Saturday, September 03, 2016

Riding off into the sunset

Y'all. I've GOT to start writing on this blog more often than when people die. Although apparently I skipped the entire year when my dad died. Jesus.

I've had two this time. Two hits so fast I barely had time to get an non-purple/memorial manicure between the "purple was his favorite color" ones. My godson...that hit hard. It was shocking. He was 23, for God's sake. Who expects to die on their way home from work at 23? I was numb, I was sad, I was angry. It didn't make sense, because when his other godmother called me to tell me about it, I was bracing for news of a whole different death. One I thought I had made my peace with in some ways. And just when I was starting to emerge from the sodden, mired, foggy trudging of my godson's sudden exit, that one hit. And it hit me like a damn freight train. I was utterly unprepared for the magnitude of my grief on this one.

Because back in 2013, I was having a really bad day. My dad had died, and some days later I went to the funeral home to pick up all the stuff - you know, prayer cards, paperwork, etc. It had been delayed because the funeral director I was working with had lost his grandfather. In his arms. So when we met we processed that a bit. And somehow, at the end of all this what I decided would help me feel better was a visit to the Harley dealership. I knew I was in the market for a new bike, but I was just going to browse this time. Just sit on a few, see how they felt. Just the used ones, because seriously, who buys a new Harley?

Well, you know of course I ended up buying a damn brand new 2013 Softail Slim that day.

Of course the next day, when the paperwork finally went through, it was snowing (February in NC, my friends. Riding weather Friday, snow on Saturday). So we agreed to do the trade the following weekend, when I had to call roadside assistance to jump start the Honda three times and finally rode it to Raleigh in rain so hard I can't even tell you. I have never been so drenched in my entire life. Like, I was leaving puddles in the dealership. And then the bike wasn't ready. What?! So I spent an hour and a half drifting around, waiting, meeting some of the people who would end up becoming incredibly important to me over the next few months. Not that I knew that at the time.

So there I am, dripping all over Motorclothes, and this....guy pops up seemingly out of nowhere and says, "So you bought the Slim?" This random guy I swear I'd never seen in my entire life, in his long sleeved flannel HD shirt and his glasses and his ridiculous smile, and although maybe 12% of me was startled the other 88% was like, "Oh...there you are." We chatted a bit and someone called me away and I was like...hmm.

So the finance guy invites me to ride with them on their weekly day off journey, and I keep going back to the dealership for the social stuff, and finally I have a day that sort of lines up, so I give in. I meet my boys (not that they were yet) at the Dunkin Donuts (honestly, I'm still shocked I was brave enough to do this; that was NOT in my comfort zone) and they introduce me to a bunch of old retired veterans with names like Pops and Rabbit and Quarter Mile, and then this loud ass Road King rolls up, and here's that guy again. And within five minutes, he's charming and making my anxious ass laugh and as we all saddle up he helps me fix my stupid chaps that don't actually fit right and then he pulls in line next to me and I'm going to be completely frank with you all right here - I was done. Hook, line, sinker. I don't know what it was, but I was in.

"This guy's cute." I later told my new friend Amy, the only other regular young blonde girl and new rider amidst the grizzled retirees that had been riding longer than either of us had been alive.

"He rides like an asshole" she said.

(This is accurate.)

And he was cocky, and stubborn, and sometimes a complete jackass. I'd see more of this over the coming years, but you know, it was just part of the package, and even then I could see that package held a really good heart. We talked at the dealership, we did a few more rides together. We became Facebook friends, we exchanged numbers. He was ex-Army, I learned, fairly recently divorced. Living with some family as he hadn't been in NC long. Had been in sales nearly as long as I'd been out of diapers. Kind of warned me he came with some baggage. He had great stories and seemed to genuinely like me, and so we started that infernal tango that two people who've been hurt do in their desire to be less hurty together while fearing more pain. And like two weeks in, he wasn't feeling great, and he kept asking advice without divulging the information I needed to give that advice, and then...then he turned yellow.

