The Fifth Stage of Grief
I wanted to know you were gone.
I wanted it to be easier when your make, model, and color car passed me on the road. I wanted my stomach to stop reaching for my throat when certain songs came on in coffee shops. I wanted to be sure it was not you when someone your height with grey hair was waiting on the other side of a crosswalk.
I could not handle one more sickening and brief moment of wondering whether it was you. I wanted to know, once and for all, that you were gone, because you are.
I waited for so long. The best I can compare it to is Christmas Eve as a child. Waking in the middle of the night, the morning so close, but not quite there — that mixed feeling of excitement and nausea. And yet, on Christmas morning you eventually wake to toy-store wishes wrapped in patterned paper, stockings with candy, a plate with half-chewed cookies and carrots. The comfort of tradition. This other kind of waiting ends in unraveling. This other kind of tradition is one we all partake in, but a sense of uniformity rarely occurs.
Death is inevitable, but different, for everyone. I waited for someone who could not come.
There were so many moments I expected to see you. A bar we used to go to. Leaving the restaurant where we worked together. Walking with her.
And then eventually the places I knew you would not be.
Bus stops. I spent a lot of time looking for you at bus stops. As if one day the bus I was on would pull up to a stop and you would be there, sitting on a bench, waiting for the bus behind mine. I would spot you through my window. No point in waving, maybe you would be on your phone or looking another way, but it would brighten my day just to briefly see you.
Of course the bus stops never had you. Neither did the bars or any of the Jeeps I’ve seen since that October.
The bus stops had homeless people who asked me for a dollar. Young men in suits who wanted my phone number, women with strollers that ran over my toes. My eyes always scanned the pavement and the silver-sheltered bus stops for you. For months, every time a Jeep drove by I checked the tires to see if they were low on air, remembering how you had two flat tires in one week, the second with me at four in the morning in a place we should not have been: the bar. I went on a date to your favorite and excused myself before one drink was through. It’s been a long day at work, I said.
I wished for so many days and months to know for certain that you were gone. That the two or three seconds of hopeful pain in the center of my chest would catch up to the sharp reality of your death.
In time, time I cannot quantify or explain, I stopped waiting for you in that half-sick way. The moments where I thought I saw you became fewer. I stopped hoping for a holiday miracle, an unexpected present in those Christmas Eve moments of waiting. A text message, a phone call, a Facebook post. I no longer lost my footing when someone tall with your uneven gait and posture passed by. I replaced the copy of A People’s History of the United States I lent you that never came back. I stopped maniacally repeating the list of what was found in your body that morning, as if memorizing it would let me take something out. I stopped waking in the middle of the night with concrete understandings of what happened, figured out in dreams. I stopped beating myself up for not remembering those answers in the morning. Answers that I know will never come. The jolts, the wonderings, the urban mirages ended and were replaced with a dull throbbing, not unlike the ache in my knees and elbows on a rainy day.
I knew you were gone. After all of that wishing, I knew you were gone.
I used to think the two or three seconds of self-deception were torture, but the leftover pain has nestled itself into a much longer measurement of time. I know now that it is not you, it will never be you, on the other side of a crosswalk. I understand that you are not someone I will be able to call or laugh with or see from any distance again. Ever.
I have not stopped thinking about you. Writing about you. Making comparisons for how it feels, trying to spell out your loss. Not in all of these years since.
The fifth stage of grief is said to be acceptance, but I imagine that nothing will fully stop the world from occasionally feeling like it has been reduced to locks of your hair and the way you used to smell. If I ever lose those moments it will be because I am gone, too.