*Quick Post-Hurricane Post-Postmortem Update: We had heavy rains for a couple days and nothing more. I know our friends and family down east got clobbered, so it’s not an indication of what Florence did on the front lines, but Greensboro was largely spared.
The other day I went to the ophthalmologist’s office for my annual diabetic retinopathy checkup (if you’re thinking my life sounds like a nonstop rave-up, well … ). A trip to the eye doctor isn’t exactly the end of the world and so far (knocks on wood) my eyes have held up well to 22 years of diabetes vagaries. But I hate the ophthalmologist. It’s not the wall chart tests or setting my chin in the contraption with the doctor only inches from my face – a strangely intimate setup for the examination of the very organ that allows us to see faraway things. It’s the pupil dilation. I hate the feeling of having my eyes dilated. It’s not the photosensitivity, though that’s annoying. It’s the inability to focus, the way the dilation robs me suddenly of my acuity. It feels like more than vision. When my eyes go all fuzzy, I feel like my whole brain has lost its ability to concentrate.
When Nina was alive, she used to tease me about my sensitivity to pupil dilation (as well as loud noises, sudden movements, direct sunlight, sand, water, heat, cold, etc.). After all, she’d once had a condition where the only cure was a direct injection of medication INTO HER EYEBALL, wherein the syringe had to be inserted, injected, and withdrawn slowly, maximizing her “discomfort” (I don’t think it helped that the nurse told her beforehand “it takes a really long time, I wouldn’t want it done to me”!!!). The fact that after every eye exam I feel like I need to lie down in a dark, quiet room to recuperate until my vision returns to normal was the subject of some much-deserved ridicule.
I was musing about this during my most recent visit, and it got me thinking how teasing – a seemingly innocuous, everyday element of discourse – is part of the whole connecting thread of shared experience in grief – the one tying me to Nina by our long mutual knowledge of each other’s idiosyncrasies and routines. It’s obvious at one level: when your person dies, the thread gets cut, and your everyday routine becomes a series of reminders of their absence: Nina’s place at the dinner table, her side of the bed, her stocking at Christmas are all empty spaces now.
But losing the everyday presence of your favorite human is a deep wound. It goes beyond missing that Nina, leaving a crater that, without even trying, I tend to try to fill. If Nina were alive I would surely have been texting her from the eye doctor, probably trying to joke about my “discomfort” and teasing myself (she used to say that I had a gift for ostentatious self-deprecation that was second to none) about the fact that I’m such a wimp.
My texts to Nina were most often silly, neurotic, everyday things. But, especially in the aggregate, they mattered. They were indirect ways of saying “I love you,” “I need you,” or maybe just “I’m uncomfortable, I’m happy, I’m anxious, I’m right chuffed with myself at the moment, thank you very much (because sometimes in my texts I’m British), etc.”
I can simulate these communications outside of an intimate, long-term, love relationship – if you polled my friends and family they’d all affirm that I have been overcompensating (or over-texting) for the loss — but it’s never in the same way, or with the same degree of intimacy.
It’s this type of intimacy, maybe even more than physical intimacy or any sort of direct intimate expression, that’s been the most beguiling in many ways since Nina died. There is no direct way to fill the void. It’s an intangible benefit or side-effect of being in a long-term relationship – knowing banter, teasing, and the like – you can’t start mid-stream with someone else where you left off rapporting when your partner dies.
The need for this is important and potentially troublesome for starting a new relationship after loss. This communication is endemic to who I am – I could not form a lasting bond with someone without it. So naturally, I’m going to text silly things from the ophthalmologist to anyone with whom I become intimate, eventually.
But, as with nearly everything after a loss, there are traps in that seemingly obvious behavior. There’s the recapitulation of my relationship with Nina, something I want to avoid. Every relationship is unique, and shouldn’t be form fit into an existing mold – but how much can I avoid doing the things I do in a relationship? How much should I even be trying to monitor and tamp down my instinct for such behavior?
Communication is a particularly fraught part of bridging the gap from a lost relationship to a new one, because we say so much indirectly. Nonverbal or indirect verbal communications – inside jokes, puns, shared symbols, etc. – are a kind of glue for any relationship, whether a marriage or friendship. And communication is so key in relationship building. We can do plenty of it directly, but we still need those moments of flirtation, chit-chat, or silliness.
Much of the behavior I’m describing are appropriate in a new relationship context, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also implicate and reference the prior relationship – after all, this kind of communication is indirect, sometimes non-verbal (facial expressions, gestures, etc.). This gets confusing. The ultimate question for anyone looking to connect again after a loss may be: how do I know when I need this (new) person and when I just need — and the answer can be both at the same time, which is especially confounding.
This type of relationship intangible is maybe the best illustration I’ve found of why it’s hard to enter into a new relationship soon after a loss (or a breakup, for that matter). The intangibles show how pervasive and powerful the loss is in our makeup. It’s also really hard to detect — the behaviors fly below our emotional radar most of the time.
The problem for me has been I can’t see clearly enough to distinguish this kind of thing until after the fact. It’s not until I get home, lie down in the dark room I’ve been sharing with no one, and let the powerful effects of the emotional transubstantiation wear off that I can disentangle the threads. And even then, I’m not sure I have it all clear. Of course, as my ophthalmologist pointed out, I do have a nascent astigmatism. She prescribed me reading glasses and said I should be prepared for bifocals at some point. So maybe it’s not going to get much clearer from here on out.