents? Bent over the steering wheel at the Shell station, crying while the car filled with gas? Or had I not yet left the hospital? Was I still holding your hand? Kissing the bridge of your nose? Stroking your curls? Or was I walking, in a daze, your wedding ring jammed onto my thumb, wondering how I was going to get home without crashing?
I don’t know. I wish I knew and could account for every minute, but all I know is that it was this day, this awful, awful night when everything changed. In some ways, it feels like it’s been four years. In other ways, it feels like it has only been four minutes.
Caption: I don’t think you liked this picture. You thought your “European Schnozz” looked extra giant. But I loved that schnozz and your unwilling photo face and your dimple-line and the way your neck smelled and your wardrobe of boring t-shirts you could buy in six packs from Walmart and all your plain Carhartt sweatshirts, and this photo reminds me of all those things.
Last week I came into the bedroom with a mug of tea and picked up the remote control. My room was clean and a bunch of important tasks had been crossed off my list. I was about to climb into bed and watch something mindless. A sensation I didn’t recognize sort of swelled up and spread across my chest. I looked around, confused; I couldn’t understand what it was I was feeling. It took me a few minutes to recognize it.
It was happiness. I felt… happy.
I hadn’t been happy since before you died, and don’t think I expected to feel happy ever again.
It also didn’t make a lot of sense. Yes, I had crossed a bunch of things off my list (something you know I always enjoy), but nothing about that week had been smooth sailing. I had a kid in crisis, I’d messed up in a big way with the guy that was going to be building our fence (math will be the end of me), I hadn’t sorted through the growing stack of paperwork in the office, and I was going to have to file an extension for our 2020 taxes.
And yet. I felt something. If not happiness, it was something akin to it. Hope, maybe?
Whatever it was, it has stayed with me, even though this week has been equally difficult.
It was hard and weird and different to go on a family trip without you (even if that trip was close to home and nowhere new or exotic). That kid in crisis ended up in the hospital. I forgot a block of dentist appointments and got hollered at by an angry receptionist. I missed almost every single exit and turn I needed to take while driving around SLC and I felt like I was surely taking the whole ‘widow’s brain fog’ to uncharted new levels. I tried and mostly failed to find ways to keep our grown up babies entertained (remember when all it took was a drive to the park and a Happy Meal or a popsicle?), but incredibly, that light, airy feeling in my chest remained.
It was hope, I think, mixed with a sort of acceptance. Or maybe it’s a new thing altogether, something that I don’t have a name for yet. I don’t know. I’m not an expert at grief. I’m still in the early days; still in the trenches. Still exploring this war torn land wondering when the next minefield is going to blow. But I’ll take it, you know? Whatever this is, whatever might be happening, because it feels like strength.
And that sounds like a great place to end a letter, but I want to combat, a little, the stuff we say to the bereaved. I hear sometimes, that you’d want me to feel happy (so I should be happy) or that you’d want me to feel strong (so I should be strong), or that I should insert whatever trait or quality we want our sad, grieving loved ones to be or feel (so I should hurry up and be that already).
The times I’ve felt closest to you, I don’t feel any “shoulds” going on. It doesn’t feel like you’re hovering nearby, telling me how to feel or telling me what I should be doing. You’re just there, loving me. Your memory fills up the room, if not the aching, empty space beneath my ribs. It feels like you are sad with me and for us and even if you have some greater insight into the meaning of life and why a young-ish family had to lose their young-ish husband and father, it doesn’t feel like you expect me to know all of that and somehow be fine. It feels like you continue to do what you would have done if you were really here. You listen. And you seem to exude the same kind of ordinary magic you demonstrated in life, reassuring me that wherever I am on this path is perfectly okay and understandable and valid.
And I super love you for that. I loved us and I love the memory of you that wraps around me like a blanket whenever I need it most. I know what you’d say and I know what your face would look like saying it, and it’s nowhere near enough, but I’m still grateful to have it. I hope it never fades.
I love you so much.