Today I have ennui. You know, that general feeling of dissatisfaction… nothing to do, nothing to be excited about. I look outside and it’s bright and warm and fresh and I know if I just sat in the sun for a while I would feel better. Instead I pull the blinds and watch a b-grade movie on network TV (so I have to endure commercials).
Tom and I used to joke about having ennui, a reference to Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies. “N is for Neville who dies of ennui.” Just laughing together about it erased some of the melancholy. Tom refused to dwell in dissatisfaction. He would get outside, call some friends, cook a fabulous meal, plan an adventure. I prefer to lean into my ennui. I think about it. Dissect it. Accept or challenge it, depending. But it doesn’t often last more than a few hours.
Aside from losing Tom, my life is pretty good. But when ennui does sneaks up on me, in a strange way, it makes me feel close to Tom.
Regret is an insidious emotion, especially when there is no chance for a do-over.
I don’t have a lot of regret about my relationship with Tom. Yes, I wish we had lived in the same town our whole adult lives, or visited each other more frequently when we didn’t. But we talked on the phone often and e-mailed even more frequently. We knew each other well. He was my best friend. I can only remember a few big fights, each of which was quickly followed by apologies and hugs and sometimes crying. There are, however, a few missed opportunities near the end of his life that nag at me when I let them.
The first is an unreturned call. Tom had called and left a message for me a few weeks before we found out his cancer was back. He had had a particularly rough day and was calling to talk. I was busy at work and didn’t return his call until later that evening. It turned out he had lost it on the subway home and cried. It breaks my heart thinking of him sitting alone in a crowd of people; that he needed comfort and I wasn’t available. I wish I could have that day to do over.
My other big regret came the day before he died. When we arrived at the hospital, Tom’s doctor told us it was important not to pretend everything was going to be OK. He counseled us to let Tom say what he needed to say, to let him see us cry, to show him how important he was to us. That advice was the most valuable advice I’ve ever received. Later that night, after our family played Euchre, we said our goodbyes so he could get some rest. My parents walked into the hall ahead of me as I quickly told Tom that I loved him and was glad to have had him for a brother. I kissed his forehead and told him I would see him in the morning. Then I left him… alone in a cold hospital room on the last night he was on earth.
I can’t begin to explain how deeply, desperately, I wish I could have that night back. I told him I loved him, but I wish I had sat with him, holding his hand until he fell asleep. It kills me I didn’t do that. This regret, this missed opportunity, has consumed me many times over the past two years, including today. I’ve cried on and off for several hours dwelling on those few minutes in a relationship that spanned 46 years. I wish I could let it go but it’s not that easy.
I am not the tidiest person I know. But one thing I do clean up frequently is my phone. I don’t like to have old texts and voice mails in my phone. I do the same with e-mail – file or delete! There’s something nice about a clean “in box.”
But not a day goes by when I don’t wish I had even just one voice mail from Tom to listen to. I miss his voice more than anything. Maybe it’s because we talked on the phone frequently. Maybe it’s because he had a great laugh. Maybe the fact that I can no longer hear his voice makes me long for it even more.
This story about a guy who saved everyday phone messages from his parents kills me. I’m jealous. And I know exactly how he feels. What a blessing he has.
Over the past two years, I’ve been amazed by the number of people I know who have lost someone. Two friends and several co-workers have lost their mothers. Others have lost grandparents, fathers, siblings, and close friends. A friend of mine recently lost two grandmothers and her sister within two months. That’s on the verge of being unbearable, especially when at least one of those passings was unexpected.
When Tom died, a friend of mine gave me a book of daily meditations by Martha Whitmore Hickman called Healing After Loss. The author lost her daughter in an accident and that personal tragedy gave her an amazing power to provide comfort to what I imagine is thousands of people trying to make it though the haze that follows death. I’ve bought and given this book to several people I know who have lost someone in the past two years.
My friend who just lost her sister told me she finally understands how I feel. In some ways I’m sure that is true. But in other important ways it’s not true at all. Each of us has a unique experience with the person we’ve lost. That’s actually comforting to me. People who have had loss can relate and empathize, but my experience is mine alone. Just like my relationship with Tom in life was special to me, my relationship to him in death is also special to me. It has become another thing that defines who I am.
A book like Healing After Loss is not helpful because the author knows exactly how we feel. It’s helpful because we each read her words and interpret them how we need to to understand our own loss.
We just passed the two-year anniversary of Tom’s death. Like last year, mom and dad and I went into the city, had a meal at Absinthe, and spent some time at the water where we scattered his ashes.
It felt different from last year. Last year had marked the end of a year of firsts; first birthday, first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first year without him.
In some ways, the second year was also a year of firsts because, let’s be honest, every day is different, even if in some small way. I have to admit I felt more numb this past year. I was worried that I was getting used to his being gone, but it turned out that wasn’t true.
I still talk about him every day. Every single day.
“The days are long but the years are short” is one of Gretchen Rubin’s “secrets of adulthood.” Reflecting on Tom’s life I agree: the years were short. But the years of mourning have been short as well. Over the past two years there have been days that I thought would never end. But those two years have flown by. It’s been two years since I heard his voice, seen his face, held his hand. It feels like yesterday, and forever ago.