A Letter to My Husband on the First Anniversary of His Death

Chris and Mike — March 20, 2018

My precious Mikey,

It’s a year since you died. I’m still here. I still love you. And I miss you more than I can convey in words. It’s a hollow space my soul that constantly pulses and aches. It’s a pain in my body which has no home. It’s me forgetting to breathe because I keep waiting for you to text, or call, or walk through the door.

You never do.

So much has happened in the past year. And yet, to use a timeworn phrase, it feels like yesterday. Really. So much about the day you died and the days leading up to then are imprinted on my brain. My thoughts return to so many different moments during those months of your illness. I was in shock, and I was in caregiving mode, so some of the details faded. Once you died I was numb for months. A robot going through the motions of life. Now I’m willing myself into thinking about and processing your absence. Forcing it helps, but it isn’t easy. I’m building a narrative around it, but there’s just so much it has to encompass: our relationship, our histories, our time together, your brain cancer diagnosis and the ensuing battle. And then, of course, your death, and the way I’ve had to carry on since then.

This is the story of how you died, and also of how I have lived since that day.

The day hospice brought in the collapsible metal hospital bed was surreal. As they did so I understood that night would be the last time we would sleep together in our own bed because I planned to move you into the hospital bed in the guest room the following day. That night I remember laying down next to you knowing full well that it was going to be the last time to sleep together in our bed. That kind of prescience is horrid. But I rested my hand on your back and did my best to come to terms with knowing I would never have the opportunity again. Then I held you for a time. I hope you knew it. I think you did.

The following day, Friday, the nurse and I moved you into the hospital bed. It was just across the hall from our bedroom, but it was such a huge gap to cross. As we helped you I remember thinking then that you would never walk down the nearby stairs again. The same stairs from which, over a year earlier, you had removed the old carpet that ran from the first floor to the second. You had plans to strip and stain those steps, and you would have done so. But then came the pandemic. Shortly after; brain cancer. Now, a year after you left me and more than two years after you started the project those stairs are still unfinished and I do blame you. But I’m not mad.

You only spent four days and nights in the hospital bed in our guest room. I don’t have many memories of those days. Everything I recall comes from the notes in my journal. I know our friends brought us food every night. They were actually coming to say goodbye although none of us acknowledged it to each other. Your uncle and aunt came on on Saturday. Their support of me during that time was a gift beyond measure. Your brother, a medic in the Army, flew in from North Carolina on Sunday. Your childhood neighbor and best friend, a nurse, drove in immediately from Harrisburg. How’s that for a team? I didn’t think about it then, but in retrospect it’s pretty amazing we were able to distill so much love, skill, and care into a three-person team. Two medical people and then me — who had become an expert on caregiving of a brain cancer patient over the course of the prior year. We each worked together to keep you on schedule with meds, and to help you eat, and take care of all the other bodily functions that you could no longer manage by yourself. Our love of you took the form of comfort and care. It was like taking care of a newborn, but in reverse. We weren’t welcoming you to the world, we were saying goodbye. A loving, and so very tender goodbye.

In recent days I reflect back on the months before your diagnosis, and then those which followed after. The days after you were diagnosed were full of sudden hospitalizations, tracking of symptoms and vitals, managing your medications, and taking care of the minutiae of life. They were so difficult for both of us. You did your best, and I did too, but it was so painfully difficult. I was a complete wreck and I did everything I could to hide it from you because you needed to be able to have hope. And I did a good job, because you projected hope for months following your diagnosis. I did my best, and it was enough to help you believe. But I didn’t believe. I heard the words between those that the doctors spoke. Early on I knew you’d been given a death sentence, but I had to make a choice to willfully adopt a cognitive dissonance. To ignore the truth and pretend as if the untruth were real. During those weeks and months I worked so incredibly hard, even when it felt futile. Only recently did I realize the job that I had at that time; my role was not to heal or to cure you. My role was to protect you. To protect you from despair. To protect you from impact of the loss of your ability to read. To protect you from falling down the stairs. To protect you from the risks that came with you diagnosis. I didn’t know it then. I did all those things because I didn’t know what else to do. I despaired, but I just powered through because I knew it was the right thing to do, even though my hope was gone. My job was to protect you so you could die peacefully. And for that to occur within the comfort and safety of your home, with me, and with our dogs, and with as much love as we could allow from family and friends in the midst of the pandemic.

