You’d think that being married for years would prepare a couple for weathering any storm together, or at least give insight on how the other person will handle adversity. I wish that were true for me. It wasn’t until my husband, Aaron, and I faced the ultimate test that I realized how very differently we handled these sorts of situations.
We said goodbye to our baby, Zachary, just moments after his birth. Zach had a cardiac tumor and his tiny heart failed. That was the moment everything changed for Aaron and me. It was a grief we never could have anticipated and everything of who we were as individuals – and as a couple – was thrown into flux.
Marriage was hard after our loss. Aaron went right back to work and didn’t talk about Zachary. It didn’t look like he was grieving from the outside. I, on the other hand, was a complete mess. You can only imagine how those two extremes functioned together. It felt like the foundation of our marriage slowly crumbling. I needed to express myself and Aaron was a vault, at least that’s what it seemed like.
It was only when I was challenged by one of my graduate professors, Pam Petro, to re-write one chapter of my memoir from Aaron’s perspective that everything changed for us. I was in school to get my masters in writing and was editing my book, Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing and Pregnancy After Loss (April 2017, She Writes Press). My first reaction to my teacher was: “Hell, no!” I felt hurt and abandoned by Aaron after our loss; I was angry and didn’t want to see our experience through his eyes.
I resisted the assignment at first, but my professor was resolute. She chose a portion of one chapter – called “Week 28: Sex” – that she wanted to see written in the male perspective. I put off the assignment and asked for extensions. Finally, the end of term arrived and the chapter was due. Aaron and I were on a road trip when I asked him what his experience was like during that time. He shared his grief journey with me and his perspective on the happenings of Week 28 as the miles passed beneath us.
That conversation, and re-writing through Aaron’s eyes, saved our marriage. I now have a greater appreciation for the deep struggle of male grief. It is an unacknowledged and lonely place, one where men are expected to “man-up,” burry their feelings, and march on in their stereotypical societal roles.
Just like Mother’s Day is hard for me, as a bereaved mom, I know that Father’s Day can be excruciating for bereaved dads. That is why I am sharing the excerpt of Week 28 from my book alongside the re-written chapter through Aaron’s eyes. I hope this writing will open-up the dialogue on male grief and that more men will receive the support they need.
* I should mention that I did not fictitiously imagine the male perspective. Aaron and I worked on the chapter together and he has given his approval.
WEEK 28: Alexis Marie’s Perspective
Aaron, Hannah, and I had visited Mom and Ken in Arizona for New Year's about two months after Zachary died. Hannah and I were scheduled to stay a week, while Aaron had to be back to the school on Monday.
Again, I had said to him, "Stay with me. I need you."
"l can't. I have to get back to work. I am trying to take care of our family."
"Your family is here! I need you. Please don't leave me again," I begged shamelessly. I had even talked to my parents about it. "I need my husband."
"We are here for you, whatever you need," they told me. Later, I overheard Mom and Ken reminding Aaron we had a mortgage. They did not understand.
I had been direct and specific; I needed my husband, but judging by the looks on their faces I could have had a brain injury that caused my speech to jumble beyond my lips. No matter my words or thousands of tears, Aaron and my parents could not make sense of what to do with me. I was a person without appendages. I had no hands to free myself and no feet to get anywhere, anyway; no tongue to cry for help; no eyes or ears or a nose. I was completely senseless in my anguish.
Aaron was not going to change his flight. That was clear. I went into the garage to escape the logical conversations that left nothing for my irrational yet fragile longing for companionship. Tension rippled through me in spasms, and my nostrils flared like those of a bull taunted with red. I hit my skull hard, beat myself again and again. There was no outlet for the anger, for the wildness of my isolation, but my own body. I scavenged for something to break, or to break me.
Suicide was not my intention. What will death accomplish? I thought. Alleviate my pain, yes, but also amplify it for everyone in my life whom I care for. My love for Hannah was greater than my despair, and I would never leave her motherless; I simply wanted to hurt myself. Then they will see how serious I am. Look! Listen to me, please! The blood will show them, I had reasoned. Physical pain had become a paper cut in comparison to the state of my aching heart.
Rubbing the soles of my feet on the gritty pavement of the garage, I had hoped to shred away my skin. BANG—my hands whaled upon the white pressed-board storage cabinets. Then I ripped open the flimsy doors to see what was inside. The first revealed a jumble of red and blue bungee cords, half-empty paint cans, and masking tape. No. That won't work. I slammed the doors closed. The force with which I opened the second set of doors created a tsunami of air that blew the hair away from my face. That cabinet contained spa equipment, tubes and filters and fabric shopping bags. I wailed, frustrated. Someone was coming. The garage door opened with a chime from the alarm system.
