Alchemy

Enigma ~ “La Puerta Del Cielo”

I am unfolding, collapsing like a house of cards designed by M. C. Escher, endlessly falling. I stroke the pillow where his head used to lay, whispering. Through a fall of tears like a grey morning’s rain, my lips still shape his name. I listen to the whispers, brush of edge against edge, fingers against fabric, disappearing in a silence that stretches through the horizon, trying to find the we that was in the spaces left between.

Oh, love…oh, my very dear. Baby….

I hear the calls of the night birds, feel the tidal pull of gravity. I am going under, eyes closed, hands open and empty. There is no fight left in me now. I am not giving up, I am just giving in.

Come to me…

I am adrift here, aching but unaware, lost in the reaches of time and hope, traveling the endless spaces left between. My lips make a mantra of his name. I am waiting, calling, conjuring.

There is only you and here…

No end to this, to what we were, what we still are. No beginning. Arcing above and below, filling the night sky, infinite. All my stars fall and collide.

Fill me. Make me whole again…

From behind my eyes, he sees again. My lungs fill with his breath, my heart with his blood. Thrill and pulse, nerves stretching to feel once more. Bones shudder and twist.

Oh ache, oh beautiful…

Love, endless. Seamless. Whole.

Come, love, we were meant to fly.

Haunted When The Minutes Drag

Sadness Sees You, charcoal and pastel on paper, Fumbling For Light, 2013

Sadness Sees You, charcoal and pastel on paper, Fumbling For Light, 2013

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

Ye gods, these nights just won’t quit. I keep clinging to the idea that this won’t last, but damn, I’m not sure what’s going to be left of me by the time I come out the other side.

I hold together fairly well during the day, although I seem to be on the verge of tears a lot of the time. But once the sun goes down, I start to unravel.

I stare wide-eyed into the dark. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I listen to the sound of my own breathing and the ghosts inside my own head.

I hate being alone at night. I’d give almost anything to have someone’s arms to curl up in at night: for comfort, for support, for the sense of safety and security.

But that wouldn’t be fair, so I sleep alone.

I dream of him, every night for the last week. Last night it was as if he’d never died, and we were back to trying to figure out how to make our lives work together. I woke up feeling like my chest had cratered in, my head aching. I am sleeping only five to six hours a night.

Every night I struggle for air, every morning I wake feeling hungover, exhausted and in pain, both literal and figurative. My joints are aching again, my ribs tender and sore. Grief slides within the muscle, twisting and binding. It wraps the bones, invading the joints. Every night, I am being unmade.

My friend Sarah urged me to get it out on paper:

let it spill
charcoal
grab it
make a mess
get it out

So I did. I picked up some charcoal, scribbled with some white pastels, and the drawing above is the result. It is only the second time I’ve ever created art from an emotional place, and the first time I think I nailed it perfectly. The eye is open just a hair too wide: startled, staring, haunted. Disbelief and pain.

I am a little startled at the result, actually. But I feel a little better, and I’m hoping against hope I won’t dream tonight.

I still have 22 nights to go.

Cosmic Rewiring

A falling star fell from your heart and landed in my eyes
I screamed aloud as it tore through them, and now it’s left me blind

The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark
No dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart

And in the dark, I can hear your heartbeat
I tried to find the sound
But then it stopped, and I was in the darkness,
So darkness I became
~ “Cosmic Love” by Florence + The Machine, from “Lungs”

Darkness, like light, like love, has no end.

Grief is an infinite experience; I think I’ve mentioned this before. I was just coming to terms with how much I loved Dustin, just getting a grip on what a soul-expanding experience being in love with him was, and still is. Then, over the course of a night and a detox gone wrong, I lost him and discovered that grief is every bit as soul expanding, and not nearly as nice about it.

The varied facets of pain and anger and all the other weltering emotions are limitless, and the initial planet-busting impact of loss and grief took my spirit and blasted it apart. The spirit that had barely begun to stretch enough to hold that love was forced, too fast, to expand enough to encompass the grief that was the flip side of that love, its cost. My conscious self began to unravel, too much for the mind to take. In a very profound way, I died that morning, too.