Your final night was hard. The demands of your care involved medication on a frequent, steady schedule. Your brother offered to take care of you while I slept, and I accepted with gratitude. He woke up every couple of hours to check on you and to give you your medications. We placed a baby monitor and a motion-sensing camera in the room so we’d know if you tried to get up, or if you called out. You were far beyond words by then but we still recognized the sounds of your distress. Your brother was there for you all night: a gift to both you and to me.

Your final morning on earth was a Tuesday. It was March 2nd. I woke up around 5:45 A.M. I assume I awoke up from sleeping, but I might have just been lying there awake. I don’t remember. By then you were close to the end and I knew it. I wanted to be with you. I needed to be there. So I got out of bed and crossed into your room. I was greeted by sights and sounds I won’t ever forget. You were in the bed and you were gasping. The sound was one I’d read about in both fiction and non-fiction books, and in that moment I learned the true sound of a “death rattle.” I had talked with the nurses and they didn’t like that particular phrase. Regardless, it’s a thing that does happen, and it’s natural. It is also horrible to witness. Short and sharp gasps from your gut, not your chest. A clicking sound as your body tried to bring in air to breath. You had stopped swallowing so you had begun to foam around the mouth. What was happening wasn’t violent, but it was distressing to see and hear. I had been coached by the hospice workers so I knew it was almost time for you to go.

I called the emergency hospice line and the triage nurse asked me several questions about your breathing. Was it from the gut or from your chest? What was your pulse rate? What was your blood oxygen level? The fact I could answer those questions promptly indicated I’d learned a great deal over the preceding months about physical care of a terminal patient. I had performed IVs for several weeks. I had monitored your vitals and reported them to multiple doctors. I had read all the signs and learned which ones required me to take you to the hospital. I’d learned to carefully manage a house while a new disease ran rampant over the globe. In addition to new skills I’d also acquired tools and equipment. I had a blood pressure cuff, a stethoscope, numerous thermometers, and a pulse oximeter. So when she asked me for information I used a pulse oximeter to read your heart rate and your oxygen levels. I don’t remember the numbers from the initial reading but they weren’t good, of course.

Whatever numbers I provided caused the nurse on the phone to completely change her previously resigned attitude. She transitioned from casual to “on.” I remember it so clearly. She began speaking more rapidly and she assured me that while it seemed you were in distress, you were not. She said you were no longer conscious of what was happening. I believed her, but it didn’t make me feel better. She said she’d notify the on-call nurse who would be coming to our house immediately.

As I talked on the phone your brother came upstairs. He immediately understood the situation. After I hung up we did our best to adjust your position, to clean your mouth and to give you the various medications (liquids) we’d been provided. The triage nurse had said to give the meds frequently: every half hour. So we did. They were heavy duty morphine and tranquilizers, and there was no point in sparing them, and they would bring you comfort and reduce your physical symptoms.

I sat by your side while your brother made phone calls. The on-call hospice nurse called me to say she was on the way, but the weather had been awful the night before and the roads were wet and icy. There had also been flooding. She said she would arrive in half an hour. Your brother went downstairs to wait for her and to take care of our dogs. I sat with you. I cleaned your face. I held your hand. I touched you. Then the nurse called me again and said a major road was flooded and she’d be delayed another twenty minutes. She asked about your vitals so I put the pulse oximeter on your finger again. Your blood oxygen level was just forty seven out of one hundred. Your body wasn’t receiving oxygen, despite your gasping. Your heart rate was in the one seventies. Very high. I told the nurse and she said “Oh no, I wish I were there.” Just then you gasped a final time. I held your hand. You died. The pulse oximeter, which continues to work as long as it is getting a reading, stopped. The lights went out.

Stunned, I said; “He’s gone. He just went.” Just like that. It bothers me now because I’ve since learned that dying people may be able to hear even after they stop breathing. I really hope you didn’t hear my flat, exhausted, and matter-of-fact voice. I don’t want those to be the final words you heard.