"Alexis Marie? What are you doing?" Aaron's voice reached from the far side of my parents' vehicle. I raced to the third and final cabinet. There was a collection of golf balls my parents had found on the course, some throw-aways mixed with a handful of Titleist pro V1s and Bridgestones. I found the tees; grabbed a white, splintery one, and began to stab the palm of my hand, boring into myself as if I were hard earth at a tee box.
Aaron grabbed me by the wrists. "STOP!" he yelled, but I thrashed and resisted.
"LET ME GO!" I screamed, my rage widening my eyes, pulling my lips back into an animal snarl and growl. How dare he? He is the one leaving me! I threw my body against him. He was too strong, too tall, weighing so much more than me; my one-hundred-and-forty-pound frame was powerless in comparison. We were on the ground. I could not move. His restraint was a picture of my inward state. I am not free.
I screamed, "Leave me alone! Go away!" My parents came out, Mom carrying Hannah. I did not want my girl seeing me like that, and my glare in Mom's direction communicated so. Mom quickly turned back into the house. I can't remember exactly how I calmed down or how I convinced Aaron to release my wrists. Did I bite him?
Ken asked Aaron to cool off in the house.
"l think you have post-traumatic stress disorder; we are going to get you help," Ken said to me once we were alone. "You need to start painting more, doing the things you love. We need to get you exercising and taking care of yourself." He sat beside me on the small six-inch step at the back of the garage and spoke calmly and evenly.
"Can I purchase some canvases for you?" Ken had asked. I nodded. This gift would later become the impetus for my use of art in healing.
Aaron flew back to Edmonton that afternoon as scheduled. I don't recall whether we said goodbye.
WEEK 28: Aaron’s Perspective
In my family growing up, my parents didn’t talk much – if at all – about feelings. It was Alexis Marie who brought out my emotions when we started dating. I cried when I told her I loved her for the first time. Still, when our son, Zachary, died from a rare disease that allowed tumors to grow in his body, I couldn’t talk about it. I needed my routine, the forty-minute drive to work, the smell of my classroom, the dumb-ass kids that caused trouble.
Alexis Marie cried frequently and begged me to stay with her. “l need you,” she said. If I stayed home, what would that have accomplished? We would have been depressed together. Even when I went to Arizona with Alexis Marie and our daughter, Hannah, to visit my in-laws, the weekend was not enough for her. Instead of making the most of the time we had, we argued non-stop.
“Why don’t you take a few sick days?” she suggested at breakfast. “Our baby died; the school will understand that.”
My mother-in-law gave me a look. “What about your mortgage?” she asked. “What are you going to do about money?”
“We’ll be okay, “ Alexis Marie smiled hopefully but she wasn’t thinking about every detail. When she left the room, I told her parents that I agreed; I needed to get back to work.
“You’re making the right decision,” they affirmed me. “We’ll take care of Alexis Marie. She’ll be okay.”
I found my wife in the guest bedroom. “I’m still heading back this afternoon. I’m not changing my flight.”
She began to weep again. “l can’t expect someone else to teach my program, don’t you understand that? I haven’t even written all the curriculum yet.”
Again, she said, “Stay with me. I need you.”
“What do you expect me to do?”
“l don’t know, just be with me! I can’t do this alone!”
“Be quiet, please! Don’t yell.”
“Well, how am I supposed to get through to you, Aaron? You never hear me.”
“l can’t stay. I have to get back to school. I am trying to take care of our family.”
“Your family is here.”
My mind played through every scenario. If I stayed, I wondered who would step into my shoes with my students. We were only halfway into the school year. I paced the small bedroom. If I stayed, I’d let down the school and the principal who gave me the job, believing in me, and my in-laws who praised the ‘Go get ‘em!’ attitude – plus, I wanted to get back to work. My job was a place where I came alive. I loved it.
“Why can’t you see this from my perspective?” I barked.
“You keep leaving me. You left me alone to greet everyone at the memorial – and then again, a week after Zachary died. Please, I need you now,”
“Stop, just stop. I’m going.” I began throwing my worn clothes from the floor back into my weekend suitcase. “Don’t you care what I want? Don’t you give a rip what I need?” Alexis Marie stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. I opened it swiftly but she had disappeared down the hall toward the garage. My mother-in-law popped her head around the corner from the kitchen and we met eyes.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Yes, fine,” I responded briskly, trying to control my voice. Hannah started to scream, the sound of the door slamming had startled her awake from her nap.