The sun came up each morning and poured down fire. It didn’t matter. It burned up the trees and the crops and the grass, too, and it didn’t matter. It dried up the lakes and the rivers, and it didn’t matter. My light had gone out, no sun rising in my eyes, no moon to light the nights in wonder and in joy. I had come undone.

Like any great explosion, each new rupture was preceded by an intense compression. Arms wrapped around the midsection, curled up small or on my knees on the floor, struggling to breathe, I’d struggle to keep my insides from quite literally tearing themselves apart. Muscles moving and locking into place, heart ramming into my ribs, lungs seizing, back spasming, fists knotted, nails digging into palms.

Breathe, dammit. Breathe!

Since the expression of the grief had no other outlet than tears, all that force was driven inward, the bulk of the damage done to consciousness and spirit.

On the surface, of course, I looked like a wounded animal in pain. Inside, I looked like a galaxy torn asunder. Pinpoints of light, love and trust and happiness and hope, scattered thin across a dark and airless sky. But the center had held, that deep mass of love and loss where we had been us.

And it hurt every bit as much as it sounds like it would. It still does.

But for all that, grief is still a valuable lesson and powerful tool for growth. How many of us spend our lives locked up inside our own minds and bodies, never knowing a world beyond our own noses? How many of us live small, and love small, because we’re afraid? Afraid of shame, of being seen as we truly are? Afraid of being left, being alone, of being lied to, of being hurt? How many of us spend our lives scuttling under the useless umbrella of self-protection?

How many of us never learn we are infinite, with endless capacity for love and trust? How many of us never learn how to be brave enough to open ourselves to it, to encompass it?

I am not talking about God and religion. Regular church-goers have been some of the smallest people I’ve ever known, in every sense of the word. Religion has been particularly insidious at instilling a deep sense of shame and fear, and humans have a lamentable tendency to cling to anything that makes them feel superior to someone else. I don’t particularly care how anyone chooses to walk their particular spiritual path, but no one has got it figured out, and no one can claim dominion.

It comes down to surrender, as most acts of great bravery tend to do. To see that endless expanse and to enter it willingly requires sacrifice of both the ego and control, and a distillation of self into something else, something both more concentrated and yet diffuse. It requires seeing yourself as you truly are: not only the good and noble parts, but the ugly parts, the anger and the fear and the pettiness. It requires seeing it, forgiving it, accepting it.

It requires letting yourself off your own hook.

Grief is a particularly violent way to make that transition, but in the stripping away of self and illusions to the bare bones of who I am and was, I found an elasticity of soul that I might not have had otherwise. Our love was and is something extraordinary, but the day-to-day struggles with his addictions and mental illness could very easily have clogged the gears and eroded that capacity for the infinite.

Love and bravery aren’t vows you make one day and that’s it. You have to make them again and again, at every crossroads, at every temptation, at every opportunity to give up.

We were facing a lot of very hard crossroads, but we loved each other and we were willing to work and to try. Until one night he tipped the balance a little too far. He lost his life but gained his rest, and I was left with a staggering emotional price to pay, and pay, and pay.

I guess one way or another I had signed onto a lifetime sentence: love paid for by struggle with mental illness and addiction; or love paid for by astronomical loss. It seems like a pretty raw deal when I put it that way, but I will say this and mean it with every fiber of a being that has stretched to fold stars within:

He was worth it.

nebuleuse-de-la-carene astronoo com

The Wind Knows Your Name

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
~Lake Isle of Innisfree, William Butler Yeats

I  spent last week feeling like I was being hunted. Something wicked was coming my way, and I was jumpy, tense, waiting. It wasn’t until Monday that I realized that as of last Sunday, Dustin had been dead for three months.

Three. Months. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around that. I am still waiting for my phone to ring and to hear his voice again. I am still hoping that if I can just get back to the places he was, I can find him there, waiting for me. I am still waiting to wake up from this nightmare.

But I can’t. This nightmare is my new reality.