I was next to you though, the whole time. I said other things, but I don’t remember what. Your body relaxed into the bed. I watched the vitality, the spark, the blazing triumph and miracle of life as they went away — so rapidly. Even though you’d been ill for so long, and unable to interact much for several days there was still a sudden, sharp absence. You were gone. Really gone. I looked at my watch. It was 7:19 AM.

On the phone the hospice nurse looked at the time as she drove. She agreed it happened at 7:19. I don’t know why it seemed important to both of us. She said she’d ask the coroner if she could put time-of-death as 7:19 AM, but she didn’t think he’d let her as she was required to take your vitals herself and only then could she “call” the time of death as it would appear on your death certificate. I don’t know why it seemed important in that moment, but it did. But then again, nothing was important to me at all. You were gone.

Mike at the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) — March 5, 2020

Honey. My sweet, amazing and brilliant love, it breaks me to say it but initially I felt relief. I was relieved that the vital, powerful, loving, brilliant, beautiful person you had been was no longer in discomfort. You were no longer confused. You were no longer scared. You were no longer struggling to meet the basic requirements of living. You were free.

I was free too.

I really hate writing those words.

I know you though. You get it. In fact, I know you’d actually want this for me. But it’s still really difficult to write it, and to speak it. I feel guilt, even though I know I don’t need to feel that way. You wouldn’t want me to pile on guilt and self-recrimination, and the universe doesn’t either.

I had spent the bulk of that prior year taking care of you as the disease began to make itself known, and then from the point we were told that initial, terrible diagnosis. I took care of your schedule. I organized your medications their complex schedule requirements. I arranged and prepared meals. I protected us both during a contagion which would have destroyed us if it had made it’s way into our home. I helped you with doctor appointments, MRIs, radiation treatments, emergency hospitalizations, managing in-home care workers, home IV treatments, and finally end-of-life care. I managed my career. I coordinated your leave, and insurance filings, and did all the work to obtain disability coverage in coordination with your employer. I maintained communication with your extended family, my family, and all of our friends. I took care of our dogs, our house, our rental properties, and our tenants. That, and all of the other minutiae that made up our lives together. It had shown me what I was capable of, even though my rope had become frayed to the point of breaking.

I had to do everything else while maintaining some kind of hope for you and for myself. And yet I also knew very well what the endgame was going to be and I had to put it aside and learn to deal with only the day I was facing. You know me well and you know it is not at all how I operate. I’m a highly accomplished worrier, and I’m exceptional at playing “what if”, neither of which is well-suited to helping the love of your life battle brain cancer while a global pandemic ravaged everything around us. Maintaining hope and optimism was by far the most difficult task I’d had to manage during the year leading up to your death.

On March 2nd, 2021 you left me. At that point my memory becomes fuzzy. I truly have to rely on my journals to help me recall what happened on specific days. I know I did everything I had to do, but the order in which I did them is vague to me. I let the current take me and I only made decisions when I was forced to. It was a strange time, but there are moments and events which still stand out to me.

The Saturday after you passed our friends arranged a time where we could get together at a local park to remember you and to comfort each other. It was very spontaneous. And yet, sixty-plus people were there. Sixty people showed up in sub-freezing weather to remember you and to honor you. We had music, food, and candles. Many of us talked about you, so we were there for quite some time. Everyone just spoke of love, and positivity, and about the joy you brought, but also about your genuine and open nature. It was beautiful, and of course there were tears. Many tears.

I spoke, and it wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be. I read the poem I wrote for you about that one bright day of joy we experienced on Cape Cod many years prior. It was one of the best days of my life. I still didn’t cry though. Tears weren’t coming because, as I said earlier, I was numb for some time after you died. And I had also cried endlessly during the months of your illness. You didn’t know because I hid it. I spent a great deal of time crying in the basement or the back patio while you slept upstairs. But once you left me I couldn’t access my grief. At least, not at first.

March is an important month for us. The first time we spoke to each other was on March 19th, 2005. We got married on the 20th (the first day of spring) in 2018. My birthday is on the 26th. I don’t have specific memories of those days and milestones during the month of your passing. I just coasted. I did get my first Covid vaccination shot two weeks after you died. I had always hoped we’d get our vaccinations at the same time, and it was strange I had to take that step alone. It’s one of the few thoughts I remember from the first month.

