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Carolita Johnson | Longreads | December 2019 | 24 minutes (6,000 words)
This essay began very differently a few months ago. I had started writing it at the same time as the previous one in this series, “Till death do us part,” and, just as I observed while writing the fifth one, the very act of writing it resulted in a real-time evolution of my understanding, processing, assessment, and reassessment of what I was writing about, to the point that by the end of the essay, it was obvious I was not the same person who had begun writing it. Just as I’ve changed from the beginning of an essay to the end of it, every few months I look back on my life and think, yet again, how much more like myself I feel. Three years, three months or three pages — it can be a long, slow recovery, or it can happen in shorter but exponentially more intense increments. Recent widows and widowers will either be glad to know, or be dismayed to know that, well, from what I gather, and with luck, it never really ends.
Immediately after my husband Michael died I found myself alone in the house we had been renting from his daughter for the last year and a half. It had been full of his relatives for a week, from the moment he came home to die. Now, it was empty. Empty except for our stuff, and not just our stuff from our life together: preparing for a future that would now never happen, for the six months of treatment and recovery we had expected to live through after his surgery, I’d stocked up on six months’ worth of toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap, dish soap — soap and cleaners of every kind — dry goods, anything that was heavy and not available within a mile’s walk for me, since I don’t drive. Now, I felt like a stowaway on an abandoned frigate, floating along aimlessly.
I still had our dog, Hammy, with me, a 14-year-old poodle named after the noir fiction writer, Dashiel Hammett, of the “Thin Man” movies, whose dialogue Michael and I often quoted to each other. Hammy, too, was close to approaching the home stretch of his life, but for now he was there to stand guard while I cried on every floor of the house, with a preference for the one in the kitchen. Have you ever noticed that the kitchen floor is somehow the most suited for letting your knees give out before crumpling to the floor in wretched tears? I recommend it. I suppose it’s because the kitchen is where so much of coupled life happens. That’s where you will have eaten together, had coffee in the morning together, sipped hot lemon water and honey to ward off colds together, cooked for each other. If you’re going to mourn your lost partner, it might as well be in the place where the spirit of your partnership seems to occupy every cupboard, shelf, and drawer.
A friend immediately insisted on “sitting shiva” with me, which, as a modern adaptation (though I’m not religious and am unfamiliar with this Jewish tradition), took the form of bringing me my favorite coffee beverage, a cortado, from my favorite cafe so I wouldn’t have to go outside with my leaky-faucet eyes. This is exactly how the crying began to feel: tears that puzzlingly continued even when I thought I was done crying. I mused that it was as if a pipe were broken inside me and I might need to call some kind of metaphysical plumber soon.
One of my first thoughts as grief began to flood every aspect of my existence was: “I can’t die now.” I’d heard about wives dying soon after the loss of their husband. I wondered if they’d simply exhausted themselves, used themselves up, had nothing left to survive on. Sometimes I think what might have saved me was that, in the spirit of that airplane emergency survival rule, “put your oxygen mask on first before helping others,” I’d been determined to be in prime physical shape to get Michael through his treatment, surgery and recovery. I’d joined Michael in all the healthful things I’d coached him into doing — the pure, balanced food, always made with anti-inflammatory and wholesome ingredients, prepared with love and visual esthetics, the Qi Gong, the exercising at the gym, the breathing exercises — done it all along with him in solidarity, and also for my self-preservation.
Nevertheless, now, whenever someone asked me what I needed, I had no idea. Me? What did I need? I needed the last year not to have happened, that’s all I could think of. My neighbor invited me repeatedly to come have dinner with her, and I told her I couldn’t face anyone, much less her and her new boyfriend — not that I wasn’t happy for them, but watching new lovers play house is nauseating enough under normal circumstances, and right after the death of my husband… no, I didn’t think I could handle it. She did something ingenious: she had her boyfriend make dinner for three every night, and for a month she’d knock on my door at dinner time and give me the third helping, then have dinner with her boyfriend. We spoke briefly in the mornings when she came to collect the clean plate. This was all the contact and comfort I could bear. It was one of the kindest things she could have done.
