Still Life

Life is like our partner through this journey that we’re on. It leads us everywhere we go, pairs us with the wildest of people, and takes us on an adventure. It holds our hand when we’re scared, nudges us when we’re stuck, and help us be the best we can be. It appears in so many different forms: pets, plants, the hum of the bees, chirping of birds, friends, family. We see Life in someone’s eyes as they tell us about something they love. We see Life in the tears of someone going through immense heartbreak. We see Life in someone who was disappointed by a loved one. We see Life in the anger of someone pondering the injustices of the world. We see Life in the silence between breaths when your thoughts momentarily pause and you float in between moments. We see Life everywhere. We hear Life in the sound of a baby’s first cry as it enters this world. We hear Life in the sobs of a woman grieving the loss of a child. We hear Life in the laughter of friends sharing old stories. We hear Life in the songs written from a person’s soul for our souls to enjoy. We hear Life in the chirping of birds and the whisper of the breeze. We hear Life everywhere. We feel Life in a hug from someone we love more than anything we’ve ever loved. We feel Life when a friend puts their arm around you after a day that nearly broke your spirit. We feel Life when a mom kisses her baby for the first time. We feel Life in your dad’s hand as he helps you cross the street. We feel Life at our fingertips as we sit down to type, play music, or pick up a book. We feel Life everywhere. There is no coat, no form, no sound, no nothing that Life hasn’t tried on. There is no emotion, no thought that Life has never been expressed through. Life was, is, and always will be.

When we decide to run the show and stop being partners with Life, stuff starts to happen that we don’t particularly like. Sometimes we get bossy or controlling and our friends back away from us, yearning for freedom once more. Sometimes we get so angry we can’t stop the poison spewing from our lips. Sometimes we get so frustrated that the show doesn’t look the way we want it to and we throw in the towel. We’re the director of a show gone awry and we desperately want it to get back on top. We yell at the cast, the crew, and ourselves for messing up but everywhere we look, all we see is our reflection. When you try to run the show, you become the actor, the crew member, the director, the everything. One person is trying to do all the jobs at once and humans don’t stretch that far. Like a rubber band being pulled too hard in both directions, we snap and explode at the innocent bystanders that we forced to be our audience. Running a whole show by yourself is exhausting. That’s why we need a partner; that’s why we need Life.

Being in control tricks my mind into thinking I can control what parts of life I experience. I begin to think I’m the clever ruler of bystanders who don’t even know that I’m the boss. The power fuels your mind and the whispers of pride become your conscience and any remorse or empathy disappear into the abyss of your subconsciousness. For most of my life, I listened to the warped whispers in my mind and allowed it to distort reality until I was living in a delusion. Life was no longer welcome to be a part of my show because I didn’t want to share control; I wanted to be the boss. Life was kicked to the curb and forced to watch as I destroyed myself little by little. The first thing I tried to do was block out the painful parts of the life I had created in my mind. I thought that if the pain was gone, then I would be happy all the time. What I didn’t know was that if you block out the pains of life, you also block out the joys. Without the pain, there is no joy to counteract it. There’s no balance. I fooled myself into thinking I was feeling joy when in reality, Life, my old partner, was watching me float to a mediocre in between land of just satisfied enough to not kill myself one more day. All it could do was sit and watch. I didn’t know that pain and joy were partners in helping me grow. I didn’t know you couldn’t separate the two the same way you can’t keep someone around without getting their shadow too. We’re connected no matter how far I run, how far I turn, and how hard I try not to look. I feared pain and tried desperately to get rid of it while tugging on the shadow of joy that was disappearing with it. Soon, mediocre in between was the new normal; it was my standard for what I thought was joy. It was enough and allowed me to avoid pain. Anytime pain started to loom or I thought it was creeping in, I dove into a bottle to hide. I didn’t know that I was slowly being frozen and drowning in a sea of numbness so dark that the sunlight couldn’t penetrate even the shallowest of pools.

I tried to hide from Life a few times. I’d find a dark corner in my mind and curl up, hoping it’d forget about me. I hoped Life would move on and bug someone else, find a new partner and leave me to feel the way I wanted to feel. I wanted to get comfortable in my corner of the world that had been so cruel to me, so I thought, and disappear. I wanted to find something that only I could hold onto, that only I could access, that only I had. I had made reality all about me and my wellbeing and forgot all about Life and you. It didn’t take long for me to start running on auto pilot. You can’t participate or engage in anything if you’re hiding in the crevices of your mind. Soon, I was a shell of a person walking around with glass over my stare, cotton in my ears, and dust beginning to collect on the places my auto pilot forgot to move. Meanwhile, I laid down at the bottom of a bottle or in the arms of a stranger and pretended that this shell wasn’t mine. I wanted to completely disappear but each time I started to think I was safe, Life would show up and pull me out into the light. There’d be the gentle knock on the door I thought I had destroyed and I’d look up from the ground, confused and startled. It’d creep open and my familiar partner would give me a smile and speak to me in the gentlest of tones.

