I am terrified of goodbyes. Even the smallest ones. Maybe it has to do with my urge to control everything. Maybe my childhood separation anxiety never was cured. Whatever the reason, when I was faced with two huge endings at 28 years of age, it's no surprise that I did everything but let go.
I couldn't process what was happening. I couldn't believe that I was burying my beloved Gran, the Gran who mothered me when my actual mother was working.
Gran was the one who gently coaxed me out of bed every morning and patiently combed through my thick, black hair before driving me to the bus stop.
She always waited until the bus came.
And when it did, I'd watch her smile as we pulled away, until she faded out of sight. The gap between her two front teeth made her look like a classic movie star, waving to her fans. But her wave was just for me.
Gran's wave was the last thing I saw almost anywhere I went. She'd leave me at choir rehearsals, the orthodontist, and friends' birthday parties.
At 85 years-old, she left for the last time.
On the very next day, the day after I heard the painful, piercing sound of the undertakers lowering Gran into the ground, David's soft, deliberate voice was telling me goodbye.
"I don't want you to think this is anything you did," he said, holding me for the last time. I noticed there was dirt from the cemetery still stuck to the bottom of my shoes.
"Something's just missing. I can't put my finger on it. There's supposed to be some kind of biological draw or chemistry. It's just not there. And it was there in my last relationship so I know I'm capable of feeling it. I'm so sorry, Lauren, but I can't see a future with you."
David wasn't just some boyfriend. I had chosen to be with him until I was as old as Gran or even forever. I couldn't let his words in. If I did, I might die.
"You really want to let me go," I countered, "I love you. I even love your neuroses. You're never going to find someone as devoted as me. How can you tell me you love me every day, but then do this?"
A doctoral candidate in psychology, David was well aware of my incorrigible tendency to avoid endings.
That's why he abruptly exited, immediately cutting off all contact. He believed it'd be easier for me that way, to not drag things out. That I'd heal faster.
But before I could heal, he urged, I must face goodbye.
I just couldn't. With David, I fell into my deepest love. Whatever I was doing, whether it was downward dog or scrubbing my toilet, the heart part of me was always waiting, counting down the minutes until I'd see him again.
Though I tried to tune him out, I couldn't stop hearing his voice, his before bedtime I love you with overly enunciated consonants, atypical emphases on syllables, and melodic lingering vowels. His words were lyrics. Until they became goodbye.
When it was clear that David was not going to speak to me anymore, I called his mother Judy, a hospice nurse who helps people say goodbye for a living.
"I understand that you don't know how you will be okay," she said. "You will. Essentially you have had two deaths. That's a lot to go through at one time. But you have to let go before you can heal."
I tried to let my mind go where Judy said it should go. Where I knew it must go, to let David go. But when I even grazed goodbye, I couldn't breathe. My heart pounded. The room spun. I saw flickers of red then blue and all went dark. I saw a therapist.
I sat hopelessly in front of Dr. Smith, session after session with sunglasses on, despite the particularly long stretch of gray Philadelphia days.
"Little by little," she pledged, "there will be tiny sources of light in your life."
"And they will grow ever so slightly. You won't even notice them growing at first, but must take that leap of faith and believe that eventually, those snippets of light will grow so much, that at some point, the darkness that comes from David will diminish. Until David fades completely."
After that session, I took a whole Xanax and when I tasted bitterness under my tongue, my chest filled with air again.
If Gran were still alive, I would have called her. In a moment of genuine amnesia, I dialed her number. In lieu of her, a robotic woman's voice answered:
"The number you have dialed, 757-2120, has been disconnected. No further information is available about 757-2120."
Granny. The Gran who answered on the second ring and said so long, not goodbye, would never answer my calls again. Maybe she feared separation as much as me. I had never thought to ask her. Now it was too late.