At night, in bed, Michael’s suffering replayed in a loop in my mind. When I remembered him sighing deeply in his coma upon my saying something emotionally potent to him, his sigh would take place in my own body. I’d feel my chest inflate and somehow reach upwards as I relived it. It was like he was inhabiting my body for lack of one now. Sometimes I would feel my heart flutter with palpitations. This would terrify me. I would talk to my heart: “No,” I’d say, “Stop it. Get back down where you belong.”
Another friend asked if she could send me a case of wine, but I said wine would just make me drunk and sad.
“Maybe a case of beet juice, instead?” I asked.
Odd as it seems, Biotta’s lacto-fermented beet juice has always been a pick-me-up. She sent two cases, and a plane ticket. “You need to get out of that house. Come stay with us in California awhile.”
But I was afraid to leave the house with all my possessions in it. I had no lease. My landlady was Michael’s daughter, who had been named, upon my advice to Micahel when he drew up his will, executor of his estate. Thinking his “estate” was only his artwork, I figured since she’d probably live longer than me she might as well be the one to manage it. I never dreamed it meant she’d have power over my fate one day. Her mother, Michael’s ex-wife, lived just across the river. They, and a contingent of relatives and friends of their family, had walked freely through our house while Michael was dying as if it were a public space, browsing the art hanging in the rooms, flipping through and chuckling at Michael’s cartoons in our flat files. No one asked me anything. Maybe it was just their casual, friendly way, but it felt as if I no longer had a moral or legal existence without Michael conscious to prove it.
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His daughter had announced plans to come “sort out” his things. When I asked what she meant, she said she meant his books and clothes, his artwork, all his stuff. Thinking it part of my wifely duties, I’d already sorted and left ready for her and her brother everything in his personal effects that I thought was appropriate for them to pick over, keeping a few things for myself that I couldn’t bear to part with. I’d done this out of deference to them.
When Michael and I made our home together seven years earlier, it had taken me over a year to finally agree with him that everything in the house was now “ours.” “You mean our toolbox? Our drill?” This was the kind of familiar refrain I’d hear, that first year. I finally stopped separating my books from his, stopped calling things “mine.” It had been, “our toolbox, “our furniture, “our household ever since. And now she was talking about his books? His stuff?
I said, “You know, I bought all his clothes for the last ten years.” She responded that he’d been “alive for 56 years before he met you.”
I understood that to her, without Michael, there was no more “us,” so, logically, there was no more “ours.” She was going to separate the me from the him again. From that point I was haunted by the fear that when I came back from LA I might find all my personal effects removed. Or, in an alternative nightmare scenario, all “his” stuff would have disappeared. This isn’t a reproach against his family — if you read Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, A Widow’s Tale, this kind of paranoia, this perception of the invalidation of your existence in immediate widowhood, is normal. Nothing personal to Michael’s family.
It was just one more way I was losing my foothold on the reality I had shared with Michael. We’d closed our joint bank account when I declared bankruptcy so I could quit my job and take care of him full time, afraid it might be counted as one of my assets and used to offset my debt. If that happened we’d be left with nothing to live on while Michael recovered from surgery. I hoped my money would last until we could both start working again. But a month before he died, I’d had to tell him I couldn’t pay my half of the rent. In his stress, he had not been gracious about it. When we went grocery shopping together for the last time, I‘d been afraid to get my usual breakfast supplies and preferred to pass rather than ask him to buy them for me.
Now, I had nothing but the emergency check for four months’ rent he’d left me, which I gave to his daughter. It turned out he hadn’t written it for enough to take into account the rent hike his daughter had instituted, which he’d never told me about. So it was only three months’ rent with a little left over for utilities, I was told. I felt my right to space on the face of the earth shrinking apace with my financial limits. I thought I might as well leave and feel helpless with friends, instead.