I noticed it at, of all things, a Ladies of Harley pancake breakfast, but I already knew enough to keep my mouth shut and wait, and a couple of days later I got a text saying he was headed to the ER, but it was nothing. I happened to be at that same hospital because a friend of ours was having surgery that day, and was like, you know I know what jaundice looks like, and what it means, and I'll meet you downstairs. And as would happen over and over, he protested loudly but kept me there.

And as I'm guessing you've already figured out...it wasn't nothing.

Pancreatic cancer is a really horrible not nothing.

I knew that absolutely zero people would blame me for turning around and running right then and there. Including him. Maybe he'd have preferred it at the time, actually. But it didn't feel like the right path, and so, okay. I was in it for whatever came along.

And it was such a hard road. It was hard for me to navigate my place, which was complicated by all those other specters that came along for the ride (not the least of which was the big guy in the black hood. Can you put that scythe down for a sec, brother?). But I did my best, and so did he. Chemo was miserable, radiation was a hundred times worse. We stole our moments when we could. Sometimes that meant, since I was working a community-based job by then, me stopping by his work with a white mocha for a few moments of conversation. Once it meant an argument by a taco truck. Often it meant a lot of colluding and dreaming and deep conversations over text. When he was too sick to venture out, he'd tell me "We'll meet in our dreams tonight. Wear something purple." We planned big trips we knew we probably wouldn't take, I brought him along virtually on the rides he was too sick for now. We talked about death, and life, and fear, and food. We always kept adding to our "places to eat" list. And every now and then the stars would align, and we'd manage to actually eat a meal together, or meet for coffee and laugh together and wax philosophic in the same physical space. And that time together was precious, every second of it.

He struggled a lot with the "shoulds." He refused to let us declare ourselves as anything official, repeatedly saying he was too sick to be the kind of man he needed to be to be a boyfriend. I told him that was utter and complete bullshit, and he knew it, and I wanted him for exactly who he was, but he wouldn't give in. I later realized some of the other factors at play, but I stayed fast. Fine, don't be my boyfriend. I called him my "whatever." And so we were, some days more whatever than others. We were a funny team, seemingly very mismatched - he was a very religious, gun-toting, right wing, fiery, impulsive soul who saw everything strictly in black and white; I was, of course, an overtly spiritual flaming liberal who was constantly reassessing her vantage point and discussing all the shades of grey (way more than 50), although as he would frequently remind me, we were a solid match on the stubborn scale. I remember one afternoon we planned to meet at the mall, and had trouble finding each other, and so got into this whole, angry, "you're making this more complicated than you need to!" "Are you kidding me? YOU're the one making this so complicated!" "Forget it, let's just forget this." "Seriously, knock it off. Just shut up and stop moving." But we connected, and begrudgingly hugged each other, and shopped for stupid things, and ended up at the swanky furniture store pretending we were shopping for our beach house and perfecting our back stories if the saleslady asked (she didn't, sadly). At one point I was admiring this weird, stylized, nonsensically expensive periodic table blanket they had on the wall, and was like, we could get this! And he looks at me, all worried, and is like, ".....do we have to?" I assured him, we did not. Well, maybe just for my sunporch.

But often we balanced each other well. The perfect example of this was a day we managed to get a ride in together. He was taking me around, showing me some local things, when the nausea hit, and all we could do was wait it out. So as it passed, we laid in the cool, shaded grass next to a pond, soaking in the dappled sun and watching the ducks. And we talked and talked, about deep, soul-wrenching things, and about light, funny things, and I couldn't resist the urge to lean over and kiss the whatever right out of him but for the fact that I was pretty sure he would vomit on me if I did. So there we sat, drinking in the day and the company, befriending passing people and laughing about life, until he could get back on the bike. He apologized to me for that afternoon, because we hadn't done what we set out to do, and so obviously he let me down. I reminded him that we had accomplished exactly what I set out to do, and that it had been one of the most perfect afternoons I'd had in a long time.

The absolute worst of it, though, was a weekend at the shore we planned for real. Like, in real life, not just in our purple-clad dreams. At the last second, it didn't happen. Of course I was disappointed, but I get over that stuff. I was a master of adjusting our course at that point. I was angry, too, although not for what he thought. That, however, revealed that however disappointed and angry he thought I was, this albeit-fictional level of acrimony was no match for the enmity he was leveling at himself. That piece broke my heart, and I told him so.