I am continually surprised by how physical, visceral, the process of grieving can be. The initial impact of his loss was just that: a physical blow to the gut, to my chest, that stole my breath and doubled me over. The next morning, I could feel my bones become dense, feel my joints shift out of place. Even now, I still feel heavy, and all my joints ache. My ribs feel bruised, my abdomen tender.

The anxiety has nested in my midsection, and feels as if someone has wound a ribbon around and through my organs. When I know I’m about to take another blow, feel his loss afresh, the ribbon is cinched tight, knotting and twisting. I wind up hunched over, and I have to remember to breathe, slowly, carefully, the way a person does after being badly hurt.

I deliberately tried to stop thinking about him for a while, but that is as futile as futile gets. He is too much a part of me, too much like me, for me to ever be more than half a breath from his memory. Even now, I turn to him like a plant to the sun. Every beat of my heart carries his name, every inch of my skin remembers his touch. He is with me always, every step, every moment. And his symbol is etched on my skin, just above my left ankle.

I was never a big fan of tattooing. Dustin had four, and asked me once why I didn’t have any. My answer? Because there was nothing in this world I could commit to that long, something I wouldn’t eventually get bored with. I have never been the committing kind. Until now.

I promised him forever, the rest of my life. That doesn’t change simply because he’s gone. So now my promise has been made indelible, with me forever. He would have loved it, and who knows? Maybe somewhere, he does.

A stylized version of Dustin’s astrological sign, Cancer.

Modus Operandi

I am going to be paying this price for the rest of my life. I guess I may as well get on with it.
~My first clear thought the morning of May 27, 2012

The first few weeks were all about survival. The tidal pulls of grief and anger, rage and pain, were too much to fight through; my only goal was to exist long enough for the pulls to weaken. I didn’t even need a place to stand; that was asking too much. I huddled and clung and gritted my teeth, and in the end, it was enough.

I felt, at that time, that my life had no point. Our goals had been joint – without him, I felt directionless. I didn’t have any faith or hope that the situation would change, but at the time, I didn’t care. Goals and directions and purposes in life were for other people; I was in full-blown survival mode, and I didn’t give a good goddamn about tomorrow when getting through today was not a guarantee.

For better or worse, survival mode was something I was already disturbingly good at. Through my life, I developed the ability to assess a situation and ruthlessly discard any extraneous emotion or consideration in favor of getting through the matter at hand. I would panic and regret later, provided there was a later. The price for this ability, predictably, is very high. Spend enough time in survival mode, and feeling anything at all would be something I had to relearn. In this case, I did what I had to: I gave myself up to it. I did not try to plan a future, to map any sort of course through the grieving process. I didn’t try to run from it, put it off, deny it. I let it swallow me whole, trusting that somehow, there would be enough of me left to be worth saving, someday. He always thought I was brave. How could I let him down by becoming a coward now?

People noticed. I looked exactly like what I was: haunted. No one could see me and not realize something was wrong – horribly, horribly wrong. I hated looking at myself in the mirror, seeing the tortured blankness in my eyes. My normal method of suppression and pretending everything was fine was not going to fly this time, so I didn’t even try. More importantly, he deserved better than that. He deserved to be mourned openly and honestly. I wasn’t ashamed to love him, and I would not be ashamed to mourn him. He mattered, no matter how much he thought he didn’t.

So. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The five stages of grief, as set forth by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. Often misunderstood as a series of clearly defined, discrete stages, the reality, at least for me, was closer to being tossed into an industrial clothes dryer full of rocks. On my worst days, I can be all of them inside of an hour, and the emotional toll is excrucitating. I can be a noxious welter inside: relieved he wasn’t hurting anymore; anger at anyone and everyone, the injustice of it all; convinced my life will be devoid of meaningful relationships, that I have lost my last chance at love. The what-if’s still haunt me at night. Why didn’t he do this? Do that? Why didn’t I try harder, do something differently? How did neither of us see it coming? Where was I supposed to go? What was I supposed to do now? He was the other half of my soul, and a soul bleed requires a lot more than a bandaid.

