if the curve of you was curved on me
I am a creature of habit.
My morning routine is kicked off by dogs petitioning for breakfast. I brush my teeth, take my vitamins, get dressed, make my toast, play the silly addicting puzzle game on my phone in the early quiet while I eat and then I'm out the door to move my body. It's always the first real thing of the day, my brain doesn't function until I've shaken off the night with sweat. Once I roll back in, I cook a real breakfast and usually make it to my desk with my first of nine billion cups of mint tea no later than 8:30 or 9. I'll pause for lunch and a bit of sunshine, then back to work until it's time for the walk-puppies-their-dinner-my-dinner evening circus. The day ends crashed out on the couch with my laptop, trying to fish a few more hours of writing out of my head before I stop asking is it too early to go to bed? and just go. Years of ironman training beat a structured lifestyle into me. I basically eat the same three meals every day, not because I care about controlling calories but because I don't care enough to make decisions about food. If you need to find me Sunday morning, I'll be out doing whatever currently qualifies as a "long" run. Monday before dawn or Friday lunchtime? I'm in the water. Tuesdays are always short-but-hard workouts and the longest bike ride of the week couldn't possibly be anywhere except Saturday morning, the earlier the better. Habit. I love to travel, I'm an adventure chaser, but it's also true that an hour after I step off the plane, you'll find me in the local grocery store buying Katie food: bananas and peppermint coffee creamer and frozen berries and bunny crackers and cinnamon raisin bread and a bushel of spinach and heaven help us all if the AirBnb doesn't have a blender.
Routine, structure, patterns are comforting. It's what keeps my head on straight, probably a big part of what has kept me alive over the last year. After my grandma passed, I remember returning to Colorado and trying to fold myself back into training. With an ironman less than a month away, I was up to my eyeballs in six-hour rides and ten-mile easy runs and 5K every time I hit the pool. I was numb, but I tried. I don't even have to dig through my training log to remember that every post-workout comment was something along the lines of, I feel nothing. I'm going through the motions but I just don't care. One random Thursday, I had a four-hour ride with a boatload of hard work in it. I made my way up to Masonville - Dr Bob's Snake Oil Cures All! - and my bottom bracket starting ticking. I cranked up the volume on my poor overworked iPod shuffle, but finally pulled over, forty-plus miles from home, to whack on the crank with a shoe. When I swung my leg over the saddle, my last bottle of fluid got dislodged and spilled out all over the road and something finally broke. I sat in the ditch and cried my eyes out. There was no cell service to call for a ride, so eventually I got back on the bike and rode home, sniffling pitifully and blowing snot the entire way.
There's a good analogy floating around somewhere about how moving through the process of grief is something like a ball that keeps bonking into a button of pain. In the version I carry with me, grief is one of those crazy superballs trapped inside a box made of electric fence. At the beginning, the superball is a wild blur and you can't go more than three seconds without being electrocuted. Between zings, there is only the dull paralysis of gritty survival, no time to do anything other than brace for the next shock. Over time, the bouncing slows, the time between the zaps gets longer and healing starts to happen in that space. But the intensity of the electricity takes a lot longer to fade, if it does at all.
A few weeks ago, I was having brunch with a couple of also-recently-vaccinated friends. We had all gone running that morning, then thrown puffy vests over our sweaty spandex and decamped to a patio to inhale pancakes, because, Colorado. It was the first time I had seen them since the pandemic began. I got caught up on all of their news - going to Scotland on vacation next year! got a goldfish! looking for a new job! - and shared some news of my own, which will probably show up here at some point this summer (#vaguebook). It was sunny, the quintessential Boulder morning, and I had started to feel hopeful about the future over the last month or so, like I was finding my way out of the shadows. While I was talking, I happened to glance at the empty chair next to me. Out of nowhere, a blue-black flare of anger streaked through me - you should be here - and just as quickly evaporated, only to give way to the whiplash of grief - and you're not. A sucker punch that left me gasping, the wrench of breath from my body after being hurled full-force into the fence. You should be here, beaming with pride about what I'm creating to try and make a better world, a better life, sitting by my side on this peaceful morning, rich with friendship and laughter. And you're not.
There's no order to grief, no method to the goddamned madness. It blossoms violently out of nothing, leaving you jack-knifed, shattered by a suddenly aching heart. After I lost my grandparents, after we lost Sofie, after all the loss I've experienced over the last few years, I know that I can't protect myself from it. All I can do is sit with it, try not to react to it, and wait for it to pass. Routine helps, when I'm numb. I lost a few weeks here and there over the last year when things were really traumatic, maybe a solid month after comprehensive exams last July. But every time I've settled back into the comfortable framework of the life I am accustomed to, I've ended up feeling better - eventually. It's why the water has been so soothing, why I can still kit up and go ride, when Colorado isn't stubbornly holding onto winter for no reason in late April, anyway. I'm not swimming, cycling, and - let's be honest - jogging because I'm training to race. For more than one reason, it's unlikely that there will be a triathlon in my life in 2021. Rather, I'm rotating through those things because the structure, the habit, is my default mode, my therapy, one of the few places in the world where I feel safe. It's my sanctuary.
