When you died, I didn’t know how I was going to survive a single day without you.
And now, 365 days later, we are remembering the one year anniversary of your passing on that fateful spring morning. The year has been both tediously long and achingly short. Somehow I am still standing.
Today we will go with your family to the cemetery. We’ll release butterflies, just like we did last year at your inurnment, and we’ll leave you and your parents flowers. We’ll eat at Curry House–your favorite–and then resume business as usual. I’ve always known that the first year is the hardest. Then the years start to fly by, like a pile of papers in a gust of wind, scattering before you can catch them, off into different directions.
The entire situation still seems so outrageous to me that I sometimes think there may still be a possibility that it’s all fake. But I am forced to deal with the brutal reality of your absence. It hurts more than any pain I’ve ever known. A year later, it has evolved from a searing pain into a duller, nagging feeling that just sort of sits heavy in the pit of my stomach, slowly digesting. I think about the distance spreading between us with each passing day. I feel like strangers now. Sometimes I wonder if I was ever really married to you. It feels like it was a mirage in my mind. I’m forgetting the details. I worry that I can’t remember your voice. The other day I desperately looked for a video with you talking and I listened to it over and over again. It feels like we loved each other in a different lifetime.
I’ve done my best to raise our children on my own. It feels like a cruel joke that our family has to be this way now, considering we planned every single child down to the day. We had charts of age projections and we crunched numbers and marked calendars together, investing all of our hopes and dreams into this little family we were building. We forgot to plan for you dying.
I hate looking into our children’s eyes when they tell me they miss you. How horribly unfair that they must grow up without remembering your arms around them embraced in a hug, or to have you carry them to bed from the car when they fall asleep. They miss the way you used to talk to them on the drive to school. Ethan claimed he asked you lots of questions and you always knew the answers. You loved being a dad, and you were a good one.
The main thing that keeps me going is knowing that I have to continue the love in our family for Ethan, Eloise, and Peter Jack. I know it’s what you would expect, and it’s what I expect from myself. We fought a lot, but we always agreed on the important things, like family, money, politics, religion, and love. The only thing that could hurt me more is to not do my best to give our kids a life of love and opportunity.
Sometimes I wonder what you would have looked like as an old man. You would have been cute with white hair (although I’m skeptical your jet-black hair would have ever turned color). I felt a little guilty when your sister and I cut snippets of your beloved hair in the hospital room before they took your body away, just so we would have something to remember you by. The hair I took is still in the same purse, zipped inside the upper pocket, wrapped in the same tear-drenched tissue. I don’t know what to do with it. I haven’t used that purse since. I stuffed it on a shelf high in my closet, just like I stuffed a lot of things I knew I needed more time to deal with.
I get shivers down my spine when I look at the pictures we took only days and weeks before your passing. Moments of us together, frozen in time, like the picture of you pushing Eloise on the swing right after we bought them new shoes at the mall, or the one of all of us posed on the Legoland ride 11 days before you died, completely clueless about how our lives would unravel. The normalness of those last days still unnerves me. I’d give anything to have our ordinary life back.
I’ve spent an entire year not only mourning your loss, but also the loss of my innocence. My life can be divided into two parts: before April 27, 2016, and everything after. It’s an odd feeling that I have to live with for the rest of my life. I dream of the day when I will start the third part of my life, the part where I’ve moved out from beneath the dark clouds of grief and have rebuilt my life into something happy and meaningful. I want the story of our love and tragedy to fit seamlessly into the tapestry of my long and beautiful life, rather than feel like my destruction.
Ethan recently told me “it feels like Daddy was just here, but then I closed my eyes, and when I opened them he was gone.” It totally does.
You were always teaching everyone about something, whether it was chess, philosophy, world history, religion, finance, health–whatever. Even in your death, you continue to teach me. I’ve learned more about myself, life, death, suffering, being present, gratitude, responsibility, love, trust, courage, and more in just one short year. I want to continue sharing the meaning you contributed to this world. I know you’ll live on through everyone you’ve ever impacted, but I want to do what I can to continue it too. So I’m doing it the best way I know how (other than through our kids). I write a lot. Fiction. Non-fiction. I’m working on your unfinished work. I have to turn the pain and loss into something.
In the first year of your absence, I know there are decisions in my new life that you would love and others you’d be mad at me about, but I want you to know that everything I’m doing now is not necessarily what I would have done before you died. Our circumstances have changed. I’ve changed. I will admit that without your veto power, there have been no checks and balances in our home. It’s a one-woman show. Also, I’ve been kind of winging all of this. I just have to do what feels right in my gut.
