What’s it like when your sweetie dies?
It’s like this:
This is a picture of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and it is more than a little apt. When you’re widowed, everything you thought you knew is now a smoldering ruin. Like the people in the street above, you’re still there, still breathing, but you cannot even begin to comprehend the devastation. You cannot begin to guess the thousand things beyond the obvious that were lost in the fire, one of which, you come to understand in time, is yourself. And you have no idea what to do next, let alone where to start rebuilding. Your eyes are red and your lungs hurt, and all you can do is hold your hand to your mouth and whisper “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”
You do that for a long time, taking tentative steps through streets littered with obstacles and emotional hazards. You sift through the wreckage and see what can be saved. You recriminate about the past and mourn the future. You have days where you can carry the usable bricks from your life before he died to a fresh pile intended to make a new shelter, and days where it hits you again and knocks you to the ground.
Oh my god. Oh my god.
The aftershocks are never-ending and sneaky, the wobble in your step seemingly permanent as a response to the shaky ground you realize you’ve been living on all along. There are no guarantees. Safety is an illusion. You can live right and decently your whole life, and all it gets you is the same roll of the dice each day that any loser or criminal gets.
It’s a long hard slog, one I’ve amply described elsewhere, to get to a place where you can see through the smoke, where you can start to rebuild. You do it a little at a time. 3 years out, I can look back and see where it happened, gradually, and the quantum leaps of healing I took at various points along the way. I am grateful to be alive, to have survived. In the early days, I wasn’t sure if I would ever make it out on the other side of the fire of grief. And I didn’t know who I’d be if I did…or didn’t. That was probably the scariest part of all.
But despite the loads of perspective I now have on life, on love, on death, on planning, on priorities, the marks of that fire are still on me. The flames have long since subsided, but in my mind and in my soul, that fire still burns. And that is what I deal with now. Because he’s not going to stop being dead; best-case scenario from a reunion standpoint is that one day, I’ll be dead, too. I know it’s better for me not to think so much about all of this; but how do you not? How do you forget things you never wanted to know?
The city of San Francisco has been rebuilt. It’s a beautiful, strong, thriving city. And no one who lives there can forget what can happen. No one who lives there can forget that they are vulnerable; that a tremor can bring it all to the ground again; that life is a precarious business and every castle we build is upon sand and rubble, destined to fall in its time, whether we’re ready for it or not.
I have a deep love for San Francisco, and maybe it's in part because its story is my own. I do not fear the unknown; I fear the intimately known coming to pass again. It's easy enough to dismiss the former fear as wild imagination; not so the latter, which I know is real. I am widowed again two, three times a week when my husband is home later than I think he should be; I live whole miserable lifetimes in those waiting minutes. I know I do it to myself, but I don't know how not to. I know too much now.
I have been through the fire. I have rebuilt my city. But I am ever on guard now, and that brings its own troubles.