“Hey. It’s okay,” Life would begin slowly, “it’s just me.” I’d go back to staring at the ground and say nothing. “Is this what we’re gonna do today?” Life would stand there with its hands on its hips, tilted to one side, head cocked and looking at me sideways. I’d avoid its stare and continue making out every pattern on the ground I stood on. After some time, Life would shrug and lean up against me and ask what we were gonna look at. It would stand there next to me until I was ready to once again enter the world, and each time I emerged, I’d question Life and understand less why Life continued to be there for me. Life would smile and say the same thing: “No matter what, I’ll always hold your hand.” I would reenter the world a full human being for just a moment before I decided it was too cruel and retreated into the crevices of my mind once more and autopilot kicked on. It never took long for Life to find me once again and startle me with yet another knock.

I remember the first time I cut myself, starved myself, and began planning my death. I ignored the cry of Life as I watched blood drip off my wrist onto the carpet, I ignored the cry of Life as I watched my body begin to waste away underneath my sweatshirt and nobody had noticed, and I ignored the cry of Life as I started drawing up the blueprint for the end of our partnership. I had slammed the planning room shut and turned up the internal track of hatred loud enough to drown out any sound of hope. The cuts stayed deep in my wrist. The skin on my body clung tight to my bones. The plan was coming together. I remember trying to scrub the blood off the carpet so mom and dad wouldn’t see, pretending to take bites of food to throw people off my trail, and smiling even bigger to hide the darkness inside with the white of my teeth. Life pounded and pounded at the door, begging to be let in but I just turned the track up louder. I let the things I thought were truths flutter around my mind and take the place of my partner. When someone finally stepped in to help me, it didn’t take them long to turn off autopilot and pull me out. I guess there had been a part of me that wasn’t ready to completely call it quits yet; I just wasn’t willing to let Life save me once again. It was too humiliating.

I remember when Life forgave me and we began to heal for the first time. Apologies rushed out of my mouth like a waterfall and the guilt nearly drove me back into the bottle again and again. Each time, I’d feel Life’s arms around me and hear gentle whispers in my ear. Forgiveness was poured over me in amounts I didn’t think I deserved, yet Life never held back. There was no crime too big that it wouldn’t forgive me for.

“That’s what partners do,” Life had taught me, “we forgive each other.”

I had no idea what that meant. Life just smiled and showed me with every hug, every smile, every joke. I saw it the most in the moments where Life could’ve held all of my mistakes over my head and crushed me, but didn’t. Instead, Life showed mercy and grace at the same time. Mercy, not getting what I deserve, and grace, getting what I don’t deserve, became huge teachers. I’d wait for a blow that never came and learn. I’d get a hug or gift I didn’t deserve and learn. To Life, I hadn’t done anything wrong and there were no resentments. I was suspicious for a long time and kept my wall up just in case there was a final blow coming. I didn’t wanna be caught off guard. Over time, my wall dropped more and more until healing had been nearly complete and I hadn’t even seen it coming. I was so busy looking for the bad that the good slipped by unnoticed. This was the first of many lessons I would learn about forgiveness from my partner.

I tried to murder life when I tried to kill myself. I had once again taken control and shut Life out. I was tired of the sun, the rainbows, the everything and wanted only the black of nothingness. As I lay in the hospital with IVs up my arm and nurses rushing about, Life was right next to me, unconscious and barely breathing. In the moment, I had wanted to murder Life and disappear with it. I tried to throw it off a building, stab it to death, and drown it so deep in alcohol and pills that there was no way it could be revived. I wanted Life, my faithful partner, to lay in that bed with me and disappear. No more laughter, no more lessons, no more anything that pushed me to be better; I was too tired. I wanted its heart to stop so I could fall asleep to the sound of the machine flat lining next to me; it was to be my lullaby that helped me drift to a sleep so deep that no one could follow me in or take me out, not even Life.

I remember sitting by Life’s bed six months into my recovery, holding its cold hand. I watched as its chest rose up and down ever so slightly. I watched the steady rhythm of the pulse on the monitor next to me and willed it never to stop. I close my eyes and I can picture it all. The nurses had scrambled to be next to Life when they heard the flat line begin. The doctors yelled over me as I sat and watched my partner begin to die. I was okay with it. I could’ve helped, I could’ve moved, but I just watched. The emergency pads I had seen in movies so many times came out and I saw them place it on Life’s still chest. I had never seen Life so still while I myself was frozen in my chair. I watched the electricity surge and Life’s body arched with the pads and landed back in bed with a thud. I watched the nurse rub the pads, ready for the next round, doctors yelling to turn it up, and once again, I watched the pads touch Life’s still body. Its body arched once more and landed with a louder thud. On the third attempt, my eyes had glazed over as I felt myself start to disappear. But out of the blue, a small beep had begun. It started ever so slightly and continued to pulse as the nurses held their breath. We listened together to the comforting rhythm of Life’s heart beginning to move. We watched its chest begin to glide up and down like a dolphin breaking the surface of the ocean. The tubes in its nose, the IV in its arm, and the nurses all worked to see Life make it one more day. Once the beep was steady and strong, the nurses began to breathe and attend to other people who had also given up on their partners. I was lucky my partner survived even if I hadn’t thought so at the time. I was lucky my partner took the hit for me. I was lucky my partner shielded me. Now, I get to sit by Life in that hospital room and hold its hand the way it had done for me so many times. I got to kiss the gentle hand that sustained me for so long; the hand that pulled, the hand that pushed, the hand that held. I would sit there forever if I had to. A partner doesn’t leave the other behind, they stick together through the good and bad; Life had taught me that. But when I blurred the line between good and bad and settled for mediocre crap, I saw nothing to make me stay next to my partner. There was no good and bad, no nothing to keep us together. I thought I could make it on my own and spat in Life’s face before I had left it to rot in my drunken state. Each time, Life had waited patiently until the alcohol left my system and held my hand as I faced yet another hangover. Life had been the one to try and stop me as I began on yet another train wreck into the sea of alcohol. I thought I had taken Life hostage to shut it up for a second so I could end it all without any distractions. I didn’t know that Life had walked in willingly just to be next to me one more night. It was my turn to do the holding. It wasn’t about me anymore.

