Saying goodbye

Sleeping J, portrait circa 2006. When archiving images of J recently, I discovered many photographs and drawings I made of him asleep. This is probably quite typical. Your partner, when asleep, will look extra adorable. If not for work, I can spend my mornings just looking at his sleeping face. Of course these sleeping portraits are like death masks. 

Friends you always ask how am I doing. The concern is sometimes embarrassing. I am definitely doing okay. God has been good. The feeling of gratitude is real. I am blessed with friends, family and both purpose and provision in my work. Many people dealing with the death of a spouse are supported by much less and deal with a whole lot more - young children, ailing parents, a loss of income or subsistence. This is also how I try to keep self-pity at bay.

Whatever your circumstances are, there is but one advice I can give, though some of you have already experienced this and have warned me: Do not underestimate grief.

I have learnt how insistent, intrusive grief is. I remember thinking when I re-read Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking in early March how repetitive it was. How could the lucid, incisive Joan Didion, write such a meandering work? I couldn't understand then. Oh silly pride! That was precisely the point, wasn't it. The revisiting of the moment, the suspension in time, the dislocation of the self, the magical thinking that he would return. That was her point, wasn't it? But in the blur and lightness of those early weeks when all was not real and J felt near, I did not fully appreciate how incessant, protracted, how unforgiving this grieving would be. I was impatient. I am humbled. 

9 months after J died, killed himself, I can now confess: I had not accepted that J was not coming back. I am only just beginning to.

Illogical as it sounds.

Even if I did accept that he was not coming back physically, I still had not accepted that I could not keep him - his memory, his presence - here as a kind of conjuring. The wilful creature in me thought I could make him remain as a kind of private hologram, a spectre made out of memories and powered by the sheer will of imagination.

Last week I wrote in my to-do-list, bumped down from number 2 to number 5 on a 5-point list: "Keep James close".

Keep James close? What on earth was I even thinking when I wrote that? How was that achievable, no, desirable?

I must have thought I had figured out how to deal with his absence. Just suck it up and deal with it. The Asian, protestant, non-millenial approach to unpleasant things. But even I didn't realise, until now, that I had created a hare-brained scheme to deny absence and actively cultivate his presence. It is therefore also an insidious scheme.  It started with removing the physical reminders that spoke of his absence, and retaining all the belongings that still served his presence. Give away his best stuff. Yet keep the little things that others won't know are his, but necessary. Keep the necessities for his living. Quietly go to him with words only he could hear and understand. Message him as you would normally in the mornings and whenever something interesting or fun or significant happens in a day.  Even in the company of friends, conjure him at the party - hold his hand. No one else would know.

It's insidious! Hare-brained! Mad.

I recognise now that this has been what I've been doing.

It has taken 9 months to get here.

I submit to the fact that no amount of moth visitations (oh believe me they just kept appearing), no amount of text messages, no amount of wishful design, no amount of deluded praying, no amount of dancing around his toothbrush, no amount of resurrecting his wardrobe, no amount of wilful conjuring would do the trick.

It was arrogance. Sinful arrogance, to think I could overcome, not death, but the effects of death.

My God, I accept it now.

I surrender to whatever you intend.

I want to, I will say goodbye. So -

Dear James, Jammy, I cannot bear to write more of your names,

I am sorry that we have to say goodbye. You may have said it that morning to me. I certainly did not hear it that way - because I am sure I said to you "see you later/soon, baby, call me". I did not say goodbye.

Goodbye means we cannot have long conversations anymore. We cannot say silly sweet nothings to each other. We cannot be cracking stupid jokes. We cannot be taking walks - everywhere. We cannot be sitting in the bus, getting to places. We cannot be listening to music together - how can I continue to listen to all that music you left me with? We cannot be holed up in cafes killing time, time which we do not actually have that much of, really. I cannot be talking to you throughout the day, in my head, in my phone, in our home.

Goodbye you. I so wish you hung around a lot longer. You had promised you would. You had all these romantic notions of growing old together! I believed you. 

Goodbye to all the good things in you. There was much to be loved about you. 

Goodbye because it would be idolatrous for you to remain here now. You were my security, my favouritest everything - and dead, you are still my favoritest everything. I was so secure and satisfied with how you've loved me I never once felt I wanted anything more of work, friends or life. Idolatry! And I think it was because I felt I already have everything with you, so satisfied I was, that I was quite ready to not come out of those surgeries alive, to not be greedy and be done with living - I told you so. I did not consider how you felt when I shared this with you. Of course you would have been devastated if I had really died. Not grown old with you. It was my selfishness that I used up your love, then envisaged and managed the possibility of my own dying, without you. But you, you went one step further, you did it, you left - me. 

Goodbye therefore to all the sad, broken, sometimes selfish bits in you. I loved and indulged them. As you loved and indulged mine. I would be happy now even to just have these sad, broken bits back. That's how selfish I am. To will that you, sick and depressed you, that you come back from your being saved and made perfect in heaven, to be with me. For my selfish sake I would yank you - as WW says - from the endless coconut ice cream eating in paradise. My will is corrupt, wicked.

Because even as I finally say goodbye to you, I foolishly want to remain ampulets, to retain this moniker we share, to still be everything that we were. There's still me that's still left in there, I protest. Last week a friend K asked me why did we pick the name ampulets. I explained that ampulets was the mispronunciation of epaulettes, which both of us loved on clothes. Another reason was because epaulettes came in a pair. That night I realised, of course, that what good was it to keep one side of epaulettes on a shirt? It was not an easy night. 

Goodbye goodbye Jammy.  I love you achingly still. I miss you terribly. You have lived and loved as well as you could.  I admit I am completely heartbroken. You are better off eating that heavenly coconut ice cream.  I will get there one day - chocolate instead, please. God has cared for you, he will for me.   


Postscript -
This is hopefully the last of my posts on J's death. So to mark this, here are some images of J before I knew him, before he was part of ampulets. I enjoyed looking at these photos with him, and without him. Like all old photos, they are both familiar and strange.
12 year old, well-loved, well-fed chubby J
 Respectable university graduate J

Handsome J with colleagues at his first job.


orangeclouds said…
Random thoughts, in no particular order.

1. When the full-page ZB interview with that lovely photo of you was published, the first thought that came to me was: James would have been extremely proud, as he always has been of you. I imagined him beaming away over his coconut ice-cream in heaven.

2. Grief cannot be stoppered and the people we love are always with us. I know we write to deal with the complexity of life and all its emotions. So don't stop writing - there is a ton of insight and humanity and wisdom in your words, and we your friends are here to read and love and support you.

3. When I first started to read and leave comments on your blog all those years ago, and then subsequently getting to know James as well, I was always struck by your love for each other and how you complemented each other perfectly. Back in the Blogger era, those were my 'wilderness' years and I was in a very different place in life.

But God has shown time and time again that He provides, in ways we cannot imagine. Amidst the fragility of life and all its curveballs, that is the one constant. So, as unimaginable as the events of 2019 have been, this is what we can hold on to, as well as the fact that James is in a happy place and one day we will meet him again.
ampulets said…
Thanks OC for reading and being a friend. He would have been proud of the good-looking plant which he potted and had appeared in the photo for the article :)

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