I’ve had a variant of that conversation with myself on about 128 work days since going into quarantine, and virtually every time I correctly knew what day it was when I was barely awake. Yet, at later moments in each of those days, I would feel a confusion about what day it was. Which seems like a contradiction. But human minds are messy things. Our consciousness is processed in or through our brains, but those brains are not neatly and precisely designed microchips, with an organic melange of neurons and neurochemicals intimately entwined with our endocrine system and all the other messy imprecise organs and organelles evolved for various purposes that may not always be apparent.
When I said that my waking up process involves one part of my brain asking itself, I wasn’t merely speaking metaphorically. There really are multiple systems involves in making up this notion we have of our mind, and they don’t all function the same way. There is clearly a logical, verbal part of my mind that can respond to that question of what day it is by checking memory and finding out that yesterday was Wednesday, therefore today much by Thursday. But other parts of the system use different criteria and inputs to perceive and understand the world. It’s those systems that become confused with our personal routines are disrupted.
I’ve started quarantine on February 17, before our state had it’s first stay at home orders because I woke up with a persistent cough. I didn’t think it would be a big deal once the actual orders came out, because I had worked from one two-days each week for a few years at that point (and any time I got sick but was well enough to work, I’d work from home for longer stretches). My husband still works outside the home, getting up each morning at a godawful hour to commute in, yet he also has these moments of confusion about the day… because the routines around work have also changed.
I don’t feel free to just pop off to the store anytime I want an ingredient that we don’t have for a particular recipe. I should limit the number of times I go out and get exposed to other people, right? And if I am going out, I have to make sure I have my mask, have washed my hands, and have a plan on what I’m picking up so that I minimize the time I’m inside any buildings other than home. While there I have to pay attention to how close I’m standing or walking past someone. And that doesn’t even get into keeping a wary eye out for the fuckwits who refused to wear a mask or have it pulled down so their nose is hanging out, et cetera.
So familiar stores are no longer the same kinds of place they were, because how I behave there, how others behave, and so forth has changed.
It’s strange little things that sometimes get to me. For instance, in the before times, I tended to handle one of my weekly chores (putting away the recently washed laundry) while listening to a particular conference call (with my mic muted) on work-from-home Tuesdays. Sometime during quarantine I just stopped doing it. I stopped having the automatic thought—after logging into the meeting, greeting the other early joiners, and then muting myself when enough people were there to start the business part—that now it is time to go deal with the laundry.
I don’t know when it happened. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because every work day is a work-from-home day, therefore Tuesday doesn’t feel like Tuesday any more?
The way the pandemic is going, we’ve got a lot more of this to get through. And even when we do, the new normal isn’t going to be like the before times. We can’t predict what that new normal will be, exactly, but I know that some things are just not going back to the way we used to do them.
That is one of the reasons that, while I’m happy to see 2020 end, I don’t feel much like celebrating the arrival of 2021. I’m not going to be cheering, “We did it! We made it through that hellish year!” Which gets to the second reason I’m not feeling the celebration: not all of us made it. At least 333,000 Americans didn’t survive 2020—and a whole lot of them ought to have, and could have, if certain someone’s hadn’t made the politically calculated decision to abandon plans for testing and contact tracing and so forth.
It’s that time of year. For the last 17 years I’ve been dealing with an annual bout of depression. It usually manifests as random moodiness, occasional bouts of the irrational grumpies alternating with periods of mild melancholy. Very rarely there are even periods of free-floating rage.
It typically starts in September or so, and the kick off is usually when I notice that my birthday is approaching. Because a long time ago, the approach of my birthday also meant the approach of Ray’s birthday, which meant I could start planning what I was going to give him and how we were going to celebrate our birthdays.
And each year the depression usually stops sometime around the anniversary of Ray’s death, November 14. It’s never a completely clean ending. Some years I have a good cry. Some years when I don’t feel I’m getting through it or it’s just being worse than usual, I schedule a marathon of movies that will make me cry, so I induce a good cry.
This isn’t the only time of year I get sad remembering him. There’s always a moment during the decorating of the Christmas tree where I’ll start crying again, for instance. It might be when I unwrap one of his favorite ornaments, for instance. Then there’s times when one certain Christmas song as recorded by one particular artist pops up.
Last year was particularly bad. Much worse than it had been in some while. I don’t know any particular reason it was worse last year.
I had noticed that it didn’t seem to be happening this year. I wondered if maybe because last year was so bad that maybe this year I’d get a pass. But no. This morning I woke up really cranky for no reason, and then while I was picking out clothes to wear today I glanced up, saw Ray’s favorite stuffed tiger in his usual spot on a shelf above one dresser and I just about burst into tears. Every little thing that has gone wrong today (and they’ve all been quite minor annoyances, really) has either made me disproportionately angry or completely demoralized.
I have friends and loved ones who deal with chronic depression. I always feel a little guilty for even mentioning my annual issue when it seems so minor by comparison. But one of the times I said that, another friend reminded me that there’s nothing unreal about grieving. It’s not a competition. And it isn’t a zero-sum game.
Just as grieving my late partner doesn’t detract from my love for my living husband, admitting I’m not well doesn’t take anything away from other people.
It’s been said that shared grief is divided, while shared joy multiplies. I think another way to look at it is: sharing pain doesn’t really diminish the load, but the shared compassion and empathy replenishes our reserves, so the grief becomes bearable.
So, anyone who needs a hug, consider this an open offer. Because we all need a little more love.
Sixteen years ago this week, several bad things happened.
