Grief is not an exact science.
It is possible that I have not learned anything in twenty years.
I’ve learned a lot in thirty nine years, which is how many I have spent on Earth, but in the twenty years since my mother has been dead (as of next week), it feels like I have learned nothing about how I can expect to feel every February.
My uncle does this thing where he sends out a text message with a reminder that my mother’s yahrzeit (the date of her death in the Jewish calendar), and every year when I get it, it throws me off. “Throws off” is a generous and yet vague term. What really happens is that the text comes, I see it, I delete it immediately, and then, I sit down, usually for what feels like days, at least, emotionally. Thing are still moving around me, and I am technically still moving, but only technically.
I am aware, of course, that it is coming. I was there, after all. I got a phone call at college, telling me to come for what was by then her very expected death. I had been in the library, studying for a quiz I had then tried to take (lest you doubt my commitment to academia). This phone call was years in the making, but I did not think it was coming that day. I didn’t take the quiz. I got on a bus and went home.
You are never ready. You may have developed a muscle that allowed you to withstand appointments and bad news, but what you get in return is what my therapist has termed “anticipatory anxiety.” In other words, every phone call you get from a number you don’t recognize, every text that starts with “Do you have a second to talk?” (pro tip – never send this text), sends you into a spiral.
This has not gone away for me. I’m not sure it ever will, because once something like that, being thrown off-kilter in spite of the existence of kilter moments before, kilter never fully returns. I’m aware of this, my paranoia about bad things being in the works, being wary when things seem too good. I am looking for anvils to fall all the time. I tell people about it. They know how not to text me.
In late January, perhaps, it’s hard to really put a date on it, but it’s sometime in the winter, after New Year’s, and by the time it’s mid February, it has a hold on me. I am clumsy, and moody, and everything is bleary. It’s kind of like I’m about to get my period, but for a really long time. Every year, I lose track of this feeling, and when it shows up, I wonder what’s going on. Do I need to tweak my antidepressants again? Why is my anxiety so much worse than usual? Did I suddenly develop Seasonal Affective Disorder? What is wrong with me?
The closest I can come to answering this question is to say that I managed to blot out that date, and the lead up to it, at least consciously. My brain remembers, though. It keeps it somewhere, away from my waking life, but the imprint of that phone call, and the other one I got later, two days later, confirming the end, and all the days that followed, and all the years that led up to those days, that exists, because trauma and grief make imprints.
It’s not just me, I know. On the morning of the anniversary of her father’s death, my housemate threw up, and then went back to bed. We talk about being “off,” about thinking things like, when the cats die, where we will bury them. We imagine that no one else thinks like this, only people who have had what I’ve come to think of as “big” deaths, as if any death is small.
This imprint. It’s been twenty years, and it’s still there. I suppose this is the nature of an imprint, but I’m writing this amid it, in public, in the afternoon, and I feel like I’m walking through a wind tunnel, like I’m bumbling, like I should be careful turning any corner, because who knows what could be there, and I am tired. It may or may not end on February 22, the day my mother died. it’s not a perfect science. I will feel better, it will lift, and when it does, I will vow to remember this feeling next year, and not be so surprised when it comes, to recognize it instead for what it is, instead of trying to make it into something else. Maybe it’s not that I haven’t learned anything in twenty years, but more like, in order to keep going, I have to do a little less remembering.