I was 24 when my ex-boyfriend Brendan died two months shy of his 25th birthday. It’s five years today since he’s been gone and somehow it feels like no time has passed at all, other than his death has shaped me into a completely different person than I was then.

I’m also turning 30 this year (Brendan would have too), which is when he always said we’d actually be able to be with each other. Once I got my wild girl side out, and would be ready to not just love each other in an all consuming way but emerge as compassionate grown-ups together — like what adult romance is supposed to be (I think, hopefully).

Just a few words about him, even though it feels hard to paint his picture now. Brendan was the kind of smart that was almost intimidating, and I was always surprised that he choose me to be his partner — I never say the right thing, blurting out whatever I’m thinking, while he was shy and thoughtful, only sharing his thoughts with those who really deserved them. Our relationship was never very easy, but it was just one of those things that felt necessary, like there was no way to exist without him. After Brendan died and following the shock of losing the one person that was my person, I’ve come to believe that I better make my life a life worth living to give some value to the fact that his was cut short early.

This conclusion wasn’t without a tunnel of grief. I listened to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks on repeat until there were no more tears to cry, because he showed me that record and I’ve never heard anything better still. I smoked Malboro Reds and drank straight whiskey, just like him because that way I could pretend he was still right next to me, whiskey in hand. I flirted with the idea of walking in front of a car so we could be together again, wherever that might be. I wasn’t suicidal or anything, it just seemed like a fast track to be with him.

I constantly read through every email, every text message over and over so that I had our four years together in correspondence memorized in my head. I latched onto eerie things he said close to his death, once asking if I could “reincarnate so we could be together like we were meant to, with our flaws and all” — Brendan was funny when he needed to be, but most of the time he would lay something on you like that in all seriousness. In another late night email entitled Going in Different Directions he made several resolutions of who he’d always been and who he’d always be, first of which was, “I’d rather die on a bench in the Mars bar rambling some poem then spend any time working for a corporation that pays me well”, which wouldn’t end up being too far from the truth just a couple months later.

I rethought each experience we’d ever had together, thought constantly of how I pushed him away as if we had so many moments left to forgive each other. And now he was gone, and maybe he didn’t know that deep down I wanted to end up with him too but was too young to know it — conflicted that I needed more life experiences to come to this conclusion on my own. But somehow he was so sure.

No one around him really knew that we still shared this bond after our breakup, and the dissolution of the apartment and life we shared together. To his friends and family, I was the cruel ex-girlfriend (at least in my head I was, because to be honest I was definitely a real jerk). I was the worst version of myself to him, and him the same to me. When I heard people eulogizing him as a quiet, soft, kind person I didn’t want to argue because I knew that he only showed the ugly, violent side of himself to me, which gave me a small comfort that I knew a part of him they didn’t. I thought that’s what real love was then — addictive, abusive, crazy. The love where your actions have no consequences because you care for someone so deeply, so you hurt them again and again because they’ll still be there when the dust clears. And he always was, until he wasn’t.

I repeatedly questioned what could have been — what my life would look like if he never left. At first I only wanted to surround myself with people who knew him, or at the very least knew what had happened because that experience so quickly defined me. The thought of needing to explain his death, and even more so the conflicted way Brendan and I loved each other seemed too much. But I’ve come to prefer now that new people in my life don’t know, that I can just be myself without being haunted by the past, as if it’s a secret I carry.

A women I saw for help immediately after Brendan’s death was the first person to put it all in perspective for me. On first meeting she very rationally said, “if you were meant to be together, he would still be here”. Although I’m a lovesick romantic, I also fully believe in logic and that was logical.

Looking back on these five years without him, I of course still miss him constantly but I also cherish this time because it has made me stronger than I ever thought I could be, and value my relationships so much more deeply. In a strange way it’s also made me invincible. I don’t believe in angels or ghosts but I do think Brendan still protects me and that I’m safe knowing he’s there somewhere, in some form. Right when he passed I felt his presence surrounding me at all times, always at the small of my neck moving down my whole body just like when he used to touch me there. Ever so often I still feel it and chills run through me. I treasure these moments even more now, knowing as I grow farther and farther away from Brendan he’ll always be here with me when I need him, giving me butterflies.

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