So, I closed the house up and left with the bare minimum for my own survival: I took Hammy, all my legal papers, my little stash of cash, my iPad, all the jewelry I had in the world, which I sold at the gold exchange for $800 while I stopped over in Manhattan to give Hammy a rest before our flight. I crashed at the apartment of a friend who was away, feeling once again like a ghost in another empty dwelling, and got a small tattoo in honor of Michael nearby. I had thought of putting his initials in a heart on my arm, but at the last moment opted for “AS IS,” a phrase he’d loved writing on his t-shirts with a Sharpie. It would do as a monument to him, and as a manifesto for my own future.
My memories of the trip to L.A. are mostly visual, as if I were a little sentient being inside my head, piloting my body from a cockpit behind my eyeballs. My most vivid and comforting memory is of walking in the hot summer shade with Hammy along the orchard paths winding around my friends’ home and finding tiny little lemons the size of kumquats scattered on the ground as if purposely left for me. I had the feeling that eating them was a form of acceptance of magical benevolence, as if the world were generous enough to throw these candly-like tiny lemons at my feet as an offering to ease my sorrow. It would have been ungrateful of me to leave them on the ground.
I remember following my friends around, going to a comedy show, walking around a large historic botanical garden, trying to play with their young daughter as if I were a normal, happy person, and, once, throwing up at the beach after days of being treated to “comfort foods” like martinis, french fries and lavender ice cream. I slept like a log every night. I still do. From the time Michael was in the hospital, sleep had become a welcome escape hatch. It was as if my body decided I had to have at least one less thing to worry about: no more difficulty falling asleep till the world is righted.
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While I was their guest, my friend’s husband celebrated his 71st birthday, and I tried not to think that Michael— who died at 70, and whose last birthday party had been a humiliation for him when it ended in the ER — would not. But I couldn’t stop thinking it. If it had been anyone else’s birthday, I might have found it harder, but because it was someone I really cared for, the beloved of someone I loved, it felt like I was being guided gently through my first exercise in acceptance.
I had one happy dream while I was there: I dreamt that I was at breakfast with them, and Michael was there, that he’d grabbed my hands and pulled me up out of my chair and was trying to make me dance with him, the way he once used to. “C’mon, let’s dance! Dance! You know you love to dance,” he was saying, and I was laughing and saying, “No, no, I hate dancing,” but giggling all the same. I woke up smiling.
When I came home to the house of death two weeks later, everything was still there. Now it felt like a burden. The records I’d requested from Memorial Sloan Kettering had arrived (along with a huge fee for them that I stubbornly never paid), and they provided no record of any of the doubts and questions Michael and I had raised about his treatment — I had the unshakable impression that they had been careful never to record anything that could be used against them later. This was, of course, exactly what I was looking for in my rage against their failure to save him.
My rage and paranoia were stoked by the fact that each of the phone numbers we’d once used to contact his doctors there were now answered by a robot voice saying, “You have reached a non-working number at Memorial Sloan Kettering,” making me wonder what was real. (Note to MSK: what is wrong with you?) I kept thinking of that famous line from Mission Impossible: “Should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape/disc will self-destruct in five/ten seconds.”
With no one to save and no one to sue, I was just a live-in caretaker of the house and the jar of my share of Michael’s ashes in the living room. I wanted only two things before I made my escape: the small portrait of me in my red bathrobe that Michael had painted, and which he’d taken back to use as a model for a larger version and never finished, and the backpack I’d hidden.
Day after day I wandered through the house, obsessively flipping through pile after pile of drawings and canvas-board paintings. Michael had been prolific for over 40 years, and kept almost everything handy, ready to be worked on again, or be used as reference for something new. I felt like the woman in that Johnny Cash song, “The Long Black Veil,” except without the veil, weeping through the house like a wraith, anguished, searching from room to room. I never found the portrait. I had to request it formally from the estate when it appeared in his catalogued works.
As for the backpack, it sounds so petty now, but the day Michael died, his daughter had picked up one of his backpacks, the larger one he used for day trips, and asked, “Do you mind if I take this?” “No, of course not,” I’d said, but I was immediately seized by the thought, “People are taking things!” So I grabbed the smaller, blue one I’d bought for him, stuffed it somewhere, and promptly forgot where. All I remember thinking was, “They’ll only find it when everything else is gone.” In fact, that’s how I found it, in my bicycle saddle bag, as I packed it with the last of my personal effects.