I’m sorry I changed the color of your childhood home. I know you’d probably be pissed off at me. And I got the new windows you told me “no” about for the past several years. But…it had to be done. So I did it. I’m happy with the way it turned out. I think you’d probably like it. You know I was usually always right, and in this case I totally was.
I’m sorry I’ve been going a little crazy with my trips. I know you’d be telling me to stop spending money. You were a phenomenal saver. You used to tape “A part of all you earn is yours to keep” on everything, and you loved to stockpile your money. But, I am only going to live once. I think I’ll start being better at scaling back on the trips next year. Right now I’m searching for ways to occupy my mind as I persevere through this inferno. Next year I’ll be better. Maybe. Okay, probably not. But there never was a trip I ever regretted, so I’m confident that all of this will work itself out.
You would have loved Japan. It was everything and a ton more than I ever dreamed of. Every time we ate udon or something good, we thought of you. When we were at the temple in Kyoto, walking barefoot across the cold wooden floors, listening to monks chant and smelling the burning incense, I couldn’t help but feel like you were there with us, even though I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. It made no sense. Maybe it’s because we hoped you were there. I know there isn’t a Santa Claus, but the idea is cute, right?
The thing is–and you would love this–but I feel like you are somehow in my DNA. A part of every cell in my body. My experiences with you are fused inside of my genome. And part of you is in each of our children. So you really are always with us.
I know you’d be jealous of us going to Copenhagen. I know you wanted to see the Little Mermaid statue. What a strange thing for you to want to see, but that’s what I loved about my metro husband. Unapologetic about the things he liked. So sorry you won’t get to see the “hot blonde women” in Denmark that you always wanted to see. But I’ll get to see the hot Italian men in Italy. You probably would have raised an eyebrow about that. I know you were annoyed with my penchant for Italian men. But I think you’d understand, given my current situation.
I’m sorry I let Ethan drop out of karate. I know you wanted him to do it until he was 18. He confessed to me almost a year later that he missed going with you because you helped him with the difficult moves. He loved the way you used to put on a gi with him and practice karate side-by-side at the dojo. It just didn’t feel right for him to go alone, and he wasn’t interested. Maybe he’ll want to do it in a few years. Maybe he won’t. We really have to go with our gut feelings these days.
You would be proud that we stepped up our spiritual game and attend service regularly. I’m appreciative that you introduced me to Buddhism. I feel like you somehow knew that I would need it to survive your loss. I am constantly contemplating the meaning of life, death, suffering, and happiness. My life before 4-27-16 wasn’t as consumed with these thoughts, but the new me is. I thought I had everything figured out. It turned out I didn’t and I still have a lot to learn. I’m happy to have a source of knowledge that I can reference when I need some intellectualizing to process my thoughts. I also finally found Nietzsche, Sartre, Freire, and others who you quoted over the years. You’d be happy to know that I was quite impressed with your intellect when I finally caught up with some of your reading list.
On May 12th, on what would have been our 7th wedding anniversary, I got my first tattoo. Your writing, from your journal. On my arm.
Seriously. I know your eyeballs would pop out if you knew this. I was never going to get a tattoo and I used to tell you to stop saying “I am responsible.” You annoyed the hell out of me with it. You’d play your self-help tapes over and over again, and I’d groan out loud. And then I went and tattooed one of your dorkiest phrases on my arm, because somehow it felt like the right thing to do. Your handwriting comforts me. Now I feel like I need the reminder that no matter what has happened, it is my responsibility to control my interpretations and to make deliberate choices. My life is in my hands. I miss your writing. I miss your terrible spelling and the notes scribbled everywhere. I miss your thoughts. I’m still working on your story. I’m going to finish it. For you. For us.
In two weeks it would have been our 8th wedding anniversary. The kids and I are still going to celebrate. May 12th was the establishment of our family. That will never change.
We went to Germany and Paris last summer without you. It was hard. You loved Berlin, and we were supposed to experience it together. You always talked about the amazing club you went to that was in a castle. Unfortunately my Berlin experience wasn’t as enchanting. Paris wasn’t the same either. Something was missing. You. Us. We did come across a bar called Bon Vivant. Ethan thought it was a sign (since we put “bon vivant” on your niche).
