The Coronavirus and Friendship

In recent weeks, many people have been losing friends, questioning their friends’ morals, or finding their friendships strained because friends are taking social distancing less seriously than they are.

“Friends Are Breaking Up Over Social Distancing”
Ashley Fetters, The Atlantic, April 2020

The excellent Atlantic article quoted above is about how people are ending friendships over differences in attitudes regarding the pandemic and social distancing and how to avoid it. It’s well-written and worth the read. As I was reading through it, I thought of my own friends and family and it got me wondering why this is happening, and what, if anything, we can do about it. What matters, and what doesn’t?

The last two months have been a lesson in human nature. This novel coronavirus is hitting our humanity. There is a lot that is unknown about this virus, and we humans freak out about the unknown. And we freak out differently.

Social distancing is a pretty simple concept. If we stay away from each other, the virus can’t spread, and if it can’t spread, then eventually the virus will abate. Social distancing is the method we in America have decided will slow the growth of the number of cases and will give us a fighting chance to find treatments and eventually find a vaccine.

Everyone values social distancing differently. I have friends who are hunkered up at home, getting stuff delivered, and who do not go out at all. Personally, I shop for things we need and I wear a mask and try to stay away from people, and I wash my hands and have hand-sanitizer at the ready. But I have friends who poo-poo this whole thing, do not do any social distancing, and get together for social activities, despite stay-at-home orders. The Atlantic article addresses these differences in attitudes toward social distancing and how it can end friendships.

There is a factor that I believe makes these differences more perilous: we are not seeing our friends in person. We may talk on the phone, or even from time to time put together Zoom meetings, but more likely we are interacting on social media and/or chat programs. We try to understand each other and try to get others to understand our points of view, but we are not doing it in person. We are not talking to each other. We are looking at flickering letters on a screen with an occasional picture. We are isolated.

We are human. We are meant to be together, in person. We go to coffeeshops or restaurants by ourselves just to be with people, even people we don’t know, even if we are introverts. When we are with friends, we can have conversations, or we can watch a movie or concert, or just hang out. If we have conversations, they are less important than just the fact of being together.

And when we do have conversations, the conversations are immediate. We don’t just talk; rather, we see, we “read the room,” we are aware of body language and tone, and we see all these social cues because we are together. Tempers may flair on controversial topics, but we see this happening in real time, and we generally know when to back off and change the subject: “how about those Dodgers, eh?” A blown-up discussion can be diffused, and the clouds clear. Because we are together and because we are friends and we love each other, even when we disagree. It’s not about the conversation. It’s about being together, and about being friends.

No two people will agree on everything. Add more people to the mix, and the areas of agreement become fewer and fewer. This is life. This is human nature. Some disagreements are minor, such as whether pineapple belongs on a pizza. Some are fundamental, such as whether or not God exists. Friendship transcends these differences – it must, because no one agrees completely with anyone else.

Friendship endures because people are not their opinions. Opinions and beliefs can change over time as you live your life. You may find that, hey! Pineapple is not so bad. Or that, yes, you can make barbecue with beef as well as pork. Or that the death penalty may not be such a great idea. If you change your mind are you a different person? No. If anything, you are more complete. Or perhaps more jaded. But you are still fundamentally you.

A person is a soul put on this earth to try to get along and do the best he or she can, trying to do good in a world that’s hard to know what doing good is. Everyone is imperfect and is imperfectly dealing with life’s trials and struggles. Life goes on with its tragedies and victories, and we in our imperfections do what we can to do the best we can. Every person is on their own epic journey. Each person’s journey is worthy of a novel.

I believe that when you come across someone and get to know their core goodness, that person can become a friend regardless of superficial beliefs or opinions. You recognize the genuineness of their soul, and that’s what matters. Friendship is therefore honoring and respecting your friends’ souls, regardless of their opinions or beliefs.

