Christmas, and a Chase
This is the ninth chapter of Love Song by Julienne (ft Cancer). The other ones are below. I’ve added the post that I did after she passed as a sort of prologue. I may keep it that way, I may not.
Prologue – Julienne
Chapter 1 – Meeting Julienne
Chapter 2 – Finding Julienne
Chapter 3 – A Kiss, and a Confession
Chapter 5 – Brioche French Toast
Chapter 6 – Halloween with Becca
Chapter 7 – A Ring, and a Conversation
Chapter 8 – Her Woods
Sorry for the delay between chapters. After my last post about Hope (or the lack thereof), I fell into a weird state of disconnection from my emotions. It was as if writing it overloaded my emotional center, or it released something that had been swirling in my mind for so long that I was left as a drained, empty husk. It’s probably a little bit of both of those things. Or a lot of both. Either way, being in a state where I felt nothing has been alarming and uncomfortable and I hate it. I decided to make myself research and write this to reconnect to my feelings, even if it hurts, rather than drifting along in a near-fugue state that makes me feel like an automaton. I hope it works. We’ll find out.
Christmas with the Gedes in 2014 formed the tradition we would continue for each of the five years Julienne and I were together. After we celebrated our engagement Christmas Eve night, giddily checking our Facebook posts for congratulatory comments from friends and reveling in the fact that it was finally public, we settled in to celebrate the holiday old-school style. We snuggled into her old bed, Lewis curled up with us, and read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Incredibly, I’d never actually read the story before, and like so many things – from gingerbread houses to Muppet Christmas Carol to homemade egg nog (Sharon’s egg nog is the best drink the world has ever and will ever produce) – experiencing for the first time with Jules made it so much more special. It was the first time I read aloud to her. Reading to Julienne, feeling her snuggled up next to me listening, her head on my shoulder, was (and still is) one of the most comforting and loving moments we ever experienced.
(As time passed, reading to her became a more regular activity, especially after she was placed on oxygen and we knew our prognosis. Her anxiety made it hard for her to fall asleep, so I would read to her at night. Sometimes we would alternate reading, but when she read to me I usually fell asleep in just a couple of minutes and she’d have to wake me up when it was my turn. I don’t recall being read to as a child, other than when my brother was forced to read me Jehovah’s Witnesses books after school, so it was a new experience, one I found incredibly comforting. The night before she would end up going to hospice, she was terrified to fall asleep. She’d had a terrible dream the night before and she was scared all the rest of the day. When we went to bed I read to her, then stopped when I thought she was asleep as usual. She immediately woke up and asked me to keep going. The cycle repeated a couple of times until I realized that she’d only stay asleep while I read. I read to her until 10 o’clock in the morning, when she finally fell asleep on my chest. A few hours later we were on our way to hospice. I read to her there, the book she asked me to bring [The Ocean at the End of the Lane, her favorite] and later when she was back home. I didn’t quite get to finish before she left us, so I did while she lay in honor after everyone had gone to bed. I still read to her now, at her site, and it brings me comfort and makes me feel her presence, right there, her head pressed against my shoulder and her hand on my chest.)
Christmas morning didn’t start too early, which is good because Christmas Eve generally meant a good amount of wine and/or spirits. A nice leisurely morning of Café du Monde coffee and warm French pastries with her parents as we sat in the living room, each of us with the presents to us by our seat. We’d go around the room and open gifts one by one, enjoying the act of watching a loved one get a gift they liked (fun fact – I HATED opening gifts in front of people. Still do, actually. I feel a sense of stress over opening something and not being able to display my appreciation enough and making the gifter feel bad. Christmas with Jules and her parents actually kept that feeling at bay). Lewis would sometimes help open presents because there is few things he enjoys more than shredding paper. It was such a fun, joyous experience. And every year, Julienne would have a gift that was super thoughtful and loving and make the recipient cry, which is exactly what she wanted to happen. She won every Christmas.
(She claimed I won last Christmas, because I hid a ring that she wanted and had earlier given her a different ring that she also wanted but not as much, then pulled it out after all the gifts were done. She still won, even though I used an underhanded trick to try to compete.)
That Christmas, and each one after, is the closest thing I have ever seen to the Hallmark Movie Channel ideal of a family Christmas, but it was never saccharine. It had enough realistic grumpiness and occasional drama, but, for me, it was wonderful. Julienne shone bright with her joy of the holiday and with the deep, intense love she has for her family. After present time with the parents, we got to do the same afterwards with the extended family, complete with a big Christmas dinner. I’d never really experienced anything quite like this in my life. Julienne gradually transformed me from a Grinch to Tiny Tim proclaiming his blessings to the world. I think copious amounts of egg nog helped with that, but still, it was – is still is – another of those magical things she pulled off. She made me believe in Christmas and all it stood for.
We had a wonderful long break together, extending all the way through her birthday in January. We went to a New Year’s party at the house of a friend of mine and had a great time. In fact, it was after that party that my absolute favorite Jules story took place. It’s a tale best told in person, so I won’t even try to tell it here. Sorry to leave it out, but I’ll be happy to tell that story in person any time you ask. Especially over a drink or two. It’s a good one.
