On the morning my husband of less than a year died, I woke to the sound of sirens coming from the street below. I fumbled around in the closet while Daniel slept, slivers of light cutting lengthwise across his face. Schooner – our oldest chihuahua – watched me from the foot of the bed. Georgia, the other, was nowhere to be seen—somewhere beneath the covers, wedged contentedly next to Daniel’s butt.
Daniel stretched into sentience and shooed the dogs out of bed. We had sex, showered, dressed—a normal morning. The song of sirens continued — New York’s “white noise.” We were not surprised—sirens screeched by all the time in Manhattan, and even 36 floors up, we often heard them punctuating the din of the city. We opened the front door to find sinister grey-black smoke pluming into clouds by the ceiling. My first thought was that someone had burnt their eggs.
The hallway alarms blared and gave off a disorienting strobe flash. The smoke thickened and we knew we had to get out. We each tucked a dog under one arm and said, “I love you,” as we shut the apartment door behind us and moved toward the emergency exit across the hall.
I yanked open the emergency door. We clasped each other’s hands as we descended the stairs. The smoke got thicker, so we ran until our panic-slick palms slid apart. Daniel cried out, “We’re going to die.”
My eyes burned in the hollow gullet of the stairwell, but I barked back at him “No, we’re not. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let us die in here.” The wall of soot became impenetrable. The growing void absorbed Daniel and Georgia until they were silent. Invisible. The rest is blackness.
I came-to sitting in a wheelchair in a dingy sushi restaurant surrounded by family and friends. I apologized to my friend Carrie that her dog Sophie had been caught up in the fire, too. She wasn’t. I also wasn’t in a sushi restaurant, or even a wheelchair. I had been in a medically induced coma for three weeks. I was in a hospital room, bone-chill cold. My drug-infused brain had constructed a fantasy to somehow parse a world devoid of my husband.
“Where is Daniel?” I demanded. “Where is my husband?” I do not remember who told me, only the long pause between my question and the answer. Daniel and the dogs were gone. The ultra-thin thread of hope I held in my mind snapped.
Later that night – or maybe it was a night or two after — cold again, I rang the nurse to come in and heap more blankets on me.
“Is this real?” I asked, my voice hoarse — my throat still recovering from the tube they’d inserted to keep me breathing while my lungs healed.
“I’m sorry, I’m confused. I’m just not sure. Are you — real?”
“It’s okay. Yup, I’m real, angel,” she said as she adjusted the blankets over me, tucking them up near my neck.
“I — I just miss him so much,” I said, tears wetting my face as I gripped the alert buzzer in my palm, my knuckles white with rage; colliding with a deep, penetrating sadness.
“I know,” she said holding my hand while I cried. “I know, and I’m sorry.” She stood by me until the drugs took hold again and the line between the living and the dead faded.
In the months that followed the hospital, I stared at the walls in a strange apartment that was not home and slowly fingered my wedding ring I now wore on a chain around my neck. I had almost nothing from the old place. My entire life with another human had been reduced to garbage bags that I tore open. Furiously, I threw their contents into a heap to be given away. The clothes had all been tainted by smoke, so my friends had taken them to be cleaned. The smell of Daniel was gone. Swallowed by soot and cleansed with chemicals until nothing remained.
Each day was a new dilemma: how to live. I prayed for the pain to leave me. If I could just stand, I’d tell myself. If I could just put one foot on the ground and then another. If I could get to the coffee shop and back, that would be enough.
I felt my internal scars would be apparent on the outside, but it took one trip around the block for me to realize that nothing in a blur of collective motion set me apart from other New Yorkers.
The loss gave me the lurching feeling that the ground was gone beneath me — the sense that I was falling alone into a deep void. I tried not to cry in public. I avoided movies that would stir up emotion. I went to the local bar and drank until the memories sloshed around in my head, then stumbled home to sleep. I downloaded a hook-up app and thumbed through faces until one looked friendly enough to talk with. A stocky guy around my age, unassuming, answered my message and came over. Neither of us said much. We smoked pot and stared at the TV — the images blurring as the high hit. I folded my arms around him. The contact felt good for a moment, but then the shock of his smell, the shape of his body – so far from Daniel’s – made me wish sharply that he was gone. That I was gone too, swallowed into the oblivion of my own grief.