Enter social media and enter the isolation in which social media puts us. Social media connects us, but it only does so through words on a screen, intermingled with pictures and memes. Social media gives the appearance of connection, but not the reality of connection. It is a cliché that Facebook and Instagram show the highlight reel of our lives. But it’s true. Even when true grief is shared on social media, real connection is not there. You are not there in person to hold someone who just lost their husband or child. All you can do is type “so sorry for your loss” and press Enter. Words on a flickering screen.

Social media forces us to write. Worse, it forces us to write in short bursts scattershot to a multitude rather than in long letters written to an individual or to a family. Writing is difficult in the best of circumstances when you have the space and time to fully flesh out what you really want to convey. A good writer can capture emotions and convey genuineness and can console a person to the point where it is as if they are in the room with you, consoling you in your grief, and easing your pain. Ninety-nine years ago, William Allen White, the editor of the Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas, wrote an obituary for his young daughter who died in an accident. It is an amazing piece. Here is a father, writing about his daughter who was taken away too soon, and he was able to wring out the grief completely and leave us with hope and love. It’s one of my favorite pieces of literature. The singer and songwriter John Prine died just a few weeks ago, taken by COVID-19, and his death hit me hard. And yet a song he wrote called “When I Get to Heaven” made my own grief easier to bear. I can see him up there smoking his nine-mile-long cigarette, and it makes me smile. William Allen White and John Prine are writers, and as writers, they can take the insane complexity of humanity and put it into words. They are exceptional because they could write so well.

However, most people are not writers. And yet social media forces us to write, and worse, to write in small tweet-sized bursts. It is impossible to convey humanity and connection in tweet-sized bursts.

And now we are confronted with existential problems none of us have seen in our lifetimes. We are enduring events that have changed our lives in an incredibly short period of time. Over a million and a half people in this country have been sickened by a disease that we didn’t even know existed at the beginning of the year. As of this writing, one hundred thousand people have perished in the United States, a third of a million world-wide, all in just a few months. Because we have to fight this disease, over thirty-eight million people in the US have lost their jobs just in the last two months. Thirty-eight million! That is unbelievable. And in this period of true human suffering, because this disease spreads easily by human physical contact, we have been asked to stay apart from each other. To be isolated. To stay home, stay out of school and out of work, stay away from parks, from theaters, sports events, and even from our friends’ houses. Even from our loved-ones’ funerals.

We humans need physical, in-person, interaction. Even introverts like myself are missing real connection with people in person. This virus is forcing us to stop doing what we as humans must do: to be together. And this change happened in a flash.

We, as the human race collectively, do not have the full picture of exactly what this virus is and will do. We don’t know exactly how it spreads. We don’t know if someone who recovers is now immune. We don’t know if we can make a vaccine for it, and if we can, when it will be available. We don’t know exactly how to treat COVID-19. Experts who dedicated their lives to epidemiology and virology and emergency medicine do not yet have a handle on this, and that creates a huge gap of knowledge that we humans cannot tolerate. We need to know, and we need to know now! But we don’t know, and because we don’t know, we are prone to grasping at straws. And there are people who just love to provide those straws, even if they have to invent them. What we do know is, we are all affected by this, and we want it to stop.

While we are all facing this existential threat, we are all affected in different ways. The coronavirus is the root of this threat, but it spawns existential threats of its own: Isolation and lack of connection. Uncertainty. Conflicting messages. Loss of income and property. Loss of businesses, some of which will never reopen. Doubt about how it’s being addressed by society and the government. The daily increase of the number of people who died. This thing is hitting us from all sides, and it’s hitting us at our core values. We end up having different opinions about which type of hit is worse.

Except in cases of sociopathy, no one wants people to be sick or die. No one wants people to be out of work, or to lose their livelihood, or their home. Or their sanity. No one is trying to make a case for evil – certainly not our friends. Each of our friends wants to do the right thing, and address this in the best way they can. Each of us is operating on the data we have. Each of us is experiencing our own level of pain and desperation. And we will disagree on these existential threats that are unprecedented in our lifetimes, and which are hurting us now.