Upon giving up the search for my portrait, I’d put all my stuff, and whatever I still resolutely considered “our” stuff, in storage. A friend and her husband, both fellow artists, invited me to stay in their guest room while I looked for a place of my own. Hammy and I moved in with only some clothes, toiletries, dog food, and my iPad to work on while my computer was in storage. The room was a separate dwelling with its own entrance at the top of their building, and through the walls I could hear them live their life, comforting evidence of their presence, but at a comfortable distance. They told me to stay for however long it took to find the right place for me and Hammy. Then they let me be alone, let me cry into the futon, or sit in the dark watching, weirdly, Dreyer’s Ordet with its miraculous resurrection, again and again. It was as if I needed to put fantasy where it belonged, to face reality in my life. There was no undoing what had happened to Michael. Undoing, or “control + Z” was an involuntary, recurring thought in those days.
It was around this time that I began to do a strange thing that I forgot all about until just a few days before I began re-writing this essay. A well-off friend had passed me $2500 in “running around cash” while Michael was in the hospital and which I’d barely used before he died. I used it now to book a room in a dog-friendly hotel in TriBeCa. Paying with cash no one knew I had was key: I felt like I was on the lam, a spy gone to ground, or someone in a witness protection program. The hotel had a distinctly 1970’s spy movie feel to it, with its orange, brown and metallic silver wallpaper and modern, glitzy chandeliers in the room and, downstairs, an atrium with a jazz pianist playing standards.
I did this at least three times, and each time all I did was soak in the bathtub, wash my tights and underwear in the sink, then sit on the bed with Hammy, watching movies and cable news shows while eating my room service dinner, or staring out the window at a bar’s neon sign downstairs. I’d fall asleep listening to the elevators go up and down, and have coffee in the morning at the cafe downstairs with Hammy wrapped into my coat. I don’t recall doing anything else or seeing anyone. On my last secret mission, with the last of the money, I spent the day shopping for and buying myself a well-fitting “interview suit,” thinking I’d better be prepared for anything: if I had nothing else, with an iPad and an interview suit, I’d still be able to look for work if I could never produce and sell a cartoon again.
No, I was not in the right state of mind to draw cartoons. I’d laughed out loud, bitterly, when Bob, my former cartoon editor at The New Yorker, emailed me this advice a month after Michael died:
“Be well. Take care. Draw some cartoons.”
I tried, but all my attempts were dark as hell. Here’s a few:
There was no time and no place to draw, anyway. I spent a year searching for a place that was affordable, close to my jobs, and that would let me bring Hammy. My bosses at the cafe invited me to bring Hammy to work when I came back. They even painted his name on a chair for him. I realized that Hammy would now be the filter through which I would live my life. So be it. I moved four times in total, twice moving all my stuff into storage, and then twice into apartments after getting evicted from my first place when it got sold to a couple of real estate carpetbaggers, part of a recent plague to hit upstate New York.
Walking to the cafe on my first day back at work, I passed one of the patrons in the street, an older man, who, sniffing at the air around me, asked if I was wearing perfume. I thought, “Michael is gone, but this cretin remains?” Another patron invited me to have coffee, repeatedly, as if he thought the only thing that had prevented me from having coffee with him before was Michael. A well-meaning friend asked me within months if I were dating yet, and yet another continues to ask every time he sees me, saying he hopes my heart hasn’t “closed to love.” (No, it hasn’t.) Yet another friend sent me a recent widower, who I thought simply needed an understanding person to talk to, but he became inappropriately clingy and I had to ask him to leave me alone.
I was obviously perceived as “back on the market.” Fairly or not, I despised all these men. They seemed to think there was a gaping hole where Michael had once been. I’d made room in my life for Michael. My pain was the pain of having watched someone I loved die in agony, not the pain of emptiness. My life was healing around the space I had created for Michael, and that was how I wanted it. I’d make room for someone else later, if I wanted to. No man would darken my towels or pee on the floor around my toilet again until then.
