On the second morning I wake without my old golden retriever beside me, I decide to drag myself through my daybreak run. Stepping onto the floor without watching where my feet fall hurts a little. Brewing that first cup of coffee without opening the backdoor and watching Ryan water the shrubbery hurts a little more. Reading the newspaper without those brown eyes staring at me, hoping this morning I’ll slip him the bacon and eggs before I run, this hurts the most.
It’s the daily rituals that really get you when you lose a loved one, isn’t it? I wonder how many mornings it will take before I don’t remember I miss him.
A quarter of the way down my driveway, I pause at the patch of new dirt off to the side between the birches and the blueberry field. I look at the old log and stump my husband lovingly put beside Ryan’s headstone, at the silky blue hydrangea our 80-year-old neighbor planted in the middle of his square grave.
“Blue because he was our boy and a hydrangea because they’re sweet, like him,” she told me.
I say, “Good morning, Bud,” for the second day in a row and touch the ground where I imagine his head would be, his bone in his mouth to the last.
Conscious of the time crunch, I head out onto the open road to “Get ‘er done.” Four miles don’t run themselves. I remind myself I’m watching the sunrise on a country lane so pretty it belongs on a postcard. How dare I feel sad? My house hasn’t been ravaged by a hurricane, tornado, or storm surge. We’ve got shelter and power and water and every sweet little luxury living in the woods of Maine can provide (cable and fast internet not included). Shake it off, T. Swift, and for the love of all that catchy new pop, stop writing about your heartbreak so much, sister.
Then I feel it. That sudden stabbing pain in my left knee that robs all capacity for thought. I’ve felt it before, and I know what it means: physical therapy, more electrode massages with sonogram wands and cortisone patches. Ugly visions of stretching, icing and elevating my leg dance through my mind like the medieval torture exercises they are.
I stop mid-stride, slow to a walk and turn back toward the drive.
Crazed road-warriors size up the ache while they’re attacking the asphalt and decide whether this is one of those “things you can run through.” Side-cramps from too much water or food in the tank, nagging foot/ankle/calf cramps from stepping wrong or just your run-of-the-mill soreness from muscle fatigue, we can run through all of these hurts easy, breezy, beautiful. (Really, it’s pretty ugly watching someone limp along holding onto one of their extremities. Sit this one out, Capt’n.)
This is not one of those times I need to assess. The pain is there, it’s not going anywhere and I’m done for the day fifty feet in.
Isn’t this what grief really is? That hurt you anticipate or don’t anticipate that stops you in your tracks? How do you adjust to this sharp, unexplainable loss and keep going through the motions of your day? If going past the dog food aisle without picking up cans of chicken and rice reduces me to a sobbing mess, how in the world am I going to make it through the daily trip to Hannaford? How can I sit through each meal without placing half of what’s on my plate under the table? How do I say “goodnight” to the empty space he used to curl up in beside my bed and not steal Harvey J. Peapod Denbow, Jr. from my daughter’s room? (Mom bought me a teddy bear in third grade when she realized I really needed a best friend. I gave him to my oldest daughter around the same time for the same reason.)
It’s just not the same. I want my bestfriend back, and I’m not talking about Harvey J.
I know what you would say, and you’d be right. It’s just a dog. He’s not your child, not your spouse, not your mother. Gain some perspective, g-friend. Actually, someone already said that to me and believe me, I get. It didn’t make the urge to throat-chop them any less urgent, but I get it. I know the difference between the animal kingdom and us Homo sapiens. Canines stand on four feet. We’re more advanced bipeds with two, yada yada yada. The thing is, my Homo sapien best friend has known more loss in her life than most people have experienced twice her age, and if she’s not telling me to stop my sniveling, then, well-meaning person, you can just “Simmer down now.”
See, my friend realizes that while gaining perspective is great, it doesn’t necessarily help people move through their loss when you tell them how their pain could be much worse. Why is it we feel the need to compare tragedy and decide who has it harder or what’s worse? Hurting is hurting. Pain is pain. Grief is grief. And my bffl (best friend for life) would be the first person to tell you that, God love her amazing soul.
So what do I do? I decide to turn back around and start again. Maybe a slow, limping trot will work. No? Change my stride. Open my hips. Still hurts. Turn my left leg out and try to correct that over-pronation I’ve had since birth. It’s working. Hold my breath and run light on the balls of my feet. Let that right leg absorb my weight. Maybe? I don’t feel anything.
Keep looking up and go into that zen-zone every runner knows when their legs do the talking and their minds do the walking. One mile, two miles, three miles, four.
The pain’s gone. I don’t know where it went, but it’s not here anymore.
But Ryan is. Running those miles beside me, showing me that I’ll be okay. I can make it. I can adjust. It’ll hurt, but it’s going to get better. I might limp along a little, and it sure as hell won’t be pretty, but I’ll adapt and find my rhythm again. I’ve got to keep my head-up and remember that the love we have for our loved ones doesn’t die with them. It lives in us, wherever we run, reminding us that life is too short to spend living in the past.
Thank you, Ryan. I’ll miss you more than you’ll ever know, but I know I can run through this now. Run free, my love. Run free.
Emily Denbow Morrison is a high school English teacher, freelance writer and editor from coastal Maine. She is living happily-ever-after with her handsome husband, three beautiful children and two beloved dogs. And a cat.