Because we can’t be together physically, we can’t do what we would normally do to work this out: argue at the dinner table, argue at the pub or cigar lounge or coffee shop, or argue in the public square. We can’t hug it out. We can’t even fight it out. Our human strength of working things out in person is not available to us. Even those people who are protesting stay-at-home orders in public aren’t working it out in public. The people they need to work it out with are at home. We are isolated from each other. Isolation, uncertainty, and the real threat to our lives are making us crazy, some of us more than others.

We try in earnest to figure out what is going on, to fill in the gaps, to find a way to get through this, and to disseminate what we think are the best ways to get us back on track. And we can’t do it in person.

What are we left with? Social media. Where we as mostly non-writers are trying to work out core-value fears in texts, tweets, and memes, broadcasted out to the world.

The best writers write thousand-word opinion pieces rather than try to make their points in one hundred and forty characters. Forcing important thoughts into a brief paragraph or meme squeezes out the nuance and complexity of the issue. Our opinions cannot be fully expressed in a tweet. Instead of a post being exactly what we mean, it becomes kinda what we mean – and it can and will miss the mark. It is a shell of what we really believe, because we are complex beings, not paper dolls. This inadequate shell of a post becomes a straw man when someone argues against it, to the point where we argue past each other, leaving us to struggle to explain what we really meant, sometimes to people we don’t even know. We are all arguing from a position of doing the right thing, but we differ on what “doing the right” thing is. We are forced to use small-paragraph bludgeons that are stereotypes of our real opinions to make our points. But our written opinions are incorrect because they are incomplete. To fully complete our opinions requires time, space, and effort, and we don’t do that.

The result of people with passion arguing existential ideas in word bursts online is what we are seeing on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc.: sincere people and an army of trolls, all misunderstanding each other. When we are forced into this mode of communication with our good friends, friends we’ve known for years, who’ve been there for us in times of trouble and triumph, well, we get lost in a tangle of words, and we lose sight of our friends’ humanity, complexity, and genuine soul. And unfortunately, this can result in losing the friend.

I have strong opinions, and my friends have strong opinions, and our opinions can be vastly different. And yet we are friends, because we recognize and respect each other’s genuine soul. We love each other. We’re there for each other. I can say that my friends saved my life. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have disrupted our being together at a time when there is not one of us who has not been adversely affected by this damned virus. My friends and I are experiencing genuine pain, and/or fear, and/or anger, and we can’t all be together. We can snipe at each other on social media, though. This crisis has taught me that social media is not really social at all.

As I look over the surreal world we have been chucked into just a few weeks ago, and as I look at the shocks we are enduring, the threats to our humanity, and especially at the fact that we are forced to be apart to better our chances of survival, I have to come to one conclusion: we have to refuse to lose each other. We can’t let our being forced apart break us apart. We have to stay human to each other especially now that we can’t share a hug or a handshake. Right now, our friends and our family need us, and we need them. Especially now. We need to give our friends and family a break. Friendship and love are more important and deeper than any disagreement we may have. Be there for them now, and give them a hug when it’s all over.

Our humanity will get us through this.

The Hardest Thing about Growing Older

I listen to a lot of podcasts these days. Even shows that are shows meant for radio, such as most NPR podcasts, are podcast-ified radio shows. “This American Life,” “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” Alex Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” are all radio shows that also have a supporting podcast. But I don’t listen to the radio – ever. Sirius-XM is an exception, but even it is not technically radio, isn’t it? It’s satellite, and anyway it is better than radio in my mind because there are no commercials.

I have a set of twenty-seven podcasts I listen to on a regular basis. Twenty-seven! Needless to say there are only a few of those I listen to regularly, and I find that I binge on some for a while, and then move to another. A week’s worth of “This American Life,” followed by a week of “Radio Lab,” followed by, say, Planet Money’s “The Indicator” and “Planet Money” itself. My regulars include the amazing “Revisionist History” by Malcolm Gladwell, “WTF” by Marc Maron, and, since I love cigars, “The Cigar Authority.” I wouldn’t normally name-drop so many podcasts, but I have friends who have asked me which podcasts I listen to, so there’s a few.