Mike on the sidewalk in front of his first house — Approximately 2010

I also sold your house, the first one you bought on your own. It was already under contract when you died. It was a rental by then, but it was the house you lived in when we met. In fact, it’s the first place we met face-to-face. It was the first place we kissed. The first place we ate together. And the first place we slept together. I sold it, which is something you had suggested several months earlier when it was under renovation. You were already battling cancer by then, but you were still shrewd enough to understand it was a wise and timely suggestion. I signed the contracts agreeing to the sale on the same day I brought in hospice. Then I closed the deal twenty days after you died.

Looking back I still can’t believe how many tasks I managed during that horrible time.

The old me would have been incredibly sentimental and sad about selling that particular house. But I wasn’t. I was just happy to have another item to check off my list. And I realized sentimentality isn’t important. The house is still there. People are living there and enjoying it. Our history still stands, regardless of whether we own the house where it occurred. Our lives came together in that home, and we thrived, and raised our dogs, and worked, and loved there. Nothing has changed our history due to the sale of a brick edifice, just as your death doesn’t change anything about our history either.

At the end of March I went to Delaware for a week with our friends. Three adults and five dogs (their three, our two) in a small house during a time when spring hadn’t quite arrived yet. It was an adventure. Again though, I don’t remember much. It rained. I went on chilly walks. I worked remotely during the week, which kept me occupied during the day. At night we ordered out, and we sat with the dogs. I probably read. We watched TV. I slept.

Mike and Chris under a magnolia tree — March 6, 2020

When I came back to Pittsburgh a week later I got a puppy. An eight-week old female Corgi. Her name is Magnolia Blossom, which I chose because my last memories of good times with you were walking on our street in the early days of the pandemic and seeing the blooming forsythia and magnolia trees at the bottom of the cul-de-sac. It was a brief period of time between the start of the pandemic and the diagnosis of your brain tumor. It is now stuck in my brain because it was the last normal time I recall, even though the pandemic had shut down the world by then.

So, yes, I got a puppy in addition to our other two dogs Dennis and Oreo. I got a full-bred, AKC registered puppy instead of a rescue like the five rescue dogs who preceded her. You’d have had a fit had you been there. But people don’t always make wise decisions when grieving. I questioned the decision myself, but it turned out to be one of the best things I did during that time. Maggie, as she came to be called, has brought joy and livelihood to the house. Initially I called her my grief-dog. Then I began calling her my healing-dog. You would adore her. And I suspect you’d be her favorite Daddy if you were still here. You are kindred spirits. Indomitable, happy, and friendly. Her spark burns bright, just like yours.

The arrival of a puppy helped jump-start my healing process. I began to plan a memorial service. You had passed away at 7:19 AM. Somehow that was significant. Strangely 719 was one component of some of your online passwords (which I had to painfully compile over the course of the prior year). I knew it was important to you, but I didn’t know why. It was a new thing to not be able to just ask you. I hated it. But, since 719 was important to you it seemed right I should address and integrate some symbolism. I began to plan a memorial service for you. I determined July 19th (7/19) would be the date and I began the process of planning.

In April I sold your family home in Connellsville. The house your grandfather built, and where you grandmother lived when I met you. The house your mother lived in for her final years on Earth. And the house where you were, in large part, raised. It was the home in which you were shaped into the person I met so many years. The person I eventually fell in love with. Again, I should have felt sentimental. But I’d spent months overseeing the overhaul of that home, and dealing with various family issues associated with it. So I was ready to be done.

I had never felt a connection with your hometown because it wasn’t ever home to me. But by the time I sold the house I was fully integrated with attorneys, realtors, your family who still live in the area, and with the neighbors who had lived on that same hill for decades. I actually started to get pulled into the gossip on the hill, which I found to be hilarious, but not in a way that could actually bring me to laughter. Maybe someday though… because all the personalities I’d heard about for years began to show themselves. It was fun, but at the time it just created more work.

Time progressed, as it does. In May I went to New York for a weekend and stayed with our friends there. Vaccinations were on the rise and it was the first weekend people really started to get back out into the city. There was something new in the air. I went to a place called Little Island which had just opened. It’s incredibly cool, and you would have loved taking photos of it, and being there just as it opened to the public. You always loved that kind of thing.