Anyway, I was busy going through the odd phase of bereavement that I like to call the “ghost boyfriend” phase. I found myself talking constantly about Michael. I realized, at one point, that I talked about him as if I’d just met him, except in the past tense. I knew it made some people uncomfortable, but I couldn’t help it. Just the way we drive our friends crazy by talking endlessly about some great new guy we’ve just met, I talked about Michael as if he were my new boyfriend; my new, dead ghost boyfriend. A friend of mine once called the phase of new (not-dead) boyfriendhood the “Chad likes peas” phase, the phase when you actually think someone else would think it’s interesting that your new boyfriend likes peas.
I continued to write him the occasional email for years, still do, and text him about anything remarkable that he’d have appreciated, like the hiring of the dish washer at the cafe a month after I went back to work, who looked uncannily like him, right down to the super pale but ruddy complexion, the white hair under the light blue baseball cap, the black ”Wayfarers, the blue checked shirt layered over a crew neck white undershirt and jeans — his name? Also Michael, if you can believe it. I would tell people, “As long as you can see him, too, I’m fine with it.” I’m fascinated with Other Michael’s aging. He’s now about the same age my Michael was when we first met. There’s something sweet about it, like a glimpse of an alternate reality where everything went well for someone, instead of turning to crap.
After the first year of doing not much else but work six days a week at the cafe and the dress shop, then cry at night, I got a yahrzeit candle. Next, I quit the job at the dress shop and liquidated my modest IRA: it would have financed my retirement if I only lived for a year after retiring, anyway. I started drawing again, and sold a cartoon within the week.
A year later I was commissioned to write a series of six essays about my life as a woman in the 20th and 21st centuries. And here we are. It’s been just over three years since Michael’s last birthday. When I began my essay about taking care of Michael, I looked for inspiration in a box of Michael’s things I’d stored in a closet for the last two years. In it I found things that inaugurated the “honeymoon is over” phase of bereavement. First, there was a piece of paper on which was handwritten a rough draft for a speech Michael had apparently considered reading at our wedding. These were my words upon reading it:
“What the fff…? You fucking idiot!”
In this speech, Michael had shortened our relationship by seven years, and changed the place of our meeting. It was then that it dawned on me that he’d spent the first seven years of our 14-year relationship hiding our reality from his family, who had always hoped he’d return to his ex-wife. Michael, phobically confrontation-averse, had been unable to quash their hopes with the truth. I’d told him I thought his gaslighting would damage them more than the truth, and he’d promised to tell them the truth. Obviously he hadn’t. It was with bitter hilarity that I imagined him realizing he couldn’t read this speech at our wedding because I would be there to hear it!
“You fool,” I said.
But here’s a truth: it felt good to be over him. He was still the man I’d once loved and laughed with and fought for and taken care of till the day he died. But he was also, at long last, the emotional coward and pain in the ass he’d been when he was alive, the dummy forgetting to remove the wads of toilet paper in his pants pockets that would disintegrate in the washing machine and stick to all our clothes, the grump who yelled at our barking dog when the doorbell rang, the self-described “nervous nelly” who made us late for everything with his obsessive double-checking.
I also found a letter I’d begun to a pen pal but never finished while Michael was in treatment. In it, I describe the way he dealt with his failing body as if his health were an errant lover and his only thought was how to get her back, if he could only figure out where he’d gone wrong, and say the right words, do the right thing. It pained me to realize that all my efforts to save him may have seemed like a reproach, like proof of his inability to save himself. I realized I’d failed to comfort him. I’d thought giving everything up to be with him constantly had been comfort enough.
Comfort. I’d originally intended to begin this last essay in this series with an observation that what had struck me while reading many other widows’ accounts of their experiences with the death of their spouses and subsequent bereavement: they’d all described getting into bed with their dying spouses to comfort them in their agony. I couldn’t recall doing that at all, and it had dismayed me. What had been wrong with me, with us, if I couldn’t do something as basic as that?
