Ugly: Not Him, But Losing Him

Hellman Memorial Chapels, Spring Valley, NY

First published at SUNY Potsdam in North Country Literary Magazine
Spring 2016


When I was a child, my aunt held me in her arms and pointed out the hot-air balloons that were moving through the blue Colorado sky above them. I was young, and with my own innocent sense of fear, I falsely suspected that one of these human-carrying technologies, dancing with the cloudless Colorado sky, was carrying my mother, a woman who was no where to be found, to Heaven. She is going away forever, I thought. My eyes cried as aggressively as my flailing arms, so my aunt held and rocked me, knowing that would eventually work to quiet my babyish tears.

My mother returned to me and hugged and kissed my tear-painted cheeks: “I only walked away for a moment to take pictures, sweetie.” I didn’t understand my mother; I could only speak through cries and gestures. But as my body moved in transit from my aunt’s arms to hers, I finally felt safe enough to stop crying. A mother gone, a mother returned — but it hit me harder than any lousy game of peek-a-boo. As far as I was concerned, something gave my mother back to me — something miraculous. The hot-air balloon flight soon became too small in scale within the cloudless sky to still be regarded as picture-worthy, so all the spectators left.

That wasn’t the last moment I felt lost without my mother. Whether it was my first day of school or camp — or even my first hospitalization for my bipolar disorder — I always felt unguided without my mother by my side. Thankfully, I was never called a Mama’s Boy growing up and I was never spewed some Oedipus Complex nonsense by some phony psychologist; however, I do admit that I still felt dependent on my mother’s guidance a lot as I grew up. That extreme dependency has lessened throughout time, though, and surprisingly enough, she often comments to me how I am more “proactive” and “self-sufficient” than most people my age, and that she never has to worry about me getting anything done or me “doing what I have to do,” because most of the time, I will find the means to do it on my own.

Growing up in a divorced family with a somewhat distant biological father and a stepfather that never completely made it into the picture before he died, I needed my mother to also be my father at points of time, which required a big level of trust and honesty on both ends.

It’s been two and a half years since my stepfather Howard passed away. I sometimes say that hesitantly — ‘stepfather’ — because Howard and my mother were never actually married. They were dating, however, for 15 years, which was longer than the period of time that my biological parents were married. Howard also raised me to the best of his ability, just like my biological father did, and taught me invaluable lessons of life that I still use to this day. Either way you slice it, Howard certainly left an impression on me, and I am told to this day that I am his legacy and that my strength inspires others.

But I am not an inspiration. That is the sentimental and romanticized aspect of grieving: describing grief as something that “makes people stronger.” I heard for months on end how enduring Howard’s loss was “inspiring” for other people. I have retired from listening to that lately; I cannot go forward with my art, with my writing, and with my life by making Howard’s death sound beautiful because of the way I handled it — which, in fact, only looked inspiring from the outside. I want people to see the ugly again, because that’s how Howard’s death was — and still is — for everyone who knew him personally, professionally, and romantically.

I went to grief counseling. The problem with bereavement counseling is that the 45-minute session — at most — was always focused on the stages of grieving, not on anything positive. The therapist capitalized on my mourning because if I hadn’t felt depressed, she would be out of a job.

Depression is one of the five stages of grief.

She was also a crap counselor to begin with. Some of my professors in college did a better job of helping me through Howard’s loss than my grief counselor did, like my childhood education professor who sat me down, looked me in the eyes, and asked, “What can you tell me about Howard?” My grief counselor had no sense of conversation. When I told my my spiritual beliefs, she told me to stay realistic. When I read her the poem I wrote for Howard, she watered down my experiences of writing to a “great coping skill.” When I told her I told her I was his legacy, she asked me if I was putting too much pressure on myself. I respect social work, I do; I think it is an admirable field. There are some counselors, however, who are complete basket cases, or who should really just work in administration with a lot of paperwork, instead of people.

Anger is one of the five stages of grief.

When I was a child, Howard told me the same bedtime story whenever he slept over my house. He would sit at my bedside and direct me to close my eyes and imagine an open field with a big, hot air balloon sitting at the end of it. Run, he would say. Hop inside it and fly away into your dreams. And by that time, I would be asleep. When he died, I told myself it was his turn to hop inside, that it was his turn to dream, except this time forever.

When I was a child, I was away from my mother for 10 minutes as she took pictures of the hot air balloons above us. I felt like I lost her. But she came back. And Howard didn’t. I always thought he would, and I did everything I could to make him return the way he did in my dreams.

My grief counselor called that denial…and bargaining.

There was a part of me that still felt very incomplete when grief counseling ended. I got flashbacks of things I never even saw, just things I imagined. My mother described these as “intrusive thoughts.” For months, it would be rare to go a day without imagining what Howard must have looked like dead. He was a good man, but as I learned two years after his passing, he suffered from an addiction to prescription medication. First it was alcohol, but thankfully, he defeated that.

Howard and my Mother spent a week in Lake Placid, New York in late August of 2013. It was the week following my sophomore move-in day at College, and instead of going back to Rockland County, they stayed in Lake Placid to enjoy a week of vacation that they never had during their 15 years of dating — up until that point, at least. He was taking a cocktail of strong medication for health concerns relating to the kidney donation he made to his father a couple years prior, and my mother told me he was pretty high during the entire week. She pretended not to notice.

And yes, Howard did donate a kidney. And yes, on this day of my writing, Howard’s father is still alive. And yes, there is still a piece of Howard’s body that is on this Earth, living.

On the early morning of October 30, 2013, Howard died in his bathroom. And that’s all I know: all I know is that he died. I don’t know much of the how, or what he looked like, or if his eyes were open, closed. I would have flashbacks to a scene composed of me finding him in his bathroom and seeing him laying there. Was he wearing clothes? Was he smiling? Was the bottle empty? Was he thinking about me? My mom? Was he on the toilet? And most of all…did it hurt? I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know is that he died. All I know is that death is just plain ugly, even if what came before it — life — was beautiful. Everything ends as ugly as the chemicals in a pill capsule. All I can think of is that after his ugly death was over, he went somewhere beautiful, which, according to my grief counselor, is what I have chosen to accept.

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