I avoided my bed as much as possible; the memories of the times we had spent together there were tearing me apart. We had given each other so much, opened ourselves to an intimacy and passion neither of us had imagined existed. That place had been hallowed ground, and now it was as haunted as my eyes. I would take my nightly cocktail of Benedryl and Tylenol PM and whatever else I thought would make me sleepy, and then try to stay awake through the drowsiness, fighting it until I quite literally stumbled to bed. Some nights I pushed it too far and was unable to even take my contacts out, or I would take too much, and my skin would start to jump and crawl.

To say his loss has left a gap in my life is an understatement. Even now, I feel as if someone has blown a hole straight through me, and functioning around it feels like building a house on top of a sinkhole. This grief is vast, and deep, an ocean of loss. Normally, after a breakup, I would begin dating fairly soon; I understood there would be someone else to enjoy life with. I don’t feel that way now, and certainly didn’t in those initial weeks. The idea of dating again still turns my stomach. There is no one that can fill the void he’s left, and there is already a part of me who has becomed resigned to becoming a crazy cat lady.

What Kubler-Ross and Kessler neglected to mention is that grief doesn’t go away. I still miss everyone I’ve ever lost; this loss is no different, if orders of magnitude more traumatic. There is a part of me that belongs to him, and only him, and always will. He knew that. When he left, he took my heart with him, and left me with his, the biggest, most generous heart I’d ever known. He taught me how to love and trust without fear, that unconditional acceptance was even possible. I don’t know know that I gave him even half of what he gave me, but I gave him all I had.

More importantly, I don’t know how go on, living and loving like a whole human being. I am not whole, and don’t know if I ever will be.

That’s Going to Leave a Mark

“I swear to God, if you let anything happen to you, I’m going to follow you to Hell and kick your ass from one end to the other.”
He laughed. “That’s such a Sagittarian thing to say.”
“I mean it.”
“I know you do.”
Exchange between Dustin and I, late April, 2012.

In the days and weeks that followed, I wanted to keep that vow. Desperately.

I was deep in a minute-by-minute war with myself. I would cry, soundlessly, mouth open, gasping. I was silent because the muscles of my throat had locked tight, trapping a howl that would have gone on until my lungs burst.

I want you to imagine something with me. Take a seat, get comfortable. This is going to take a minute.

Imagine, if you will, a small volcano has sprung up inside your chest. Imagine the pressure building, the burning spreading. Feel your ribs shift and break, feel your breastbone split down the middle, your spine begin to stretch and separate. Feel the eruptions, feel the molten rock coat your bones. Feel the growing pressure crush your organs and stop your breathing. Contain it, at all costs, don’t let it out. Because if you do….

I didn’t scream that first night, or any other, because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t stop. Not until my vocal cords had ruptured, until every dish in the house was smashed, until every bone in my hands and wrists had been shattered against the walls, until I had taken a howling swan dive into eye-melting crazy. I was hanging on to my sanity and reason by the thinnest of margins, and I wasn’t sure I could keep my grip.

That thin, shaking grasp was the only thing keeping me from a Mississippi River bridge in the middle of the night, from a concrete bridge abutment at 80 miles an hour. I was in so much pain, felt so bereft, but not so far gone that I would do anything, ever, to pass this pain to someone else. I was fighting every minute of every day, not for me, because frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. I did it for the people who love me, who care about me, who would suffer the way I was suffering. My parents. My brother. My friends and family. I drug myself from day to day, through night after horrific night, because I had no other choice.

I had constant nightmares. The dreams became a horror show recounting of the time we spent together, but these times, he would vanish in mid-sentence, reaching out to hold me. He would come back to tell me it was all a mistake, he wasn’t really dead, it was a misunderstanding, he was coming for me. Over and over again, I would dream despite all the pills I took to chase the dreams away, and every morning I’d wake up alone in a bed he’d never come back to again.

That first morning was the hardest. I couldn’t move, staring blankly at my arms sprawled on the sheet, my hands open and empty. I could feel my joints shift and crack, feel my bones thicken and petrify into stone, settling into long curves designed to hold this massive new weight.

Grief doesn’t just change your life. It changes who and what you are, right down to the molecules.