I love podcasts. I do a lot of driving, and walking, and working around the ranch, and I am a very curious man, and I love the ideas and thoughts and the takes on life that my little subset of podcasts impart to me.

Pre-podcast, of course, there was really only radio, which I listened to back in the day. The problem with radio shows is that they are on a schedule, and there’s no information about the show when it is on. I’m not into setting my schedule based on when a show is airing, and if you happen to get in the car at, say, 10:15, and you enter a show mid-way, well, you miss the intro, and even what the show is that you are listening to. It just doesn’t work for me. And it leaves me with hearing some interesting facts and insights that I find amazing – but I have no clue who said them, or who the host is, or many times what the name of the show is. While I appreciate the insights, it is frustrating to not have the full picture or context of the conversation.

One such conversation was an interview with Sylvester Stallone that I listened to on the radio about ten years ago, on, what? NPR? Fresh Air? I have no idea. In the interview he was speaking about his career and his life, and he said something that stunned me: “The hardest thing about growing older is saying goodbye to your friends.”

That quote almost stopped my heart. I was not expecting that, especially in a celebrity interview, and not from Sly Stallone. Now Sly is smart and a thinker even though he is known for action movies like Rocky, First Blood, and Judge Dredd, but, I did not expect something as profound as this. When I heard it it rang so true to me that I had to stop listening and just ponder that statement.

“The hardest thing about growing older is saying goodbye to your friends.”

Oh, that is so true. I heard this show shortly after I lost my best friend to a bicycle accident and my step-father to melanoma within a month of each other. I lost two good friends to cancer and another to an enlarged heart a few years before. These were people I loved and laughed with, and who were no longer with us. The quote brought all that into focus, and it became very clear to me: that is indeed the hardest part of growing older.

Bill Cosby was one of my favorite comedians before his scandals ruined it all. But his comedy albums of the 1960s were pure gold, and even now circumstances of life will remind me of some of his great sketches. I remember a sketch where he talked about his grandfather reading the paper. He only read the obituaries: “I wonder who died today?” It was funny of course, but isn’t that true? My parents and my grandparents said the same thing. “Oh, I see Janet passed away. That’s such a shame.” When you are a kid you don’t have any context about this. You don’t know who these people are, and they are (or were) older than dirt anyway, and in youth, death is incredibly far away. In youth, life fills you so much that death is impossible. I think back to when I was a teenager in Los Angeles, and how I would ride my bike down Angeles Crest Highway or Topanga Canyon Boulevard, sans helmet, passing cars, and I think to myself, what the hell was I thinking? Yes. No death. No one dies.

When I was twenty, I was super strong and super healthy. I worked construction and since I had no actual construction skills, I would stock drywall by taking 4×12 sheets two at a time from the front of the job site to the various rooms where they were needed. All day long. I’m sure I could have lifted a Volkswagen if I needed to. At school, I would leap down staircases one flight at a time. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but looking back…

When the soul and the body are young, the soul is clueless and the body is strong. As we grow into adulthood, into middle age, and beyond, our souls get wiser and our bodies wear. Our friendships go from new and sparkly people we just met and love to hang around with to friends we have known for decades and with whom we have weathered storms. Even if we meet someone new (like, say, only five years ago instead of forty-five) these friendships become stronger than in youth because we have decades of common experience.

And then we lose one. We lose two. When a death happens when we’re in our thirties, it’s a fluke – a “Big Chill” moment. Fuck! People die? No! Our mortality becomes real. Then, we lose a good friend to cancer. Or to an accident. My best friend died riding his bicycle down Vermont Avenue just below the Greek Theater – riding helmetless, just as I rode back in the day. Oh, that was hard. I lost my wife, which was almost unendurable. Our lives develop voids. We grow older. We lose more friends. We lose more family. We lose more people. I climbed mountains with my friends. Shot the shit. Got into trouble with them. Worked with them. Went to their weddings. Welcomed their children. Grieved with them when they couldn’t have children. And said goodbye.

