Funny How Time Slips Away

I haven’t written here in a while. I’ve been busy. Work ramped up, I have two kids, and, because I’m a masochist, we also just adopted a third shelter dog. But the truth is: I’m always busy. For a while I still felt compelled to write, but lately that just hasn’t been true. I don’t know if that’s me turning inward (Danger, Will Robinson!), or peeling back from the vast oceans of oversharing to survey the existing wreckage?

I felt a real shift, from more or less not being able to sleep or sit still unless I wrote things down to feeling as though writing and posting would be forcing myself, a chore. This blog wasn’t created to reach a wide audience or achieve any level of artistic merit, obviously. I want people to read, of course, it’s not literally a diary. And the writing I’ve done has already enabled several connections and conversations, people asking about things or feeling more apt to strike up conversations with me about loss, grief, etc.

But the blog primarily enabled me to process semi-publicly, and the pressure of producing something for an audience, no matter how circumscribed and self-selecting, pushed me to articulate things in ways I would never have done in my head or even privately with friends and family. So, if you’re one of the lucky few who’s paid attention: thank you!

Now I find myself petering out of writing impulses right at the two year mark of Nina dying, which is today. Maybe that’s not a coincidence either. Perhaps my inward turning is also self-preservation as the anniversary approaches. Two years is a quintessential benchmark: I can’t believe it’s ONLY BEEN TWO YEAR, I can’t believe it’s ALREADY BEEN TWO FREAKIN’ YEARS since Nina died. Both; simultaneously; all the time. Either way, I don’t like it. Too many big decisions, too much of the kids growing up, friends and family dying or being born, new friends entering our lives who Nina never knew.

Grief is the stupidest, most necessary thing in the whole world. You can’t get through life without it/that stuff’ll kill you. It’s less of a break with a lost relationship than the continuation of that relationship by other, less satisfying, far more painful means. The second anniversary of Nina’s death isn’t the same as the first. I am not spending it the same way, I don’t feel exactly the same. It all sucks, but I keep having to learn how to manage it and make shit up as I go along. I know, I know, it builds character. I think I have enough “character” in my life, though. Or at least characters.

On Sunday, we adopted a new dog, Nada, from the same shelter where Nina and I adopted MacDuff, Nina’s Ain True Love and comfort dog extraordinaire. She has the same profile as our first dog, Zilch, who was a Bassett-Corgi mix of some kind, maybe? He was Nina’s first true canine love — Zilchy appeared to Nina in a dream, then she spotted his avatar at a grocery store in Paris, and finally she spotted him at the Guilford County Animal Shelter and we adopted him. He leaked (don’t joke, canine incontinence is a serious matter!), ran crookedly because his hind legs were way higher than his front, and he developed serious aggression issues toward strangers that extended to our newborn/toddler aged children, and we ultimately had to put him down when he bit someone. But he was a good dog to Nina and me.

I continued his naming tradition for our new pup, but also found one that means both zip, zero, Zilch and sorta kinda sounds like Nina. Too precious? Maybe. Deal with it.

Thanksgiving 2005, Chapel Hill 008 (2)
NER and Zilch, when he was still a young, deeply flawed, incredibly lovable mutt. 

The boys aren’t interested in the least in commemorating Nina’s death. I’ve tried to inveigle them into some type of discussion or activity, but they’re resistant this year and I don’t want to force it. They’ll come to those things when they’re meaningful to them, I think. And they’ve got a whole damn book of her writing about us to deal with already. Teen years are gonna be fun.

I wanted to post today mostly to say that I miss Nina all the time, seemingly in increasing rather than diminishing ways. Sometimes I feel like I’m progressively less well equipped for grief and bereavement the longer I do it. I know that’s not actually true, that it’s just the zags where I thought there’d be zigs, and even though she’s gone I’m still growing into the life that she and I shared for a good long stretch and trying to make the best decisions I can for me and the boys (and our growing menagerie). But, in a lot of ways, two years doesn’t feel any closer to staunching the flow of bereavement.

If you’re moved to commemorate Nina in some way, and like me you’re feeling bereft of practical means as well as spirit, there are a bunch that I can think of:

  1. Read The Bright Hour! Super obvious, but I go back to it again and again.
  2. Contribute to one of the several funds that have been set up in Nina’s name
    1. Her high school alma mater, Milton Academy in Milton, MA, has a scholarship fund for writers named in her honor;
    2. Nina’s friend and colleague Rhett Iseman Trull has set up The Nina Riggs Poetry Award at her literary magazine, Cave Wall, where Nina published poetry.
  3. Then there’s always contributions to Planned Parenthood, the International Rescue Committee, or the Interactive Resource Center in Greensboro, three of Nina’s favorite non-profits when she was alive.
  4. Or, you could write something. Nina was a creative writing teacher, and she loved a good generative prompt as much as anyone. She might cringe at what I actually write, but I’m pretty sure she’d be chuffed I’m using my grief as an excuse to write.