Our annual camping trip with our friends came and went–without you. I miss how you would get excited and always wanted to buy new camping gear as if you were a real mountain man, even though we all knew you were terrified of bears and bugs. I got a tick on my arm. You would have freaked out. I called your doctor on the drive home so he could reassure me that I wasn’t going to get Lyme Disease. I totally felt like you, the eternal hypochondriac. (Everything was okay!)
I had to start a new school year without you. I cried the entire day. Bawled. It was so hard seeing your empty classroom and not hearing your voice. It’s still sometimes difficult for me to stand outside of my door during passing periods and not be able to talk to you. For 10 years we taught next door to each other, and then suddenly you were gone. I had to endure the end of the quarter minimum days, remembering how we would always go to lunch together and then go to the movies. Graduation. Breaks. I was so used to you always with me at lunch time and meetings and having somebody to always consult. I don’t have that anymore. I feel left behind and alone. Maybe I was spoiled. My work spouse really was my spouse. Now it’s usually very quiet. But the students get me through my days. I like that they aren’t jaded yet. For many of them life is a still a big, open canvas. I can relate to them too now. We’re all dateless and unsure of our futures.
The kids and I visit your niche at the cemetery almost weekly. I can’t bear the thought of you not having fresh flowers. People always stare at us with pity. I already feel like a freak show. I know their intentions are good, but it still makes me feel like crap. Peter excitedly says “good-bye” to you. I hate that our baby only knows you as a plaque on the cold marble wall. He folds his chubby little hands together and bows, imitating the namu-amida-butsu he learned from his siblings. The kids kiss their fingers and then press them against the letters on your niche, repeating it over and over and over again until they have sufficiently kissed “you” at least 10 times and it’s time to walk over to your parents. I made sure I got your niche facing the door so you could “look” out to where your parents are. The kids race over to their columbarium and we give Jichan and Bachan flowers too. I know how much you loved your parents.
I survived the election season without you. I was determined to precinct walk, business as usual. I strapped Peter on my back and brought the older two with me, walking house to house. I met Jackie. You would have never guessed in a million years that I would precinct walk with somebody who used to work for somebody you protested against. A Republican! But I know you would have liked her. I took Ethan to a Bernie rally. You were making phone calls for Bernie only days before you passed away. The kids and I went to an anti-Wal Mart rally. I’m going to make sure they are involved, the way you would have wanted them to be.
By the way, Trump got elected. If you had lived I suspect you would have surely had your aorta explode on Election Day. Sometimes I think maybe you just couldn’t live in this world anymore. Imagine a world where Bush is slightly more tolerable than Trump. I don’t think you could have ever guessed that would have happened in a million years.
I really miss you when I’m feeling scared about life, during those moments when I feel like I have nobody who understands me and nobody to lean on. Life was better with our hive mind. I was less scared of failing with you by my side. It’s really freaking scary having to do all of the adulting in the house by myself.
Halloween came and went. We survived your birthday, but we felt your void. I remembered your last birthday party and the picture of you about to blow out your candles. There was something contemplative about your expression. I wonder if you subconsciously knew it was your last birthday.
Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas came and went. All lonely days without you. I feel like a third wheel in a vast ocean of couples. Somehow this is always more evident to me on holidays. I’ll spare you the emotional pain of what it’s like being a “single mother” now because I know it would have killed you. But life as a single woman with three kids is odd. My feet are in two doors: the singles world, and the family world. I don’t fit in with either world. I’m a misfit. A woman with a scarlet “W” branded onto my chest. A widow. I find myself not wanting to be around couples and families. I don’t want to talk about kids or family life. Even witnessing somebody touch his wife’s arm makes me bristle. It’s hard not to feel bitter when you are so very alone and the person you loved is so very dead. I don’t think people realize this when they are around me. I know they can’t stop their lives. But it hurts feeling like I’m the only one who was banished to another planet.
Ethan turned 7. You would be proud of him. He’s smart, thoughtful, and he misses you the most. That boy loved the hell out of you. He is brave. He enjoys life. He’s social and curious. He started Cub Scouts, chess club, Mad Science, art, and coding. Most special about him is that he’s resilient. He’s full of love. And he is hopeful for the future.