But my memory was proven wrong recently, when, upon my request, a friend sent me photos of the room Michael died in, so that I could recreate it for an illustration in the previous essay of this series. One was of me lying parallel to Michael in his hospital bed, with Hammy nestled between us. I had, in fact, crept into his bed after three weeks of being afraid to disturb him and feeling inhibited in front of his family and friends. In the photo, I’m barely touching him; I’m available, but not imposing myself, careful not to “smush” him, as he often accused me of doing when I was in bed with him in the old days. Michael had always acted irritable when I attempted my rare public displays of affection and the last thing I wanted to do was irritate him as he lay in a coma.
We’d been equal in our unease with “PDA,” each for our own reasons. His reasons, I realized now, were related to his lies about how long we’d been together. This much I understood, but I’m still not sure if he thought I was cooperating with him or just being myself.
I was just being myself.
For most of our relationship, most people didn’t realize we were a couple. I’d laughed this off, thinking people were blind or stupid or that we were just such an unlikely couple that no one could see it. Now, looking back, it’s possible that even after we began living together hardly anyone ever saw us kiss until our wedding, a few months before he died.
I became obsessed with this thought. I understood Michael’s charade (and his family’s sense of injury) now. But I didn’t understand myself. I’d always blamed my aloofness on his bad reactions to my rare attempts. I didn’t particularly like “PDAs” and had only ever tried it to be a “good girlfriend.” His rejections dispensed me of the effort. I’d decided this was just the dynamic of our relationship. But after he was gone, I began to notice something about myself that made me question my official story.
Someone would try to comfort me, and although I was in extreme emotional pain, in shock, and truly helpless, I would deflect them with humor, with anger, with glibness, anything but accept their comfort. I could accept food, money, shelter, but not solace. This was probably interpreted as me being inconsolable, thank goodness. Everyone respects a widow.
When you’re a widow, the sympathy and offers of comfort are, rightfully, ongoing and plentiful. This forced me into noticing my reactions. Eventually, every time I rejected someone’s comfort, I would come home and look in the mirror and wonder what the fuck was wrong with me. Why was I throwing comfort back in the faces of the people who loved me, people who cared and didn’t judge me, who felt pain knowing my pain? One day I sighed, and said to myself, quoting Pinocchio:
“Someday I’ll be a real little boy instead of just made of wood.”
Two and a half years after Michael, my father died. The morning he died, a close friend gave me a long, warm hug, and even though I was grateful, I couldn’t really let myself melt into it in the way it would have comforted me to do. Later that day, I found myself saying, one more time, “Someday I’ll be a real little boy instead of just made of wood.”
A couple weeks afterwards, I found myself telling someone who I was about to begin a (very brief and very ill-advised) sexual relationship with, how in junior high school I would run to the MTA bus stop ahead of all the other kids because I couldn’t stand to be on a crowded bus with them, touching and being touched by them. Being touched would cause me to recoil as if I’d been tased. I still can’t remember what prompted me tell him that story, unless it was the subconscious irony of realizing I was rushing into intimacy too soon after such an emotional event, making a rookie mistake after three years of tranquil solitude. Or maybe it was just one of the thoughts rising to the surface of emotions stirred by my father’s death.
When that unfortunate fling began to turn to crap (as well it should have), I turned my thoughts to Pinocchio. I’m not talking about the Disney version. I was reading the original, Collodi’s “Pinocchio,” which Disney then smothered beneath layers of sweet frosting. As I read it, I realized immediately that the real Pinocchio was a hot mess. He was, most obviously, a purely sexual being. His main physical trait besides being made of wood (wood!), was that he had an erection on his face, for chrissakes.
Other aspects of his personality rang true with me: his allowing the people who loved him most or knew him best (the blue-haired fairy, Gepetto, the talking cricket) to languish and die of his neglect repeatedly, as if in a recurring dream or video game. They represented, to me, the love and solace from my friends that I couldn’t accept, love that withered as I turned away from it, or friends who, out of fear of rejection, I’d failed to be loving and affectionate with.
I was Pinocchio, a child taught by my mother, through emotional trauma and sensory deprivation, never to touch anyone, and to fear being touched. For whatever reason, she’d succeeded in estranging me emotionally and physically from my father for 35 years, the first man I’d ever loved with vulnerability and adoration. To escape her disapprobation, to save myself from her violent anger, I had become “wooden.” When I grew up I went from “wooden” to hypersexual with men, with no degrees of in-between, as I’d been with Michael; I’d been like this with no one questioning it for almost half a century.