My mother is eighty-three. My father, eighty-five. Most of their friends are gone. When we talk, we talk of events that happened long ago. What does that tell us? I’ll tell you what it tells me: the goal is not to ignore the now and try to make it to eighty or one hundred. The goal is to live life now. To take the time to just be, and connect, and enjoy the world you are in and the people you are with now. In the snapshot of time we are in right now, we know and love people who are here right now and who may not be here tomorrow. And to whom we’ll have to say goodbye. Or, if we are first to go, will have to say goodbye to us. I think we should make it a point to say hello hundreds of more times before we have to finally say goodbye. Because saying goodbye is the hardest thing.

I Still Have Her Meds

My wife has been gone for six months now. Conscious magical thinking has turned into internalized magical thinking. Early on, it was as if she was just in the other room, or was on vacation and would walk back into the house at any time. I knew this was not correct, of course, but the feelings were still there. As I write this, I know that six months is still “early on” but things do morph. One of those things is that it no longer feels that she is on vacation, or just around the corner. It feels like she never left, but just isn’t here.

It is so embedded in me that she is part of my soul that when I watch a movie, it is as if we are both watching the movie, instead of just me. Or that the room should be in a certain way because she likes it that way. Or that she will need her clothes. I just don’t want to be final about this. It is less conscious now than it was at the beginning that she is really gone.

Back when Jenny still had her transplant, one thing that became a ritual before we left on any trip was to be sure she had her medicines. When you have a transplant, the drugs you have are the drugs you need, and you cannot screw it up. And, they are not off-the-shelf. We once went to Canada, and Jenny didn’t bring a key medication with her, and it was a big problem to get her covered. So, we put in a requirement that before every trip, no matter what, we had her meds. We can get anything else on the road, but meds are sacrosanct.

The medication list for Jenny was extensive – thyroid meds, stomach meds, prednisone, and a whole litany of anti-rejection meds. The horrible thing is that these same meds ended up killing the kidney they were supposed to protect. Once your kidneys go, your life is not normal ever again – even with a transplant.  After years of being on these meds, her adrenal glands were burnt out. As a result, she was on a litany of drugs even after the transplant failed. They were awful, but they were required. Therefore, even after the loss of the kidney, her meds were first on the list of things to bring, always.

Jenny had a pink pill box she had since I first met her. It is a box that has four compartments per day, with sliding covers that opened allowing access to each compartment. Since she had AM and PM meds, each day’s slots contained two sets of AM and PM meds. Every two weeks she spent some time filling it up with the correct dosages for each slot. I still have the box, and it has the remaining dosages.

I also have one unopened package of Creon, an expensive medication that we regularly fought with our insurance company to cover properly. We have bottles of heparin, which is used in dialysis to thin the blood so that it does not clot during treatment. Jenny has a rolling med/dialysis cabinet with the jars right there, at the ready, along with alcohol wipes, some needles, and some paper barriers, at the ready. We have bottles of “binders,” which are drugs she took to reduce phosphorus, since dialysis does not remove phosphorus from the blood.

Within a week after Jenny passed away, we removed all the dialysis equipment and supplies from the house. The unit picked up her machines, the dialysis chair, and the boxes of dialysate, and cartridges, and fluid warmers, drain tubes, and all the rest. I knew I had to remove it asap and try to reduce the reminders as much as possible, this for my son’s sake, since nightly dialysis was so much a part of our lives. Having the dialysis machine in the living room gathering dust awaiting a person who would never return – no, that was not an option.

But for some reason, the medications were different. These were such a lifeline, in a different way than the dialysis machine was. We could always go to the unit or the hospital and dialyze if needed, but the meds were joined at her hip. To not have them was risking illness or death. Jenny has been on overnight trips without her dialysis machine, but never without her medications.

