photo by George L. Smyth
Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for a tree.
-- Rabindranath Tagore
I am roots and he is my soil. He nourishes me. If you pull me out of this marriage, I would choke on the dryness of his absence, writhe in the shadow of his turned head. And when he walked away, my roots would become little withered limbs curled from the sun.
I mourn my marriage some days. I mourn it right alongside my daughter. I mourn the marriage we should have if it weren't all knotted around grief and dead baby. I mourn the lovers we could have been without Grief as our demanding mistress, calling obsessively at all hours without saying anything into the phone, but simply breathing.
I am still here. That breath wordlessly says. I will still fuck you.
No matter how fast we hang up that phone, the ringing echoes around our marriage. A few months ago, I thought about this look my husband used to give me before daughter-death spirited our smiles away. Just pure love--all googly eyed and out of his right mind, his mouth in a kind of large wide grin that makes me feel like the only girl in the whole world. That smile is home. I wept those months ago, head in my hands, shoulders heaving. It took hold of me suddenly like a tempest and I cried for just my marriage, not for Lucy or any of the other things that come with our daughter's death, but for this one huge loss of a marriage without grief. It had been so long since I had seen him look at me this way. I felt suddenly bereft without the look. I felt suddenly uprooted.
Our marriage has never been hysterical or dramatic. There are no epic fights. There are no thrown dishes. No nasty words to stew on for days. There are no resentments built in the walls between us. We just forget some nights to say 'I love you' or truthfully, even "Good night." And months later, after having our third child, I looked at him unsure if I even really knew what he had been going through for the last six months. Our grief changed subtly, almost imperceptibly, and our reactions to it changed too. It wasn’t the constant meltdowns of the early months. It settled into a general malaise, a suffocating ennui and a survivable, yet altogether uninteresting melancholy.
I have read how men and women grieve differently, and I used to think that about us. I used to chalk our silence and awkwardness up to sweeping gender differences. But I have come to realize that it is the exact opposite of that--we grieve in much the same way. Our similarities prevent us from being the first to cross the gulf that separated us in grief. We are both proud, capable introverts trying to privately grieve our loss in a room full of the other person. We went into our corners and licked our wounds, and nodded as we passed each other on the way, unable or unwilling to articulate the obvious. My husband's father died three weeks before our daughter. So, he mourned his father, and then his daughter, and some days he would cry unsure of who exactly he was grieving. He was left in a month's time a fatherless father in an undaughtered land.
Marriages are a long negotiation in needs and wants. When your best friend needs you, it most often is not at a time when you are in need too. Until you are. Until both of you lose a child at the same time. Early in our grief, we were rocks for the other. Somehow balancing the rawness and the strength. We clung to each other. Sometimes being the trunk to lean upon, arms outstretched for shade, providing the strength, and other times taking it. But we often would say nothing, except an "I know." Finally we let go of each other, and walked backwards, staring at each other in silent accusation, "Why do you need to need me right now? I am reading something interesting on the internet."
My best friend's daughter died. In me. And my best friend's father died without me being able to give him the focused sympathy and love he deserved. I sometimes feel that I failed him. He doesn't begrudge me. His best friend's daughter died too, sometimes he feels he failed me as well.
Grief does such a number on all those little things that make a marriage great. Giddiness, laughter, sex, lightness, playfulness. Rather than husband and wife, we became World Wrestling Federation partners, tag teaming each other out of parenting when one of us got too tired or caught up in grief. Impatience would echo in our house, and the other would come in the room, slap hands and take over. Parenting and discipline takes so much psychology, higher brain power, and patience some days, especially with a toddler mostly oblivious to Death's visit, I sometimes did not feel up to the task. Other days, he did not. All our emotional energy was spent keeping grief from engulfing our parenting.
Even though I often feel weak and sad, I am sure I would not be nearly as strong and happy as I am if he wasn't standing beside me. Even in our most stark distant times, I felt more alive in his soil--our roots coiling together making one important tree. We laugh a great deal in our home, which feels like rain after the dry season. He can always draw a long chuckle out of me with his irreverence and constant flirting. Other days, he will stop and listen intently and mirror my indignation at life, thoughtless comments, other people and mortality. That is enough for me. Probably the uncoolest thing I can say about my husband is that I miss him when he goes to work.
At eighteen months from our daughter's death, when we sat together and quantified our grief and our marriage. I had read Tash's piece on marriage. I felt suddenly aware that our distance wasn't okay. And so, we sat together and expressed our fears. We ranked our marriage, at that time, squarely at fair to middling. We made the decision to go back to counseling to find the lighter side of our marriage buried in the ash of grief and death. It wasn't easy making that first call, but it was easy walking in there. We dropped our children off at my sister's house. We flirted in the waiting room, and laughed about our past and who we have become. We held hands and told our story, realizing as we talked that we have problems very similar to most married people with or without dead children. The mere act of seeking help made us feel okay, like trying was all we really needed. We asked the therapist if it would be okay to bring a bottle of wine, stinky cheese and a crusty loaf of bread to our sessions. Everything suddenly felt sexy, even in the least sexy of places.
Sometimes it surprises me that we have only been married for four years and together for five. I have jeans older than our marriage. We have been through the birth of three children and the death of a two grandparents, one parent and one child. We bought a house and traveled to a few third world countries. We have endured accidents, sickness, house renovation, fear, surgeries, biopsies, many bottles of wine, one movie, many corny jokes and a lake of tears. When people ask, we sometimes tell them we have been together 28 years, counted in grief years.
It wasn't long ago that I began taking photographs of my family again in earnest, no longer seeing only our grief. As I edited them, I was taken by surprise by the ones of my own husband. There was the look. I studied it. Definitely the look, I decided. And I began frantically searching through the folders, the months and years, of photographs. There it is again. And again. Since Lucy died, every picture I took of him, he stared at the camera, me on the other side of the lens, giving me the smile, his smile, of unconditional love. I couldn't see beyond my own long, grief-colored nose to see that his love has been there the whole time.
How long have you and your partner been together? How do the years prior to your loss or losses help you navigate grief? What does your relationship look like after the months or years of grief? What do you take for granted in your relationship? How much of your relationship issues do you attribute to grief and loss?