I tried to think of excuses for my mother — had she been molested as a child? Had she been trying to protect me? Was it malignant narcissism or that famous, toxic, archetypical mother-daughter jealousy? It didn’t matter why. I grieved my love for her that had died long ago, and my father, and Michael, all at once.
When I think about how my parents didn’t want me to study literature, I think how right I was to insist. Literature shows me again and again the structure of what is going on in my life, and in life at large. It is a Rosetta Stone to human relations. It’s all there, even in fairy tales and fables — especially in fairy tales and fables. (NB: the old ones, not the Disney ones, which are meant to brainwash you into easy prey rather than teach you to avert danger.) It is also the key to breaking out of those stories, when you’ve been rolled up into one. Studying literature shows you that you can be a character in the story, or the reader and analyzer of the story, or the writer of a new story.
A psychoanalyst boyfriend once told me that there was no gainful employment possible during a true analysis, analysis being “a taking apart of whatever makes you whole.” He might have been right. I was lucky: exhausted, I decided to take the month of August off from my “day job” to work on my essays and give Hammy a break from the cafe’s broken air-conditioner. I wrote, I cried, watched my disastrous affair flame out, I cried some more, wrote some more, spray-painted neon pink broken hearts all over my neighborhood’s streets, gave away or threw out a lot of Michael’s things, and finally replaced the high-end utensils I’d bought for our household with a $10 vintage set I’d bought a year earlier at a thrift shop.
When I took the month of August off I knew Hammy was not going to make it to September. He had congestive heart disease, and between his coughing all night and needing to go out to pee every few hours, neither of us was getting enough sleep anymore. He was too tired to walk more than a block. I had carried him everywhere with me but now he coughed everywhere, making people who didn’t know and love him uncomfortable. So, we kept more and more to ourselves.
When I realized I could only go back to work and take my journalism class if I left him at home alone in a diaper, I arranged for him what Michael, and what my father — who only three months before had died a long, drawn-out death, basically by voluntary starvation (in the hospital) — had both unequivocally requested and been denied: euthanasia. I ushered Hammy into the merciful end that Michael and my father had wished for, in return for him having ushered me through the end of a three-year grieving period.
“A woman’s work” has been the theme of my six essays, this being the sixth. Here is a thought: over my three years of solitude, I gave myself a project. I read “A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960,” by Jeanine Basinger, and watched almost every movie she analyzes. In it, Basinger says, with what seems like some (righteous) indignation, that these movies tell a woman that her only “real” job is love. So, there were moments, while writing, when it disturbed me that my series of six essays on “Women’s Work” began and ended with the story of my relationship with a man. So many of my essays seem to be about love, the presence of it, the lack of it, the amusing or tragic failure of it, the success of it.
But while it’s a somewhat outdated concept for what a woman’s “real job” is, I don’t believe I have a problem with it, to a point. Women are often left alone with the work of love, sometimes known as “emotional labor,” which makes it possible, and because of this they’re usually either better at it or just more used to assuming the responsibility for it. We expect it of them, as stereotypical nurturers, and we idealize them for it in romcoms. What I do think is that love should also be a man’s real job, the job of people of any gender. It’s the job of a human. My intention in love is not feminine or masculine: it’s simply the way I work, it’s a matter of integrity: love and meaning are in everything I do. I accept that loving, in my case, a man (or two, or three) gave me the experiences I needed to develop and deploy all these insights to my good, and to the good of anyone reading and benefitting from my words.
This has been my work: reporting back from the field, writing for love, with love, for you.
“All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.”
(Kahlil Gibran) (yeah, I know, Kahlil Gibran seems so hokey these days, but it’s true!)
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Read the rest of Carolita Johnson’s illustrated series, “A Woman’s Work,” here.
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Carolita Johnson is a writer, storyteller and cartoonist who contributes regularly to the New Yorker.
Editor: Sari Botton