Lev’s death was followed by literal and figurative winter, so cold it hurt to breathe. I existed in a state of exhausted incurable chill. Deadened. The dreams I had of Lev in the season following his death were almost universally nightmares. Sometimes he was the walking dead, a corpse but somehow still dying. In the dreams I would hold him close, afraid I’d break his fragile decomposing body but unable to let him go. In these moments, he would sometimes speak to me, but I could never hear his tiny voice. Sometimes it was all I could do to meet his gaze because when he looked back at me, it was with judgment for the way in which I’d dreamed him. His caregivers would often appear in these dreams, asking about Lev’s medicines, about how to tend to him now that he was back, as if his death had been greatly exaggerated and it was now time to get back to our quotidian reality. I seemed always to be the only one who understood that Lev was still dead; that there had been no miracle. And in these dreams, I always know he’ll be gone in an instant. As they’re happening, I know he’s not there at all. I wake up devastated. I’ve not rested. I’m haunted.
During the winter, the void left by the subtraction from my life of one and a half children and a husband was unquantifiable. I couldn’t see its edges; my vessel had come unmoored. Impatient to feel functional, instead I felt razed. For strength, I talked to Lev. I told my littlest son how much I miss him every second. How lost I am at any given moment. And I admitted aloud and that nothing will ever be quite okay. I touched his urn. I held his toys. I stood in the middle of the room and wept. I kept a tiny heart shaped pendant full of his ashes on a long chain, sometimes tucked into my clothes, sometimes sparkling on the outside (I’ve rubbed it between my fingers so much that its texture has changed). For a time, I experienced shooting pains in my arms. Holding a ghost is cold comfort.
My support system had roared to life for Lev’s funeral. Family and friends came to Texas from what seemed like other planets. Some sent envoys. A few of my in-town friends stayed deliberately away. They couldn’t help, either because they didn’t know how or because they knew there was no role for them. Most of my in-town friends were parents of sick children or people who worked at the hospital or parents of Joss’ friends. They were there in the morass with me, but most had boundaries to keep. And I had nothing to offer anyone except wide-eyed fog. Once the dust settled, I was mostly alone. I kept time with virtual strangers. I craved close geographic friends, but had no idea how to make them. So much had been laid to waste in the years that Lev was dying. Storied relationships with history and weight were trampled, set afire and burned to ashes or froze during the winter following. Friendships with really good private jokes and entire albums of photos on Facebook were lost and left for dead.
One night I came home to the empty condo to find a tall thin box held together with packing tape and propped against the front door. Standing in the dark, I could read the return address written in a neat hand in black magic marker. It was from an old friend and his wife who hadn’t been able to make it to Lev’s memorial, but whom I’d talked to almost every day. When I opened the box, inside it were 99 origami paper cranes. The birds overflowed the edges like they were alive, falling like fledglings. I read the card nestled in the center of the flock. And then I melted into a puddle. They folded 100 birds for me and for Joss as a symbol of all of the things you want to put into words but you just can’t because it’s all too gigantic and symbolic and it sounds tinny when you try and speak about it. They sent 99 of them. The 100th crane they kept for their unborn baby’s room, as a reminder of all of that huge precious stuff. Stuff I needed to remember. Of which I’d needed to be reminded. My sad brain could be tricky about forgetting all that I still had.
My frozen personality, in these months, could be mistaken, at first glance, for placid or spacey or sycophantic, even. I had a vast network of acquaintances and I went where they told me to go. I met them in those places for drinks and dinners. I watched their favorite films and I read the books they recommended. I slept with their friends. As I started to wake up and realize I was no longer content to trip along behind whoever had invited me wherever, I had more time than I knew what to do with. The dwellers in the cracks of my life were no longer sufficient to fill these endless hours. While I figured out how to be something resembling myself again or maybe for the first time, I made playlist after playlist and put them on the Internet like messages in a bottle. I started a blog. I joined an online dating site. I did everything I thought I was too good for—to prove to myself that I could be humbled. Or perhaps tamed is a better word. Or maybe broken, like a horse. The question of how to make new friends at 36—how to be open to it, even—began to obsess me. Commence awkward relationship building adolescent phase—brutal, but totally necessary.
I could not have imagined the spectacular failures of some of the relationships I began. For a person who lives as deeply inside their head as I do, it’s funny to me that no amount of thinking could have predicted the fallout and the key takeaways from these implosions, all of which I carefully reported to my faraway friends for guidance and help in processing the way forward. One woman who I met shortly after Lev died made a convincing case for friendship: friends in common, similar interests, large vocabularies, similar senses of humor. The next few times we met, she introduced me to other people to whom she’d recounted the romantic dimensions of my loss, my whole story. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It felt rushed to me, too intense. Almost like she was enamored of the things about me that she knew (and in getting caught up, she was missing the degree to which these were events I had been a part of not qualities I possessed). In my head, I thought maybe this was just how new friendships felt? That the longer we knew one another, the more the comfort level would increase. Instead, things unraveled spectacularly and she would eventually decide I was awful—the worst. She sat me down and flat-out told me she felt disillusioned.
There were very real reasons why our friendship wouldn’t have worked. Some of them were mistakes I made, errors in judgment, times I acted like an asshole. But in the end, this almost-friend told me she come to the conclusion she’d misjudged me as a person; that I was not the sort she wanted to know. There was no recovering. The way I saw it, the miserable (but somehow noble) grief-stricken version of me was more palatable to her (and maybe to a lot of people) than the woman I aimed to get back to being. As compelling and sad as my story might be, the person who had lived through it was (is) still way under construction. Surviving a series of terrible life events didn’t make me beatific. It didn’t erase my flaws. I was/am sad and strong, but still just me. Despite the perspective that came with fighting valiantly and losing Lev, I can be as self-involved and bitchy as anyone I know. If you were hoping to meet a paean to selflessness, someone gracious and un-cynical—well, I’d like that for you too. Sadly I’m not that someone. I am over-wordy and awkward. I can be the worst kind of crashing introvert and miss the signals that I’ve gone too far. I mostly mean well. But, I’m not for everyone.
To rally from this confusing setback, I would need reinforcements; people who got what they were signing up for in knowing me; forgiving folk who understood the ugliness of my personality re-construction. At the very least, I needed people who would live and let live, who I could go out with to big fun parties, who would share a cab home with me from the bars and not hold me to unrealistic expectations (or preferably any expectations). I knew this would not be the last mess I’d get into, but I resolved to try for better. And sure enough, in the spring, dormant acquaintances blossomed into shade trees of iron. I could not have imagined how the people who were already in my life as bit players or those I held at arm’s length would come to be so important to me. How much I would want to know them better and protect them and vice versa. I added them to my phone contacts and followed them on social networks. I drank their shots and their wine. I listened to their advice. I sought their approval. I laid in bed with them and laughed. Cried. Comforted them. I gave them what I had. I took what they offered. In short, I made friends.
The sum total of Spring amounted to something like banging out the first draft of a new life: get it all down, full of mess. Edit later. In an effort to outfox the black hole nesting in my ribcage, I’d come out of the gate hard, plowing through my first six post-Lev months like a bull in a china shop—aware but unable or unwilling to slow down or pause for reflection. I got basically nothing right but it didn’t exactly matter. Keep moving. Like a shark. Because no one tells the shark “you’re doing it wrong.”