On her night stand was the unopened package of Creon. The bottle was in the pharmacy bag, the bag stapled shut. A few days ago, I happened to glance over at it, and I realized: I need to let go of this. The insane feeling of “this needs to be here, because she needs it” is hard to not feel. It’s involuntary. Looking at the rows of heparin bottles – they were a life line. They were part of her survival kit. Now, they are all scaffolding to save a life that is no longer in need of saving. It’s like looking at an eggshell from a bird that has hatched. Or like listening to an alarm blaring out from a building that has already been evacuated. The alarm is for no one – or rather, for a person who has already escaped.

Yes, I still have her clothes, too, and shoes and glasses and make-up, but they are not the same. These are things I can donate or give away to friends and family. These are completely different from her medications. If I got rid of all that stuff, and she walked back into my life tomorrow, we could always go and get more at the store. But if she walked in tomorrow and those meds weren’t there, she wouldn’t be able to stay. I know that that is crazy, but it’s true. I also know that it is not true.

It feels true, though. These medications were her lifeline, and now they are acting like a lifeline for me – a lifeline with no one on the end, because she’s the bird that flew away, leaving the nest and the broken egg shell behind, in unopened packages and nice neat rows of jars.

This last weekend, I started cleaning out the room. I got a bag out to put her meds in so I can take them to the pharmacy for disposal. I put in the bag the unopened package of Creon. I’m going to keep her pillbox.

 

PTSD and Me

It is important to know that my wife was a dialysis patient, and that she was never really healthy in all the years we were together. When we first got together, I used to count the number of days she was not in the hospital. She lived as long as she did because of her resilience, courage, faith, and toughness. Our life together was not about her health issues, but her health was a major factor in our life together.

She dialyzed at home, overnight. She did this in her chair, catching as much sleep as she could. Dialysis is a loud process: the pump of the machine, the pump of the Pureflow dialysis fluid machine, alarms of varying degrees of urgency. I slept in the other room, unconsciously on alert, unconsciously analyzing each alarm as it rang. If it alarmed once or twice, I knew Jenny had it. If it persisted, or if the alarm kept recurring, I sprang up to see what was happening.

You never know what you’re going to see. Many times I would see Jenny at wit’s end cursing  the machine, cursing dialysis, cursing the fact that she was having to do this, all while trying to fix whatever alarm was ringing. We had a big manual with a chapter called “Troubleshooting” and unless we knew right off what was happening, we’d drag it out, open it up to find the alarm, and attempt the remedies. Some alarms, like air in  the bloodline, give you only a couple of tries to fix, and then you’re done: the machine stops, and you lose your blood, meaning you pull the needles and any blood in the lines goes into the trash. That only happened once or twice when we were home, and it is a major loss. You lose your blood, and you have to get set up for another run, which takes about twenty to thirty minutes. Sometimes Jenny would leave her needles in and hook up with the new cartridge. You don’t have a lot of options here, because when you start a run, you pump in a dose of Heparin, which is a blood thinner. It’s dangerous to screw around with that, so best to start again.

Sometimes Jenny would sleep through some pretty alarming alarms, such as a kinked blood line, which causes the pump to stop, which allows the blood in the lines to clot if you leave it too long. I’d do what I can to clear the alarm and make sure she was okay. She did not sleep well, so I was glad to see her sleeping; not so glad to see her sleeping through alarms.

Jenny was on the transplant list. When she was active on the list, she was first up – meaning all available kidneys would be crossed with her if there was a possibility of matching. The last few months she was off the list due to some health issues she needed to address. But we did receive a couple calls for transplant in 2014, only to have them withdrawn because the donor did not match. Due to her antibody count, she was nearly impossible to match. The transplant doctors would tell us there’s a slim chance, but still a chance, but then when their guard was down, one or two voiced to me, at least, that it was impossible.

