On Death & Trying: Living & Loving in Spite of Decay (#MWC Death)
Last night, I Googled ‘Falling Out of Love with Your Partner’ to get the thought out of my head and into the open. Giving language to something you’re afraid of tends to make it less horrifying. Still, it’s a thought that comes with weight, and that weight wears you out over time. In my case, it’s been a few weeks. Maybe a few months. It’s hard to tell in these “pandemic times” because days have bled into a year and half without any obvious effort. But I’ve been conscious of this weight on my shoulders, on my thoughts, and on my heart for a while. So, last night, I named it. Looked hard at it. Sat with it for a while.
I haven’t been sleeping well lately. Most of us haven’t, but our demons vary. Last year, my finances kept me awake as I scoured hundreds of job listings following my COVID-related layoff. I remember having frequent nightmares about rising credit card bills. I skipped meals because of constant, nauseous anxiety. My partner watched me become a thin, aggressive, sensitive shell of myself who’d break at every minor inconvenience. I was always, always scared, and every necessary dollar spent felt like an irreplaceable loss.
Then my grandmother died.
Not an unexpected thing to happen at 94, but still a surprise for us. Despite her advanced age, my grandmother felt inextinguishable. We chalked it up to her Armenian blood since all the women in her family lived long, adventurous lives before her. Her mother didn’t kick the bucket until 98, when I was 8 or 9 years old. She survived the Armenian holocaust (the one Turkey still denies to this day) and became a respected haberdasher and mother of 3. She also mowed her own lawn until she was 95. The thing that killed her was a fall. Not cancer, a heart attack, Alzheimer’s — a random slip down the stairs that attracted death in the hospital a few days later. It was the first human loss I ever experienced, though I don’t remember being sad. After all, I wouldn’t understand what a formidable woman she was until many years later. Also, I was certain she was at peace. In her perfect old-world accent, she’d told me many times she was ready to ‘go to God’ whenever he decided to call.
My grandmother wasn’t religious, however, and she didn’t fall. Over the 2 last decades of her life, she survived breast cancer, congestive heart failure, a few surgeries, and a slew of other geriatric perks waiting for us all. COVID never touched her — my parents made sure of that. It was some other respiratory evil, easy enough to call pneumonia. The week before Easter, she complained of slight tightness in her chest. Then, she couldn’t breathe deeply enough. Next was the hospital, then hospice, then nothing. It happened so fast she didn’t realize what was happening to her. I didn’t have time to fly out to Ohio to hold her hand. The last time I saw her was over a FaceTime call where she smiled and told me not to worry, she’d be home soon. My parents had asked me not to tell her anything about her imminent demise, so it lives on as one of my least favorite memories to date.
On Easter Sunday, I forwent our tradition of watching Easter Parade on TCM. Before she moved three states away with the rest of my family, my grandmother and I watched Fred Astaire and Judy Garland fall in love every year. We sang all the songs together. We fawned over Peter Lawford together. When mom called that evening to tell me she’d passed, I wondered through my grief if she’d get to meet him, or Fred, or Judy. I wondered if my grandparents would sing together, too, once they were reunited. My grandfather’s been dead so long that missing him doesn’t feel natural or necessary. Still, the thought made me smile through tears.
My grandmother’s name was Margaret. She’d been my first nanny, my first pen pal, my first fan and my first audience. My first friend, above all. She once slipped me one of grandpa’s beers because she mistook it for a can of Yoo-Hoo. She called me ‘Nicole’, my oldest cousin’s name, all the time. She bought me things I absolutely didn’t need. She always won at UNO. She loved Perry Mason. And John Wayne. I inherited her Bing Crosby records and all of her jewelry. I have her photographs smiling at me around my house. I hear her in every Ink Spots and Andrew Sisters song. I think of her all the time, no matter what, wherever I am: even here at the Panera Bread in my home town, appropriately seated at the exact table where I met the partner I might be falling out of love with five and a half years ago.
Nothing has helped yet, and I might know why.
I’ve been blessed with a strong, extensive support network throughout my life: my parents, my friends, and my many chosen families. Each one of them has done their part to read my drafts and come to my shows and pluck me from the depths of my ever-evolving sadness. But, no one has ever held such unwavering belief in me than Margaret Mason. Every single conversation we’d ever had ended with the same sentiment:
You deserve to be happy.
My grandmother constantly wished for my happiness. She championed it. Sometimes she overdid it. Regardless, she promised I was worthy of it when a lifetime of therapy couldn’t make me believe it. Now, her death feels like an injustice because I am not happy, transforming every source of unhappiness into a betrayal or dishonor to her memory.
The article I pulled up from that Google search stated “falling out of love tends to happen when one partner experiences growth, while the other doesn’t, can’t, or won’t.” Well, no shit.
When COVID came, were you like me — the type to miraculously thrive? I can’t speak for your experiences, but maybe 15 years of anxiety disorders overprepared me for the worst. Maybe getting uprooted from a hated routine gave me the chance to take classes, make music, learn yoga, and let go what I’ve never quite fit into. Most of all, maybe I like that we were all slapped in the face for our ableism, greed, and selfishness. I’m not much for silver linings, but now we know there’s more to life than grinding. Now we know a little better what powerlessness feels like. Now we know a little more of what we are capable of and, for better or worse, how easy it is for any of us to catch cold and die.
My partner did not grow like this. Maybe you were like them — I hear most reasonable people were. They developed unprecedented anxiety and depression over the last year, gave up on most care tasks, and completely lost their proverbial balance. Their life before COVID was neat, steady, and functional. A good job, health and security, fulfilling hobbies. No mourning the past or worrying about the future. My partner has always been a wiz at staying present. For years I’ve envied that, because that’s essentially immortality. How can you die if you don’t miss what’s past and you don’t fear what’s next?
Today, I confessed my late-night Googling to my partner. I shared what I’d learned from it and how I was feeling. I likened it to dying — like a clawing desperation for air. Breaking up was put on the table: closing this chapter and burying the remains. So was trying something else, like practicing being happy again.
We’re trying something else first, just to see if it sticks. If death is certain, and it is, then there isn’t any need to rush.