I can never forget. That day is like yesterday.
I remember: When the phone rings in my dorm room early that spring morning, it is jarring, much too loud. I have slept less than two hours, up until 7 a.m. listening to Mozart’s Requiem, playing sad love songs for hours before that.
I thought it was the night I was going to die. Alan was still stalking me. The death threats had continued even after I’d had him arrested. He kept showing up on campus. It almost felt like fate. I didn’t know how to stop him. Yet I survived the night.
And when the phone rang in the morning, I could not answer it.
It rings again, five long rings until the machine kicks in, and then a third time. I lift myself from the bed, walk barefoot across the braided rug, belly full of dread. The messages on the machine are from my father, my sister, your sister.
Oh no. Oh no.
I dial your number. When I reach her, your sister is crying. I am crying too. Suddenly, there is no control.
And Then, It Began….
Until I lost you, I never knew grief could be so physical. I never knew it could knock me over like a ten foot wave, take me under, clawing for breath. Happy to be spit out on the shore again.
I never knew the dead could crash about in our living rooms, making themselves known by the motion of the curtains when the windows are closed, by the songs that were your songs playing on the radio and the static that interrupts the music, by the prickles crawling up my neck and the feeling of you.
I remember sitting slumped against the wall of the train station, hugging my knees and crying, waiting for the train to take me home. All around me, the motions of daily life. Do they see it? I wondered. Do they realize the magnitude of the sky?
I remember them, the people, students, professors, townspeople rushing by, rushing to class, to the grocery mart to buy milk or the newspaper, rushing to crew or lacrosse practice, or to the liquor store for a six-pack, in a buzz and flurry of frantic energy like so many June beetles hurling themselves against a window screen, with the lights on inside and every path colliding, and how it was all a blur, their hurry and rush and sense that business cannot wait.
It can wait.
It was 16 years ago when I lost Eric. We’d been friends for nine years, and he was the first person other than my family who I truly felt loved me unconditionally. We had danced on the edge of romance for a while, and I’d always dodged his advances when he tried to kiss me.
I wasn’t ready to be with Eric, yet.
But I’d had a vision of the two of us together, in the future, at his family’s vacation home in Maine, on the couch, surrounded by a tumbling pile of kids. Our kids. I felt certain that if we “ended up together” someday we would be incredibly happy.
Then, he died at age 23 of a congenital disorder of the connective tissues – Marfan’s syndrome – which weakened his aorta. It was so unfair.
I would never get to show him how much I truly loved him. We would never get to live a happy future together.
Life Can Be So Unfair
I was reminded of how much it hurt to lose Eric this past week, when I got some very sad news. My friend Keith Shapiro died in his sleep. He was only 31. He left behind a loving wife, Summer, and two young girls, Ella (nine years old) and Anna (two years old).
This came out of nowhere.
Keith was happy, healthy, with so many friends who love him.
The swing dance community that we are a part of, with which Keith was heavily involved as a dancer, DJ and organizer, was just stunned by the loss. And everyone has rallied around Summer and the girls.
Right now it feels as though the pain will never end. I remember that feeling.
I delivered a eulogy for Eric at his funeral, all those years ago, on behalf of all of Eric’s friends. I had spent the prior New Year’s Eve with Eric and some other friends at a party on Long Island. As the clock ticked closer to midnight, I went to look for Eric.
We were all inside watching the ball prepare to drop in Times Square, and Eric was nowhere to be found. Finally I found him on the back deck of the house, outside the sliding glass doors.
“Hey,” I said. “There you are. I’ve been looking for you! Why don’t you come inside and watch the ball drop with us?” Eric insisted on staying outside. He said that he was happy where he was, and that he was content to watch us from there, and just to know that we are happy.
I shared that story with everyone, adding that I felt that he was somewhere out there now, watching over us, wanting us to be happy. “He wouldn’t want us to be sad forever,” I said, “although it feels now as though the pain will never end.”
All these years later, I still read Eric’s horoscope every day when I read mine, and I still believe he’s out there watching over us and wants us to be happy.
Tell People You Love Them…
Because of Eric, I always make sure to tell the people I love how much I love them, because you never know how long we all have on this earth. I am gentler, kinder and more loving to both myself and others, as a result of knowing him.
My prayer for Summer and the girls is that the day will come when the happiness in their lives will outweigh this great sadness again, and when they will still feel Keith’s love, even as they live their own happy lives. I have to believe that he would want them to be happy, that he would want that for everyone, because that is who he was.
I know what it feels like to lose someone you love unexpectedly and unjustly, at a young age. Yet I cannot even imagine Summer’s grief, multiplied, by the years of love they shared and the family they created together.
My book, which is nearing 250 pages includes stories about Eric, and Alan, and how I found happiness again after such a sad time in my own life.Â We go where life calls us to go.
How do we go on dreaming when our hearts are broken?
- First we start by remembering to breathe.Â Sometimes in heartache it feels like we cannot breathe.Â A long, slow walk can help with this.Â Go outdoors, take a walk.
- Reach out to the people you are closest too.Â Allow them to nurture you.Â Don’t shut people out.Â Allow them to come over, fix you some soup, do your laundry, wash your car – anything that needs doing while you nurture your broken heart.
- Remember how strong you are as a person and that you have the ability to survive this.Â Take it one day at a time.Â In time you will be able to assess the painful experience and put it into greater perspective.
- When you feel ready, start something new in your life – like a class at a local college, join a gym, learn something new like painting or making wine – as long as it is something that doesn’t bring up painful memories.Â Maybe there is a big dream you have been putting off that you can investigate now?
- If you feel you get stuck in your pain, seek help from others.
- And finally remember that time helps us heal.Â Give yourself plenty of time.Â Be kind to yourself. Expect that you will have happy moments, sad moments and angry moments that unexpectedly show up in waves as you heal. Give your life the space it needs to heal.
And I promise you and I will heal.