It began in the wee small hours of the morning of the 12th. I was awakened by the sound of a crash. I stumbled into the computer room to see one bookcase knocked over, and my husband, Ray, on the floor having some kind of seizure.
He had been sick for a few years. There had been surgery and rounds of chemotherapy. Just two weeks before, the specialist overseeing his treatment had cautiously told us that instead of only having two years or less to live, Ray might be looking at five to ten years.
They had been telling us the “two years or less” line for more than three years, and I had kept refusing to believe it, so I’m not sure why I took the new prognosis as such good news. Other than the usual human tendency to reject news we don’t like, and accept news we do.
I remained surprisingly calm as I tried to hold him so he wouldn’t hurt himself further and call 9-1-1.
Until something happened. I still can’t describe it very well. He was still seizing, but something changed. The light in his eyes was different, or something. Until that moment, I believed this was something treatable. Something we could fix. But when that change happened, I suddenly stopped believing… So by the time the paramedics got there I was in more than a bit of a panic.
I could go on to list the other things that happened, the many stages of denial (for other people, denial was a single stage, for me it went through an incredible number of nuanced phases over the next couple of days). Then, while hugging and crying on my friend, Kristin’s, shoulder, I jumped over the other phases. I’d been crying off and on for hours—days, technically (though I’d only slept a couple hours out of the previous 48+, so it seemed like one really long, horrible day).
So on the 14th I signed some papers. Then a couple of nurses turned off the monitors, removed the respirator tubes, and turned off the rest of the machines.
I held Ray’s hand. I said “Good-bye.”
I don’t remember if I cried again. My last chronologically-in-order memory is taking hold of his hand that one last time. My memories for the next few months are like a collection of shattered glass pictures.
He promised me he would stay with me for the rest of his life. And he did.
I was sitting in my usual seat at practice for the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus. I was tenor section leader at the time, and we had just finished singing a song that I particularly loved. The conductor then said the name of another song, “What’ll I Do?” an Irving Berlin classic from back in the 1920s. I should have known what would happen.
We started singing. I always had a freaky good memory for music, so I always had songs memorized very early in the typical practice cycle, and would start memorizing the other harmony parts to keep my focus. Besides, my favorite choral professor in college had insisted that was the only way to learn.
So I was one of the few people in the chorus who was off book. Good thing, too. The first half of the first refrain is when it started:
What’ll I do
When you are far away
And I am blue
What’ll I do?
The song is about a lost love. And most of the lyrics refer to the loved one being with someone else, now. So it’s a break up song. I had not broken up recently.
But my first husband had died only weeks before.
And I started crying.
I kept singing. A part of me got very stubborn. I knew the music. This was rehearsal for an upcoming concert, one that was going to be dedicated to Ray, in fact (since he had been involved as a volunteer for years, specifically the music librarian the last year and a half before his death).
I wasn’t sobbing. I mostly managed to keep control of my breathing. But the tears were flowing and I couldn’t make them stop. I didn’t want to disrupt the rehearsal by standing up and walking out.
We reached the end of the song. And it was break time, anyway. The conductor told us to be back in 10. I tried to get away. But Adrienne grabbed me.
She had been a super volunteer with the chorus for years, as well. She and Ray had often working together at the back of the room on various things for the chorus while we sang.
She grabbed me. She kissed me, and then she let me finish fleeing the room.
I found out later that most of the folks sitting around me had not realized I was crying while we sang the song. As Mary 1 (we had two Marys singing tenor) told me, “I didn’t know until I saw Adrienne grab you, and saw the tears welling up in her eyes.”
I was standing around outside, cursing myself for having quit smoking just a year or so before—and seriously thinking of walking over to the group of smokers to bum a cigarette. But also knowing how angry Ray would be at me for starting up again on his account. He had never managed to quit, see. Even when his illness and the chemo started destroying lung tissue, he just couldn’t. He had been unbelievably proud of me for quitting. Knowing how disappointed he would be had been the only thing that kept me on the wagon for months after he died.
I pulled myself back together, walked back inside, and finished the second half of the rehearsal.
It’s a little early in the year for me to start getting melancholy about Ray. But only a little. His birthday was two days after mine. So as my birthday gets close, I keep thinking about him. I start being moody. And it doesn’t let up until November, when the anniversary of his death comes around.
I think about him at other times of the year, of course. I don’t always get weepy. Sometimes I smile, or even laugh. I remember it was a bit more than a year after he died when I realized that I would smile when remembering him about as often as I was sad.
But the September through November period is fraught. Ray was a little crazy about anniversaries. He would give me anniversary cards for things like our first date, the first time he made me breakfast, the first time I made him breakfast, the first time I bought him flowers, et cetera, et cetera. I could never remember all of those anniversaries. I knew our first date had been early in September, and when we had our commitment ceremony a few years later, it was on National Coming Out Day, in October, but all those other things blended together, for me.
Even though I don’t remember the exact date of those anniversaries, this time of year reminds me a lot of those firsts. And as we near November, it reminds me of a lot of our lasts (which at the time we didn’t know they were, of course).
It’s been fifteen years, but being awakened by any sound too close to that of a bookcase falling over still sends my heart into panicked super overdrive.
But crying is good. It reminds us that we were loved. That the loss hurts so much should also remind us that we had something precious enough to deserve being cried over. And it should remind us not to take what we have now for granted.
I have a lot of wonderful, talented, loving people in my life. I don’t deserve to have all this wonderfulness in my life. Thank you for letting me be a part of yours.