I turned 35. You met me when I was 24. I think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been, but you’ll never see it. That makes me sad. I’m different. I feel it in my bones. If I didn’t have this layer of grief over my head, infecting my mind, I think I would be a better person than who I was before you died. When I’m thinking clearly it makes me hopeful for my future. When I’m not thinking clearly I feel like I’m doomed. You helped me reach more of my potential. You were my greatest teacher. You always encouraged me to pursue my writing. You never objected to me getting new clothes or books or anything that made me happy. Not having you here makes me realize in a soul-crushing way that I lost my most loyal friend and companion. I know you loved me more than anything. Sometimes I worry that I’ll never have that again.
Our baby, Peter Jack, turned 2. You would adore this little troublemaker. He looks the most like you. He’s a clown, an adventurer, a lover, a brat. He loves to eat. He’s 35 lb of squish. Last week he filled the sink in the “Dirty Bathroom” (your childhood name for the bathroom near the garage) with dog food and turned on the sink. He also climbed on top of the washing machine to reach a bag of Easter chocolate, which he promptly consumed. My mom accurately describes him as a bull in a china closet. Last week I was taking him out of the van to go to the babysitter’s house, and he said “Bye, bye, Da Da.” Nobody else was in the car. I clarified who he was talking to. He just smiled. I looked up at the moon and said, “There he is. There’s Da Da. He’s everywhere, isn’t he?” He smiled again, that big goofy grin that he owns. He fights with his siblings over who gets to carry the flowers for you at the cemetery. He kisses your picture every night before he goes to sleep. He loves you even though he doesn’t know you, and that makes me sad.
Eloise turned 4 exactly two weeks ago. Her birthday was the last event we had together with family and friends before you died. A few days ago we had her unicorn party, and even though we had a great time, I noticed the empty space where you should have been. Ellie misses her daddy. She loves lipstick and shoes. I bought her high heels for her birthday and she hates to take them off. She also likes to read books and play doctor. I know you would be amused by her little personality. In many ways she’s like you. She’s creative and stubborn. She’s learning to sound out letters. Recently we were shopping at Sprouts and out of nowhere she pointed to the radishes and said “Daddy liked those in his salads!” We haven’t talked about that since you last went grocery shopping with us. I smiled, happy that she still had memories of you. You were the closest to Eloise since you had the most patience for her shenanigans. Ever since she was born (screaming the second she came into contact with oxygen) you had a way of consoling her and giving her the attention she needed. You never lost your cool with her meltdowns. The two of you could relate to each other. She would go to you over me any day. I worried in the days after you passed away how I was going to fill that role for her. It happened naturally, and now I feel an extra duty to Eloise to do my best to understand her the way you did.
It’s sad that the only thing our kids have left of you are memories, and because they are so young, those memories are going to fade and most likely disappear. But I promise you, I’m doing everything I can to keep your existence real and relevant in their lives. They are always eager to hear stories about you. Recently I told them about the chocolate bunny you bought me during that first year we lived together in the horrible studio apartment in Long Beach. The apartment got so hot that the chocolate melted. We started making it a tradition to buy a chocolate bunny and to see how long it would take to melt. The kids loved the story, and, well, there’s a chocolate bunny on our refrigerator, waiting to carry on the tradition. (Unfortunately for them we have air conditioning now.)
Guess what? I learned how to juice, and I actually do it 4-5 days a week! I didn’t even know how to use the machine before you passed away. But I learned (thanks to your sister). Peter is my biggest fan when it comes to drinking juice. He can drink 3x the amount that his siblings consume. I’ve continued your interest in health, branching off into my own areas of interest. Currently I’m exploring sugar, and how to drastically reduce it in our diet.
We planted the avocado tree you always wanted. 1/10 of your ashes were put into a biodegradable urn that we buried beneath the new tree. My dad dug the hole and Ethan lovingly placed the urn inside while the rest of us watched. You will always be a part of your childhood home that you loved so dearly. Someday in the future we will have a beautiful avocado tree bearing fruit, and you will be a part of the earth that sustains its life.
After you died, I met many of your former students who also loved you. You had over 500 people at your funeral. The number of former students that attended was astounding. You never knew how loved you were. You had no idea about the reach and impact of your influence in their lives. I wish I could tell you that the ones you thought weren’t listening…they were listening. They carry you inside of them and they were in pain when they heard that you passed. You contributed so much good in the world. Who could ask for a better purpose in their life?
Several of your former students have become my students, and they formed a feminist club. You would probably be rolling your eyes, calling me a Femi-nazi. But I know you’d be proud of their hearts and what they are trying to achieve. One of your students started babysitting for us. I gave her some of your records and I’m happy that a part of your musical passion gets to live on through her. I know she will be a lifelong family friend, and I would have never known her if it wasn’t for you. I sometimes joke that she is the red-headed daughter we never had together.
I don’t watch many movies anymore without you, the King of Netflix, picking the ones you thought I would like. I miss talking politics with you. I miss you being there. Here. I miss even going to Costco with you. Life was a little easier with a constant companion. The weight of life didn’t feel as heavy with you by my side. Sometimes that weight crushes me now.
I had to throw away your favorite shoes and True Religion jeans. I remember when we drove over an hour away to the outlet mall, back in the days before we had kids. We dropped my grandma off at the casino and went looking for True Religion jeans. She kept asking why you would spent so much money on pants that had holes in them.
Slowly, memories of you are being scrubbed away, cleaned out of drawers, stowed, organized. Some things I couldn’t part with, like your books. Your nato is still in the freezer in the garage. Someday I’ll throw it away. I’ve learned that eventually you just know in your gut what to do next. You’ll know when it is the right time. It’s better not to rush anything. I probably should have been kinder to you when I nagged about cleaning out the garage. You needed your own time to process your memories. (Bet you can guess what happened to the garage after you passed away though.)
I told the kids that we should be thankful for having you in our lives. You were never ours to keep forever. But we got a little bit of you. You were part of our stories.
It bothers me that I never got to say good-bye. I’ll never know if you heard me calling your name or making the 9-1-1 call. I’ll never know if you heard me crying over you, begging you to open your eyes. If I knew there was nothing they could have done, I would have spent those last few moments holding you and reassuring you instead of doing chest compressions. I can only hope that you possibly felt my presence and that you knew I was by your side when you took your last breath.
If I had the chance to say good-bye, I would have thanked you for your knowledge. For always encouraging me. For helping me come out of my shell, for teaching me to feel deeper, think broader, love harder, and to take care of my health. I would have told you that I loved you and reassured you that I will handle everything. I would have promised you that I will always fiercely love our children enough to count for the both of us.
When you watch your significant other unexpectedly die, in that moment you realize that everything that ever bothered you about them, drove you crazy, made you mad, made you want to quit–all of those feelings were probably not as important as the good ones you shared. Or maybe not. (If I had the choice though, I would have chosen you again, even knowing how messy you were.)
We had bad times, like everyone else. I wish there was a magic way for other people to learn these lessons too without having to suffer like I have. I wish you would have learned them too. I wish we could all learn important truths about living without actually having to be disemboweled by life to understand.
It’s easy to lose your focus. Why do we dwell on the bad and quickly forget the good? Our mind plays games with what we see. If we could only understand this BEFORE we lose a person instead of AFTER, it would truly be an invaluable gift of living. I know you would have lived differently too if you knew what our fate was going to be.
The problem is that most of us don’t know our expiration dates, and we become selfish in the way we live. We aren’t able to gauge our time constraints unless we’ve been given a definitive diagnosis that puts the numbers in front of us. We should be living as if tomorrow is our last day together, and instead we arrogantly act like we have hundreds of years to squander. We forget how fast time passes by right under our noses. I don’t ever want to be complacent about living again. This is the challenge I wish to undertake for our children and myself.
Now I don’t count the days until the weekend. Weekdays and weekends are indistinguishable to me. I have no idea how many days there are until summer vacation. I really don’t care (and this is even with plane tickets to Italy!). It’s just that I know what it’s like to go to bed on a Tuesday night and to wake up on a Wednesday morning to your life in pieces. Whatever day or week or month it is, I want to focus on the present moment and not take any of my days for granted. You never know when they will be gone.
You used to drive me crazy, but you were one-of-a-kind. I know you would want us to keep living our lives, and I know you would have 500% trusted me to lead the way for myself and our children. That knowledge makes it easier for me to move forward with living.
We love you. We miss you. But now, as we enter year #2, I need to work a little harder to figure out how to move on while still carrying you inside of me. I have many years of living left (I hope). I’m a stew of mixed emotions, but as the boiling cools to a simmer, I’m starting to see that it is making me stronger. And somewhere, probably closer than I realize, perhaps just beyond the horizon, there will be light guiding my path into the future.
Lucius Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Since I don’t have a choice in how these unexpected circumstances have changed the course of my life, I have to hope that it is true. Lots of new beginnings ahead of me. We are your legacy.
For Good Excerpt
I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
Because I knew you
I have been changed for good