Needing Grace

I need your grace
to remind me
to find my own

If I lay here
if I just lay here
would you lie with me
and just forget the world...

- Chasing Cars, Sleeping at Last

I know how I woke up on the morning John died. I didn't know he was gone yet. I rolled over in bed and I reread the message he'd sent me the night before - the one where he told me that he'd always love me. 

"I feel exactly the same way." I texted back. 

Because of the timing, I now know that he never got that text. In my heart, I can only tell myself that he already knew I felt exactly the same way. I'd always love him. I tell myself that he knew.

When I didn't get a reply, I wasn't worried at first. It was early. Before eight a.m.. Likely, he'd still be sleeping.

So, I know how it is that I woke up on that morning, but I don't know how I got to the next day. I really don't. Because once I knew he was gone, I hated being awake and I also hated sleeping. I didn't want to wake up without John. I didn't want to wake up to a new day if all the days ahead were going to be so heartbreaking.

John's sister would put it into perfect words. Every day that went by was another day farther away from the last time we'd seen him.

Nothing about the days advancing was fair.

And this too. As the number of days since last the time I saw him grew, so did my shame. The fog that began to engulf me had two edges. One, John was gone. The other, I should have loved him better.

Which of those two things should I have untangled first? One would be impossible, and the other seemed true. These were unbearable things to think about. One of those edges involved John dying, the other involved my wanting to die too.

Eating was a necessity to a life that I didn't think I deserved. And my eating disorder has hooks that are always waiting for any kind of vulnerability so that they might latch on.
How did I live through those early days? I don't know. I suppose I lived for my son. I lived for John's family. I lived for my friends. And I lived for John, even though he was now gone.

Sometimes I look back on those first days, and in my memory it's as if there had been an invisible platform of grace in the air. A grace that was greater than my own capacity to ask for help. And so it was grace that lifted me up and placed me into the arms of the people I loved.

Sometimes, that's the way I remember it.

On the second day after John died, I went to his parents' house. His father Joe met me outside. He pulled me into an embrace and wept.

In John, I could always see his father's smile. I wanted so badly to ask Joe to smile now. I wanted so badly to see John, anywhere I could.

Those are my most prevalent memories of that visit to his parents' house. Hugs, tears, and always, that deep rift in my heart. The sense that I was bleeding out from the inside. That we were all bleeding out, from missing him.
And the shame. That dark heat that followed me everywhere. Constant shame. I remember that too.

It was nameless and faceless at first. If you'd asked me exactly why I felt ashamed, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. Perhaps I didn't notice when it began to take on a more concrete shape. I think back to that first week and it's hard to discern one day from another. I would fall asleep and then wake up in fits. It would be dark inside the house and outside too - but I still couldn't tell if it were night or day. Everything that regulated my world had slipped away.

So, no. I didn't notice when the shame began to take shape. I mixed it up with someone else's actions. If I assigned the cruelty to someone else, I wouldn't have to acknowledge what was happening inside of me.

The truth is, on the day that John died it was easy, convenient even, to hand over my need for grace to the one person who was professing that she hated me. And by the end of the week, she'd express her anger in more than just words.

In reaction, I did not fight. I did not argue. I never told her to stop.

But I did allow myself to begin to live within the confines of constant humiliation. It was a barren and ugly place to be. I was so afraid that others would see how empty and ugly I truly was. Was it the fear? Or that nonstop bleeding out from missing my John? Maybe it was the humiliation that caused me to take the first steps out onto my own plank.

Was I hungry? Had I eaten? Would I eat something?

No. No. No.
It took a long time for me to be able to use that word, humiliation. It took me months. Because, I thought I wasn't allowed to feel that way. I thought I'd be letting people down. I thought, I should be better than this. I was concrete in just one conviction. I believed that I deserved to be hated and that this was the only thing that defined me.

Very quickly I was no longer living in just John's death, but the pain around my mother's suicide rose up and was upon me once again, as well. I was certain, if I could have somehow been better, then my mother would be alive. It went without saying that John would be alive, too. 

If only I could be anyone other than me.

Those first few days, I could bear nothing. My world quickly switched from getting through each day to wanting to have nothing to do with any of them. Not without John, and not if I had to live inside my own skin.
Within a day after John's death, his parents were in the unimaginable position of having to finalize the details of his headstone. In fact, the headstone they chose would have both of their sons' names on it. Eighteen years earlier, John's older brother David had also ended his life.

His parents wanted their sons, John and David, to now be buried together.

Like my own tears, John's sister's tears were constant. She would breathe for a moment. Speak for a moment. And then her tears would come again. She began to feel her red and swollen eyes were conspicuous. At times, she wore sunglasses inside the house. She didn't only cry for her own loss, though. More than once, she would look at me and shake her head, and then as if saying the words aloud would somehow ease their suffering, she'd plead:

My parents. My parents. My parents.

And just like the morning that John had died, when I'd pulled over my car and pleaded ~ no no no. Wait for me. I am on my way - all of us who loved John had to find a way to get off our knees, with nothing that we'd asked for in return.

I'd never get to John's house in time. I'd never save him. John's sister would never have her brothers back. And nothing we said or did could ease the profound pain of her parents having lost both their sons.
John's services began on the fourth day after he died. First a vigil on Thursday night. On Friday, the funeral, and on Saturday morning, the burial.

A few days before the vigil, Teresa asked me to help her finalize a slide show that would honor John's life. We sifted through the memories that had been captured by photos. John as an infant, wearing a smile that even thirty years later, looked exactly the same. John as a child, playing with his brother, who was also now gone. Photos of John when he was very young, looking proud and handsome while wearing the sweetest child's pinstripe suit, at his cousin's wedding.