We were also trying to figure out the new living arrangements we were trying to find together. We were discovering that finding a place that had a six-month lease available that we liked was proving to be a near-impossibility. We came close – there was a former gatehouse on an old Dupont estate that was available, and the second we walked in we knew it was haunted. It was perfect for us. I knew the main problem was not going to be figuring out the lease or other logistics. Oh no. No, the main problem was going to be the door in the hallway, just outside the bedroom. See, the house was super old, small, and with incredibly narrow, dark hallways. Outside the master bedroom there was a door, about half as wide as a normal door. Inside was a set of stairs that disappeared up into the night-black darkness of the attic. After having seen Insidious last Halloween (I hadn’t seen it before, and it’s one of Jules’ absolute favorites), the idea of this little door swinging open as I returned from the downstairs kitchen for a glass of water was an inevitability (also proof that my brain loves nothing more than trying to come up with things that will scare me. It’s very dedicated to this). We wanted it so badly.
But some things were not meant to be. We eventually decided that just staying at my apartment was easier than all the hassle we were going through, plus worrying about signing a year-long lease and then subletting if we couldn’t get a shorter lease. We decided early in January to just make my apartment our place until we left for Los Angeles. The California bar exam was taking place at the end of July, so we knew we’d be out there either just before or soon after. So we started making my cookie-cutter hotel-room-equivalent apartment our home. We planned to start moving her stuff up slowly until May, then we’d pack up the rest after graduation and drive up to start our life together in Delaware (that’s where I lived, in case I hadn’t mentioned that ever) for a couple months before the big move to Cali.
In the meantime, though, there was a wedding to plan.
Like I said before, she’d been working on this already, first with Pinterest ideas before we met, then as a break between studying for finals. Now that the ring was firmly on her slender finger (her hands always delighted and fascinated me. She had petite slim hands that looked so small in my own. I miss how they feel nestled in mine), it was time to begin doing some real planning. Like, shop for dresses real. She and Savannah made plans to go bride and bridesmaid shopping (after all, each would be the other’s bridesmaid). On January 5th, she sent me a text as I was working:
I wanted to be there but, as I told her later, the first time I wanted to see her in a wedding dress was when she was walking down the aisle. It was only later, after we were married, that I got to see the pictures. Some I’d never seen until recently. She had shown me a couple online that she was thinking of, including this one from Reem Acra that she was obsessed with. I could see why. The site had a video with the model walking in it, and the bottom of the dresses flowed and moved like water. It was gorgeous, and the idea of seeing Julienne in that dress was just so… incredible? Impossible? It was hard for me to imagine, even though we were engaged (and had been since October), that Julienne, this unbelievably beautiful soul, this brilliant and funny and charming goofball would be wearing a dress like that to marry… me? Who even am I? What is this life?
Julienne talked about how surreal it was to try on wedding dresses, for real, knowing that she’d found somebody that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with and she wasn’t just playing pretend anymore. She did try on one she liked on that January 5th trip. I didn’t see these pictures before the last month or so. She is just, in every way, perfect in the dress. She wasn’t ready to make a commitment to one, though, not without some more shopping. It would take a little more time to decide.
One less fun thing about wedding preparation was the getting-in-shape portion of it. Sure, we had 20 months before the wedding, but there were engagement photos to do, and an engagement party, and some good reasons to try to stay generally fit before crunchtime. So I started doing the one thing I swore I wouldn’t do, not unless my life depended on it.
I began to run.
Now, I had done a little running during my separations with my ex, but I really hated it. I liked to run fast, but I did not like running for a long period of time. Especially treadmills. At least running outside meant that the scenery changed, that you could see something in the distance and tell yourself I can run to that then before you get there choose something else to run towards. I could understand that a little better. I still hated it, though. I had always said that I would only run if I was being chased.
That is a fine sentiment, especially the running outside bit, when it isn’t cold outside. But since it was, I decided to try the treadmill thing. I hated it even more than I thought. Then Julienne taught me a thing she’d used to run the half-marathon: running in intervals. The idea was, you ran for two minutes, then walked at a quick pace for one minute, then rinse and repeat. It was like she’d done some kind of magic spell that made running easier. It changed everything for me. I could do that. So we started running together. We committed to doing the half-marathon in Disneyland at the end of 2015, since we’d be in California then. It was a superhero-themed one too, so I was super stoked to be able to dress up AND run. She was already signed up for a half-marathon toward the end of January, so from November through the holidays we tried to run to help get her ready.
We enjoyed ourselves over the holiday a little too much and ran much too little. As she was getting ready to go back to school, she switched her registration over to do a 5k instead. I flew down with her for the weekend when she went back to spend her birthday with her, then had to go back. It was incredibly hard on both of us. We had to be apart for ten days, and getting onto the airplane I texted her that it already felt like ten months. It was torture, after having been together for weeks in a row. I couldn’t handle it, and flew down a day before she was due to fly up. Even 24 hours was too much for me to wait.
