I love the Labor Day holiday, that bittersweet transition from summer freedom back to school. My very first Labor Day after moving to California, I flew to Houston to meet my new baby cousin (he’s now a senior in high school). I hung with family, cuddled the baby, ate at chain restaurants, and annotated the shit out of my new grad school books. A year later so much had shifted. I don’t remember what I did that second year, but I’m going to guess a festival with Dennis, something with Dennis. We’d been dating for eight months by then and I was all in.
My third Labor Day in California is the one I relive, to some degree or another, every year since. Dennis was in a coma following brain surgery on September 1, and his doctor was on vacation. For a week I visited him and saw with relief that the swelling of his head had subsided. The hospital plastic smells were nauseating, the ICU was so quiet. I hardly ate. I held his hand and put my head on his chest and begged him to come back to me.
This Labor Day I’m coming out of a month of anxiety awaiting my first CT scan, which resulted in what I knew. I have a stone (not a tumor) in my salivary gland. The fear I felt was mostly of my own brain’s making, at odds with the more visceral truth buried inside me: I’m okay. Dennis’s fear was palpable in those weeks leading up to his surgery, even though he was in the hands of one of UCSF’s top brain surgeons. He started eating those microwavable Amy’s meals, total comfort food, that gave his flat tummy the slightest bulge. Saying good-bye to his six-pack, to the frenetic pace he’d lived for so long.
In the days before surgery we spent more time than ever in that redwood hot-tub out on his deck, with the Olympic swimming pool heater. From cold to perfect in 7 minutes. Now that I’ve gone through my own (very minor) medical scare I can appreciate the unease that wrinkles every smooth moment. And yet what I remember is his perfect laugh and the way he listened more than talked (right, right, he’d murmur, always tuned in).
On this 15th anniversary of Dennis’s death, Michael and I have been separated for a year. He just moved into a sweet yellow house with a big backyard that’s perfect for him and the girls. I love my own downtown place, writing at my kitchen table with the breeze blowing in the upstairs window. And yet I ache for what’s been lost, especially those earliest days when I overheard a friend tell another friend at a party: Michael just loves her so much.
There was no light that first week of September when Dennis lay in darkness. I bargained with God—bring him back and I’ll never worry about stupid shit again. Minute by minute, that’s how I’ll live. One morning I put on a pair of yoga pants that he especially liked. It was impossibly awful, cruel, that he would never see me in them again. I kept thinking, he’s still my boyfriend. We never broke up and now we never will. I have always believed in everlasting love. I’m 41 and still can’t release myself from that fantasy.
I did the same bargaining in the days leading up to my scan, even though I was quite sure it wasn’t life or death. Just let everything be okay, let me not have cancer or need some immediate tricky surgery, and I swear I’ll let go of the small stuff. I’ll appreciate every breath, I’ll surrender to heartbreak. Michael was steadily there as I alternately spun doomsday scenarios and took deep breaths. I’m not worried, he said over and over again, waves of calm. A beautiful friendship has grown over the tender wounds we couldn’t stop picking. A year ago he resented my micro-managing; this week he asked for my help setting up his new kitchen (heaven).
On September 8, before they unplugged him, I got to be alone with Dennis for the first time in a week. I touched my face to his and I begged him to wake up. I let my crying get loud. Then I told him I wanted him to be at peace. I listened to the raggedy pulls of his breath through the machine and knew it would never be enough time.
If he’d lived, Dennis and I would’ve had to break up. He was way older, had wounds that ran deeper than his capacity to love the way I wanted to be loved. But we’d surely still be friends. I’d give anything to sit out on that deck with him as the earth cooled down for the day. He’d be shirtless, in those black cut-offs, telling me a highly entertaining story about a water main or a deer family. He’d like hearing about the antics of the girls, about the doves that were nesting on Michael’s deck.
We’d listen to Joni Mitchell and watch the sky darken and reminisce about those old days. Maybe we’d talk about how sweet nostalgia is, how it almost balances the sting of time passing.