Oh, to be twenty-something again.
Just a few days into the new year, my husband, partner, and best friend Shane P. Brady passed away of natural causes. I’m tempted to add scare quotes because there doesn’t seem anything natural about being struck down by a heart attack at 41. It feels pretty got-damn unnatural to me. I went to bed worried about our foster dog, B., who had been vomiting off and on all day; by the time I woke up, Shane was already gone.
To say that the last two hundred-odd days have been difficult … well, “difficult” doesn’t even begin to cover it. In less than four years, I’ve lost four dogs, a grandmother, and now my husband. My life – my heart – is in tatters.
I knew that 2017 was going to be terrible, but I had no idea. We had Trump to look forward to, of course; the guy who blundered his way into the White House, buoyed by a swell of white nationalism and misogyny, and was all but guaranteed to fuck everyone’s shit up. (I had to give up on the news for awhile; it was just too much for me to bear, on top of everything else.)
On a more personal note, I expected continuing dog drama into 2017 and beyond: my youngest remaining dog is Finnick, who will soon turn twelve; he’s followed by O-Ren (13) and Mags (13 going on 14). It’s not unreasonably fatalistic to think that I’ll lose one or more of them this year; sooner rather than later, certainly. And there have been some health scares, though thankfully nothing fatal thus far; most notably, O-Ren’s heart murmur worsened to the point that she had a rather alarming fainting spell in June. Now I have to monitor her resting respiratory rate on the daily, which focuses my attention on her health issues even more, thus feeding into an awful, gut-churning cycle of stress and anxiety. I’m also pretty sure that Mags is going blind (though I can no longer afford to take her to the ophthalmologist for something as frivolous as confirmation), and probably deaf too, but that at least is manageable. It just breaks my heart to watch their old bodies start to fail them, you know?
Ozzy’s last podcast. He was euthanized at home the following day.
In the immediate aftermath, there was one phrase that seemed to be spilling from my mouth as if on a loop: “My life is over.” My family mostly took it as a suicide threat; or, if not a threat exactly, then a fantasy or aspiration. And while I can’t deny that I have thought about killing myself, once or twice (an hour, on a good day), that’s not what I was getting at. Rather, the life that Shane and I built together, the things we were working toward? Moving to Austin, volunteering for a rescue group, maybe starting our own; adopting more dogs, never falling below the critical low of four (current crop excepted); buying a RV and touring the continent after retirement? That’s all gone now. My life as I knew it – as I wanted it to be – is over. It died with Shane.
This sounds awful, but I’m kind of relieved that I don’t have seven dogs right now. If Ralphie, Kaylee, Peedee, and Jayne were still alive, how on earth would I take care of them all? On my own? I can barely keep it together for the animals I do have depending on me. I don’t know how widows with small children manage it. That would be … too much shoulder.
I’m angry, depressed, traumatized. Some days it’s all I can do just to get out of bed in the morning. I worry about everything, all the time. I simultaneously fuss and fret over the dogs’ well-being, and also feel like the worst mom ever. My memory is shot, and my judgment sucks (though arguably it was pretty dreadful to begin with). Sometimes I’ll lose track of a dog in the house, and can’t remember if I let them out. (It doesn’t help that Finnick, formerly daddy’s boy, is in constant hiding.) At first I ate very little and slept even less. I dropped thirty pounds. Now I’ve ping ponged in the opposite direction: I eat lots of junk food (like, all of it) and sleep way too much (the nightmares are a constant). I gained back twenty pounds. I haven’t exercised once this year. I hurt all over: my neck, my back, my shoulders, even my knees and joints throb. Depression is a whole-body experience.
Mostly I just wish it had been me instead of him. Not for any altruistic reasons; not because I thought Shane had more to offer the world, or anything like that. No, my reasons are much more selfish than that: being the one left behind to pick up the pieces is hard. It sucks. It’s a nightmare, and the longer it drags on, the more impossible escape seems.
In Las Vegas for our wedding/elopement.
There’s something else, too. I have pretty wicked social anxiety. This isn’t the same as being shy or an introvert, though I’m these too. Social anxiety is like having a phobia of spiders or heights; only the creepy-crawlies and high places are people. And there are seven and a half billion of them walking this planet; interacting with them is an inevitable part of life.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life – but, up until the age of 38, Shane was the only person I confided in.
When I was younger, I was able to manage my symptoms with moderate success. After all, I didn’t have a choice but to go to school and, later, work; I tried to wriggle out of it plenty, but my parents were pretty intractable on both fronts. And the daily forced social interaction functioned like exposure therapy, mitigating my illness and preventing it from devolving too much. But then we moved to an isolated farmhouse in rural Kansas; and then bought an even more isolated placed in Missouri, and my social anxiety just kind of spiraled. I didn’t have a whole lot of social interaction, which worsened my symptoms, which made me even more reluctant to do things. Even simple things, like grocery shopping, scheduling my own appointments, dealing with repair people, etc.
