August 21, 2019

The Changing Chemistry of Grief.


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The first day of grief is different from the second, which is different from the seventh, which is different from the 40th.

I think, then, that the chemistry of each tear that fell from my eyes when the man I loved left me was likewise unique.

The first tears of grief were made from water and salt and hot outrage, bloody heartbreak, and fear. The second day’s tears were bitter and tart lipids and glucose, anguish, and screaming questions that demanded answers from an indifferent universe.

More recently, all these days later, I’d like to tell you the tears are dusty and filled with resignation and natural urea, potassium, and lactoferrin, but they’re not; they’re composed of broken dreams and the stinging of a shattered future. They’re made from cynicism and a howl. They contain the oxygen from around my fists as I look for something to punch, and the hope that a mug of hemlock or nightshade tea or arsenic will find its way into my breakfast, soon, so I can end this.

But I can’t end this, because I have kids.

I just have to let the chemistry change until the molecules loosen and reform and distill into something that feels like normalcy again.

It started off ridiculously.

It started off at Kings Dominion, the amusement park in Doswell, Virginia, on a 100-degree day in the summer when my youngest two kids and their two friends were roller-coaster hopping and I was contentedly eating soft-serve ice cream and french fries, walking laps, listening to podcasts on my phone with my earbuds in, generally making myself available if the kids needed anything. They didn’t.

I ducked into the gift shops now and then to steal some air conditioning and buy a $5-bottle of water, for which I eviscerated Kings Dominion’s management in an email later, and smiled blandly at the other sweaty families who passed me. My shirt was the kind with fluttery sleeves so I hoped I wasn’t getting too much of a tan line, or a sunburn line, which is more accurate for my pasty and freckled skin. The kids had the sunscreen in their shared backpack. I stopped at Dippin’ Dots and loaded up on their chocolate chip cookie dough flavor.

The man I love is not my boyfriend. He’s not my husband. He’s not my lover.

I discovered, that day at Kings Dominion, that he’s not even my friend, despite the fact that we’ve seen each other monthly for the past two years, talked online almost daily for three years after reconnecting on Facebook, after having attended undergrad together.

There was always a luster of an unfinished affair there—un-begun, actually. We’d always liked each other, been attracted, had a friendship with a strong overtone of love. He called it love too—but he didn’t show up for me that day.

I live three hours away from Kings Dominion, to the north, outside of Baltimore. He lives in Virginia, at the same exit as the park, literally a minute’s drive—exit 98, Doswell, off I-95. Practically across the street. He didn’t cross the street to see me.

When I protested, via text, he stopped opening my messages.

I did not cry into my Dippin’ Dots. I had four kids to look after. My tears, on that first day, were invisible and insulted and disconcerted. I waited until the park closed while the kids finished their final ride, in the dark, and drove the long trek home, without any tears, chatting, radio on, and pretending I was okay.

The tears I did not spill were made of confusion, frustration, and memory. I could easily summon the feel of my friend’s body when we’d leaned against each other in college, and again more recently—just the night before, actually, when the kids and I had spent the night at exit 98’s Travelodge. I’d hugged him goodbye, and he’d said that he didn’t really want to see me once a month anymore. I was four beers in, so it didn’t register—I thought he was being his usual avoidant self who spouts a bunch of nonsense but loves me anyway.

But when I woke up the next morning in my sh*tty hotel bed—there’s mold in the bathroom, for the record, in case you’re considering a trip—I knew he’d actually said something different.

And he doubled down somewhere between the Dominator and Twisted Timbers, the two roller coasters I passed as I texted him and listened to “The NPR Politics Podcast” and I Heart Radio’s “Stuff You Should Know.”

He doubled down between Boardwalk Fries and Dippin’ Dots.

He doubled down between the beginnings of grief that I can describe as bewildered, and grief that I can describe as lethal.

I’d have left my husband for him, had he reciprocated how I felt. I’ve never loved anyone like him, and I’m fairly sure I never will again. I’ve got nothing left now but the space he left when I was in his neighborhood and he declined to see me.

And all of these days later? The messages I sent him? They’re still unread.

I know this sounds like a young person’s love affair, so I’ll tell you this: I am 45. It’s 2019. We’ve been friends since the early 1990s. Our friendship has spanned 26 years, during which I’ve slept with 13 people, had three kids, and been married twice—and yet I love him, and for a long time he loved me too. Not in the same way, but in enough of a way that a three-hour drive to Virginia’s exit 98 seemed like a slam-dunk that I’d have his attention.

I’m stunned that this is how it ended—not with a bang, but a whimper.

My tears, today, are made of a whimper. Hopelessness, immunoglobulins, and a whimper. My marriage is a whimper, but maybe now with this complicated friendship gone, it’ll be stronger. The years of this friendship, now devalued, are nothing but a whimper—so do they still matter?

The better question is: what matters?

My tears are made from strength and weakness both, from unquestioning love and shameful secrets both. Tears are made from wisdom and humiliation both.

Aren’t yours?

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