In the course of conversation with our friends that weekend I talked about the memorial and about the mystery of 719 and why it was significant for you. After some conversation someone else realized 719 was the house number of the apartment you had lived in during your twenties and early thirties. I didn’t know you then, but by all accounts, that home was important to you because it was where you lived in as you came into adulthood and began to define yourself as a person separate from your childhood years. It’s where you left much of your past behind and where you started to become someone new. This information and understanding helped confirm I’d picked the correct date for your memorial.

I continued to plan the event, and on July 19th I hosted a service, a celebration, in the foyer of the Music Hall at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh in Oakland. You know the room well. In fact, you took me to see it the first weekend I came to Pittsburgh in 2005. I have a photo of us from that day and you are wearing a tag from the museums. You loved that room and we were in it many times during our years together. Within that room I organized and executed a memorial which would have made you proud, and it came together perfectly.

I don’t really know how many people came, but it was well over the 120I had initially estimated. We literally had people from the East Coast, the West Coast, and the Gulf Coast. Everyone sat at round tables, each with a centerpiece from your favorite florist in the city. I had them include hydrangea, one of your favorites, in blue, green, and white. I made sure the table cloths matched the flowers (of course). I had a cello trio playing the whole time. I even had them learn “our song” (Buy A Dog, by Luce), and when they played it I was probably the only one who knew it. It was a secret gift to myself, and it’s a memory I love. It gave me a nice symbolic way to remember you in a way unique to just me, in the midst of a busy and otherwise complex day in which everyone was facing their own memories and their own grief at your passing.

Mike and Chris on their wedding day — March 20, 2018

I asked our wedding photographer to made a memorial video with photos, video clips, and old voice mails you had left me and others. It’s so bittersweet that she had to do both of those things within three years of each other. We included photos from your early life and also from our life together including our many amazing travels. It resulted in a beautiful treasure for me. It was, and still is, both painful and healing to watch. But I love it, regardless of whatever emotions it summons.

So at the memorial our friends and family told stories, and we watched the video of your life. We cried together. A friend led us in the Mourner’s Kaddish. It was perfect. After the service. we had a catered lunch (which I know you would have loved), and then all of our guests had the opportunity to visit the museums and enjoy the exhibitions. I know you would have loved that too.

The memorial service was pivotal for me as I finally felt like I’d been able to bring about the attention and honor you deserved. The pandemic had limited it prior to then. Our friends and family were able to proclaim their love and support of you. It was a relief to be able to host a big, bold time in which we could acknowledge you in a positive way, even as we grieved. I really needed everything about that day, and it enabled me to move forward.

I say “move forward,” not “move on.” I’m not moving on. My love for you has actually deepened since you died. You’ll love this, because you’re now perfect. There’s nothing for me to be angry with you about. If I go to put laundry in the dryer and it’s full of clothes that had dried four days earlier it’s my fault not yours (for a change, am I right?). If there’s dust everywhere it’s my fault, not yours. And dusting was most assuredly your task. Not mine. I’m a little angry about the dusting, since I hate it. But I blame the universe… not you. I know you’d do it if you were here.

It has certainly been an adjustment to have to take on all the chores again. I’ve had to bring in help because I have a full time job, and I’m now a grieving widower with limited energy. I have people to help with the lawn, snow removal, dog walking, and property management. It’s been a relief, but I also feel guilt because you were always the one who insisted we could tackle most tasks on our own. I can’t though, and I think you’d give me a pass given the circumstances. I’m just a man, and I’m alone. That is difficult in both the existential and most practical ways.

In the days and weeks after the memorial I began to slowly step back into an active life. I basically made it a point to accept every opportunity given to me to be around people. Sometimes it meant hanging out and not talking about you at all. Other times it did mean talking about you. I cried some of those times, but not others. I’m proud of myself though, because early on I made a decision to allow my emotions to come through as they arose. I don’t hide my grief. I let it be known, and I acknowledge it and give it all the time it needs. I find if I let it flow then I don’t get stuck grieving for long hours or days. It passes through me and then I can move forward again.

