My ex-husband postulated once in the context of a fight near the end of our marriage that maybe deep down I was broken, wired only for sadness. The idea that I was incapable of being happy shut me right up. Mostly because I had thought the same thing myself and was pretty sure this made it true. Without question, I’d long since put my head down into the wind and ceased trying to find any sort of joy. I was hard and mean. I had broken my husband’s heart and made him hate me. Lev was gone, my marriage was over, my house belonged to someone else. There was no denying I was deeply and corrosively unhappy. In doing what I’d needed to do to stay alive, I’d gone dark. I saw the shadow in advance of the sun. I functioned in a state of relentless angry discontent. I didn’t mince words. I made hard decisions. And if you got in my way, I took you down. I knew, from experience, things would likely get worse before and if they would ever get better. I learned to manage my despondence, to box it up and move forward. I had no expectation of ever being happy, but I suppose I needed not to be exactly this unhappy.
I’d been effortlessly happy once. I can remember the remote feeling of falling in love, of gazing at the faces of my babies as they slept in my arms, of sitting on the porch of our first home in Los Angeles drinking tea and staring out over downtown feeling like I’d bought the whole world. And just as vividly, I remember losing my grip on my marriage, kissing Lev’s forehead after he’d died, leaving the house at the top of the hill and running from L.A. to TX after I’d miscarried our first baby and I’d begun to spiral out of control. My happiness was brief and bound always to its opposite.
I found I had no coping skills for sustained contentment. I was grateful to rest there awhile, but could never make it stick. The idea that I (or anyone) would need to cope with happiness—as opposed to just chilling the fuck out and rolling with it—strikes me as a touch deranged. But that was exactly it. I had worn deep grooves of worry and sadness into the surface of my brain. I had re-wired things for ease of misery. It felt comfortable, if not pleasant, in the sad bits, something like wearing mean shoes where you’ve taped over all of the blister-y spots but the ache remains inescapable. I had spent so many years with my face held to a fire, with my eyes downcast, with my shoulders hunched, I had forgotten how to feel well. Instead of lightening my load, happiness tripped me—a pebble underfoot.
At my lowest ebb, I busied myself with feverishly eavesdropping on the lives of others—certain theirs was the stuff of envy. I sought examples of happiness, models for living, for how it was done. There’s a whole wide world within the world. One where everyone’s reduced to an amalgamation of images and statuses, alone behind screens, lurking in the shadows of old news and expired relationships, consumed with the need to prove joie de vivre to everyone and no one in particular. I thought, in watching lives unfold in scrolling text and photos, I might find just the happy examples I craved. Watching became a compulsion for me. Each boy that broke my heart, each friend who left my life, I watched to see where their path took them after it diverged from mine. I wanted to judge their comings and goings, to critique their new friends, to feel like I was somehow still connected to their future, if only as an observer. Each woman I knew who had two healthy children, each younger person who was just falling in love, each older person happily married for decades… they had figured it out and I was flailing. I watched them, hoping to find clues to their success. Or I watched them in the hope they would stumble so I could feel better. I watched them and hoped that they were watching me too and that my life—when viewed as a series of carefully curated updates and photos and links to pop-culture memes and videos of adorable animals—looked better than it really was.
I found, one day in my virtual travels, the story of a woman buried for 2500 years high in the frozen mountains of Siberia. Near the end of the 20th Century, archaeologists uncovered her mummified remains. She was 25 years old when she died and heavily tattooed with inks of black and red in the shape of animals and mystical symbols. She’d been buried with a retinue of horses and warrior guards in full regalia. It’s unclear if she was of the noble class—an actual princess—or if she might have been an especially important storyteller: a woman of magic. The idea that those two stations might be of interchangeable importance seemed right to me, and it resonated. I’m neither royal nor magic, but I am a storyteller, tattooed and fierce. I don’t know yet what they’ll say about me, only that I won’t know how it ends. And I know the story won’t be written on my Facebook wall.