Last year, I worked with someone on a research project about empathy. I happened to mention that I thought I was an empathic person, and I remember him laughing (not unkindly) and saying, you're about a ninety on the 1-5 empathy scale, at least three standard deviations off the mean (statistics joke, what can I say, I spend my life with dorks). It's true, though. I experience emotions deeply, and for fuck's sake if I haven't spent so much of my adult life not wanting to face that. Hugging, crying, feeling: barf. The mantra in my house growing up was that children should be seen and not heard. What I somehow took away from that was, emotions are something to be ashamed of, to stuff down under a rock instead of being able to feel all of your noisy feelings out loud. Like it or not, willing to admit it or not, I'm a sensitive person with great big fat fierce emotions. And it means that I experience grief on a level that is absolutely devastating.
The song that I've had on repeat all week is the same song I had on repeat when I wrote the post for my birthday last fall. That's grief. If you were here beside me, if the curve of you was curved on me (listen with me now, maybe also on repeat). I hate being slaughtered, electrocuted, by grief. But I don't mind that I grieve. It means that for me, life is a brilliant experience of extravagant depth and delicate sentimentality. It means that I form deep connections with people, that friendships aren't fleeting endeavors, that I have an enormous capacity for caring, and I don't think that it's a flaw. I think it's my superpower. My light. Everything touches me intensely. The key-in-an-oiled-lock fit of my arm linked through yours, the waitress in the Thai restaurant, your beautiful face in profile, so strong and still, a timeless Grecian coin. The moment when you realized that exquisite human connection, that love, did not bloom between us but instead exploded, joyfully and unexpectedly into flight. It takes time for me to warm up to someone, to invite them into my very particular madness where I sing old Gershwin in stairwells and store up raisin bread like a squirrel going into winter and leave a trail of snacks and hair ties and bathing suits in my wake. I can count on one hand the number of men that I've said I love you to in a relationship. Without exception, though, I've meant it, unquestionably, from the center of my very existence.
I make the same breakfast every morning once I'm done training. Scrambled eggs, spinach, fruit, and bacon. Graham waits patiently next to the chair where I eat, because every day, I share a piece of bacon with him. While he's chomping away, I lean over and kiss him on the head and whisper, thank you for staying alive. He's eleven-and-a-half. He's survived at least five major medical crises in his life, two in the last six months alone. My million-dollar dog, my sweetest boy Grammy, the dog who lived, the most perfect companion, all the interlocked puzzle pieces of our souls. He’s with me always. He stands guard while I brush my teeth and follows me back and forth to the kitchen for every cup of tea and spends the entire night snoring like a brontosaurus at my side, the warm heavy comforting weight of his body curved every inch against mine. I’m far too aware that no matter how much time we have left together, it won't be enough. When he leaves me, whenever that happens, the grief is going to slice my heart into ribbons, leave a gaping hole that won't heal, that won't ever close, not completely, not for the rest of my life. Just like it always has, just like it never does, when someone leaves.
Grief shines a light on what was perfect, what was extraordinary, what was real. Last week after hitting publish on the post, I had a moment where I wanted to pull it all down, where I felt shame for hanging up my eye-rolling emotional underpants where all of the both people still reading can see them. But I wheeled it back. Because feeling everything out loud is bringing motion to my life. This is who I am at my absolute, genuine core. Someone who is not afraid of hope, of trying again, of allowing the great big magnificent emotions to rage on, a worthy storm of tumultuous wind that is keeping a dream alive. Though there’s distance and there’s silence, your words have never left me. They’re the prayer that I say every day. And this is a taste of what it's like to be one of the few that I allow inside the barriers and boundaries and walls that I've spent a lifetime building, then reinforcing with cement. I may drive you batty with music on repeat and never getting my watch fixed and fifteen bottles of coffee creamer in the fridge and dragging your butt out of bed just to chase another sunrise like it doesn't come up every damn day, but it will be worth it, it might actually be the best thing that has happened to you in your entire life. Your words have never left me. You will know that you are profoundly, deeply, loved. You will take comfort in the refuge of my ridiculousness, it's messy in here but it's the safest place you'll ever store your heart and I will delight you with happiness. All the days of our lives.