The floor of my shower felt cold when I first sat down, until the warm water and my warm body made it tolerable. Over these last couple years, I’ve learned how to take hot and long showers. Nothing about it is good for my precious planet, I get that. But, honestly, it’s my rookie attempt at a battle plan for this unexpectedly bitter cold season. I sit and I let the hot water wash over my aching body.
A few years ago, I paid a stereotypically big, mustached man rocking two muscled sleeves to tattoo the word “Believe” on my right wrist, my writing hand. The B is made out of a butterfly in honor of my grandmother, who we called Mommom and who we released live butterflies for that squirmed around in sealed triangular packages, beyond anxious for us to set them free at her burial. I can still feel them squirming in my hands.
Next month, I’ll turn 27, and Mommom has been gone more years than I can remember. And to be completely transparent, I thought by now that the word “Believe” would have soaked into me.
If you closed your eyes and rubbed your hand over my wrist, you wouldn’t even know I have a tattoo. It has definitely soaked into my skin, becoming part of my body in a way that we forget we have toes until someone tells us to wiggle them.
But I thought by now I would be well beyond the part where I sit under the hot water in the shower and watch the water wash over my wrist and I can’t believe that no matter how hard I try, Believe is not going anywhere. It’s here to stay.
I have this theory that grief is changing in my generation. I haven’t done my research, but I would bet that people are studying this.
In the old days, you graduated from high school and you grieved the loss of friends and Friday night lights and bells that rang to tell you when to shuffle off with your textbooks to your next period. You probably went on to college, then graduated and you grieved a loss again of a life of dorm rooms and Ramen Noodles you would never live again. You may return for homecoming football games, but you just don’t quite fit anymore on that frat party couch. These are all normal transitions in life.
But what about now in this social media dominating world? Facebook took over the world my senior year of high school. This meant that while I grieved the loss of high school, I could still catch glimpses of old friends living a new life away at another college. Even distant classmates who I once would just pass in the hallway without a word spoken, I still scrolled through their pictures and could consciously or subconsciously think, “They are doing okay. They are still there.”
And we all know how the social media game goes. We see a couple filtered and smiling pictures on the screen and we build these grandiose fantasies about how these people must jump out of bed every single morning to swirl maple syrup on their pancakes and bounce through their days in Buddy the Elf bliss and adventure.
Gone are the days when you just showed up to your 10- or 20-year high school reunion to find out he’s been married and divorced three times already. We learn about all of it along the way, in real time. We learn when he’s been hit by a car, or when she’s walking down the aisle with someone else.
We can’t exactly paint maple syrup fantasies in our minds while we wait for our class reunions. Grief is different. For better or for worse, grief is not the same today as it was for my parents or my grandparents.
Sure, we still experience the grief moments today when we get the phone call that we have to drop what we’re doing and rush to the hospital. But that’s not exactly the kind of grief I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the sticky kind of grief, the kind that maybe we would have been better off leaving in the dark. Without social media, I could pretend you were off building your dream life somewhere. I could picture you with the house, the kids, the job–or none of that, depending on my mood. Even while I would still grieve the loss of you in my daily rhythms if you’re someone who I would never cross paths in a hallway with again, I could still just tuck you away in my mind as “just right over there.”
My junior prom dress could have been mistaken for a wedding dress. I look at pictures now and I wonder what the tag actually said. Strapless and silky with delicate rhinestones, I felt beautiful.
Probably from that moment (which is now more than ten years ago), or really even earlier, I started telling myself a story that it wouldn’t be long before that prom dress would turn into a wedding dress over night with the wave of my fairy godmother’s wand.
I deserved this decent, happy life.
My story did not go this way. And I’ve experienced so many other exciting moments in life because of the twists and turns.
In the days without social media, my classmates could have seen me in that junior prom dress and used that image in their memories to paint the picture of my fairy godmother waving her wand. Really, they could have dreamed of me saying “I do” to anyone, and then just tucked me away in their minds as “just right over there” with the house, the kids, the job, the white picket fence.
Then, they would have had to wait until our 10- or 20-year high school reunions (if I even attended) to learn that none of that happened, or at least none of it happened in the way that they painted in their minds.
Sure, they could have picked up on gossip from phone calls and the family dinner table, “Did you hear about Ashley?” But chances were high that the gossip was fabricated or just flat-out wrong.
These days, nothing is left to the imagination. You know all the details of my “just right over there.” You don’t wait until our reunion to see all the pounds that have piled on over the years. We all know the traditional reunion gossip, “You should have seen her! She must have gained 100 pounds!” Nope. Today, we get to watch every single pound pile on.
These days, we still have the same traditional flavors of heartbreak and joy that happen in real-time, just like the old days, in this life that’s racing by with equal parts terrifying and exhilarating.
And piled on top of the traditional flavors, we have all these other complex layers that we don’t know where to carry and sort. I know his wedding date, her due date, his funeral date, her grandfather’s 102 birthday date. I know who he’s voting for, where she shops for groceries, and what kind of craft beer they’re drinking tonight. My childhood best friend’s dad knows I attended a fall festival last night. I can even feel like a guest at his wedding or an extra companion on her exotic vacation from all the pictures and live streaming videos. We don’t wait for the film to develop.
I’m supposed to be inventing and telling myself a story about your life and my life, but there’s just nothing left to the imagination. I’m supposed to remember Billy raising his hand in second grade to share with the class, “When I grow up, I want to be a fireman.” And then I’m supposed to just imagine Billy as a grown-up fireman saving lives and cats. Instead, I know the outcome of what Billy became when he grew up, all the details of Billy taking over his family’s business and gaining more weight every year because of his misery.
I’m supposed to be naturally grieving the loss of you in my daily rhythms, but how am I supposed to do that when I know his wedding and his funeral will happen on the exact same day? And my brain does not know what to do with those facts.
In these days of long, hot showers, I self-prescribed 24 hours without technology. I survived. But this complex grief would still linger, even if I became one of those people who wards off social media like the plague. Someone in my family will still be friends with him on Facebook and will still call to say, “Oh, Ash…I saw the news…I’m so sorry…”
Really, I’m participating in this complexity right now by writing on my blog. You know about my long, hot showers. You know about my tattoo, and could probably find the exact date and picture from the day I forever inked it into my being. You could probably dig up the story about how I almost passed out getting it and had to ask the big, mustached man to bring me a paper towel and let me lay down for just a second.
You know the meaning of my tattoo. And you know that I can still feel the live butterflies squirming around in my hands from the day when we let my biggest fan go home while we’re all still here trying to believe there’s a purpose for all this complex grief.