In Time: Reflections on grief
n time, they say, in time.
They say this as I’m sobbing and the clock is going around and around and I’m certain I won’t stop until it does. For the first time ever, I wish it would.
Never, not even with a lover, did I wish time would freeze. Nor did I wish it would fast forward or rewind. I always considered my cooperation with the present one of my strong suits. Time moves and I move with it in a way that would make the Buddhists proud. I roll with what is and don’t wear a watch. It ticks and I tock. It took me a while to realize why I was so furious, then, every time the calendar flipped to a new week, a new month, a new milestone, after you died. Life became about scouring every angle for a pause.
But life isn’t a stopwatch; that’s death. And, despite appearances, I am alive. Here, where there is no suspension between one second and the next, I am alive, and I’m starting to recognize that the very second of your death was the dividing line of my life. The event from which all other events will be measured: before you, after you.
Like Christ divided history, you divided me.
And I don’t want to tick-tock any further into this A.D. life I’m supposed to tick-tock further into. I don’t want more time between you and I. I don’t want more space. I don’t want it to be further and further from the day you died—or from the day before that, when you were unconscious but still alive. Or the one before that when you told a joke, managed a few bites of chocolate Hagen Daz, and squeezed my hand three times for I love you.
You went so fast.
How has it been three months?
You’ve been gone a season.
Summer in Phoenix and I feel cold. Everyone is melting and I am frozen. Unmoved.
If you were here we’d sit on the couch and drink peppermint tea and we’d feel warm like everyone else. I’d feel alive because you were. Strange how much of an extension of you I didn’t know I was. You died in spring and now it’s summer and everything about that feels wrong. We should be blooming freely in open fields but instead I’m pinned under this avalanche of aloneness that no one seems to be able to see.
Can you see me?
I try to stay focused on life like people advise but how can I focus on life when death demands so much? Loss like this obscures every goal, every mark, every purpose. Everything has become a kaleidoscope of fucked-up-ness. And there is no prettier way to say it than that.
Grief has yanked me from the atmosphere of normal, goal-oriented people, and now I’m up here floating in space like an unanchored balloon. If I don’t pop first I’ll have to somehow dodge being eaten whole by a black hole. I’ll be lucky to come back down at all. Will I ever? Back to Earth? Back to daytime career goals and nighttime entertainment? Back to the me who knew who I was?
Time will tell, they’d say. Time heals all wounds, they’d assure. But does it, really? What’s beyond cliché? How could a self-centered thing like time ever heal the offbeat thing I’ve become?
The word rings loud in my mind, over and over, relentless in a way that I know means forever. Insistent like conviction. Beating like heart.
Does it matter, my age? Of course a four-year-old orphan is more tragic than a 30-year-old orphan, but only to outsiders who judge things like that. On the inside, tragedy is relative. Anyway I may as well have been four, the way I needed you. It was the only reason you were afraid to let go in the end: what would happen to me, your baby, who still needed so much mothering?
In the ethereal beat of poetry it sounds so charming, meaningful even, that I must learn to mother myself. But in linear, human time, it sounds like hammer to glass.
Breakage in a way that won’t be undone.
The day you told me, before you told me, I was a real bitch. I accused you of failing to be a mom anymore. You leaned up against my kitchen doorframe, watching me make Ramen noodles on my lunch break. I was crying; you called me melodramatic. Ouch. My mom didn’t say things like that to me. My mom held me when I cried. My mom rotated around me.
It didn’t take a thespian to point out how absent and detached you’d been lately, I retorted. “So, what?” I continued my diatribe, “You’re going to be an overly-protective, overly-available mom for 28 years and then suddenly decide one day out of the blue to leave me to my own defenses in this wild?”
You walked to my bed and sat on the edge, hiding your eyes in your hands—exhausted, I figured with me.
I pressed on anyway, despite your hurt, because what I am is still a child. I was going through a minor break up but still wanted coddling as you’d always eagerly provided me. “Why are you so unconcerned about me lately, huh? What is a worse feeling in the world than heartbreak?” I thumped my chest hard, now being dramatic. “I know it’s been decades since you’ve gone through it, but is time really that much of a thief? Don’t you remember what it feels like, mom? Don’t you remember dad?”
“Oh, honey,” you sighed. “I know you’re hurting but heartbreak is not the worst feeling in the world.” I gave an accusing stare, as if to say, Oh yeah? What then?
You stared back at me with the toughness of a thousand German women and broke the news that would come to break our world. “Baby, come sit right here next to me. Let me tell you what the worst feeling in the world is.”
The doctor waltzes in with his clipboard. “We’re dealing with a very aggressive type of cancer here,” he says.
“How aggressive?” We ask the doctor in unison.
“Well,” he looks at his wrist and taps his watch like it’s broken, “I’d liken it to sitting on a ticking time bomb.”
You’re dead and I’m shards. For the first time ever, you’re not here to gather me, to help piece me back together, and no one else steps up to the plate. Of course they don’t. No one else wants to bloody their hands.
