This week everyone in the Facebook and Instagram universe is sending their kids back to school, including me. It’s weird as hell but I keep finding myself using the singular to describe my plans, as in “I’m sending Freddy to the Friends school this year,” or “I’m planning to make an effort to be more involved with the boys’ schools this year.” It’s partly just unconscious logic—I am after all, the only one doing these things. But it’s also a semi-deliberate attempt to not weird people out by using the first person plural. I worry I’m implying that Nina is still literally part of our family unit (my Angel-Wife and I have conferred on the astral plane and we agree that the boys really should have less exposure to BPA and WE are therefore buying only stainless steel lunch boxes!).
It also reminds me of a weird quirk Nina pointed out years ago. When I talked about my past—childhood memories, college, anything from before we met—I would often use the first person plural. So my recollections would sound something like: “we used to always think our next door neighbor was a psycho,” or “in college we went to this incredible park near State College.” I used to argue that it was because I’d done those things with a group, so strictly speaking, it was a “we.” Nina felt pretty sure it was my subconscious self-aggrandizing, intoning in the royal We.
Since Nina died, there’s no one to tease me about my Queen Victoria tendencies (We are not amused by this, frankly), but I think I’m a little clearer on why I had them. It wasn’t me being literal (but there were several people!!) or grandiose (ok, maybe a little). It’s a sub-rosa form of what I guess is a self-esteem issue. I think I have a fundamental lack of ownership for my past. Not that I don’t take responsibility for it, or that I even want to deny it (though I sometimes have to ask my older sisters what happened during my own childhood…so maybe something to work on in therapy?). It’s more that by subsuming myself in the “we” of the past it takes the focus off me. It decenters me and attaches me to others, makes me part of a whole, which I don’t tend to see myself as. I don’t fully understand why my brain operates this trick. But Nina dying definitely helped me to see it better.
When my dad died, I felt I was able to see my parents’ relationship clearly for the first time. It was kind of rocky and (sorry Mom!) dysfunctional. And I knew the ins and outs of their stuff pretty well, the things they fought about and the things that made them upset with me. But until my dad was gone, the contours of their INTER-relationship were opaque. With just my mom alive, it was clearer how she operated and how that interacted with the person my dad had been. A marriage is such an immensely complex relationship, it’s hard to tell after a while even when you’re one of the partners in the marriage.
That was true for me and Nina, too. Until she died, I don’t think I had a clear picture of the contours of what was me and what was her (she did, and I can now confirm she was right about all of it, FFS). One of the several things her death revealed for me about the shoreline/shore of me/her was that my first person pluralism was not just a vestige of my recollections, but a very present part of my relationship to her. It’s taken me months and months to get accustomed to saying “I” instead of “we.” And I know some of that is just normal adjustment to loss—there was indeed a “we” until Nina died, an actual two-person referent, not just my quirky self-effacement. But it was also that.
One of the persistent problems in our marriage was my over-identification with it. I subsumed myself in the relationship to such a degree that it became problematic. I lived my life not just with Nina, but sometimes through her. It left her feeling overly depended upon, and me without a support structure that wasn’t her. I knew this, we talked about it, fought about it, told our therapists about it. But I didn’t see it clearly, I didn’t connect it to my broader issues—draw the full contours—because while Nina was alive things hummed along most of the time, more function than dysfunction—which allowed me to only trace it far enough to put out fires, never all the way to the root.
That masked another thing Nina saw clearly and tried to tell me: that it wasn’t just MY dysfunction, but hers as well—she was enabling my self-effacement or abnegation, or just plain abdication of certain parts of our relationship, by providing the structure I depended on. It wasn’t that I was an unwilling partner, it was just that I needed her to be in the lead, to provide the scaffold and tell me where to paint.
It wasn’t the conceptual part that was so elusive. We discussed All the Stuff repeatedly. It’s the concrete reality of it. Now that I do all the things that get done in my relationship of one, I have a fundamental, practical understanding of the levers of my own and my family’s relationships to each other and to the world: what it takes to keep up relationships with friends, with the kids’ friends, family, teachers, doctors, therapists, etc. How to plan holidays, dinners, trips, weekends, so that all our important people remain in their proper orbits. These things sound simple but each of them contains a universe of complex interpersonal relationships that have to be maintained with tried and true techniques and all the other minutiae that (hopefully, fingers crossed, dear god who died and left me in charge…oh yeah…) add up to a meaningful life.
So it’s with not a little sense of irony that I am learning to say “I” instead of “we” by working hard at all the things that I used to depend upon Nina to reckon. But I am determined to not only keep up old relationships, but actually form new ones. I have worked hard outside my comfort zone over the past 18 months and while the progress has been halting—my version of being on top of things resembles Nina’s only in the very broad strokes—it is tangible. And I did send Freddy and Benny off to school and I managed to snap a couple of IG worthy pictures of Our Boys, who of course, despite all my conjugational metamorphosing, will always remain firmly in the first person plural possessive.