There were so many photos of John and I together. I didn't feel I had the right to ask for specific ones to be included. Not because it wasn't appropriate, but because I always recognized that his family's wishes should come first. I was immensely grateful that they were including me in so much, already. So I let them choose all of the photos of John and I, offering input only when they asked.

His family selected a beautiful montage of memories, and they did include many images of John and I. Photos of John with his arms around me. Photos of us holding hands. Photos of he and I laughing. Photos of us smiling and looking ahead. I was so humbled that they did this for me, but it also made my heart hurt in that way that only grief can do. All of our photos captured times when John and I both believed in a future together.

When finalizing the photo boards, I gave what input I could. This photo was of a good friend of John's, and this one was of another, I'd say. I'd point out if a group of photos were taken during times when John was happy. Times when I knew he was having fun.

So, when I ran across a photo of John and Jeanne, I asked his sister to include that one, too.

"John cared about her," I said. I truly believed that how John felt about Jeanne was more important than the things she was now saying about me.

I just wanted John to be honored. Honoring him was the primary motivation that was carrying his family and I through all of these details.

The baby pictures, John as a toddler, and a young man. The photos of John alive and full of promise.

His family arranging the details of the vigil, the funeral, and the burial.

And his parents selecting a headstone that would be engraved with both John's name, and the name of his brother, David.

From every person who truly cared about John - what I experienced was a desire to ensure that our actions reflected love, that we were respectful of one another, and that we honored him.

So that is how we made the arrangements and finalized the details. It wasn't of our own volition. It was only because of our love for each other and our love for John. How could any of us have done anything otherwise? I could barely breathe. I was not alone in this. No matter how many times I say it, the tragedy and injustice is not lessened. His parents were burying their second son. His sister had now lost both her brothers, and his niece's had lost the only uncle they'd ever known.

It was love. That's what carried us from one moment to the other. From one decision to another. That's what brought us together, a love that was bigger than our pain.
John was extremely close to his family. Closer with them, than he was with many of his friends. So his family was under no illusion and knew that John and I had been struggling. They knew that recently, the status of our relationship had been going back and forth. It didn't matter to them. They also understood how much John and I loved each other.

They'd seen first hand how much happiness he and I so often brought each other. Over and over again they would tell me that my love for John and his love for me were the only things that mattered now.

Still, I was incredibly touched when, without my having to ask, his family included me in his obituary. I first read it after it had been published, on a computer screen. Without thinking, I reached over and touched the monitor, leaving my fingerprint behind. The obituary said that John was survived by his parents. By his sister's family and his nieces. And then, it said that he was survived by me.

I touched the screen because there we all were, alongside John's photo and alongside the brief description of who he was. I touched it because we were all together there, even though it was an obituary. I touched the screen because I knew that this was the only possible way that those of us left behind would survive his loss. Together.
The complexity of trying o balance a belief that 'love conquers all' with the reality that love can only do so much, was excruciating for John and I at times. The struggle was nearly always around how to accept what we could do for each other with what we wanted to be able to do for each other. How those conversations landed depended on how we were doing individually. Perspective was needed, and not always possible.

Still, we never stopped laughing together. We never stopped telling each other that we loved each other. We never stopped asking for hugs or kisses, and I suspect he was as happy as I was to comply. This was true until the day he died. We never stopped loving each other. 

In my heart of hearts, I believe that John and I would have figured it out. Were the right treatments readily available to John, and were there better support systems in place for someone like me, our story would have a better ending. Or, no ending at all. 

This is the truth for John and I, and it always will be: the mental health care treatment that was available to us, failed us both.

This is the truth too - my treatment team and programs were better than his. My personal history and the length of time I'd been enmeshed in the behavioral health care 'system' meant that I had an expert team of clinicians who knew me. For years, they have been here for me when I've needed them. They'd saved my life over and over again, both physically and medically.

But John was younger than me, with a different history. His behavioral health care provider was particularly inept. When his bipolar disorder began to get out of control, he would repeatedly ask for support from his doctors, and often got no reply. He begged to be admitted to treatment programs and they were either delayed, or not made available to him at all. With John's permission, I begged his insurers and his doctors to provide him with additional support.

Neither of us knew what else to do.

We were at times each other's greatest support. We understood each other like perhaps no one else ever had. And yet, we were often each other's greatest triggers as well.

But neither of us ever entirely gave up on the other. Not for more than a few days at a time, in any case. Not until the day John died. Even then though, in the hours before his death, John heard me tell him that I loved him, and he told me that he loved me too. John didn't give up on us, he gave up on himself.

We'd talked about marriage, but we weren't married. We didn't live together. We had no children in common. We dated for less than two years. Still, our connection didn't unravel and fall apart. Neither of us was finished with the other person. All of the happiness that John's family saw between he and I was real. It came from a deep love that still existed between us, until the day he died. I still feel that deep love for him today. I still feel in love with John, today.

His family knew John. They'd come to know us together. They knew we were struggling. But they never questioned our love for each other or my role in John's life.

John had often told me that I was not just invited to events with his family, but that they considered me a part of the family. I heard his words with cavalier ears. It wasn't until he died that I understood the significance, beauty, and truth of what he'd said.

When John died, I was surrounded by loving friends, and I was surrounded also, by family.

For this, I knew, I was blessed.

If only the love of others could save a person from mental illness. If only the love for others could heal the often impenetrable pain of these diseases.

If love alone could do it, then John would still be alive.

If love alone could save a person, then I'd have backed off my plank immediately. I would have.

On John and David's tombstone, his parents had an utterly heartbreaking truth engraved: 

All that love could do, was done.