Long Goodbyes

December 30 2013

I lost my mother to brain cancer in March 2010. Glioblastoma multiforme, a hyper-aggressive menace. Surgery, radiation, and a litany of intimidatingly-named drugs granted her three years, twice the median. But of course, it wasn't enough. It could never be enough. The disease and its remedies slowed her speech, first transposing words, then substituting the wrong ones, then silencing her altogether. For someone who had always been articulate and quick-witted, it must have been maddening. I certainly felt helpless every step of the way, watching the inexorable decline, hoping in the last days that somehow we could have just one more conversation, that the morphine drip and the pain it suppressed would abate long enough for one more "I love you" to make it through.

It never did.

The pain of loss may vary in intensity but it never goes away. I take some occasional comfort in one of the themes of Douglas Hofstadter's book "I Am a Strange Loop": those who are close to us make little copies of us in their minds. It's what allows us to say, "I know how So-and-so would feel about this." And so to the extent that she bore me and raised me and I now carry her memory, she's still with me.

I got engaged at the age of 25 to my college sweetheart. We had dated spasmodically between 2006 and 2009, then she joined the Air Force Reserve and went off to med school. In 2010, I was working my first job in Atlanta, and we reconnected and entered a long-term relationship. I had my misgivings about the whole thing: I had a penchant for cheating and we fought frequently (about everything, even how to load the dishwasher). I loved her as a person and a friend, but I wasn't committed enough to love her as a life-long partner. I'm still not sure I have that capacity. We were engaged on New Year's Day 2011 and moved in together the following summer. As much as I might have wished for things to get better, they (surprise!) stayed exactly the same as they had been during our previous dating. Eighteen months in, I was clinically depressed, very nearly an alcoholic, and having fantasies about me or her being involved in a fatal accident just for the escape it would provide.

As a passive individual, it's hard to me to make significant decisions that will cause a lot of pain without immediate upside. I agonized over the choice for almost a year realizing that if I left, I'd be giving up my place to live. More importantly I’d be forsaking the person who loved me and knew me best. Despite our difficulties, when we were good together, we were great together, which made it that much harder to leave. But I couldn't stay, because I couldn't be the person she needed, and our professional trajectories were diverging quickly as it came time for her to enter her Air Force residency.

So a year ago this week I walked away. In hindsight it was the hardest and best thing I've ever done for myself.

When I was 19 years old I became an atheist. I could tell you the story, but I'm short on words and vitriol is boring (feel free to reply for the extended cut). Be as gracious and giving and kind as you can, and strive to repair what you will inevitably break.

I've tried to share here without being didactic, because the lessons taught by pain, loss, and grief do not generalize. If you would like to share your stories with me, I will read and reply to every message I receive. Thank you for reading.

Warren M.
[email protected]
San Francisco, CA

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