On choosing what to keep

Tomorrow it will have been four weeks since Karsten died. Wednesday will be one month.

Dates have been whizzing by me while I try to get back to my life, to the extent that that’s been possible, and I find here and there I’ve lost track of how many days or weeks it’s been. Not that it really matters anyway: every seemingly insignificant moment has the potential to bring about some subtle new realization in how to heal. There’s no calendar for that kind of thing.

It’s like trying to decide when our relationship began. We kissed (and really meant it!) on the night we first met – did it begin then? We always celebrated that date as our “meeting anniversary” so sure, in one respect it was the beginning. But a few days passed before our next date (which was, of course, our first date) where sitting across from each other at dinner felt like floating in some warm ocean of both excitement and calm and you’re dizzy and happy and you never want to get out. And then a day or two later, we spent our first night together and it was amazing and then maybe a few weeks later, we moved in together… you get the idea. Love unfolds in layers, even when it happens lightning fast.

“Why is it we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins, but we always know when it ends?”

– Steve Martin (as Harris K. Telemacher) in “L.A. Story” (1991)

The finality of that quote probably makes me sound more morose than I am. The truth – the astonishing truth – is that I’m OK. Or at least I’m on the road to OK, and I have a full enough tank to get there, and I’ll probably arrive before anyone expects. I didn’t predict that. I always thought that if Karsten died, I wouldn’t be able to survive the loss. I mean it: I truly, honestly didn’t think I would go on breathing. But the weird and maybe ultimately logical thing is that the simple act of surviving something as catastrophic as finding your beloved partner dead – well, it feels very much like a “kill you or make you stronger” moment, and it didn’t actually kill me. So as it turns out, I guess I’ve gotten stronger.

Of course – of course – there’s a sizable part of me that wishes I could still be with him, but I can also see the years we spent together as a gift, rather than seeing the years we lost as a theft.

I’m totally broken about it in some ways, and looking at photos and watching the few videos I have of him are simultaneously comforting and painful, but what isn’t broken is my ability to love: I know I’ll love Karsten for the rest of my life; I love the friends who have stepped up to surround me with caring and generosity and safety and support; and at some point in the not-too-distant future, I will, almost certainly, begin to love someone else, because above all that’s the message in this that resounds for me: life is too short and too fragile to miss any moment when you could be loving someone.

When my dad died in 2005, I read the poem “In Blackwater Woods” at his funeral, and the last part of it has been echoing back through my head since Karsten died:

 

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

 

It’s not as easy a process as the poem suggests, that whole “let it go” thing. But I’m figuring it out, day by day, hour by hour. The trick, I realized, is choosing what you’ll let yourself keep. I already own, deep down, a lot of wonderful, meaningful, life-changing things about Karsten and this love we shared for nearly fifteen years. And they’re aspects of him and his impact on me that I’ll want to hold onto forever. The rest of this I can let slowly fall away.

And by doing that, I get a clearer glimpse of my life ahead of me having definition beyond tragedy: when the number of people I haven’t seen since Karsten died will decrease, and every interaction won’t begin or end with condolences or questions. I’m already stronger than some might suspect, and I keep getting stronger. And there’s this: I know I have love still to give. I’m good at it. When a relationship lasts and works, it’s not only because you fell in love however many years ago; it’s because you give each other enough room to be yourselves, and because each of you adapts and learns to love each other for the people you grow into, day after day, time and time again. I’ve been genuinely, beautifully in love with the same person for well over a third of my life, but it’s because I fell in love so many times with the ever-evolving version of who he really was, as he did for me. A part of me, a big part of me, will always love him. But I want the rest of my life to be the total package, too: the highs that inevitably bring the lows, not a compromised lesser version based in the fear of the possibility that I might lose love again. I could never trade amazing for adequate.

So it comes back to holding onto only what matters, what won’t weigh you down, what strengthens you, and what prepares you for the rest of your life, rather than what anchors you to the past and kills you even while you’re alive. It comes back to what you choose to keep.

As for me, I choose beauty. I choose to engage with people and to try, if I can, to create a moment of art out of conversation. I choose to see life and the world and everything in it as clearly as I can see it, and to honor the truth about it, even if it’s harsh. I choose good times and happiness and laughter, as often as I can. And no matter what the potential is for loss, I will always, always choose love.

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