Grief always comes back. Maybe in hours, maybe in days, sometimes a week or so. But it always comes back. Sometimes I have to go looking for it because there’s a tightness in my chest, or my mind keeps touching on specific memories. At a certain point I realize it means there’s something weighing on me that I should acknowledge and allow to float to the surface. Sometimes it’s quick, and other times I wait for days. But it always arrives, eventually.

Also, it’s the unexpected grief which throws me off, far more often than those moments when I anticipate it. If I expect my grief to rise up because I’m going to a specific place that was important to us, or to watch a TV show we both enjoyed, or to take a trip we’d have otherwise taken together, somehow the grief doesn’t hit when I expect it to. It’s almost as if my preparation ends up steeling me in such a way I can better handle whatever it is I had expected to make me feel sadness or loss. But then, of course, there are the surprises. It might be a situation where I have to take a road we used to drive frequently, but which I haven’t had to use recently thanks to living in a different neighborhood and also since the pandemic has limited the need to drive around the city as much. But I’ve actually turned a corner and seen a building that you and I used to comment on, and waves of grief hit me because I want to turn to you in the car and say “Why haven’t we driven this road in so long?” But you’re not there.

Another example is when I open up a drawer that was primarily yours. I have donated or given away most of your clothes because it wasn’t something I felt strongly about, even though I can imagine I would have felt very strongly in the past. But when I opened your toiletry drawer in our bathroom and saw your half-filled prescriptions, hair gel, and comb, it hit me so incredibly hard. I’m mean, it really got to me. The same was true when I opened your desk drawer and found your wallet, some receipts you’d tossed in there, and your ID from the job you started just months before you were diagnosed. All of those little things represent a life that suddenly halted. Between the pandemic and your cancer diagnosis some thing have sat hidden in drawers since February 2020, or even earlier. And those little things have proven to be big drivers of my grief, primarily because they are always unexpected. I also think it’s because they represent the simple, quotidian aspects of our lives together. It bothers me you didn’t get the chance to thrive at your last job, and to feel proud of your work and contribution. Pride in a job well-done was important to you, and you always reached the point of being one of the most important members of the team. It also bothers me that your half-empty hair styling cream is never going to be used up. Those seem small in light of everything else… but for me they just signify a massive loss. A disappearance and an absence which were not supposed to occur.

So I grieve. Sometimes in planned ways. More often not.

However, you’ll be glad to know there are positive things happening as well. I know Pittsburgh was “your” town. I came here to be with you. Our friends are primarily shared friends; either those whom you were friends with before we even met, and who all embraced me and brought me into the fold. Or else they were friendships we formed together once we lived here as a couple. Everyone has, unsurprisingly, been so supportive of me, and I can’t do it justice in words. Their support has been magnanimous and unwavering, and it has most definitely increased the rate of my emotional healing.

I’m starting connect with new friends too. The people I work with now never got a chance to know you, and it makes me so sad I can’t arrange for you to be with me when I hang out with them. However, being with people who didn’t know you also gives me an opportunity to talk about you, and to bring you into a different kind of life through stories. Through talking about all of our ridiculous phrases, and through expression of grief in a different way because I receive sympathy and empathy without actually sharing the grief, as tends to occur with the friends who knew you. This point was important for me to understand, but it took me a while to figure it out. When talking with our family, and with shared friends and acquaintances there is a mutually shared grief. So my ability to fully express what I’m feeling is limited because I’m aware the the other person is also grieving your loss. But being around people who didn’t have a chance to know you is different. It allows me to express myself, and to speak to our relationship in a distinct way. It’s powerful, and unexpected. And honestly I think you’d love being the topic of conversation in this new era where all the stories tend to be good ones associated with the fun and funny times we had together, or even the stories you told me about your childhood and other moments of your life prior to you and me being together.

I’d say there’s pretty much unanimous consent amongst my recently-found friends that they wish they could have met you. I’m certain you’d fit right into these newly-developing dynamics. And of course I know that is true because they enjoy and appreciate me, and you are a part of me. It is one of the myriad ways you continue to be here even though you’re not here. I carry you with me all the time. In fact, I’m still 100% in love with you even though you’re not here. Your love for me continues to sustain me, even though you’re not here to affirm it each and every day. You said it enough and I felt it enough in the sixteen years we were together. Your love, and the impact you had (and have) on me is helping me to broaden my world in ways that might not have happened if our relationship hadn’t been altered in this otherwise horrible way.

