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The Reality of Losing Loved Ones in Different Ways

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I remember calling my dad on his 82nd birthday from the hallway of my then-boyfriend’s temporary dorm-style apartment in Indianapolis. My dad and I didn’t have much to say to one another, so the call was short. But I remember the feeling of the new carpet under my bare feet and the cold draft shifting in between the corridor walls. I wish I could have said more, spent a few more minutes saying something, literally anything — just simply celebrating my dad.

It was quiet in the hallway, not that the apartment was loud; they both were lifeless in different ways. I had chosen to fly out to Indianapolis to visit the boyfriend, right before Thanksgiving. Right before he was going to start his last long cycle of chemotherapy. Right before his ex-girlfriend immediately came to stay with him the following 11 days after my departure. Right before I spent Thanksgiving alone eating takeout on my couch with my dog. I was happy, but I didn’t know better, I held tightly to ignorance. Or rather, I did know better, but I was doing my best in disassociating with my reality.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that bad things always happen to me because his cancer and my dad’s imminent death happened to them, not me. I was merely a physical witness, an emotional casualty caused by medical inconveniences and mixed up romances and not saying I love you to the right people at the right time. But sure, I was a bystander to a lot of fucking bullshit. A victim to all kinds of grief piling on at once.

I was mixed up and also so deeply manic. I remember barely being able to eat the whole time I was there in Indiana. His mom noticed and asked if I was alright; she kept trying to feed me. His best friend kept making me sandwiches, which I would bite into and then rearrange on the plate. But I was barely sleeping, taking his anxiety drugs to calm myself down and unable to eat without force feeding it. Which I did. It’s hard to convince a family experiencing cancer, while simultaneously getting to know you, that you are worthy of keeping around, especially if it seems like you have problems such an eating disorder. He was the one with cancer. He was supposed to be the one without the appetite, not me.

For a while I wanted to convince myself that I had been the delusional one, booking a flight to see someone who didn’t want to be seen. Because initially being it felt like that. Unwanted or out of place, an awkward in-between of feeling welcome but completely unnecessary. I went back through, I read the texts, I listened to the voicemails, I saw the proof. He said he wanted me there and I wanted to be there. I knew in my stomach when I booked the flights that suddenly I was trying to live in a dream. It presented itself as a freezing cold nightmare. Everything was different now. And he was different now. And I was left by the wayside to casually keep staring from a distance, living in his apartment making sure everything was going alright and sending snacks to him by mail. It felt fraudulent. It felt empty. It felt like it was already over.

When he mentioned her name, every time he mentioned her name, it hurt. At first I thought that it was fresh, he would move on. But then when he got the diagnosis, he made it apparent that he needed his most recent ex-girlfriend in his life. I had to be fine with that; who was I? Who the fuck was I in this situation? You can’t tell your boyfriend with recently diagnosed cancer who he’s allowed to talk to or not. Of course I wanted him to be surrounded by love. Whatever that looked like. So even if that meant accepting his ex-girlfriend was still very much involved in his life, I was not deterred.

I should have bowed out. I could have gracefully ended the relationship and not gotten involved, but somehow there I was curled up in his arms on a deflating air mattress in his Denver apartment, covered in fleece blankets, his best friend on the couch and his parents in his bedroom next door. He was leaving the next morning, but I left before anyone woke up. I didn’t think I should say goodbye. How stupid, I regretted it immediately, banging my head on my steering wheel as I drove out of the parking garage at dawn. I think that mattered.

But now none of it matters, and it seems like it never really did. I didn’t get another chance to say goodbye. His mom wanted to make me breakfast, but I was gone. He left and flew away to the midwest for months to get better and just left me his gorgeous empty apartment where I could cry and write and order takeout and watch hours of comedy and fall in love with a new city and my own self while simultaneously mourning the loss of a budding romance and also the slow, painful deterioration of my dad; both from a daunting distance.

How blissfully ignorant I was each morning waking up in his apartment, looking at the few clothes he had left behind hanging in his closet. Mainly dress shirts and fancy pants for work. A few pairs of sweatpants I would slide into occasionally. The big, dumb, stuffed giraffe I bought him from his favorite Walgreens a few blocks down, in a panic when he first told me he had been diagnosed with cancer. I knew when I saw it sitting in the corner of his closet, he had left it behind on purpose. Or at least it felt that way. Part of me felt like he dismissed me just like the plush giraffe, part of me didn’t have the emotional capacity to consider it and all the surrounding ambiguity. I didn’t like it either, but I was trying my best.

I wish he would have told me to fuck off. I wish he would’ve have broken my heart the day of diagnosis. I wish he would have told me to mind my business or that I deserved more than to be wrapped up in someone else’s battle with cancer. We barely knew each other, even though it felt like we really knew each other. Four and a half months isn’t considered a lifetime by anyone making a metaphor.