When Jenny was in the hospital, again, I was on alert. I didn’t sit waiting for a phone call – I didn’t want a phone call. Phone calls from hospitals are bad news. If a phone call did come, it could be the nurse calling saying that Jenny wanted me to remember to bring her slippers, but sometimes, it was worse. One time I got a call from Jenny where she was crying and frightened:

“Oh, Marko – I don’t know what’s happening! I feel like I’m going crazy, I need you.”

“I’ll be right there.”

Turns out, it was an adverse reaction to Phenergan, which was used to keep her from getting nauseated after getting morphine. Oh my God she was pissed off that they didn’t tell her what it was and what it was for.

Looking back, I realize now how hyper alert we both were. And, apparently, I still am.

Yesterday morning, my phone rang at 4:52am. It was an unfamiliar ring, and it was on Skype, which I never use, but which I have turned on anyway. I get lots of requests to be connected by many dubious people, and none from people I know. But, no one has ever just dialed until yesterday early morning. Half-awake, and wondering what the hell was going on and who the hell would be calling me at 4:52am, I looked at the name: “adwoa amankwaah.” I rejected the call. Immediately, it called back. I rejected it again. Another three immediate call backs, and I rejected each call.

What flashed through my head during this process was: who is calling me? Why are they calling so insistently? Why at 4:52am? Then:

Oh my God, Jenny – Oh my God Transplant. And I knew neither one was possible, and yet I still felt it.

I thought it may be work-related, but then seeing the name I knew it wasn’t.

That feeling of dread, of urgency, and of fear lingered, and I felt that surely someone somewhere must be dying or hurt, someone I need to help, but can’t. Even though I knew it wasn’t true. It slammed me right back into it. I wasn’t glad to realize it wasn’t true, you know, like when you wake up from a nightmare and realize, “Hey! Martians really aren’t invading!” No, I wasn’t glad. I was sad, because it reminded me of the last time it was true.

Loss and Life

I lost my wife, Jenny, four months ago, on August 31st, 2016. Her heart failed. It was the worst thing to ever happen to me in my life, and these last four months have been the hardest I’ve ever had to endure.

Jenny was a “dializor” – a term she preferred to “dialysis patient.” She initially went on dialysis at 17 years old. She had a transplant when she was 32 which lasted ten years before the very drugs that prevented rejection destroyed her kidney, finally. She received the kidney on October 1st, 1994, and thereafter October 1 was her “rebirth-day.” It was a joyous day until 2005, when her kidney failed, and then it became a sad day as another year went by on dialysis. She was on the transplant list, but she was virtually impossible to match. So, she stayed on dialysis and persevered through setbacks, health issues, low blood pressure, mysterious infections and fevers, and pain. Her last year was difficult, and she finally gave up hope. And then she died.

This is an extremely abridged version of Jenny’s life, her struggle, and her fantastic resilient spirit, but for the purpose of this post, that’s what happened. Jenny and I were together for thirty years, eight months exactly. When she died, my life was over.

I knew that Jenny would pass before me. I never expected that it would be as devastating as it was and is. When you marry someone, you become in many ways one person. Jenny and I had a common life. We grew up together. We shared everything. We had passions that we shared, which no one else understood. We named our dog “C. K. Dexter Haven” because Jenny loved how Jimmy Stewart called that out in the movie “Philadelphia Story.” “C. K. Dexter Haaaaaven!” She loved the idea of having a small regal Sheltie have a such a long name. And, I’ll be damned, but the name suits C. K. Dexter Haven to a tee. Jenny and I loved that, and we totally understood it since we loved that movie, and I can tell you I was genuinely surprised that apparently no one else got the joke. C. K. Dexter Haven (there is no short-hand here. His name is C. K. Dexter Haven) was Jenny’s last birthday present. Thank God I got her that puppy.

