One foot in and one foot back,
It don’t pay to live like that.
So I cut the ties and jump the tracks,
For never to return….
Three words that became hard to say,
I and love and you.
—The Avett Brothers, I And Love And You
I played bass in a rock and pop band for a couple years in college. One girl and three guys—we had a blast. After several fast songs, one of us would step up to the mic and in a low, gravely voice say the well-known phrase, “We’re gonna slow it down a little here”. I feel like that now: After several light, somewhat humorous and visual posts, “We’re gonna slow it down a little.”
In mid-2016 as the seriousness of addiction and associated behavioral health challenges were becoming evident, I started keeping a journal. Previously I had toyed with journaling and found it helpful but never stuck with it more than a month or two. However, our lives and our family were in such a state in mid-2016 that I found myself relying on, and looking forward to, my quiet half-hour in the morning when I could organize my thoughts and tell my journal anything and everything. I’ve kept journaling, 4-6 mornings per week the past four years.
On the voyage, I brought my half-completed fourth journal book with me. I left books 1-3 at home in Pompano Beach for safekeeping. Book four is now full and like books 1-3, it has longhand entries front-and-back on each of its 160 pages. When Colleen died on August 21, 2019, book three was three-quarters full. However, I also needed a place to keep track of the innumerable to-dos and details that surround death—especially an untimely and out-of-hospital death, so I cracked open my then-empty book four and used it.
On Thursday September 26th, 2019, a month after Colleen died, I made my final entry on the last pages of book three and moved my journaling to book four. I started journaling on page 10 or so given the opening pages of the book were all death and funeral notes. Looking back, it’s interesting to see my thought process around the death-details unfold. It’s a lot of lists of people I needed to notify and things I needed to do, notes with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and Medical Examiner, and notes about finding a church hall for her service.
My first journal entry in book four begins…
Friday, September 27th, 2019: Good time to be starting journal 4. I’m pretty much caught-up with miscellaneous stuff around the house and in a position to focus on HJ for a bit. It’s exciting/scary to think that in 3 months I could be headed to the Caribbean.
In the journal entry I go on to describe a phone call I had the night before with a friend in North Florida. Several years ago her husband died a tragic and untimely death. She offered me a key insight on the call. At that time many, many people were telling me what I should do. While all were well-intentioned, those offering advice had never been in my situation. This dear friend—having lived through the out-of-time death of a spouse—came at it from a different perspective. She suggested what I shouldn’t do. Her advice in a nutshell: Don’t try to apply logic to what happened. She went on to say, “I know you and you’re like me in that you are logical and analytical. You’ll naturally want to replay everything that led up to Colleen’s death over and over and over again and look for the pattern, look for the logic.” She concluded that if I try to apply logic and look for, “The answers”, I’ll drive myself crazy. Such helpful advice and the timing of its delivery was exquisite.
A couple weeks ago, when I started the hjsailing playlist, my friend JJ turned-me-onto the Iris DeMent song “Let the Mystery Be”. Listening to that tune over and over took me back to my other friend’s advice to not look for the logic. From the chorus of the song:
Everybody is wondering what and where they they all came from,
Everybody is worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain, and so it’s all the same to me,
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
While the concept of letting the mystery be is easy to understand from an intellectual perspective, for me it’s been very hard to fully grasp at the emotional level. After seven months, 1,400 miles of sailing and 90 days living on a boat, I think I’m starting to get it.
If there’s any silver-lining to Colleen’s death, it’s that it allows me to get past the recency-bias that I had developed. If you’re not familiar with the term, recency bias is a well-studied and documented phenomenon that occurs when a person more prominently recalls and emphasizes recent events and observations than those further in the past. For instance, when presented with identical symptoms, physicians tend to diagnose illnesses that they have recently encountered.
In Colleen’s and my last several years together, so much time and effort was focused on survival, safety and self-preservation—for all of us. So much so that I temporarily forgot much of the absolutely beautiful life we shared together earlier in our marriage and what a wonderful partner and mother she was. My recency bias had me focusing on the cycles of treatment and relapse and the role of my co-addiction on our mutual well-being, and blocking the more-distant past. When I think about the intensity of what I was experiencing, I can’t imagine what was going through Colleen’s mind. With the benefit of seven months, I’m finding it easier to take a farsighted view of our time together and look past the recent years and consider the full arc of our time together. Addiction was part of her but in no way defines her—she was, and always will be, so much more.