What would Gran have done if this had happened to her? I remembered her during her last summer at the Jersey Shore, her hand clutching my arm as she struggled to make her way up the boardwalk ramp to watch the sun sink into the sea. Right foot, left foot, right foot.
When she made it to the top, fighting to regulate her breath, she said, "Always keep moving, Lauren Marie."
I tried to move, to go about my life. But I felt like a water sprite or a winged fairy who was flattened and trapped underneath a giant skyscraper. When I traipsed around the city, I almost hoped that a crane from a construction site would fall on me, a mugger would punch me in the throat, or even a king-sized bus would be kind enough to omit me from my excruciating realm of consciousness.
I just wanted to be unconscious, unaware. But here I was--nothing but self-aware and self absorbed. I tried to sleep to escape my bleeding thoughts, but even Ambien couldn't halt the recurring nightmares of David marrying his ex-girlfriend or Gran melting into a puddle of muck. I lost my appetite and my already thin frame became skeletal. I force-fed myself chalky vanilla Ensure.
I decided that the only way to survive was to wait for David. I developed an addiction to psychics and only believed the ones who confirmed my delusions. When Callie, the eleventh psychic I visited, vowed that David would never return, I unremittingly argued with her until she threatened to smack me.
Finally fed up with psychics, I joined every dating site imaginable. Match. OKCupid. The Onion Personals. Jdate. I am not Jewish. Actually, I attended Catholic School for twelve years and received the award for the student who best exemplifies Christian values. However, all of my exes (all two of them) were Jewish, so I thought I had accurately established my "type."
I went on first dates with a doctor, a tennis coach, a lawyer, a psychology Ph.D. candidate, and an aspiring rabbi. Each time I greeted a smiling new prospect, the David pang in my chest ached even deeper.
When I'd get home, exhausted from holding back tears, I'd open up my laptop, the faint white light from beneath the keys softly gleaming.
I'd write to David, certain that no other man could make me happy again, certain that he'd realize the grave mistake he'd made.
I'd leave my laptop open, listening for the reply "ding" in between choppy sleep. When 5 a.m. arrived on the two-month anniversary of our break-up, and there was still no reply, I started to type something other than an email to David. I started to write our story. There was nothing left to do.
First, I wrote little details, how David laid out his shoes, always positioning the left shoe a little bit ahead of the right one. How he drank a half of a cup of coffee one day and saved the other half for the next day. How his left armpit was more pungent than the right.
Then came the bigger moments. When David drove me to see Gran at the hospital two days before she died. Disbelieving it was the last time, I tried to see through Gran's bewildered brown eyes, resting on the cluster of blue-green oak trees outside her window. She remembered the massive tree that my grandfather had planted in their backyard for her shade. She remembered it had lasted 52 years, until the new owners of her home cut it down.
"How could anyone cut down such a beautiful tree," she sighed.
Whether I wanted them to or not, more words that were said, more moments that I both loved and feared unleashed themselves, at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 6 a.m. Every time I wrote out a David or Gran memory, I was sentenced to live it out.
The ordinary moments saddened me more than the unordinary ones. How David made me turkey sandwiches without lettuce and tomato on potato rolls. How his fingers imprinted the soft bread. How Gran refused to let me buy a grilled cheese on the boardwalk because paying five dollars was "ree-dic-i-lis." Her insistence on frying my favorite buttery crispy melted cheese mess for me, like she had during my childhood.
As I looked back, I realized I was letting the Gran memories stay and the David memories go. That pivotal moment of teetering on death was trying to nudge me back to life. It was pushing me forward so that I could finally leave it behind. The emerging words were pulling me ahead, writing themselves, rewriting me.
And somehow, as I found myself alone with a manuscript dawning itself, I saw dawn's light. The burning in me, in my chest and in my gut, the heat that makes me have to write, was keeping me alive. Words were my breath. They were coming from where the pain is, the same place from where the love comes.
Soon I saw letters form the word that I thought I would never write.
I was writing goodbye.