During that long month of August when Rick was hospitalized I didn’t eat anything at home. My meals consisted of macaroni & cheese or a slice of pizza grabbed in the hospital cafeteria, with a little fruit for variety. After his death I couldn’t bring myself to cook; it brought back too many memories and just didn’t seem right. My heart wasn’t in it, and for a long time my appetite was gone. I’d go to the grocery store and come back with frozen pizza, frozen lasagna, frozen macaroni & cheese. The most cooking I’ve done at home is to stuff a tortilla with cheese and place in the oven.
There’s a pattern with my new diet, and it was one I realized early on; the only foods I was comfortable eating were those that we never ate together. He didn’t like cheese, so pizza has no memories attached, no feelings of being disloyal. Making a meal, just for myself, felt wrong because sitting down to a nicely cooked dinner would be a sign of a normal life, and I couldn’t do that. Not in August, after coming home each night from the hospital wondering what would happen next; not in September when the shock of his death was so palpably fresh it hit me every time I opened the front door; not in October when I felt numb and empty, and not even through most of November, when I wasn’t feeling anything at all.
Thanksgiving finally broke through and left me able to cook and eat. Thanksgiving is the day that separates the cooks from non-cooks. Those of us who daydream soups and sauces look forward to preparing the meal, hoping more people show up so we can add that new side dish that looked interesting, or bake another pie. This year, for the first time in almost 15 years, I was just a guest. I did manage to insert myself into the kitchen for the final flurry of activity, and as I was mashing potatoes I realized how much I’ve missed the act of preparing food (no, microwaving doesn’t count).
Friday evening I made dinner. I roasted brussels sprouts with a little olive oil and seasoning, made a blue cheese compound butter, baked a potato and cooked a small steak that was topped with the compound butter. The meal was served with an Oktoberfest beer. It was quite tasty and I enjoyed every bite. I realized how much I dislike frozen food, and how sick I am of eating it, and how enjoyable and soul-satisfying cooking is for me. I felt whole and content in a way I haven’t felt in months as I ate that meal…
And that was the problem. Shame and guilt descended on me; how can I create a new life without betraying the one I had? Every step forward means moving a step away from where I started. Other major life changes require similar activities: the ability to believe what has happened; letting yourself feel regret and sadness over what is being lost; wishing there was a way to keep what was good; and finally acceptance. However, all other changes contain some promise, however faint, of being able to go back. Every other life change, even something as hard and painful as divorce, has a component of eagerness and anticipation for the future that can balance fear or hesitation.
There’s no “do-over” with death, and it’s not a choice made after a review of options. Death happens to you, and we have little power over it. When I was divorced, every step forward was a victory and a cause for celebration. Progress and healing were unequivocal markers on the road to the future. This is different. Each step forward is a step away from a life that had meaning and that I didn’t want to end. That life wasn’t perfect, far from it, but I resent the lack of choice I had in its ending.
As I ate dinner on Friday night, I felt good about my progress, and proud of myself for making this small step back to normalcy. But that same step made me turn around and look back, over my shoulder, at the life Rick & I had together. Moving closer to healing also takes me further from that other life. That’s the conundrum of grief. Becoming healed, becoming whole means that I have to break the person I was and remake myself into someone new. I’m starting to break; I’m waiting to heal.