This essay was recently (and kindly) published over at the Good Men Project. Click on that link to see it over there. Go on, they’re nice.
I’m in love with a dying person. It’s not easy, and I’m pretty clumsy at it. I’m selfish, I’m needy, I’m an engineer and I’m a writer. Which in sum means that I can imagine a series of events and adjustments by which our story improves in my favor. But her slow decline is ignoring my script.
“Are you mad at me?” she asks.
“Are you disappointed in me?”
“No,” I answer again, my deception concealed within my unspoken semantics of the word “me”. Of course I am disappointed — though not technically with her — and of course she knows this already which is why she asked in the first place. If I had to guess what’s going on in her head right now: seventy-percent she’s mad at herself for having disappointed me, and thirty-percent she’s resentful at me for causing her to be mad at herself again.
My wife and I are enmeshed — that’s the word our marriage counselor has used more than a few times. We’ve shared a life for more than twenty years, we’ve raised two kids together, we’re still best friends, and we are so committed to the other’s happiness it’s sometimes difficult to tell which part of the collective “us” I’m correctly responsible for. Too often, I admit, I don’t actually see her, but instead I see a hyper-familiar model of her: how she moves (and what it means), how she reacts (and what it means), the tone of her voice (and what it means), and of course what I believe her to be thinking. I catch myself so often, realizing I’m not engaging with the actual her, but rather with the model I carry around in my head.
Sometimes when a person becomes as familiar and predictable as your own reflection, when they’ve been promoted to the most vital, their realness can wane and then, too easily, they become confused with an idea.
And that’s actually one reason why I find her so compelling: she continually proves the limits of my modelling capability. When she tells me what she’s actually thinking, it so often sneaks up on me — pretty much every day, something she says or does or reacts to is guaranteed to surprise me. A friend of mine told me once that the reason why he loves surfing was because the ocean doesn’t have a single care about your mental model for it. That’s my wife, the ocean, and that’s me, the surfer.
But she’s dying, and I’m angry and frustrated and disappointed and alone. There are things she used to do and say and think that she can’t or won’t do, say, or think anymore. And there are new things that she does and says and thinks, and — if I’m being honest — I wish she wouldn’t.
“Let’s get married again,” she said today, out of nowhere. We were out for a morning walk, and she was concerned she had disappointed me because she went to bed early again last night, and maybe I wanted to stay out, to get drunk, get high, get naked, or maybe all four. “Let’s get married,” she said, “This time for the getting-old part of our lives. We can say that our first marriage was the A-side of our life together, the one where we get jobs, buy a house and raise a family, but we did all that. Now we’re getting older and flabbier and more tired and every few months something breaks, leaks, dries up or falls off, and it’s all so fucking annoying. Let’s re-up for the B-side, what do you say?”
And maybe she’s asking me this today because she knows that she’s not the same person that I vowed myself to twenty years ago, and she’s struggling to believe that the man she married then could still desire her today.
And she’s right: it is hard to believe. But I do. Every day, I get on my surfboard and paddle out, out, out and join her. I don’t know how not to. She is the ocean, and I am the surfer, and without her there would be no me.
I’m in love with a dying person. And so is she.