“I’ll get Hannah,” said my mother-in-law. I was about to step toward the garage, but changed my mind and pivoted on my toe back into the guest bedroom. Once inside, I sighed heavily and shook my fists with anger, tension cramping the muscles in my hands. I paced the room again, picturing my grade ten students, imagining standing in front of them unprepared. On Monday I was supposed to introduce injury management in my Sports Medicine program – but I’d been flying by the seat of my pants. My palms were wet.
There was a loud BANG, but I ignored it. I assumed it was one of Alexis Marie’s parents closing a cabinet in the kitchen.
If I stayed I’d have to write lesson plans, but had not brought the textbooks. The program was my responsibility and I didn’t know who to ask for help. My parents always taught me to suck it up and get going, and that’s what I was doing; Alexis Marie should be proud of me. Everything about Zachary’s death felt out of control, yet the one thing I did have power over was my work; I knew what to expect and was good at it.
There was another loud bang and again I ignored it.
I took a deep breath and then another. I packed up the rest of my belongings and zipped closed the suitcase. It was obvious that I had to make Alexis Marie understand my side of this; she was not being fair to what I needed. I walked through the house but she was not in the living room or in the kitchen; no one was in the kitchen, actually. Where had that banging sound come from?
Opening the garage door, I could not see Alexis Marie immediately but I could hear her breathing loudly and talking to herself. “What are you doing?” I called from the far side of the SUV.
“Leave me alone! Go away!” she screamed. Something was not right. I walked around the back of the vehicle and saw her pull a small object out a cabinet. She held it in one hand and was stabbing the other. My first instinct was to run to her. My heart began to pound hard, remembering the time she tried to hurt herself when we were dating. My muscles held the sensory memory of racing to her and wrestling the knife out of her petite yet strong hands.
Fear rose in my throat. What about Hannah? I thought sharply, angrily. How can Alexis Marie be so selfish?
My thoughts raced within the split second it took me to get to her. What can I do to get her to a safe place? I wondered. How will I get the... Was it a packing blade? How can I get it away from her and not get stabbed in the process?
I ran up behind her and grabbed her forearms with my hands. My fingers and thumbs reached all the way around, pulling her hands away from her body, but she thrashed and smashed her head back on my chest. I squeezed so tight that her hands opened and whatever she held bounced into the corner of the garage.
“STOP,” I yelled but Alexis Marie continued to fight.
“LET ME GO,” she screamed.
Her parent’s ran into the garage, Alexis Marie’s mom carrying Hannah, but she swiftly turned and left. I was momentarily distracted and then felt a sharp pain in my left arm. Releasing Alexis Marie’s wrists, she ran away from where I had held her on the rough painted floor.
“What’s happening?” Ken asked, his long scraggly eyebrows raised so they looked like one.
I ignored him. “Alexis Marie, please...” I demanded.
“No. You are just going to leave me. Well, go ahead! Just go now. Leave me alone.”
“What about Hannah? What is this going to do to her? What will this solve? It doesn’t make sense,” my volume grew with each word until I was yelling and flushed. I jumped to my feet and brushed dust from my pants. Alexis Marie stood in the corner, quivering, looking at me with hatred.
“Okay, okay,” Ken began. “Aaron, why don’t you go cool down, okay?” I stared at my wife but her glare was unflinching. Turning, I left the garage and slammed the door behind me. My mother-in-law was waiting with Hannah in the hall by the guest bedroom.
“l just need to be alone,” I said, not meeting her eyes. I stormed around the room; there was nowhere to go and I needed to leave for the airport in half an hour. I growled through my teeth. Nothing was getting through to Alexis Marie; she didn’t make any sense. Why would she want me to stay and then try to kill herself? I ran my fingers through my hair and scratched the sides of my head, sitting on the edge of the bed. I had no idea how to take care of my wife. The only person I could actually care for was myself, and I knew what I needed to do.
As I looked out the window of the airplane, the desert dust bowl grew smaller and smaller, then faded behind the clouds. I worried about Alexis Marie and what our future would look like together; was I doing the right thing? Was there a right thing in that situation? Alexis Marie didn’t understand me. I was doing the best I could. She would be okay, like her mother said, and she would be taken care of. Her mom would know what to do. Maybe time apart was the best for everyone.