(As an aside, if you’re one of the people whose invitations I personally or we as a couple routinely declined, never extended invitations to, etc.: this is why. It’s not you; it’s me. I’m a mess; I’m a wreck; I am a hostage to my own mental health, or lack thereof. THAT SAID, I always encouraged Shane to accept these invitations without me, so…yeah. You can only lay so much of the blame at my feet.)
Shane wasn’t “just” my husband, or partner, or best friend: he was also my caregiver. Which feels so infantalizing, but there’s really no other word for it. He ran interference for me with the outside world. He thought he was helping – and in the short term, he did. But over time it became more like enabling. We actually had a huge talk about it after the election; we talked about a lot of things in our shell-shocked, post-election stupor. This was a big one: letting – no, forcing – me to do things on my own. Because I believed that that was the only way I’d get better.
Not two months later, Shane was dead. And I’m totally lost without him.
To be fair, I’m doing better than anyone could have expected. I wish Shane could see me; I think he’d be proud, and also a little relieved. Maybe a wee bit annoyed, too; like, why couldn’t I put myself out there while he was still alive? (This will forever be one of my biggest regrets.) But don’t get me wrong: things are still pretty awful. The bar’s just set really low, okay. Two hours as a semi-functioning adult seems like a victory of epic proportions.
So that’s where I’ve been the last seven months: in survival mode. My primary coping mechanism has been avoidance, because I can’t afford the breakdown that I know will come with centering my grief, inviting it in, feeding it, allowing it to take root and grow. There’s just so much practical stuff to focus on right now. Struggling to keep my head above water…that alone is exhausting.
The missing is a gaping, empty space in my heart. There’s not much left; the dogs carry the odd jagged pieces around with them. What will remain after they’re gone too, I wonder?
Celebrating Kaylee & Jayne’s 5th Gotcha Day at Smithville Lake.
Please do not tell me that Shane is in heaven now, that he’s looking down on me, or that this is all part of God’s grand plan. I know that there’s nothing but good intentions behind these statements, but just…no. I’m an atheist. Respect that.
I’m actually kind of jealous of those who can find comfort in their faith when faced with a crippling loss. But that’s not me; I can’t make myself believe in something that I don’t. And insisting on sticking to the religious talking points, knowing this? Kind of insulting. Like rubbing salt in the wounds. (Yes, this has happened. HI MOM.)
If you would like to do something, please consider making a donation to Rose Brooks Center in Shane’s honor. RBC is one of two (I think) domestic violence shelters in the Kansas City area that accepts dogs, cats, and other nonhuman animals. In homes characterized by interpersonal violence, animal abuse is often present as well. Abusers commonly terrorize their victims by threatening, beating, or even killing their companion animals. Various surveys have shown that around half of abused women delay seeking help or stay in abusive situations because they do not want to leave their animals behind.
Shane & Peedee, who totally would have known what to say to me in this situation.
He was awesome like that.
We started volunteering as a foster home in 2014, as a way to give meaning to Ralphie and Kaylee’s deaths. I fell in love with every single one of the fifteen dogs and cats who trotted through our door, and it was always (ok, almost always) difficult to let them go – but it was fun, rewarding work. Shane loved it, even if most of the dogs preferred me to him. He was pooped on, had his computer broken, and once had to lay down on the cold November ground for a half hour, trying to coax a terrified, three-pound Chihuahua back into the house – the only path around him, a much-feared man – while I was away on jury duty. He took an extra bright shining to “Gramps,” a fourteen-year-old, arthritic chocolate Lab who spent all of his three months with us firmly affixed to Shane’s hip. I’d like to imagine that they’re chilling under the Rainbow Bridge together, but again: atheist.
The way forward is – well, it’s fucking terrifying. I’ll have to sell my house, probably next spring, and move back to New York. Luckily my family has been very supportive (even as they sometimes stumble in not knowing the hows or whys), and my aunt – who wants to retire to a warmer state – has offered up her place while I get back on my feet. I’m thinking about going back to school; many, many years ago, it was my dream to get a doctorate in clinical psychology and go into research, though I’m not sure it’s a dream present me shares with past me. Writing, maybe? I don’t know. (If you know of a job that involves petting dogs and reading books, hit me up, okay.)
There’s so much more to say, but I’ve been muddling away at this post for months now, and I think it’s finally time to let go and cast it into the ether. Like I said, my primary coping mechanism has been avoidance, so making a formal announcement or whatever (mourning in the age of social media, ugh) has been super-intimating and nerve-wracking. Suffice it so say that I appreciate everyone who has or will reach out, even if I lack the fortitude to reciprocate in kind. There are so many people I need to connect with – and if you’re one of them, I beg your understanding and forgiveness. I’m a hot mess, okay.
We went on lots of walks together. It’s a lot harder to walk three dogs on your own.
And now I think an Inglourious Basterds rewatch is in order. After I take the girls swimming, that is.