There's a thing that happens about three weeks into grieving. The world and the people around you start to lose their patience with your feelings. This is understandable, because you've started to lose patience with your own feelings. So it seems natural, or sometimes like you deserve it, when the people in your regular life sort of start to drift away from you. They stop returning texts. They don't call you next week like they said they would. Some will cancel plans at the last minute. Some will actively avoid you. I don't think it's a thing anyone does on purpose; they just don't have to, and really quite reasonably don't want to, live with it like you do. Why would they want to when being around someone who is actively grieving is depressing as hell? Especially when you don't have the life experience to literally empathize with what they're going through. Sometimes even when you do. Three weeks is about all anyone can take of someone else's misery. I noticed it for the first time when I was fifteen, about a month after my mom died.
I remember it really well, because the incident that sparked my attention happened on the same the morning that I'd had what I refer to as The Moment- that first time after someone dies and something happens or you think of something you'd like to say to them, and just for a second, because you're so wrapped up in the actions of living, you've honestly forgotten that your dear one is dead. And as you start to think about calling them or where you might bump into them next, you realize that that can't happen. Ever. And all that grief you've put aside so you can continue to live washes back over you in one big mass of emotion. This hasn't happened with Dan yet, and I'll be honest, I'm pretty fucking afraid of facing that down the road. I have a feeling it's going to come up around the holidays— because even if I did get to buy him something special, something just right, I won't ever get to see the way his eyes would light up just from knowing that you spent time thinking about him, or his big goofy grin again while he opens it. And there's going to come a moment where I'll see something he would have loved, and I won't remember that he's gone until after I've picked it up thinking how much he'd enjoy it.
With my mom, The Moment happened when I was leaving for school one morning from Dan's best friend's apartment. This wasn't an uncommon arrangement. The kid, let's call him Ben, lived with his mom less than two blocks from where we lived and at the time I had almost ten years of experience in supervising children in a single parent household, so I babysat him a lot. Ben's mom liked it because there was always someone else right around the corner. I liked it because Ben liked to read and play video games, so he didn't really need much sitting on. And in addition to the pocket money, Ben's mom would invite me to a glass or two of sangria (which I usually stretched out over the whole weekend with seltzer or juice, and once or twice with a bottle of actual wine) and she'd have great food that my mom would have frowned at, like big salty slices of parmesan cheese served as a table cheese. Hell yes. Ben's mom, long may she live, gave me mastery of the hormonal wine and cheese plate.
That particular weekend had been a doozy. On Thursday, Ben and his mom had gone to a fair or something and had made one of those sand art things— layers and layers of colored sand in a glass bottle. He was really proud of it; it was the first hour of our conversation that weekend. And he and his mom hardly ever got to do stuff together The poor kid could not leave it alone. By Saturday, he'd shaken it into a pinkish-brown blur in a bottle. And on Sunday afternoon, he dumped it down the tiny bathroom sink, filling the drain with a solid wall of sand. In a post-apocalyptic scenario for adult me, this would make for a pretty clever water filtration device, though I'd prefer the second floor bathtub to the sink. In a child care scenario for fifteen year old me, this was an unthinkable thing for me, the babysitter, to have permitted and there was no way I was going to let Ben's mom come home to that crap. I probably should have called an adult. Normally, I would have called my mom. She was the one I could always count on to help me figure things out with a laugh.
Instead, I took everything out from under the sink and stuck my head under there to see if the way that the sink worked was obvious. I was lucky that the landlord was cheap and everything under there was PVC and the trap was super simple. I barely even needed the wrench to crack it open. Once I'd done that, clearing the trap and cleaning up the sand mess was no big deal. The only thing I did wrong was that i didn't know about that nifty water-sealing tape you're supposed to use with screw-together plumbing fixtures and sometimes I wonder if and for how long that sink leaked.
