I never told Dan how much I would miss him during the six weeks he was in Hospice, confined first to bed and later to the couch in our apartment. I didn’t want it to be about me. I tried to balance being relentlessly even-tempered with being empathetic, sharing in his sorrow at his life ending too soon.
I didn’t talk with him about my own sadness, my own fears, my own regrets. I just listened to his, and when he couldn’t speak any more, I read the notes he penned to me and held his hand, telling him over and over how much I loved him, how much his life had mattered to so many people.
We didn’t have the conversation about what would happen to me after he was gone beyond making sure that I had all of the necessary website passwords and legal documents. I didn’t want him to feel guilty, and in all honesty I didn’t want to break down in front of him. He had enough to suffer through.
I had read all there was to read about the kinds of thoughts and emotions that people who are dying experience, and I understood that Dan was slowly retreating from this world, from me, into something beyond. The process of coming to terms with impending death — not to mention assessing one’s legacy, the meaning of one’s life — is in the end, a solitary one.
And now I wonder. Should I have shared more my own feelings with him?
Three months later, I long for the consolation that his words so often gave me when I doubted myself, or when I just needed to feel stronger, or prettier or more loved. One of the peculiarities of grief is the way in which it sneaks up on one when least expected. It’s in the little things, the everyday moments when one’s person is just so visibly, achingly, maddeningly absent.
“You’re all dressed up,” Dan would say to me whenever I put on an outfit fancier than workout clothes. It became code for “I see you, and I love to look at you, you make me so proud to be with you.” I would chuckle and say, “No, I’m not.” Sometimes he would follow up with, “I’ve never seen that before.” And of course I would protest, because of course he had. It was just his way of saying “Looking at you never gets old.” It was so very sweet, so very much just a little verbal tango of love between us.
Now when I stand in front of the mirror after getting dressed, checking to make sure that nothing is amiss, Dan’s words come back to me. “You’re all dressed up,” says my reflection. “No I’m not” I think. And just like that, I feel Dan. Often I tear up, sometimes I have to stifle sobs, but always I end up smiling. I won’t ever be able to look in the mirror on the back of our bedroom door without knowing that his love for me still exists, no matter what has happened to his body.
Empowered, I can go out into the world, not in widow’s weeds, but “all dressed up,” strong enough to face what needs to be faced, alone but not lonely, no regrets.