The realm of the virtual presented the opposite of a model for living. I found, instead, a model for yearning. I needed to get the fuck out. I had to meet real people, to ask them questions and to listen to the answers. I had to make a life. In the dark year of days between my 36th and 37th birthday, I began. I let the vessel of Lev’s absence lead me out into the unceasingly vast, miasmic ocean of all possible things. The careening quality of this year was intense and constant. Out of control lost with no great desire to be found. My losses cast a dim darkness over what lay ahead; a twilight that might have signaled dusk or dawn. Technically speaking, there are three kinds of twilight. There is civil twilight—where objects earthly and celestial are visible. There is astronomical twilight—where the blackness of the sky is rich and full of stars. And then there is nautical twilight, during which the horizon becomes blurred and one cannot see to properly navigate. Such was the half-light of my darkest year, hazy and indistinct and difficult—but not impossible—to negotiate.
I set out alone. I abandoned my hairdresser, my dentist, my primary care doctor. I was raw nervous grief walking. I couldn’t stomach the thought of sitting in pneumatic chairs with familiar strangers having my teeth cleaned or my hair styled, my parts examined, feeling pressure to explain to nice folks—who were just doing their jobs and did not need their day ruined—that my son had died. I was restless and non-committal for months and went through several iterations of grooming and healthcare professionals before I felt like I could sit still and just be in the moment with our collective sadness. I let everything go to seed in the process. I changed the color of my hair in my bathroom at home using materials bought at Wal-Mart. I neglected my gums.
My memories of the months between Lev’s first posthumous birthday and the anniversary of his death are lush and buttery and vividly colored. The final reel of my darkest year, comprised of the 106 days between Lev’s birthday and mine, is in soft focus watercolors—frames of a dream directed by Sofia Coppola. I am the happiest I’ve ever been. I had spent the year casually dating and discarding more and better men than any one woman deserved, but I was done now. I had no unresolved crushes or old loves for whom I still pined. I had not let myself run from this something real. I was holding steady at calm and quiet.
When happiness came, it knocked me on my ass and nearly killed me. I swooned and almost passed out in a burger joint on an August morning. Between Lev’s birthday and mine, I had five cavities filled—the first cavities of my life. When Joss wasn’t with me I kept nothing in the fridge except champagne and the makings of a fruit and cheese plate. I ate candy for lunch. I developed crazy high blood pressure and ended up, briefly, in the emergency room on a Monday when I was supposed to be in therapy. For the hypertension, I took medication that made me feel hot and sleepy, but never better. I was sick and tired and skinny with weird hair and rotting teeth but I was breathlessly happy.
When Lev was born, he lived in the hospital for 113 days before he was well enough to come home. The grinding days between Lev’s birthday and the day he became ours for real were filled with more disappointment than respite, more scars than anyone could count. We brought him home for the first time on November 6th, 2007. Each of the years Lev was alive, I crawled through the stretch between his birthday and November 6th, associating those months with our collective worry, with dodging death and waiting to live. Each year, as the in-between days crept by, I relived the wondering what I would do if I never got to take him home and I began what would become a ritual of praying in my way that I could get to keep him for a little while longer. That first year, and each year he lived, on November 6th, I allowed myself to exhale. In the end, Lev left us on November 3rd—three days shy of the day he first came home; four days after my 36th birthday; three years and 110 days after the day he was born. I count the days to assign some sense of order to the great jumbled clod of them, but really, they’re just and simply days, each one the same: each one devastating and fine.
On the night before my 37th birthday, I ate a big Italian meal, just like I did every year of my childhood. I went to bed sated and full. My birthday, October 30th, we celebrated with decadent Sunday breakfast for a table full of friends at a restaurant we reserve for halcyon days. Halloween is next, with costumes for Joss, then All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Finally, on November 3rd, the anniversary of his death, those of us who loved him mark Lev’s day. On that day I will be busy. I will pick my mother up at the airport and visit my storage space to retrieve the single box into which I’d packed the most precious of Lev’s things. On that day, I will feel pain. I have an appointment to get a tattoo of Lev’s initial. Considering the collection of ink already illustrating me, the new addition will be a tiny flourish, a bookend. I will be lucky. In the evening, a friend has arranged for tickets to see Joan Rivers, an idol of mine since forever. When I meet Ms. Rivers after the show, she will be so tiny I will think maybe I could fit her in my purse. When I say this out loud, she will look at me like I’m crazy. It will be strange and wonderful. I will drink Scotch and Irish whiskey that night and I will fall into bed with gusto, dizzy and in love with everything. This feeling won’t end. It will stretch on and on for miles and ages into the horizon. It’s all only just beginning.
I hope when they find me someday, buried in ice, they unravel my story and the ending is beautiful.