And we tried, we both really tried to make some of the relationship-y things happen, even if so many things got in the way. We said our "I love you"s in code and euphemism, in "I appreciate you" and "I'm here for you, always." When we were packing up their place for a move, and we were home without the rest of his family, we talked about how nice it might be to actually come home together and do the silly little things of daily life, like cook a meal and do the laundry and doze off in front of the TV. After an amazing row about new years eve dinner, because he was angry that he couldn't manage a Big Night Out Extravaganza and was convinced that's all that would count, we ended up having an incredibly lovely dinner at an Italian place near his house at 4:30pm. I was oddly a regular there (because that was nowhere near my house), and when our other reservation fell through as he was leaving work (and I was driving in, and he was ready to scrap it and I was all, hang on, this is what I do best), they totally accommodated us and didn't even charge us a corkage fee for the bottle of (really good, strangely enough) non-alcoholic champagne I'd managed to scrounge up on the way there, because chemo but also NYE. It was perfect and I wouldn't trade that evening for anything, even a Big Night Out Extravaganza.

We even did perhaps the most relationship-y thing of all when he spectacularly dumped me once in a fit of "I don't want this to be my life." I was wounded and angry and in an uncharacteristic display of self-care, I ran away to the coast for a weekend. I walked the beach and shot pictures and journaled and drank a lot of coffee and came home steadfast in my "I did everything I could, and I'm done." And maybe that was the beginning of the end, but as it turned out, neither of us was actually done.

So on we went, him fighting for his life and then well, maybe not anymore. His initial post-treatment scans were, amazingly, clear. So were his one year. We were hopeful, although the aftereffects of the surgery and radiation were not good. He continued to slowly lose weight periodically, to feel weak, to go farther into his shell. We argued endlessly about finding different doctors and trying different things, but he rejected my advice most of the time (and, infuriatingly, every so often listened when it came from someone else). And his push-pull on me became more and more just pushing me away.

I knew, from that jaundiced pancake morning on, that this was not going to be an easy road. I was completely prepared to put all of the work in up front, knowing that the possibility existed I was going to get no return on that investment because he was going to die. Or maybe I would get it back, and we would figure out where those two people on a brisk morning at a Dunkin Donuts would've wound up if they hadn't been sidetracked to Cancerville. What I was not especially prepared for, however, was to struggle with an increasingly unilateral relationship indefinitely. And it wasn't fair to him for me to make him continue to put that much energy into fighting me on it, to be completely honest. So I did what I thought was best, finally, and I stepped back, telling him so. He'd reach out periodically after that, and after some discussion of how hurtful it was for me to have been cut out of his life, we found a new equilibrium. We were okay, good, even. I moved to Chicago, and it was too much, I think, to see me off, but later we made plans for when I came back to visit. Plans that may not have happened, but now...now they won't.

When I first heard he was in the ICU, I sat back and I said, do I need to do something, here? I decided I didn't. I was certain he knew how much I loved him. I couldn't think of anything left that I'd regret not saying while he was still with us. It was going to be sad, but we were in a good place and if he needed to go, I wished him safe passage. Then he was home, and back, and in, and out, and for a month I watched his sister's Facebook page for any indication. And then, then I got a text from a friend, and he was gone. And suddenly I was heartbroken and just devastated in a way I had not seen coming.

Knowing that now, would I have done anything differently? Probably not. I wonder sometimes (fine, I've wondered a lot) about his experience of all of this. I know there was a piece in there about burdening me. I worry that in his desire not to drag me down with him he just contracted and sank further. He knew I would perpetually keep trying to be his life jacket. I also know a lot of what happened wasn't about me at all, and in several ways wasn't even about him. It was all so complicated. So if that last message I sent him had said "I need you to know that I love you so, so much, and I always will" instead of "Feeling any better?", that could've been too much. And no matter where we were in our whatever-ness, I was always, always the perpetual optimist about his prognosis, even when inwardly I wasn't feeling so sure that was true. Even if he knew he was headed on home, I don't know what it would've been like to have me admit his defeat, you know? The last thing I ever would've wanted to do was cause him any pain, any grief.

But I really did love him so, so much.