In the dead-blue wake, here’s the beating-red truth of it: I will miss you everyday of my life. Every minute. Time doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter. Matter doesn’t even matter anymore.
You were 59 and I was 30—and a half, if you count halves. I count every minute.
Thirty years, seven months, 14 days.
Not enough minutes.
Thirty, I’ll admit, is a reasonable enough age that I don’t need to turn to overly toxic things to cope; still, it is young enough that I will always feel cheated. I will feel cheated when I get married, publish books, win awards, travel to foreign lands, lose someone close to me, become ill, fuck up, fail. I will feel cheated when someone does something so terrible to me and I can’t call you for comfort. I will feel cheated every time something so small and mundane—but meaningful or annoying—happens to me and I have no one to share it with because only a mother would care about something so small and mundane and know why it was meaningful or annoying to me.
I will always feel cheated because only a mother can be a mother.
If depression is living in the past and anxiety is living in the future, than grief is a constant shuttling back and forth between the two. From thoughts of what once was to thoughts of what will never again be, I ping-pong high over the net of “now.” I never touch the net. I never even think about the net in any other way but to stay the fuck away from it. Because, even the what-once-was of the past and the what-will-never-again-be of the future feels better than the incorrigible sorrow of the now.
The present is always a question: Will you go on?
I don’t want to be there to say no.
After eight months, I realize the stages of grief are bullshit. Nothing this big and messy can be contained in something so small and sensible. It only spills all over the place and leaves your hands sticky.
Wrestle as you hard as you can but, like love, death is impossible to pin down. In fact, it might be the only thing more enigmatic than love. Love, our sun, we at least know for sure some things about: We know we rotate around it, we know we couldn’t live without it, we know it’s the warmth and the light of our lives.
But what do we know for sure of death? Only that sometimes it takes time and sometimes it doesn’t.
But that every single time, it takes.
I dreamt about you last night. The first dream I’ve had of you since you passed. We were laying in your bed, talking, like we’ve done for three decades. You telling me how special I am, how talented. You telling me not to give up or in. You telling me to be strong. You telling me to be vulnerable. You telling me that vulnerability is strength. You telling me who I am; who I’ve always been; who I should continue to be. Reminding me of my essence. Reminding me of what matters. Reminding me of spirit and soul and timelessness.
A happy dream but I woke up sad because there is no one left to tell me those things. And that is the whole point, isn’t it?
It’s time I learned to tell it to myself.
I heard someone say this the other day about losing a mother: It gets easier, but it never gets easy.
People should say more things like that to those in grief, because fuck everything happens for a reason, fuck this will make you stronger, fuck be grateful for the time you did have. Really? Clearly those people have never lost someone they cannot live without, which is different than losing someone they will miss very dearly. If they had, they’d say the hard truth: This is the fucking worst. Your life will never be the same. It will never be easy. Or if they weren’t brave enough to say those things they’d just not say anything, period. They’d just sit there with me in the middle of this shitty time and watch it race by and break me in a way that can’t be undone before it rebuilds me in a way I could have otherwise never imagined and just fucking hold my hand and squeeze it three times.
The eleventh hour. The last moment where change is possible. The last minute to flip the script. The last invitation to bloom.
Your final mother-to-daughter instruction to me was this: do not despair. Yet, for the most part, despair is exactly what I have done. My final rebellion. It’s been nearly a year and eleven hours and what feels like a lifetime of black-out black, but today I agree to opening the blinds and letting the sunlight in. I agree to life without you. I agree to living with me.
Because what I’m learning is survivors have only two paths forward: create or destroy, transformation or ruin.
What I’m learning is that time will never freeze; it’s we who must unthaw.
What I’m learning is that what I’m learning from this could only be learned from this. Rock bottom wins teacher of the year, every time. I see, now, that death surely does take everything but it also gives something—one thing only, but perhaps the grandest thing: a summoning to live; to balls-to-the-wall, truly, madly, deeply, one-hundred-percent-ly live.
And what the hell better thing to learn from death? Life.
Today I hiked down to the creek in the town you loved the most to spread your ashes across rocks and water. Across hard and soft. I am remembering, a minute at a time, how to be present.
I watch the water and the sky. I watch the rocks and the ants that traverse over and under and around them. I watch the ground.
I watch the sun not straining to shine.
I watch your ashes being taken by the fierce spring wind, swirling free of form and worry, in a way you never could in this lifetime.
I watch and I watch and I watch, and then I listen. I hear a quiet voice that I used to know well but haven’t heard in some time—an internal voice, a soul voice, a spirit voice.
Now, your voice:
We don’t heal in time. We heal in timelessness.
Arizona Bell will be a presenter at the Afterlife Research & Education Symposium, September 13-16, in Scottsdale. Learn more.
Join Arizona Bell’s talk on grief Sunday, May 27th at 2 p.m. PST on the Afterlife Research & Education Institute Global Zoom gathering.