(As I write this, it’s now been 70 days since Julienne passed. 70. It’s a surreal number, and the fact that it will only continue to grow and grow weighs on my heart. I read something about grief a couple of weeks after she died. The author said that, after having their loved one die, the world just continued on, and it was a comfort knowing that. I do not feel that way. I rage every day deep inside me that the world continues to turn, uncaring, and people move on and go back to lives they had before she died while I sit here, with the world that I knew and loved running like sand between my fingers as I try to hold onto it and fail, watching as it all slips further and further away, and the world moving on is NOT a fucking comfort, it will never be a fucking comfort, and I will always carry this kernel of rage inside that was born on July 24th, 2015, a knot of anger we both carried with us every day since we found out that everything we thought our life would be was a lie.)
The reason why we’d have had to wait for another day was because on Saturday the 25th she was running the 5k. She was happy for me to come down, of course, as long as I was OK waiting while she ran. Unless… (she paused dramatically) I was willing to run it with her. Now, I hadn’t run over 2 miles at a time by this point. It seemed daunting at the time, but I mulled it over. I always said I wouldn’t run unless I was being chased, but what if I was the one chasing? In any event, doing my first actual race with her next to me was all I needed to get my ass into gear. I agreed. I was going to run a 5k.
Now, what they don’t tell you before you run a race is how fucking early you need to get up for it. We were up at like 5:30, which is a time I was more likely to see at the end of a long fun night than I was getting out of bed to confront, especially on the weekend. I was my usual quiet surly self in the morning, but Julienne had a way of breaking through my normal grouch-mode routine and we laughed and joked as the goddamn sun came up in Miami. We ate our bananas and drank some water and made our way to the milling mass of people willing to run for no particular reason on a given Saturday. Julienne had a new hat she’d gotten the previous summer, and had created a new tradition for herself: every year, she’d get a new hat, wear it when she ran, and record her race times on the bill. It was her charm, her talisman, a symbol of her commitment to doing the one thing she wanted most, working with her body to do things that at one point in her life she didn’t think she could.
It being Miami, there was a DJ playing club music as we waited for the thing to start. I’m fairly certain I saw clubgoers from the previous night making their way to cars as we stretched, but it’s Miami so they may have been going to church in their neon-lime-green minidresses for all I know. We got in the back of the pack at Julienne’s suggestion, because I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to collapse and die 200 feet in, took a couple of pictures, and waited for our chance to pound the pavement.
Then the race started! And we stood and waited for the billion people ahead of us to move for like 10 minutes. Finally, though, it was our turn. Julienne had an interval timer on her phone, and she said she’d run next to me and encourage me. We had earphones in one ear so we’d hear each other when we (meaning I) was having trouble, and we ran.
I loved it.
Running next to her, trying to keep pace, then getting her hand signal that it was time to walk, catch our breath, then the signal to start again – it was like so much of our time together. Working together, keeping an eye on each other, giving encouragement, facing the challenge together. It was a joy doing that with her. We celebrated every mile marker with a smile and fist bump (back then it was a terrorist fist bump, according to Fox News) and she dutifully stopped every time my shoe came untied (I have a real issue with keeping my shoes tied and have my entire life. It’s odd and embarrassing).
When we finally came to the marker that read 3, I looked over at her and said let’s run. I mean, we were running, but I had developed a habit when I ran that, towards the end, I would give it everything I had. I liked running fast much more than running long, so if I sped up I could a) make sure I’d left nothing in the tank, and b) the running part would be over a little faster. She agreed, and off we went, running as fast as we could go. The finish was in sight (and I hate races that hide the finish line behind a last-minute curve. Seeing the end of a race ahead is everything to someone who is huffing and puffing and whose feet are leaden and aching, and those who hide that glorious sight are assholes who deserve a good sharp papercut) and we sprinted as much as we could. As we approached the line, Julienne reached out and grabbed my hand, and we finished our first race together that way, hand in hand, proud and happy and in love.
(We finished every race but one that way. We didn’t get to run as many as we wanted to, but I cherish the memory of every one, and feeling her hand in mine as we crossed every finish line felt like a triumph, especially after her diagnosis. I started running again a couple of weeks ago, because it is on the list of things she made me sign and agree to do after she was gone. It’s not easy, because doing it makes me think of her and those races, and sobbing in the middle of a run, which I do most of the time at some point, makes it quite a bit harder to do. But I’ll keep doing it for her, and for us, and for all the times we crossed a finish line hand in hand, whether it was in a race or in the course of the life we were lucky enough to have together. Hand in hand, baby, forever and ever, until the last finish line. I love you.)
(I started this yesterday, worried about my emotional disconnection. Today, I cried hard as I left her grove, feeling the loss and pain and love we share. I’ve never been so happy to be so sad. I spent this morning crying nearly the entire time I wrote this. In the middle of it, I received a beautiful message from someone I’ve never met, telling me that reading these helps them, and I cried harder because, as much as this world can be a real pile of shit, people can still be beautiful. I’m glad to say that writing this worked. I love you guys. *finger guns*)