As soon as I open my eyes, a feeling of dread descends like the thickest ooze sliding down from my consciousness and drapes like a black blanket around my heart. This particular dread, it’s a familiar sensation–one that reminds me to call my endocrinologist and get my thyroid levels checked. When my thyroid hormones dip low–as they are prone to do–even the cheeriest news or the most potent antidepressant won’t touch the darkness. It feels heavy and hopeless, thick and unwieldy. A quick blood test, a tiny tweak in my medication is often all it takes to shift from dread to okay-ness. And yet I’ll likely put it off until later.
As soon as my feet hit the bedroom floor, my knees pop and moan but I remind myself how good it is to be able to walk. A full year has passed with ragged, torn meniscus in both knees. Some level of pain is always present, but I can still walk miles and I’m strong as dirt. This is a conversation I often I have with myself–it’s not that bad, it could be so much worse, just suck it up and get on with your day. It’s a coping mechanism that keeps me from actually moving forward to resolution and healing. It serves me well in my practice of avoidance. I bitch about my stress levels to a close friend and he comments that maybe I haven’t been exercising as much as I used to in light of my sad, crackly knees. You know, exercise is a stress reducer he reminds me, the yoga instructor. His words make me stop in my tracks and chuckle. We all have our blind spots. Just now, I pause my writing long enough to open the email window and type out a request for a referral to yet another orthopedist.
I hate appointments. I hate having to be anywhere at a specific time, aside from work. Just last week, I scheduled a massage–a massage!–and spent the week dreading having to get up and out on my day off. I shudder at the sound of my privilege.
The LIVESTRONG participants I work with tell me of surrendering their lives to doctor appointments. The loss of control. The woman at the head of the conference room table talks about having to juggle four appointments in one day and how her life is effectively suspended in this new, scary limbo-land of scans and blood tests and meetings with specialists. Her team, she calls them. I sit and listen and hear the fear and resignation and make a mental note to schedule my annual mammogram that I’ve neglected for two years. Oh, and that colonoscopy.
I am grateful and privileged and humbled by life. And I need to make a few appointments.
When you lose someone you love to suicide, the entire year is colored by that loss.
I was in a hurry to kick 2018 to the curb, as if on one, specific day I would turn the page and enter a whole new reality. Much like cracking open a new book, a happier tale I could immerse myself in and leave the grief of the old story behind. 2019 has got to be better! was the battle cry. And then I happened upon a social media post from the father of the young woman who took her own life earlier that year. He wrote of all the “firsts” without Ellie and how, as painful as the year had been, he was hesitant to turn the calendar to a new year. 2019 will be the first year without Ellie in it, he reflected. At least she had been alive in 2018. At least there was that. It was hard to let go, to move forward into a new calendar year, even amidst the unrelenting sorrow.
I think of that every time I scroll through my direct messages on Instagram. Instagram tells me exactly how many weeks have passed since Ellie and I last shared our silly conversations and her requests for baked goods every time I posted a photo of a batch of cookies or a loaf of carrot cake with cream cheese icing on the side. I made her that carrot cake right before she died.
Sometimes I go back and look at her Instagram account, brimming with photos of a vibrant young woman, living out loud, arms draped across friends’ shoulders, traveling and skiing with family, captions pulled from song lyrics and bible verses. I look at the light of her eyes. I try to see the sadness or despair that maybe I missed and I can’t find it. I attempt to cobble together a story that makes sense. It never works. Some things never make sense. Suicide, especially, is nonsensical.
And there were smaller, quieter deaths, too. Watching my 15-year-old dog struggle so much on our walks in the woods that now I mostly walk by myself. Tiny, little deaths in friendships that grew into yawning chasms that may or may not ever be bridged. Watching my increasingly frail 100-year-old mother-in-law enter hospice care and then, a month later, get released from it. We laugh about how she will outlive us all, but the truth is she will die and leave us with a gaping void that we will fill with our grief and memories.
The older I get, the more comfortable I become with the concept of non-linear time. Calendars and clocks are simply constructs that cater to our human needs and over-scheduled lives. When the clock strikes midnight on January 1st, I’m happy to be snuggled under my weighted blanket, sound asleep. Even when I was younger, the tradition of toasting with champagne and drunkenly bellowing “Auld Lang Syne” with a group of friends and strangers always rang hollow. December 31st is usually far less sacred and meaningful than that perfect day on the wild Washington coast when I’m rendered breathless by the power and beauty of nature. Or the long and leisurely dinner with my best friend when we talk about everything and nothing at all as the hard margins of time melt away. Or the simple evening at home with family and endless episodes of The Office or Queer Eye and a perfectly-popped bowl of popcorn.
Forty-two weeks. The first year without someone I loved.
I used to hate the cold and dark of winter, just like you.
But now, I relish this time of year. The quiet stillness. The bareness of nature. The invitation to rest. When it gets dark, I light candles. I used to save all my candles for special occasions until a bloom of thick, powdery dust covered the wax and any scent it once held had long since evaporated.
Today is a special occasion. Just like yesterday was and tomorrow will be.
I want to learn to sit in my own still, darkness and see. Observe. Be curious. This year I learned that to be able to sit with someone else’s shadows, I need to become comfortable with my own.
I want to learn to sit with someone else’s darkness. To sit with them without saying at least…or yeah, but…or diminish their struggle with some story of something worse. To be quiet and still with them rather than prattle on with my presumption of wisdom or effort to cajole.
There is so much to look forward to and I recognize my privilege. An opportunity to lead a retreat with like-minded souls. A trip to Colorado and Red Rocks in the spring with my daughter. Tickets for Broadway musicals and small, gritty rock shows that leave my ears ringing and my soul resurrected. My work that is rewarding and life-affirming even in the face of frank discussions of death and illness. Quiet meals shared together. Loud, raucous drag races that reverberate energy through my spine from head to toe and make me laugh and shout again! Again! Again!
But in the meantime–right now–I welcome the dark and winter’s lessons. The cold. The wet. The sudden, whipping windstorms that seem to sneak up and surprise us in the still of night more and more frequently. I walk through the barren winter woods by myself and I stop and listen.
Rest here. Be here. This darkness, it will pass. Don’t rush so fast towards the light because in that rush you will miss things. Important things. Instead, be curious in the dark. Don’t look away. Pay attention.
Be here now.