Chris, with a new haircut, and barber Kane. — March 23, 2022

I do think you’d be happy to see the version of me who is unfolding now. Objectively, I don’t really know who the new guy is. He’s really transparent and open. His old, uptight behaviors have diminished or slipped away. It feels to him as if there’s no time to waste on being reticent anymore. He’s learned, and continues to learn, the value of life. The value of living in full, right now. He is… no, I am… living in the moment happening right now. He’s also someone who spontaneously had his head shaved to eliminate that last bit of hair remaining after losing most of it over 20 years ago. That one even took me by surprise. This guy is unpredictable.

I’m also still doing all the things I used to do when you were here with me as my partner and best friend. Sometimes your absence is a heaviness which forces me to use every bit of energy I have just to get some specific task, errand, or social event completed so I can take a nap. Other times I just seem to leap in feet-first only to realize some time later that I’m behaving in ways that would probably not have happened if you were still here. I’m becoming someone new, but my core is still me. My confidence is strong — probably to the point of being irritating. But I can’t bring myself to fret about it.

I guess I started this letter to say I’m very aware you’ve been gone a year now. I have no idea where the time went, which is very disconcerting. But I’ve been doing the difficult work of processing my grief and the loss of you, which comprised half of me. My grief counselor (yes, I have one of those, which is probably also a surprise to you) says I’m doing the hard work, but to be honest I don’t know exactly what she means. I’ve done what I’ve had to do in order to survive these twelve months. I don’t feel I’ve done anything special. I just lived and I allowed myself to actually feel and embrace whatever feelings I experienced in a given moment. I verbalize what comes to mind, and I behave with fewer limits. My obsession with controlling my environment has dwindled. I’m just letting the current take me and I’m choosing to enjoy the twists, turns, and opportunities that occur along the way. I’m lost, but I’m also more free.

For what it’s worth, none of this means I’m actually happy. Far from it. I would give up all the new things to revert back to a pre-pandemic world with you back to life and at optimal health. I like to think I’d somehow be more willing to embrace the adventures we’d have together, as if the lessons I’ve learned in the past year would somehow still be with me if you were here. But the paradox is obvious. Yet you taught me to be more open and adventurous during the entirety of our time together. Weirdly then, losing you has helped me more open and receptive, and I think the pace of my evolution is picking up. I credit you with my openness to change, and I think it is one of many positive legacies you left me with.

I don’t know what all that means. Maybe it doesn’t “mean” anything. Moving beyond the complete horror of the pandemic and your illness is going to take time. Just writing this is an attempt to do so and I can sense I have so many more words to be expressed, either verbally or in writing. I think the year of your illness and death, and then the ensuing year of grieving, not to mention just beginning to learn how to be a fifty-plus-year-old gay male widower. It has been daunting. There’s a fog in my brain that still leads me to understand that my learning and growth haven’t really had a chance to begin. I feel like there’s so much new about the world and yet I still have no inclination to give up the past. I never really will. I don’t know if the nuance is clear in this writing because it’s not even clear in my mind, but I feel I can move forward. I’ve seen it happening. Yet I won’t be leaving anything behind. Everything we experienced together: the fun, the painful struggles, the travel, the friendships, the life at home, and the experience of building something; those things are all still within me. They are an inextricable and significant part of who I am now. You are physically gone, but you are still here, in me, and in also with everyone else whom you touched in the half-century you were on this Earth. In some ways you are still thriving, and thanks to you and the things you taught me, I think I am too.

I miss you every hour of the day. The ache of loss has not lessened. My love for you remains constant. I’d give all the changes and newness back if it would bring you back to me. But, I know what you’d say. You don’t even have to say it. I truly know. “Keep going, Chris. You’ve got this. Believe in how strong you are. You can do this and I’ll be with you. Always.”

And so, I keep going.

I miss you, and I love you,

Chris

Chris and Mike — On a plane from Italy — September 18, 2015

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Chris Fry

Chris Fry

I’m a gay dog dad and a too-young-to-be-a-widower widower. I’m also a bibliophile, genealogist, traveler, and green thumb. https://linktr.ee/chrisjfry