The next morning I left for school twenty-five minutes early so that I could duck into my mom's science classroom and tell her about it. I'd rehearsed the story in my head all morning as I got myself, and a very grateful Ben, ready. I'd practiced it on Ben's mom an hour before when she'd come to drive him to his private school. And as I opened the door to leave the second floor apartment, I tried to picture my mom's reaction, tried to guess what she might say, where in the story she might laugh. And then as I pulled the locked door closed, I realized, there wouldn't be a reaction. The enormity of this simple thing hit me so hard that I nearly fell down the goddamn stairs. I landed on my ass and stayed there, bawling with my back up against the apartment door, for almost an hour.
Eventually I got my shit together enough to stumble into class late with my face all puffy and still crying in fits and spurts. As I walked past a seemingly endless row of desks to my seat, someone muttered, "When is she going to be normal?" Sure it was mean, and the mutterer may have even gotten detention for it. But let's be real here: I was thinking the same damn thing. And not all of the reactions around me were that harsh. One of my mom's students actually drove me to the cemetery that day so I could tell her the whole story, crying fit and all. But I didn't tell anyone the sand story who wasn't also privy to the story of the crying fit for more than a decade.
People avoided making eye contact with me in the halls for a while after that. I'd catch people looking at me in class and then suddenly looking away. Sometimes they'd cross the hall to get away from me, as though my grief, if not my newfound orphan status, were contagious. I started taking my lunches in the back of the empty band room to get away from the hushed conversations that would stop and start in my wake. After a month, we were all at our limits for dealing with my grief. They didn't know how to help any more than they had helped already, and I didn't know how, or if, I could be helped. This applies pretty directly to every other serious grief in my life. There's not a lot that gives lasting comfort in these situations. You still have to deal with it the next day and there are a lot of days that have to go by before your mindset switches to one of, well, I dealt with it yesterday. So, in the meantime the people around you start to step back and wait and see if you're going to start living and doing or if you're just going to go back to bed. Sometimes they forget why you want to go back to bed.
This week we'll cross that four week boundary. It still seems so surreal. We still don't have his things from the police or the report. We're in a weird phase of being passed off between two detectives: one had been assigned to the investigation, and the other to wrangling us. Still so many things to do even this far afterwards. So many things that interrupt the normal flow, like I keep forgetting to manufacture the time to drive the photo boards back to the funeral home. I'm trying for distraction and missing because there are still so many little details undone and I don't have the attention span to finish thoughts properly. If only actions could be edited as thoroughly as text.
I'm sleeping better most nights. I'm half hoping that this will be the first Tuesday night I sleep through instead of looking at the clock and trying not to look at the clock and wondering at what point in time it became too late to help him. The other half of me feels like I might miss the ritual. It was almost better last week when we went full nocturnal and I may not have gotten much done, but at least I slept well when the time came to sleep. I desperately want the report and his effects back so I can at least pin it down to a range of a few hours, honor the time and start to let go of the fucking question. Sleeping that poorly once a week will affect me sooner or later.
And that, besides me drinking 4 or so times per week (This is A LOT for me. I usually drink no more than 4 times per month.) is the most abnormal pattern of my behavior lately. I veg out a little more than normal. My reaction times are down. I'm a little depressed, but that's more or less to be expected. The thank-you notes are starting to sort themselves out. I've met with one or two clients. I check in with a decent portion of my other clients, considering. My follow-through could be better. There are things that I know I need to finish up, but I don't have the finesse this second. I read gig postings, but haven't really been applying like I usually do. Also reasonable and normal. Though I do have to get back out there and do that if I want to keep food in my belly and the lights on. I do wish that I had a normal, regular job so that I wouldn't have to keep telling people what the fuck is wrong with me right now. But I'd have to apply for one of those too, which is pretty much the same thing as freelancing: constantly applying for jobs. The to-do lists will write themselves and I'll start to get back into the real swing of things more quickly than I will anticipate, even optimistically, and it'll be okay for a minute— though there's a little voice in the back of my head that might sing "Everything is Awful" for all time. Don't make annoying feelings into annoying songs. I beg you to learn from my mistake. So, things are headed in the right direction, even though I'm still not any fucking fun to be in the room with most of the day. And it takes me a long, long time to get out of bed or settle down for the night. And like I said, there are a few nights where I can't be settled. But this isn't settled. Like me right now, it's all up in the air.