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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Grief and The Question

The question was already rumbling in my stomach when my thoughts rose into consciousness this morning. I rolled from one side of the bed to the other as the uneasy feeling lingered. My husband had already gone to a meeting. I inched to his side of the bed, rested my head on his warm pillow and waited. Waited for the right answer to appear.

The sun had yet to color the sky, but I could sense movement from the other room. The preschooler was awake, needing the bathroom. “I had a thought that turned into a dream,” she said, as I tucked her back into bed. “What was that?” I asked. “Me getting into the car to take dad to the airport with you.” I smiled at her as I pulled the blanket around her shoulders. “That’s a nice dream,” I said, "but dad isn’t going to the airport for a long time and so you need to go back to sleep." As soon as I got back into my room, she was sitting up, waiting for it to be time to get up for real.

Even as I showered, as I dressed, as I pressed my foot into the gas pedal, I was still wondering about the question. And the answer. You see, I was going to talk to a woman I went to graduate school with that night. She had read all about Riley’s hospitalizations and surgeries when I wrote about him more than a decade ago. I cannot even recall the last time I saw her, probably at graduation. Or shortly after at a party at her house in San Jose. I can’t remember if she was at his memorial. If she was, I certainly haven’t seen her since then.

But when we talk on the phone, I will say hello. She will say hello. Then she will say, “How are you?” And I have no idea how to answer that question, especially when asked by someone I haven’t talked with in so long. Someone who hasn’t witnessed the howling, the blood-shot eyes, the twitchy version of myself that exists when I leave my safe bubble at home, when I venture into the world. The half-eaten version of me, even though I look normal on the outside. Or normal enough. The mom of a 3-year-old.

This woman didn’t witness all the months when I didn’t leave my bed. And after that, when I didn’t shower or comb my hair and wore the same thing for six or seven days in a row because I didn’t know how to get dressed. The woman who cut off all of her hair to look ugly, hoping to match how I felt on the inside. When we talk, this woman will hear the fast-forwarded version of me. The one that can talk on the phone, the woman who has taught creative writing and who founded a literary magazine in grief’s wake. The one that lights up talking about narrative arcs and creating three-dimensional worlds.

And all this thinking about the different versions of me since Riley died in 2014 makes me wonder how I got here. How did the accumulation of time and space from Riley’s death allow me to do those things, to get to the place where I can wonder how I should answer that question. Early on, that innocent question felt so offensive. It doesn’t anymore, and when I’m at the checkout counter, I can say, “Fine, thanks. How are you?” But wondering about it in the context of this pending phone call feels splintered. And strange because I am different from before Riley died. And I am different from the time just after Riley died. And I’m different from before the baby was born. I’m still broken, like a bone fracture that wasn’t set and the malunion impairs function longterm. I’ll always be broken, impaired. But I’m also other things. And I won’t necessarily cry when I talk about Riley.

As I downed a hot cup of tea in the moments between scratching things off the to-do list, I figured it out. When she asks the inevitable question, I will say, “I’ve been wondering how to answer that question all day.” Because it’s the truth.