It was November 1, All Saints' Day, my calendar told me. I woke up at 8 A.M., took my dogs for a walk around the ranch, came home, did a little writing, and decided to go into town to pick up a few groceries and get the mail. I kissed Randy, my fiancé, goodbye and asked him if I could get anything for him in town. He said no, but I intended to pick up some Gosar's organic Thai sausages for dinner, his favorite.
There had been some tension between us that summer around his kids' visit and my teaching and travel schedule, but we had just had two great weekends in a row, and I was pretty sure we were getting back on track, talking about our wedding that was only eight months away. I took my letters to the post office, picked up the sausages, drank a latte, then headed home. I was gone from the house approximately one hour and 15 minutes.
When I walked in, I wasn't aware that anything had happened. I figured Randy was downstairs working. I'm still not sure what tipped me off, but at some point my heart started beating fast, and time started to take on that freeze-frame quality it does when the mind is just figuring out that the bad thing has happened and the body is getting ready to grieve.
I opened the door to the basement and saw that Randy's desk had been cleared. My heart got louder in my ears, and those small voices, the ones that belong to my younger selves, started up the way they always have. Like when the truck driver came to the door carrying the body of my first puppy, or I heard my dad's voice one morning on my answering machine—way too early—telling me to call him at the hospital right away, or when my best friend, Sally, called to say her lump was malignant. "No, no, no" is all the voices say, but over and over, "No no no, no no, no no."
I ran to the bedroom, opened the closet, and saw that nearly all of Randy's clothes were gone. I ran to the garage and knew, by this time, that I would not find his car.
Right about then my neighbor Joe pulled up, wanting to make small talk about the horses I keep for him during the summer.
Even now, I'm not sure why I didn't tell him what was happening, why I just stood there trembling, no doubt white as a sheet, trying to hold up my end of a pleasant conversation. I think it's a child-of-alcoholics response: the old "What? Something wrong? There's nothing wrong here at all!" routine.
In the middle of Joe's visit I saw the note leaning up against my purse, and while Joe talked on I picked it up and read it.
Four lines, saying nothing. Saying "Don't try to call or write." Saying "I really did love you. Randy."
If I were the type of woman who got the vapors, I would have gotten the vapors right then. What I did instead was focus my mind on the story's most bizarre detail: There is only one road in and out of my ranch. Which means if Randy hadn't been all loaded up and ready to go 30 minutes after I left the house, I would have passed him on the road on my way home.
Step 2: Go see your therapist.
Randy's departure was the second time I'd been left suddenly and unexpectedly in the last five years. David, at least, stayed around to say goodbye in person. In both cases the decision had been made before I was told it was imminent, and in both cases I would have said the relationship was going pretty well.
A long-term, loving partnership with a man has been the one thing in my life I have not been able to succeed at, though I have tried harder at it, at least in this last decade, than I've tried at anything else.
Step 3: Accept grief's not-altogether-ironic consolation prize.
The morning after Randy left, sobbing in my therapist's office like some kind of made-for-TV-movie cliché, I said, "I'm just not up for another 6 to 12 months of wallowing in grief."
"Okay," my doctor said, "then don't."
I blew my nose and looked at him. It was a captivating idea.
I consulted the three little girls who live inside me—a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old, and a 12-year-old—as I do at times like these.
"We're actually glad he's gone," they said, arms crossed over their chests, the beginning of a smile lighting their eyes. "We were a little bit scared of him."
"Not so fast," I said. "In the first place, he wasn't scary. And you must be forgetting what time of year it is. What about spending Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, my birthday, Valentine's alone?"
They were all in agreement. "We like it better when you're in charge of those things," they said, "and if he wasn't scary, why were you always acting like less than you are?"
That stopped me. I had described myself several times in the last year as "running consistently on about 60 percent Pam." For a while I thought I just needed more sleep. Then, when I got more sleep, I thought I must have cancer. I was perpetually exhausted. I wasn't laughing as loudly or arguing as vehemently or writing as passionately as I knew I should be. Somewhere deep inside of me I knew that if 100 percent Pam was really starting to piss Randy off, then maybe 60 percent Pam would piss him off less. I didn't articulate that to myself, and the fact that I didn't scares me. I shut myself down incrementally without being forced or even asked.
Because I never before had a relationship go from making wedding plans to total disappearance in less than two hours, I never had the experience of seeing myself at 60 percent one day and at 100 percent the next. Which is not to say that 100 percent felt so great at first. Because all of a sudden 100 percent of me was sad and excited and completely freaked out. Adrenaline was knocking around that numbed 40 percent, lighting me up from the inside like a human pinball machine, as though somebody had just shown me a door to an enormous white room and left me in there alone with 1,000 crayons.