Whatever you do today, remember to take a minute to reflect on some bright corner of your life — your partner, your kid, your grubby, undersized, multi-shelter surviving new mutt — and be grateful for the things that mean so much to you that you can’t bear the thought of losing them or leaving them behind. Then even if you aren’t thinking about Nina, you will be.

11 thoughts on “Funny How Time Slips Away

  1. J

    I’m a total stranger, but have been following your story since reading TBH early on. I’ve also experienced grief and am comforted by your words – or at least knowing that others grapple with it as much as I do. I hope you keep posting every once and a while. It’s good to put those thoughts into the universe.

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  2. Abigail

    Hi —
    I finished reading The Bright Hour just last Thursday, learning then that today would be the two-year mark of Nina’s death. I was incredibly moved by Nina’s story and writing, and was sad to part with the library-owned copy that I’d borrowed. As a tribute to Nina today, I just purchased a copy online that I can proudly display in my bookcase at home, or in my office (hopefully a conversation piece for others who have read it, or a way to share it more fully with those who are curious.) Because I feel compelled to keep sharing this story. I don’t want to forget it.

    I’ve experienced the disorienting loss of a parent in my early 30’s, and found comfort and solace in Nina’s words about the loss of her mother. And yet, by far — what sticks with me most is Nina’s loss of you and the kids, and your loss of her; the loss of a life partner far too soon. I have not experienced this type of loss and yet, for some reason, have worried (at times a great deal) about someday experiencing this type of loss! (Not helpful I know.) If and when I do, both Nina’s and your bravery and presence surrounding loss has given me a blueprint. This blueprint is an astonishing and heartbreaking companion, a daily reminder of the things outside of my control (because it’s easy to forget…), and the many more things within my control (also easy to forget…).

    The Bright Hour will stay with me for a very, very long time.

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  3. Hi John, just bought Nina’s audio book tonight. I am so glad I had a chance to meet her a few years back when I worked with Mcduff. Nada is very cuteI I was curious to see how she looks, now I know!! Now I understand the reason for her name. I know today must be a hard day for you. Just want to send you a hug. Looking forward to see you and the kids on Sunday and meet your new pup!! Marcia Martin

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  4. Lisa

    I bought and read The Bright Hour last year and promptly bought two more copies, one for my mom and one for a good friend. They loved it and have since turned around and shared your Nina with others in their lives. The book does that. It’s amazing, for so many reasons, but for that in particular.

    I then re-read The Bright Hour a few months after my first read and loved it even more. I cry hard tears, but mostly joyful tears, while reading it. I find it very cathartic (and hilarious and witty and thoughtful and profound and sad and every other emotion…). It has helped me process some of my own (different kinds of) grief in life. I went on to read everything I could find online, both Nina’s writing and yours.

    And then two weeks ago I read it again, in a single day, both before and after my breast biopsy, while I awaited the news. The news was good and I’m very grateful for being so lucky. But I took such comfort in reading (again) Nina’s words while I waited.

    Your post today made me cry. For you and the grief that is still so close, perhaps closer than ever. For your sweet boys. For myself, for selfishly wanting you to continue to put your words and your heart out there. And for Nada, just for good measure, because I have four rescues at home, and rescues — and those who rescue them — always make me cry (happy tears, that is).

    Please don’t write again until you can, until you need to, until you want to.
    And yet….also? Please write again soon.

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    1. Arna

      I re-read The Bright Hour often. I first downloaded it in December 2017, shortly after my own breast cancer diagnosis. With two young sons roughly the ages of Freddy and Benny in the book, and I think the same sort of sense of humor as Nina, I found kinship and calming comfort each with each reading. It was my companion through two hospital stays, four chemo cycles, a month of radiation and many a waiting room.

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      1. Thanks so much for your comment. I absolutely love the image of Nina’s book as your treatment companion. She’d have loved that, too. I’m lucky she left it behind, not only because I also go back to it over and over again, but it means that other people get “introduced” to Nina in meaningful ways like yours. XOJD

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  5. bostongirl1

    Thank you for ALL of your writing, and daring to make it public so even random unknown people like myself can benefit. Unknowingly you are a grief/bereavement mentor to me. I will be back to re-read your posts if you leave the blog available and/or write new posts (and I hope you will do both, selfishly!).

    I read TBH in December as my husband was dying of brain cancer. As he slept, I read and cried and marveled over Nina’s words. So poignant and honest, so relevant to our experience. The book is a life-changer for me. I’ll come back and back to it, I already have read it again since my husband’s death.

    There is one particular section that spoke to me deeply and I have returned to it over and over. It is the one in which Nina describes being somehow able to let go of plans, friends, possibly even the love of her life, but did not know how to give up mothering her children. Those words express heartbreaking humanness and they might be the truest passage I’ve ever read. I wondered if they are hard for you, being the love of her life. I’ve turned this point over in my mind a lot regarding my own situation. My husband, too, knew of his dismal prognosis and yet lived fully in the last year of his life. He also gracefully let go of many, many things, but saying goodbye to our kids was the hardest thing he did and the thing the he struggled with most. In our many end-of-life conversations he only worried about leaving signs of himself and his love for the kids. In recordings and writings, there is mostly a focus on the kids. In the raw wake of his death I’ve wondered a bit what that means for me (I’m selfish, what can I say). I’ve come to this – we had been through it all together, talked about absolutely everything, lived it all as adult partners, and we were incredibly close. We left it all on the field so to speak, and I think he believed that I knew exactly how he felt about me and that I would be OK, and I sure hope that he knew exactly how I felt about him. He was so sure of our love that he did not need to leave many physical reminders for me. The kids, though, they were not yet grown and could not possibly have this kind of knowledge as children. They are still so very young, close to your sons’ ages at Nina’s death, and my husband knew that they will wonder about him as they grow. He lamented not being able to come back to see milestone moments and how they will be as adults. My husband, like Nina, could not quite wrap his mind around giving up parenting them.

    Just wanted to reach out and say how much I appreciate the writing of Nina and you. I know what you mean about the urge to write/share. My husband and I had a CaringBridge site that became very important to us both, and then since his death I have been continuing on a separate blog. In the first month after his death I was obsessed by the need to write and did so almost daily. But I am already feeling less compelled and more inhibited about sharing. I can hardly imagine being 2 years out since I’m about 2 months out, but what you describe makes sense to me that the feelings of bereavement would change and deepen and your needs would change, too.

    Sorry for the long comment. You and Nina shared an amazing love, which continues, this I do believe. I send my best to you as a stranger on the internet, connected by untimely aggressive spousal cancer and loss.

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    1. I’m so sorry for your loss. The brain cancer center was above the breast clinic at Duke, so we rode a lot of elevators with patients and their families headed up there. It was so strange, looking at people in dire but different circumstances. I couldn’t tell who was feeling for whom and it didn’t really matter. There’s so much bizarre camaraderie in the oncology ward!

      I just today got a FB reminder from about the two month mark. It’s the classic seems like a million years ago / yesterday feeling x 10^23. It just keeps happening more and more as time passes. Which I guess is how life and memory are generally, but grief adds a kind of fun house mirror effect to it because of the absence at the center of all the memories.

      You’re still standing right in the blast zone, as Phil Elverum called it. Ugh. I did find a lot of meaningful work in writing and reading. I’ve been doing a lot less lately but it was essential for a good long while.

      Thanks so much for reaching out about Nina’s book. It still thrills me every time someone else tells me about their experience of her and her story. And thanks for sharing some of your own.

      XOJD

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  6. martycec

    Dear John,
    Thank you for your blog. Thank you for sharing with us your keeping Nina alive in our minds.

    “The Bright Hour” hit me hard for several reasons. I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in November, 2010. I have lost two dear friends to metastatic breast cancer. On Christmas Day of 2016 I lost my most dearly loved husband, George, with whom I was so close that one of his physicians said that we weren’t George and Martha but rather GeorgeMartha. So, I read “The Bright Hour” both as a cancer person (I hesitate to use the words “cancer survivor” because metastatic breast cancer robbed my two friends of their lives not long after their oncologists proclaimed them to have beaten it) and also as a widow.

    I don’t maintain a blog about my grief. But I have an ongoing letter to which I add entries several times a day. It is now approaching a thousand pages in length. I am struggling mightily with my grief, with life as the Martha half of GeorgeMartha while wanting only to have him at my side. Writing to George helps keep me sane. I also speak to him (aloud) an cut him fresh flowers every time that those in the vase begin to look a bit past their prime. Tomorrow is our wedding anniversary. I will spend the day honoring him in every way that I can.

    For me one of the most painful things about grief is that 819 days into this unwanted aloneness, my family and friends think that I should be able to get past counting the days since George died, past weeping, past wishing that he was here with me. But the longer that he is gone the more deeply I miss him and long for him. And I know that he would feel the same if I had preceded him in death. And because I miss him so broadly and deeply and profoundly, I write to him and I talk to him. And I think about him every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Because we are GeorgeMartha.

    Thank you again, John. Thank you.

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