Sex and Grief Pt. 2
Detail from The Storm by Pierre Auguste Scott (1880)
“I think I’m dying.” I sit in the doctor’s office three and a half weeks after my dad died, hands on my knees, head bent and eyes on the floor. “You need to run some tests.”
The doctor, a handsome man who I’m embarrassed is seeing me like this, gently asks me what I think I’m dying of. I tell him - the same thing that killed my father. I think I have it, I think it’s hereditary. I can feel it in my body.
Slowly, carefully, the doctor moves his chair towards mine, like he is trying not to startle a wounded animal. He promises that we will run the blood tests I’m asking for but, softly, that the list of physical symptoms I’ve written on a scrap of paper are also symptoms of grief. He asks if I’ve considered anti-anxiety medication. Eyes still on the floor, I ask him for a prescription.
When my dad died promptly at 8am on February 6th 2022, it was less than 24 hours after I wrote Sex and Grief Part 1. In that post, I wrote that all I dreamt of in the hour I had to myself at the end of each day was absolute hedonism, hundreds of miles away from the hospice in a different time and different place. A part of me sincerely hoped that I was experiencing the hard part of grief prior to my dad’s death and, once he died, I would be spontaneously liberated from the unspeakable anguish and terror I was experiencing. I had read about anticipatory grief, I knew I had already begun grieving - perhaps if I could get it all out before the event itself, I could outsmart and outrun it.
When my dad did die, the first two weeks were a type of madness, but a madness I had braced for. I had read about grief online and listened to the podcasts, I knew the first weeks would be a blur and that anything I felt in that time was natural. I drove around the island looking for him, I walked to the top of hills and wailed when he wasn’t there waiting for me, I held his cold hand in the funeral home and spoke to his body like he could respond. This is all normal: grief, like love, is a sacred headspace where all bets are off. You must let yourself go mad.
After the second week, the funeral being done, I began my new job and silently decided that I’d completed grieving: it is terrible that my dad died but I’d finished my madness now, I had to go to work, go back to my flat, go back to my life. I was ready for the hedonism, the hard part was finished - dad was dead, there was nothing else I could do to take care of him, no more lifting the glass to his lips or moisturising his hands, no more morphine or calling nurses or telling him that I loved him, it was over.
My job being done, I flew back to Brighton. I was in the clear - away from the house covered in photos of my dad, with the booklet of hymns from his funeral safely filed away in a discrete black binder on my shelf. I was fine - I was absolutely fine, except for the fact my whole body hurt as though I had run marathons, my tongue was sore and bloody from pressing hard against my clamped jaw, my throat felt like someone was strangling me and my hair had begun falling out. I was no longer grieving, though, as I had confidently declared that part was finished - I therefore must be ill.
The idea that I might be ill began as a small, niggling suspicion and quickly grew into an all-encompassing terror, gnawing at my thoughts until I convinced myself that not only was I ill, I was ill with the disease my father had died of and was about to die too. This was it, the next Thing that was about to happen to me - having spent autumn in excruciating pain and winter caring for my dying father, it was now my turn to die. The cosmic balance had been thrown off and no good things happened to me anymore. My dad’s illness was one-in-ten-million, so excruciatingly rare that he signed a waiver to be the subject of a medical journal. When odds like that fall against you, how do you trust that catastrophe will not happen again? It was only logical that I must be dying.
So, I took myself to the doctor and organised the blood tests for the next day, results to come through in a week. I flew to stay with friends in Belfast and quietly counted down the days until my blood results were due, half expecting a call from my GP to break the news that sadly, unexpectedly, I was in fact riddled with the disease that killed my father and had weeks to live. On day 6, in the middle of a work call, a text came through from my doctor’s office that the blood results were normal. I was not dying.
But, if I was fine, where was my promised hedonism? I had no sex drive and the thought of going to a packed bar filled me with dread - this was not the future I had promised myself at my dad’s bedside. Instead, the news that there was nothing physically wrong with me forced me to consider that my dad’s death could not be packed neatly away as an awful but brief interlude that I could spring back from. As much as my mind ran away from the totality and permanency of my dad’s death, my body still grieved him in every sore muscle and every lost clump of hair. I was in Brighton and Belfast, but my body was still in the hospice, frozen in fear that the man who had been with me my whole life was suddenly, violently no longer in the world and that he never would be again.
I couldn’t outrun my grief and I couldn’t outrun my body. My poor, bruised body that carried me to the Isle of Man when my dad was first dying, and then to Liverpool when they tried to save him, and finally to my childhood home and the hospice when we knew there was nothing to be done. My poor body that did not sleep on the night of February 5th 2022 and instead sat up to read my dad poetry he could no longer hear and hold a hand he could no longer feel, that held him as he took he last breath and kissed his head when he was gone.
Before the hedonism and sex and dancing, my body is telling me to rest. Each sore muscle and tight jaw is my grief speaking through me. This is what your grief needs, my body says, this is how you do the next part. It’s time to stop running.
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