I tried meeting someone again. This time, we went on a date. He was young with some early-stage professional job: PR, retail. He told me I looked familiar. I squinted at him across the flicker of a waning candle, threads of thin smoke cutting between us. I looked around the restaurant while he talked. Through the soft chatter and clank of plates, a loud guffaw from a woman two seats away — her eyes wide with a sense of joy that seemed alien to me now — I began to resent my date.
The anger spread outward to every person. I was furious at a world that carries on, after it has lost one soul, so quickly replaced in the continual churning out of new life. I had been forced to press pause on my life. Why hadn’t the rest of the world stopped?
Before I’d left the house that night, I told myself I wouldn’t talk about the fire, both because that would be strange on a first date and because this guy was a stranger and I could count on a reasonable amount of anonymity. My date cut through any vagueness in a single sentence — my defenses torn through with all the grace of a fist through drywall.
“Wait… were you in… did you lose — there was a fire…” he said, narrowing his eyes, searching his brain for specifics.
“Yes. I lost my husband in a fire in January.”
My stomach soured. I snatched up the check and fled the restaurant.
A few months after the fire, I gathered with a grief group and a counsellor in a claustrophobic room littered with scuffed furniture. I thought mostly of Daniel — though he was not the first person I’d lost. The pain of Daniel’s death was perverse, unyielding. That pain was inexplicable to anyone who had not experienced the same. The pain was the promise of what could have been. It was like trying to hold a handful of water. During the day, I would lose myself in a column of light painting the living room wall. Time would vanish and in that realm I’d hold onto the memories I’d never have the chance to experience. Our first wedding anniversary. An impromptu trip to the south of France. Dinners with Daniel’s parents in Westchester, watching them grow old and we in parallel. Sirens! The world would come screeching back, the dreams draining in rivulets through the fingers of my mind.
The radiator hissed in the moldy apartment-cum-counseling office of the grief group. As I spoke about Daniel, a young Asian woman with an asymmetrical haircut and a boyish face sat opposite me. When she started her own story of loss, I moved closer – sat next to her on the thread-bare couch. She’d lost her husband as well. He was almost paternal in the way he had guided her life, while Daniel was five years younger than I was — wise beyond his years but devilishly immature at random intervals. Her husband had suffered a heart attack, and she’d rushed to his side only to find she was too late. Her trauma was one of not being there when it happened, mine was being all too close. Her friends had distanced themselves, while mine had drawn closer. We both talked to our dead husbands out loud when alone. Our grief was different—sharp at different edges, hollow in different parts. Seeing her sorrow was like seeing my reflection in a fun house mirror.
The group was not a miracle. My pain persisted in many more trips to the coffee shop. In awkward dates fumbling around in the dark of newness. In the midst of cocktails with friends.
A few months after we met, the woman from the grief group and I had beers at a dingy Belgian bar downtown. We shared tales of trying to find a steady breath again. She was in the midst of managing the launch of a restaurant. I was spending my days in the bullpen of a newsroom. The hum of life I’d so resented in the restaurant on my date months before had become a part of our daily lives. Sirens kept screaming, but they did not pierce and cause immediate panic. We’d begun to move again, she and I, pushing forward through the haze of grief. We were embracing the mundanity of everyday life, seizing small triumphs that made us feel human. A movie without crying. A day without the phantom pain of reaching to text our husbands.
Why? That’s a question no one can answer and everyone who has ever lost someone hears in their head. It burns your brain. But there is no answer. And that makes these egregious losses even worse. Losing a husband was such an aberration in my life. It was a violation in hers. But neither of us could claim it was extraordinary. My sadness belonged to this young woman as much as it belonged to me. Death was not and is not unique. No more than birth, or sickness or suffering or joy. I wanted so desperately to purge myself of grief, like a virus to be expelled or a tumor to be excised, but grief doesn’t function like that. It is not apart from you, but rather an eternal part of you. Like a hand slipped into yours, you learn to live alongside grief as you walk back into the world.
Michael Todd Cohen (@mtoddcohen) is a writer and producer living in New York. Work appears or is forthcoming in The Daily Drunk Mag, Barren Magazine, Stone of Madness Press and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine.