Antelope Canyon by Fernanda Santos
Something changed on a bitterly cold evening in suburban Boston, two days before this past Christmas, at the home of a friend that was his and became mine.
“Dave’s different,” Mike had told me on December 31, 2001, the night of David Anderson’s wedding in a warehouse in Brooklyn overlooking towers that were no longer there. “You’ll like him.” Last February, David rang the doorbell at my home in Phoenix, surprising Flora and I. We were at Target, but I could see him on my phone; I have cameras all over my house, have had them since Mike died and I began to worry about my girl and I being alone. David cooked for us that night and after I left for work the next morning, he washed off the layers of dust that caked the screens on my windows, layers of dust that were there because cleaning them used to be Mike’s work and I couldn’t do his work, at least not yet.
On that bitterly cold winter evening in suburban Boston, David prepared prime rib with Béarnaise sauce for Flora and I and also for his wife, their kids and three other friends who had been visiting, people he’d gone to school with. David is a handsome blond who owns an arsenal of power tools that he has used to slowly and meticulously renovate his family’s comfortable clapboard house inside and out, his idea of being a stay-at-home dad. His hands are thick and his smile is as big and broad as his heart. He’s one of the few people I’ve called when I’ve needed a good cry. Somehow, we always end up laughing during the call, sometimes laughing through tears, mine and his.
As the prime rib cooked in the oven, Flora and David’s younger son Casper played with a plunger and tiny pebbles in the basement — “Medieval weapons,” she said, figments of their fertile imagination. His older son Zeddy bounced on an indoor trampoline by a window overlooking the front yard where a farmers’ market loot of vegetables grows when the ground isn’t frozen. The adults sat around the oblong dining table, munching on cheese and drinking red wine. There were two dogs under the table, a Labradoodle named Leo and a Golden Retriever named Ruby. Walrus, the cat, watched us from a breakfast-bar stool nearby. The space felt cozy. I wished I could have bottled up the feeling that defined it to me that evening, a feeling of actually wanting to be exactly where I was. I hadn’t felt that in a while.
The conversation was loud, animated by the wine, maybe, or maybe by the comfort of knowing that we were among people who embraced us exactly for who we were, despite our cracks. (We all have them, we all have them.) I felt myself drifting a bit, lost in the dread of the approaching holiday, our second without Mike and by far the hardest; numbness had anesthetized me from the pain of firsts: first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, his first birthday since his death. But then I heard the words “misogyny in movies” and it was like someone had pinched me awake.
It was like magic.
Forgive me if this sounds weird, but there’s really nothing normal about this journey I’m on. There is no consistency to the process of grieving a meaningful loss, no linear progression, not even stages, regardless of what the books say. I’ve heard a lot of people describe it as a rollercoaster and I think that’s pretty accurate. Grieving is an up-and-down of feelings along a course that’s unknown at first and because of that, scary and most unwelcome. Then you get used to it and learn how to take advantage of it when you can, riding the highs while bracing for the lows that you know are coming. The lows are inevitable, but over time they become oddly necessary for you to value the moments of levity and happiness you enjoy, as fleeting as they might be. It’s in the endurance that’s developed in the unpredictability of grief that you’re able to find the path forward. At least that’s how it has been for me.
But on that bitterly cold evening in suburban Boston, among new friends I made in my old friend’s home, I experienced something different. I felt a switch flip inside of me. And all it took were three words: misogyny in movies. I found myself in a different place than the place I’d been since the day I’d found out there was a mass the size of a golf ball in Mike’s pancreas, a Friday, September 29, 2017. We suspected it was cancer — “benign cysts in the pancreas are rare,” a doctor had told us — and I remember leaving the hospital to meet my daughter at home that night knowing that our lives had been forever changed. From that day on, not a day went by that I didn’t think about Mike and how to save him, and then about Flora and how to rescue her from her grief, and about the students I had to teach, and the bills I had to pay, and the extra work I had to do somehow to make up for the shortfall. Whenever I thought about me, it was always in the context of being there to fulfill all these necessary tasks and of being there for Flora because she’s not ready to endure another loss. Fernanda, the individual, had been pushed aside, locked up, neglected at times and, at times, forgotten. Because that’s what it took to keep going.
One of the most disconcerting things about being a widow is that you’re rebuilding your life using parameters that are familiar to who you were, not who you are, so the rebuilding process inevitably becomes one that has to happen in stages. First, you pick up whatever pieces you can retrieve and jam them together because you must return yourself to a single block, as fractured of a single block as you might be. You do that because you have to find a way to function. I had to find a way to function and that meant that I had to assemble a measure of emotional stability and physical strength to be there for my daughter, and to hold her, and to literally carry her in my arms; her presence is forever etched in my heart and mind.
The second stage of rebuilding starts with an intentional demolition, which is different than the unannounced, unexpected and utterly unfair demolition unleashed by Mike’s death. I’m sure there are other stages, but I’m glad to report that, so far, the process of breaking myself apart to find myself hasn’t scarred me. It hasn’t healed me either, but it has allowed me to advance to the next level of this game, a more challenging level because it requires sharp judgment and skills.
Sometimes my mind is foggy and I’m afraid I can’t make the right decisions. Maybe that’s part of this rebuilding process, to be aware that not every decision I make will be right — they never have been — but to trust myself to make those decisions nonetheless because no one better than I knows what’s best for me.
I met a man the other day, a good man who is also a broken man, though for reasons that are a lot different than mine. He’s a veteran of four tours of combat, in Iraq and Afghanistan, a sniper who takes a pill when he goes to bed so that he doesn’t have to remember what he lived through. He told me the pill keeps his nightmares at bay.
I only remember having one nightmare since Mike died, and I remember it because I woke up crying, my chest and armpits sweating, my hands searching for Flora under the blankets on my bed, which is where I found her. I opened my eyes in the darkness and placed my face as close to hers as I could, close enough to feel the air she exhaled caress my face. She was alive.
I am alive, but that night at David Anderson’s home, the night when misogyny in movies awoke me from the trance I was in, I realized that there was very little I had done for myself since Mike left. He often said that the reason we’d gotten along so well in our nearly 19 years together was that he had his life, I had my life and we had our life together. In misogyny in movies, I rediscovered that life of mine, a life that’s worth living.
I called David Anderson today and told him about the magic words I heard at his house, the magic moment I’d experienced. We agreed that it was because the words represented the type of conversations I liked to have, about provocative themes, but conversations that were unencumbered by concerns of hurting anyone’s feelings because they were had in an open-minded, open-hearted and over all open environment.
“That moment wasn’t about Mike,” he said. “It was about you.”
“It was a huge relief to me,” I replied. I felt like a person again, my own person. I didn’t think I’d ever retrieve that connection.
“You’ll have more of it,” he told me. “You will.”
Hope you have more of whatever it is that makes you whole.
Happy Valentine’s Day, my friends. Keep shining.
WHY – AND HOW – I WRITE
The key to writing a good story is knowing what you don’t know and finding the right people and documents to help you learn it. You have a fundamental question that leads to a bunch of other questions that need to be answered so that your fundamental question makes sense. This is how I write.
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