I am having surgery tomorrow. It’s very minor surgery. I’ve had a balky right knee for ages and it finally just gave up during a jog a couple weeks ago. The surgery is just to repair a torn meniscus. It’s the kind of surgery that’s so minor the doctor told me I could opt to have it or not depending on how much the pain in my knee was bothering me. The surgeon said the pre-op takes far longer than the actual surgery, which he estimates at about 15 minutes of actual slicing and dicing.
But I have never found a straightforward thing I could not complicate. I have snatched the Byzantine from the clean jaws of Modernism more times than I can count. I knew it was just torn cartilage. I had a cortisone injection a couple years ago and the orthopedist told me then that was likely. When the meniscus was officially diagnosed as the culprit after the MRI, it was as expected. But I felt an elevated level of anxiety given the circumstances.
I’ve never been hugely anxious about medical stuff, despite a lifetime of collecting weird chronic illness (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, chronic sinus infections, diabetes, chronic urticaria). But I felt a tightness in my chest when I went to the doctor for the MRI results, and I’ve been in a sort of elevated state of uneasiness all week. As an example, I was having dinner the other night with the boys and my father in law when something Freddy said suddenly reminded me of a dream I’d had the night before: I was having my surgery and, instead of the tiny incisions they’re actually going to make, they pulled back my flesh in four directions—like open heart surgery or an autopsy—and found inside that the whole knee was rotting and filled with spiders, which came crawling out in all directions. “Cancer, clearly,” was the doctor’s diagnosis. My psyche has a very subtle way of sublimating my traumas.
This is my first serious medical intervention since Nina died, so I guess I just have a hair trigger for this kind of stuff now? I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’m living my grief out of order. Not long after Nina died, I met someone and had a really intense connection right away. Probably that blunted some of the trauma of my immediate situation. It certainly delayed some of the loneliness. It was oddly normalizing, because she had also lost a spouse, so in a way the state of loss or widowhood was endemic to the new relationship. Anyhow, I didn’t feel the intensity of some of the vagabond pathologies of grief that can lie in wait for people after they lose an intimate partner as directly as I might have.
More recently, since I’ve been on my own, the intensity of loneliness in grief is more present as are some of the neuroses. I’ve been having trouble regulating my sleep, I’m edgy and more erratic emotionally than I feel most of my situations warrant, and I’ve developed some hypochondria around things like routine knee surgery (I’m reassured by the MRI, which showed absolutely no signs of spiders, but I also remember from Nina’s course of treatment how unreliable imaging can be, so who knows? Maybe they were just imaging-resistant spiders?!). I am having more of the kinds of days my fellow widows on Hot Young Widows Club describe wherein they are just sick and tired of getting through every day without the person they planned to spend every day with for the rest of their life. I think rationally we all know we don’t literally crawl into the grave after our person, but sometimes it’s hard to convince myself.
Life is a marathon, they say, not a sprint. To the extent that’s true, which seems dubious, I guess it’s true for life in grief mode, too. But I have never ever wanted to run a marathon–I hate long runs and in point of fact, they’re probably really bad for my meniscus—and I’m not especially explosive out of the starting blocks either. I don’t really want to run the race at all, is the problem. The only way I ever learned how to motivate through life was in the context of my relationship with Nina. It was both my goal and my means of reaching it. Of course, there were/are other things involved—we had kids, families, friends, careers, and lots of other important goals—but those were all either a product of the relationship or in one way or another secondary to it.
Since Nina died, I’ve been struggling to even conceptualize what the new goal structure looks like. First and most obvious is our kids. Nina’s dead, but I’m still their dad and they still need parenting (well, Freddy says he doesn’t, but Benny still wants to be parented badly as long as it involves a high cuddling to chore ratio). That’s a helpful framework, but it takes an element of my relationship with Nina—the child-having and child-raising part—and elevates it to the primary focus. And that’s fine, it’s what I’m doing. But it’s kind of like living an abstract of my previous life instead of the whole thing.
Whatever intrinsic value I derive from parenting my kids (and even for a reluctant curmudgeon of a dad like me it’s a lot), it doesn’t address a whole host of things that are important to me, and stands in direct conflict with some of them. As any single parent can tell you, it’s hard to focus on being a solid professional and also be a decent full-time parent. Anyone working full-time has the “work-life balance” issue, but I find my need to be a good father sapping my ambition to be a good lawyer more and more.
And then there’s my personal life. When Nina died I felt sort of wide-open, like most of my normal inhibitions or hang-ups receded. I don’t know if it was just that grief seemed so much more important than any insecurities or if I was just so blasted by grief that it never occurred to me to feel insecure, but I felt an openness and connection to the people around me that I had not generally felt previously. It’s what allowed me to do interviews about Nina’s book, discuss her illness and dying, and be so public about a lot of very personal, painful stuff.
I think it also helped me be open to the possibility of new love, along with Nina’s encouragement before she died. But recently I have started to feel this emotional supernova collapse back on itself. The very force of my immediate experience of grief – the intensity of the feelings of loss, the relationship I had soon after Nina died, the publicity around her book – collapsing back in on itself a bit. It’s not just intimate relationships, either. It’s just a generalized sense of social anxiety and a lack of social momentum–it’s more work to make a social life happen than it was.
The potential for becoming an emotional black hole is part of the reason I started writing this blog. I figured that if putting all my crap out there on the internet was helpful before, maybe forcing myself to keep doing it could keep me from folding up my tent and stealing away into the desert now that the momentum of grief has slowed and normalized and started to feel like a long-term burden instead of an adrenalized crisis.
I just read a book about anxiety and grief (it’s good, I highly recommend it) that reminded me of an exercise I used to do for stress relief: I’d write down whatever I was thinking — a screed of anger, frustration, worry, fear, whatever — and then tear up the sheet of paper, or delete the file and never look at it again. Both parts, the writing down and the throwing away, were important components of the exercise.
The blog is different, because I’m not (yet at least) throwing out the posts after I write them. But it serves a similar purpose. It’s not just a way of staying open to the world, but also a place to make manifest and bear witness to things while I’m experiencing them, a checkpoint, framework, and vessel for the grieving process, which is weird and unpredictable and requires more interventions than I even anticipated.
So, I’m having very minor surgery tomorrow, but when I wake up I’ll probably continue to go through a whole bunch of things that have more to do with my psyche than my meniscus and I’ll need some way to process them and explain them to myself so I don’t go crazy or get too sad and so I can come here for that. And, who knows, maybe I’ll post something before the meds wear off and it’ll get REALLY interesting?