When you have that kind of relationship, you die when your partner dies. I used to think  that it was over dramatization when the husband went crazy when his wife died, like in “Gone with the Wind” when Scarlett’s father goes crazy when his wife died. Now that it has happened to me, I get it. I heard of couples dying within days or weeks of each other. Will and Ariel Durant died within two weeks of each other. Just last week, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died within a day of each other. People can die of a broken heart. I get that. Your life is over. You have to choose to live after something like this. It is not like you died. You did die, in that your life as it was is done. There is no going back. It is over. And in order to go on, you have to choose to go on, and figure out what the hell you are going to do. And whether or not you want to.

I am blessed with a son, so no matter what else happened, my job is to help him. He needs to grow up, and he needs support and love because his life as it was is over too, at twelve years old. I cannot change that, but I can help him.

There are a lot of things in life that allow “do-overs.” In the movie “City Slickers,” the frighteningly young men were in the throes of their respective mid-life crises where  they needed a “do-over.” When you lose your spouse, there is no “do-over.” It’s cussing over. Death is cussing final. Everything you should have said, you cannot say. Everything you should have done, you cannot do. There’s no reset button. You can’t “respawn.”

I’m in the middle of this. It’s been four months, so this is new. All I know is that I cannot rush the mourning. I cannot rush my son’s mourning. It is involuntary and primal this process. One of the things that has helped me is that while Jenny’s and my life was unique, what is not unique is that I lost my wife. Every successful marriage will go through this. One partner will live. One will die. It is, therefore, a fundamental part of the human experience. And I never knew it. It never even dawned on me until I lived it that this devastating thing is common. I feel that this grief is part of my DNA, that I am riding a wave of grief and mourning that shifts and morphs and moves around exposing all sides to the pain. I was with Jenny for 30 years. Given my family’s genes, I will probably live more than 30 years longer. My future life without Jenny is likely to be longer than my life with Jenny, and that that slays me. This process is like a rebirth. I have a new life. Whether I like it or not. So I think that this primal mourning prepares you for it, or it kills you.

We adopted our son at birth, and we were with the birth mother before and during labor. That, too, was a primal experience. I was getting sympathy pains. I always thought they were a myth. But no, they surprised the hell out of me. When my son was born, the flood of love that surged in me for this little baby boy was oceanic. I had no idea. There was no choice here. He was my son. He was from that moment on my guts. My sinew. My soul. I did not decide this: it was automatic.

The process of loss for my wife is similar, except it is primally enduring the pain of my past sliding behind me instead of the intense joy of creating a new future. They both seem like they are encoded in my DNA.

What do you do with this? What can you take from it? The movies treat widowhood as a transitory phase until you get your next spouse. Look at “Love Actually:” Liam Neeson gets Claudia Schiffer at the end and all is good. Or look at “Sleepless in Seattle:” Tom Hanks gets Meg Ryan and all is good. Both movies capture well the pain of widowhood, but I am not so sure of the solution. It is not so easy to move on from the love of your life.

The only thing I know at this point is that I had this beautiful life, and now it is different. It has awakened me to how ephemeral life is – not just the breathing part, but the contextual part. My life is different every day. Life changes every day. Each day is its own creation. And some people will be joining with you, and some people will be leaving. We blend our minutes and hours into days, and our days into weeks, months, and years. But each moment is discrete and unique. Some things just ooze along with minimal change, and sometimes things break suddenly, and the whole damn thing is now a new thing.

So, I decided that one thing I am going to do this year, is to be here now. Be present. Appreciate what is. Focus on the good. Embrace the bad. Alan Watts talks of life being like music. You don’t rush to the end; rather, you enjoy it as it happens. That is true. But what is more true is that life is like a playlist. One song ends, another begins. Musicians play in one, then they leave, and new musicians come in. And then, I guess, finally, you pack up your harmonica and toddle off yourself.

I know from experience that no matter what is said about death and dying, it’s not going to become real until it happens. There is no preparation. So what I can say is, if you live, surprising things will happen. Be ready to experience them, and to learn.