I liked the way his stubble would slide up on my shoulder blades in the morning when he kissed me on my back up to my neck to wake me up before he left for work. I liked the way his hands felt on my hips when he pulled me closer to him, interlocking our legs and making my feet warmer. I liked saying each others’s name and simply smiling at each other. Rolling around. Holding hands. Laughing and figuring out whatever it was we were doing. I liked dancing in his living room with him and binge-watching foreign movie trailers. I liked getting takeout for breakfast and pretending we had nowhere else to be. I liked sending each other wild articles and silly videos. I liked all of that, a lot.

But one morning, it ended, or started to break. And life became suddenly difficult in a different way for a long time, but that was OK. Somehow I got up every morning and walked my dog, and explored the new city. I enthusiastically showed up to work, I wrote new jokes every day, I was journaling and singing and finally feeling like who I was supposed to be. What a sick twist of luck that is. Growth does not come from comfort, I continued to tell myself alone in his empty apartment. As if that makes anything feel more tolerable. I would’ve loved to come home and tell him that. But I have to believe when things happen, that it’s just a part of what is supposed to happen. Regardless of how terrible it is to swallow or how delightful it will be to enjoy.

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Sure, I would have loved to fall deeply in love with someone I got along with so swimmingly. And sure, it would be cool if my dad was still alive, if I didn’t spend his last birthday with a stupid boy, and if my dad didn’t spend his last years suffering through the thickness of Parkinson’s. Sure, I’d like to think that reality would have been more enjoyable. Too bad. It was not the one I had been served.

Luckily, the boy survived the cancer, and got back with his ex-girlfriend. And unfortunately my dad did finally pass away. But in the midst of it all, I still continued to have my own ups and downs. Life had to continue moving forward, despite how deeply it felt like it was standing still.

My own mental breaks and a hospitalization, birthdays, lost jobs, creation of a comedy career, a perfect new apartment, psychological breakthroughs, a solid group of friends. I’m trying to draw out positives from how devastating the past years have been. Because it truly was brutal. But it has not all been bad. It’s hard to remember that. Especially when I feel like I’m trudging through quick-dry cement.

Who are we if not the only ones in charge of how we handle our destiny? I ask myself and anyone willing to listen. I know I cannot be me without the reflection of others, and yet in the absence of others, I have fortunately continued to grow. I intentionally chose to maintain motivation and silly rewards to keep going the distance. But for what?

Sometimes I think to myself how nice it would be to talk to him again. To somehow reignite that initial spark we had and go back to planning trips to the sand dunes or the driving range. But to reach out would be to open myself up totally raw. The truth is, we never got to know each other the right way because of how everything happened. For four and half months I started to get to know him, and suddenly I only knew him through his illness, and he didn’t know me at all. He didn’t have the energy to. Who am I to feel so trivialized by someone else’s suffering? Why do I feel so victimized by this stupid relationship that barely got off the ground?

Probably because it got off the ground at all. It felt good. I was happy and secure and everything felt reciprocated, if not improved upon and exceptional. Things were great. And then they weren’t. Now it’s years in the middle of the night and I cannot get him off of my mind. I wonder if he ever thinks about me, but I know he doesn’t. I always think of the phrase “well, the phone rings both ways.”

He reached out when my dad died and somehow said whatever needed to be said the best. I wanted to call him. I wanted to call him and cry to him and tell him how profoundly upset and twisted everything felt. I wanted to tell him that how he said whatever he said in that one text message somehow eased the knots in my stomach momentarily, because for just a second it felt like I had someone holding me up in my corner. How much I missed him. But I couldn’t. That door felt slammed shut.

Because it had been. And probably for good reason. I stuffed the rest of whatever was left of my feelings in the corner of my mind alongside the big, stupid, stuffed giraffe, a metaphor of what felt like was never there. Like all of these devastating events were supposed to occur so I could sit here right now, writing this and think about what the hell could possibly be next.

Maybe I’m supposed to fall deeply, tragically in love with someone else. Maybe it’s time for someone to fall deeply, tragically in love with me. But I can only replay the few details of the short-lived romance so many times. I can only remember the good before I am flooded with the bad so many times. If I wasn’t here, I don’t know where I’d be, and that’s not important. Nothing feels important anymore. Because everything seems so absolutely fleeting. Ephemeral dreams we all might be lucky enough to wake up from eventually. Snapshots of moments stacked atop one another compiling some unfathomable reality.

I sit here and think to myself: although I know none of this matters, but I hope he still texts me on my birthday and thinks of me every time he eats chocolate breakfast beignets.

Getty image by iprogressman

Originally published: June 23, 2020
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