On beach walks in the Virgin Islands, I’ve been finding sea glass, where bottles discarded into the ocean break and the shards are tumbled in the beach surf. The combination of water, sand, movement and time smooths the sharp edges and transforms the shard’s surface from transparent to translucent. Lake Chautauqua, where Colleen and I met, is only 15 miles from Lake Erie. Several times per summer we’d bike or drive to Lake Erie to see sunsets, walk on the beach and collect sea glass.
The frosted surface of the sea glass gives it a wonderful silky feel. The other day, as I was turning pieces of sea glass in the palm of my hand, it occurred to me that there’s a simile between them and what I’m trying to achieve on this voyage. Setting out from my backyard on January 18th of this year, the memories of Colleen were clear and transparent, and while there were so many good and loving ones, there were a lot of sharp edges from recent memories. Like holding a shard of freshly broken glass, I spent a lot of time with the sharp edges and they would cut and I would bleed. With the benefit of time, sailing on the ocean, salt and sand, and meeting new friends who have no idea of my past—my memories of Colleen are slowly but magically transforming from shards to sea glass. The sharp edges are being worn away, and the specifics are being replaced with the frosted glow of our overall love for each other.
I’ve found this blog to be surprisingly liberating, to, “Put it all out there”, for anyone who cares to read. It’s funny because I’ve had a couple instances recently where a reader will comment, directly to me or indirectly to someone else, “I don’t know you as well as others and I feel like I’m stalking. I shouldn’t be reading such personal information.” While I appreciate your candor, please read-on, and I’ll go you one-further: Feel free to share this with others who may benefit. I know what I’m doing and after losing my sister Amy and wife Colleen, I think I’ve finally figured out that life is fleeting and if there’s good that can come from sharing the story—for the storyteller or listener, or both—why not put it out there? It does no good unsaid.
In the spirit of “putting it all out there”, I do have an irrational fear that has grown as the blog has grown. The fear is this: If Colleen were to come back from the dead today, I think she would read all the nice and loving things and comment, “That’s all well-and-good Dan, but why didn’t you say those things to me when I was alive?”
I think back and in so many ways there was so much more traditional love expressed in our marriage in the first 20 years than in the last 10, and particularly the last 5. We certainly tried but, in looking back with the benefit of 7 months of perspective, a lot of our relationship was in survival mode. However, I deliberately used the term “traditional love” earlier in this paragraph, perhaps just sticking by and not leaving a partner who is in a downward spiral of addiction is one of the greatest acts of love.
In saying this, I’m not casting judgment on anyone who needed or needs to exit a relationship with an addicted partner. Each situation is different with its own unique set of dynamics. Also, I offer this not looking for affirmation and comments back about what I great husband and partner I was, etc., etc. I’m at peace with my actions during a very difficult time in our lives and our relationship. In listening to the song I And Love And You by The Avett Brothers on my voyage, I was so struck by the lines:
Three words that became hard to say,
I and love and you.
While I had heard them many times before, I had never applied them to Colleen’s and my relationship and how hard we both tried in our last 5 years. We did have some successes that can never be taken away and I take solace from that. Still, in many ways, I find it easier to express how I feel and felt about her after she’s gone.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
—The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
(translated from its original Persian by Edward FitzGerald)
I’ll add both the Avett Brothers’ “I and Love and You” and two versions of “Let the Mystery Be” to the hjsailing playlist. One version is Iris DeMent’s original and the other a wonderful 10,000 Maniacs/Natalie Merchant and David Byrne live duet.
PS: While our little bay is idyllic, we’re all going a bit stir-crazy after 18 days of lockdown-curfew with 7 days to go (we won’t even mention a potential extension). As example, Lancelot and Gautier just had to get a different perspective on the world…
…too bad I missed the shot of them jumping off into the water…next time.