Jessica told me two days ago I was on the verge of a melt down. By which she meant I needed a good cry. She was right. I’ve spent the two months since David died assuming I was grieving. I’d tell myself the more quickly I could accomplish a task, the more rapidly my pain and sadness would pass and my energetic, flamboyant Judy Gumbo self would re-emerge. What foolishness. I was re-writing my own history; collapsing how I suffered the first year after Stew died into eight weeks. Now I’ve stepped back on Macy’s escalator, sobbing in its lonely basement, lonelier and sadder now than I’ve felt since David died. It may feel terrible but I see this as a good thing. I can feel raw pain.
Before my melt-down, in my “get things done and the pain will go away mode,” I cleaned up some clutter in David’s office – Consumer Reports and Harvard Medical Letters in pristine condition, two and three years old. David had used his three-hole punch on them, then filed the magazines by year in blue binders, to my knowledge never to be referred to or opened. Did having them on his shelf give him some degree of …what? Comfort? An unimpeachable knowledge base he could go back to should the time and need arise? Or did David just collect for the hell of it; he did come from an extended family with a few self-styled hoarders. For sure David was an idealist. Perhaps his unsorted piles of stuff represented a commitment to projects he hoped one day to accomplish. But hey, it was his office to do with what he chose. And now it’s mine.
As much as I can, I chose not to live with clutter. I prefer clean lines and unimpeded surfaces; I like to “see the oak” as a wise nurse and colleague in the rural Portland hospital where I briefly worked once told me. But soon after I finished a very partial clean-up, I began to miss the chaos of David’s clutter. His office was silent, sparse. No object moved or changed unless I made it happen.
After Stew died I’d visit his grave in Jones Pioneer Cemetery and pound the bare earth trying to wake him up. In bed at night I’d howl like a wolf, but during the day I’d focus on fight or flight: get the fuck out of Portland, dragging with me to Berkeley a truckload of Stew’s and my stuff I was not emotionally able to discard. With David it’s been different. I live in a house I love, surrounded by David’s stuff but not by him. As every piece of clutter goes, a bit of David follows. When my clean-up is complete will I, by my own actions, have made what little I have left of David vanish too? If so, I couldn’t stand it.
There’s an article circulating in my circle from last Sunday’s NY Times titled Getting Grief Right. Grief comes not sequentially in stages but in chapters, the author writes. I agree. I’ve said the same since Stew died: grieving is not linear. The author goes on to explain: the depth of your sadness is a measure of the love you had. When I first read this sentence I rejoiced, I felt the author had given me the gift of a new and profound truth. But then I began to wonder: How do you measure depth of sadness? Or love for that matter? I howled for Stew and beat the earth over his grave with my fist while with David all I did was sob and carry his ashes and totem stuffed eagle upstairs to their place next to my bed. Do my actions mean the depth of my sadness for David is less than my suffering over Stew? It sure don’t feel that way.
My love for Stew and for David was as different as the two men were – and if you are among those who knew them both you’ll understand. I acted out my grief for Stew dramatically, appropriate to the times we lived in and revolutions we made. My love for David was tempered by age and the difference between a relationship of 40 years and one of 7. Everyone grieves in her or his own way. To see depth of sadness as a measure of love feels mechanistic, instrumental. My love for my two dead husbands was quite different but equally deep. And I am equally sad.