I nearly collapsed when I heard Life’s gentle voice.

“Hey,” It whispered to me, the same way it whispered each time it had found me hiding.

All I could do was look into those eyes that had been filled with laughter, love, and endless compassion. I let tears pool in my own eyes that had once been glass and felt it shatter with each tear that slid down my cheek. My lips parted and closed again and again as the words tried to find themselves but couldn’t. I had nothing to say yet Life knew. It knew everything I needed to say, wanted to say, and couldn’t say. That’s what partners are there for: we know each other so well that we get it with just one look. That’s all it took for Life to see my sorrow, my remorse. I tell Life I would’ve sat there forever and Life smiled at me. It knew. Even in the worst of the worst, Life hadn’t given up on me. Even when I turned my back, Life stayed still. Even when I let go, Life held tight. The guilt and shame tried to overwhelm me as I looked at my partner’s nearly destroyed body. I was so ashamed of myself as I saw how pale Life had become, how small and frail it was after putting up with me for so long. Yet even there, Life still wouldn’t have traded a moment for the world.

“It was never putting up with you, it was being with you.” Life smiled and told me.

“Is it too late?” I asked. “Can we start over?” Life had laughed so hard it choked and I sat up straighter, ready to help. Life took deep breaths and continued to laugh with a hand over its heart. I wasn’t sure why Life laughed so I kept talking.

“It took me twenty-one years to learn to love you. I’m so sorry it took me so long. I was so blind to your love, forgiveness, compassion, and everything. I was ignorant and caught up in myself. I was lost and couldn’t see that you were the one saving me, you were the one teaching me, and you were the hope that I needed to get through each day. You were the one standing behind me when I was confused, guiding me to where I needed to be. You were the one that took every blow I couldn’t take, faced every hit I couldn’t bear, and protected me from every wave I thought would drown me. Even when I was done, you were never done, not with me. There was no end of us and you meant it even when I was angry. You never raised your voice, condemned me, hurt me, or anything even when you could have and probably should have. No apology is adequate. No words are enough. What can I do to possibly make this right?” The weight of the question hung in the air and settled on my shoulders as I held my head in my hands. After a long moment of silence, I heard the sheets rustle as Life sat up slowly. I looked up, offered my hand and let Life place them on its lap. Its hands were colder than normal but still warmer than mine. Its legs were too small and I could feel the muscles stretching almost too tight. The love Life had was still there in its touch, smile, and eyes. It gave me just enough strength to look up and trust that I wouldn’t get struck. Those gentle eyes shined brighter than anything I had ever seen and Life simply said one thing,

“No matter what, I’ll always hold your hand.”

Today, my partner and I stand firm and strong. We walk together, not away from each other. We see the good and bad, we see all the challenges, and we see all the moments when we need a hand. There’s always one to hold. The last twenty-one years are behind us but never erased. We don’t pretend they didn’t happen but we don’t hold back and let the pain overwhelm us. Today, we’re not afraid to look back together and use the story we shared to help other partners come together. We use our story to remind other people that Life is the best partner out there. We’re not afraid to look at the ugliest of moments from our past and point out the hope. It can be hard to relive the worst memories you have but when you do it together, it’s not so bad. That’s what partners are for. We know. And I’ll continue to know and walk this path with my partner until the day Life leads us to the end of this journey and we begin on another adventure, entirely different from this one. I want to be ready to begin the next journey when we reach the end; I don’t want to fight it. I want to look at my partner when I know my time is coming up and be able to say this:

“I had the best time. I regret nothing. I will always hear your laugh, see your smile, and know you’re with me. We had so much fun.” We’ll recount the memories and laugh as the tears flow, tears of both pain and joy. There is so much joy in our memories that we got to make and so much pain too; but it’s okay. We are more alive than ever. When I see the man in black come to show me the entrance to the next part of my adventure, I know that I can look back and confidently smile at my partner who had been there the whole time. I know that all my growth had come from them, all my smiles, tears, that all of me was because of them. I won’t be afraid to step over the line because I know there my partner will be waiting. We’ll share a look and we’ll know what we want to say without the words,

“No matter what, I’ll always hold your hand.”

That’s what partners are for; we know.

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