"So what you're saying," I said to my therapist, "is that I have to grieve, but I don't necessarily have to wallow."
He got the look on his face he always gets when I have at last arrived at the ridiculously obvious answer.
I walked out into the bright light of my first full day of singlehood, my grief held tight like a bouquet of crayons in my fist.
Step 3: Accept grief's not-altogether-ironic consolation prize.
There's a song I love by Dar Williams called "The Blessings" that perfectly describes the particular way the world comes into razor-sharp focus during grief. It's not a release, not a reward, she sings, by way of consolation to a suddenly single friend who's just called her at three in the morning, it's the blessings. It's the gift of what you notice more.
A wake-up call into a world where everything—but everything—has a recognizable and momentary magnificence. Every bud on every flowering tree, every snowflake in its perfect symmetry, every shade the aspen leaves turn on their way from green to yellow to orange to brown; the world seen through the lens of grief is crystalline in its clarity. And all of it beautiful and hopeful and healing and fleeting and, for all of that, almost too much to bear. The gift of what you notice more. The barista at the market with the long, dark ponytail who makes the perfect tall, single latte. The young woman at the dry cleaner's with her rainbow eye shadow and her Lee Press-On Nails who gives her customers a perfect 1 percent of her attention. Seats right behind the goalie at the hockey game and the thwack of the players' bodies up against the boards, the thunk of stick against puck, of elbow against rib, of helmet against helmet.
And if, God forbid, you should find yourself somewhere really romantic, like Paris or a candlelit restaurant or Long's Drug Store the night before Valentine's Day, swear that as soon as you are in love again you will come right back to that spot on the Pont des Arts and feel everything you are longing to feel right now. Alas, it will never happen. Because it is only your longing that is making Long's Drug Store and the candlelight and even Paris profound. Savor your longing. Note the clever way it has of reminding you that you are very much alive.
Step 4: Push your luck.
About a week after Randy left me, my friend Owen took me to see Joan Baez. Owen's got connections, and we were ushered straight to two seats in the first row. "About eight years ago," Joan said early in the evening, "I decided I was going to stop doing anything that didn't feel good." She looked beautiful, strong, and independent, out there singing song after song by lesser known writers, always careful to say their names at least three times. She sang a different song by Dar Williams. Go ahead, push your luck, the song begins, find out how much love the world can hold.
It was another intriguing idea. I had always suspected there was much more than enough love for everyone, free-floating out there in the universe or attached to things but attached loosely, renewable love resources where anyone whose batteries were low could plug in and juice up.
There is always a lot of love, for instance, at the Whole Foods Market—tomatoes in four colors, peppers in six, brussels sprouts in their little green mesh bags, fresh hunks of ahi and king salmon, all the happy little bins of organic grains. There is young Clinton, recent Naropa Institute graduate, exotic dancer, and checkout man. He knows almost everything about Eastern religion, is always happy to see me coming through the line. There is John, the butcher, who chooses the best Buffalo rib eyes for me, sends bones to my wolfhounds. There's love at the car wash, love in the park, love at the Tattered Cover, love in the backcountry, love at the PetsMart. There's probably even love at Neiman Marcus if you can afford it, probably even love at the mall.
Dar's song goes on, Once upon a time I had control and reined my soul in tight.
I thought, What if there was a way to drop those reins, to open myself to receive all the love that was out there? What if every time love was offered to me I opened my arms and sucked it all in?
It has been proven to me over and over that the world, on the whole, is pretty crazy about me and that individual men, after a certain time, are not. I wondered, If I could put 100 percent Pam out there for the world to experience, could I get 100 percent of what I needed back?
Step 5: Count on your friends and their hit men.
And in addition to all that free-floating love, of course, are the immeasurably huge amounts of it that are attached to and available from my friends.
Gail drove back to the ranch with me, helped me take down the pictures and box up the remains, gave all Randy's forgotten dress pants to her handyman. Nerissa sent me a camel from Disneyland. James offered the services of his hit-men buddies, should I wake up one morning and find myself really mad. Jane and Kevin promised to come for Christmas and did, all our plans for sightseeing turning into ranch chores, an entire cord of wood cut to stove size, the fence fixed, a cement slab poured for the horse trough, three tons of hay thrown down from the loft.
Step 6: If at all possible, get yourself to a small Himalayan Buddhist kingdom.
About two weeks into singledom, I booked a trip to Tibet. There's something in my brain that moves from heartbreak straight to the desire to be around Buddhists, the real ones, the ones who still wear the robes.
There's nothing like watching a sky burial, watching a hundred big, reeking vultures devour an entire corpse in three or four minutes, to make you realize how quickly things change. There's nothing like sitting in a natural hot spring at 15,000 feet in the pitch dark with a bunch of giggling Tibetan nuns making animal noises at you to make you realize your life is pretty good even if your fiancé did walk out on you. There's nothing like seeing Chairman Mao's face stamped like a brand on the wall of a tenth-century Buddhist monastery to make you realize that nothing—nothing—that is ever going to happen to you in your life would even register on the world scale of bad.
And then there are the Tibetans themselves, with their beautiful round faces and their impeccable manners and their innate generosity. I opened my arms and sucked every bit of it in.
Steps 7 and 8: Measure in increments other than time—and be grateful.
To risk loving, knowing that loss is inevitable, I think, is the single most important challenge of our lives.
For an American woman who is not yet 40, I have lost a lot of people in my life. Cancer took my best girlfriend, Sally, and Shelton, a man I loved more than any other; a heart attack took my mother way too young. I've been left suddenly, or not so suddenly, by more men than I would care to admit, though never before with a note. I've buried two good horses, a cat or two, and four of the greatest dogs to have ever walked the earth.
I have a dog named Dante, an Irish wolfhound, who is so wise and wonderful that I often say that he is the final reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama, and, with all due respect to the Tibetans, in my heart I believe it might be true. Once, when we were at the park together, a man jogged over to us and took Dante's face in both his hands and said, "My God, girl, your dog has a lot of soul."
A year ago Dante was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. His life expectancy, if I gave him every treatment possible, was 8 to 12 months. If I did nothing, it was only one to three. To someone who has never lost anyone to cancer, the difference between 1 to 3 months and 8 to 12 months might not seem as significant as it actually is. To someone who has never lost anyone to cancer, spending $15,000 to try to keep a dog alive for what might amount to a year, give or take a few months, might seem insane.
Sally died in 1993, Shelton just last year. Both times my friend and I agreed to move apart in the end. One decides, the other acquiesces, but it is a joint decision born of the fear of pain. A wolfhound, even one who is the reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama, doesn't know how to push his human away. The decision to stay present through his illness, or to distance myself, has been entirely mine. I have stuck to him like glue through four surgeries, the mother of all postsurgical infections, six rounds of chemo, three clean chest X rays, and more specialists than most human beings have to face in their lives.
We haven't come to the really hard part yet, of course, and for each day we don't I am grateful. Now Dante is teaching me one of those ridiculously obvious life lessons: that no matter how much you love someone, no matter how much they love you, they still might, unexpectedly, go away. He is teaching me that love can be measured in increments that have nothing to do with time. He is teaching me how to be bigger than I am.
After several surgeries to try to save them, Dante had his leg and his shoulder blade removed. His surgeon finished operating at 4:30 in the afternoon, he spent the night in the ICU with Dante, and at 3:30 in the morning he said, "You want to go for a walk?" Dante jumped up and hopped straight over to the door.
Weeks later, back at the park near the Buddhist Peace Garden, Dante and I met an elderly Chinese couple who marveled at his size. "In Beijing, at the zoo," the old man said, "there is a Siberian tiger with only one leg." He shook his head in admiration and raised his fist. "No pity," he said, "no pity." I thought instantly of all I had seen of Mao's destruction when I was in China. The resilience of the people left behind.
Step 8: Be grateful.
Tonight, as I write this, I am in that familiar zone of uncertainty. One-third optimism, one-third depression, one-third holding ground. It's gray and raining out here where I'm teaching in California. I'm 39 years old, childless, living alone in a sublet house with somebody else's furniture. There is a poster over the washing machine that says "Christ Loves Me Just The Way I Am, But Too Much To Let Me Stay That Way." And on my bathroom mirror, a sticker I can't remove that says "I Can't See You, But I Know You Are There."
I don't have the comfort of my ranch, the nestling mountains. My therapist is traveling in South America this month. Sometimes I cry for long periods. Sometimes I wonder, How did I get here? Sometimes I get on my knees and thank whoever I thank that I haven't found a way to stop feeling any of it, and I pray that, while I breathe, I never do.
Last week I went on my first date since Randy left and the man liked me so little that by 9:30 I was back in my car driving home. I got a call yesterday from the veterinary cancer specialists saying that my Dante is due for his three-month chest X-ray. I have been talking, in the car, to all my dead friends again.
Am I frightened by the precariousness of my position? By the possibility that one more bit of bad news will send me plummeting past some nebulous but encroaching point of no return? You bet I am.
But tonight Dante and I will crawl into bed together. Tomorrow, if the sun is out, I'll get on my big yellow bike and ride to school. This weekend I'll drive down the coast to see a dear man named Martin who made me laugh six times on the phone today and who belongs to the same tribe of human beings that I do, the ones who are both sad and grateful. The world around me will be as bright as Venus on the evening horizon, and I will be awake, every moment, taking it in.
Pam Houston is the author of Waltzing the Cat and other books.
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