“Can you give me more time?” he asked me.
“Why?” I replied.
I did not know this conversation would be our last, that in two weeks he would be gone, having exited not just my life but this world. I did not know in mere days his heart would fail, suddenly and irreparably, in the middle of the night. I did not know the trail of sadness that would be left in his wake. For his 8-year-old son. For family members and friends, left stricken and searching. He was 52. There should have been decades yet to come.
I did not know an email would arrive with his name as the subject line. I read it while on a conference call and remained — inextricably — on the line, feigning responses as my hands trembled. I did not know his death would thrust me into amorphous grief. That I would soon inhabit an ill-defined role with no public face, having lost someone whose relationship to me was, at best, unresolved. How the ambiguity of our relationship — the fact I couldn’t quite say, “My boyfriend died,” or even “My ex-boyfriend died” — would confound every feeling. How it would cause me to mourn from the sidelines while questioning my right to do so.
It had been eight months since Matt entered my life, reopening a door to intimacy and adult companionship that closed when I became a single mother at 40, three years prior. I had dated a handful of men, but always halfheartedly, questioning whether an evening out warranted time away from the little boy I adored and the cost and effort of securing a sitter.
Moments into our first date, I realized he might be different. I liked his dry humor and quick mind, his devotion to his son. From the beginning, we had an easy rapport and a chemistry so palpable that a neighboring diner approached us as we were finishing our meal. “You two are great together,” he said. “I don’t know if you’re on a blind date or if you’ve been together for years. But she hasn’t stopped laughing this entire time.”
He awakened in me a dormant desire and brought lightness back into my life. We both juggled demanding jobs, young kids and close-knit circles of friends. But he filled a void I hadn’t realized existed. The time we spent together — the daily calls that always began with “What’s up, Kohler?”; the pictures we exchanged of tacky bear decor for his fantasy mountain cabin; the comfortable way he began wrapping himself around me at night (“Assume the position,” he would say, and we’d roll onto our sides, his left hand lightly clutching my chest) — brought relief to my overburdened life. When we were together, the endless responsibilities of parenting solo — the early mornings, complex logistics, piles of laundry and sick days that seemed to stack up one on top of the other — could recede into the background, if only for a bit. Our burgeoning relationship provided space in which I could breathe, become the person I had not been for some time. The person I sometimes doubted still existed.
It felt easy, we told each other. Until it became less so. As the six-month mark crept by, I began to raise questions I thought were befitting the stage. Would we take things to the next level? Begin spending time together with our boys? The conversations seemed to go smoothly. But neither of us offered up any grand pronouncements of love. If pressed, I suspect we both would have admitted to doubts about our long-term potential. I was open to exploring if something more would develop. But he began to pull back.
In our final weeks together, his calls became less frequent, his texts more sparing. He had recently, I noted with concern, begun drinking more heavily. He was stressed, I knew. Burnt out and longing for a simpler life. A few months earlier, I had seen him transform physically — the deep furrow erased from his brow, his shoulders broad and relaxed — when we escaped from Washington to the hills of West Virginia one frigid January weekend. I watched his face brighten as the roads opened up and the space around us expanded.
For months he had complained offhandedly of chest pain, yet demurred when I pressed him to go to the doctor, cracking dark jokes I never found funny. Of the many injustices of his passing, the most aggrieved is that his appointment was scheduled for four days after his death.
In hindsight, everything takes on new meaning. A doctor friend explained to me how an overtaxed heart can cause exhaustion, irritability and depression; how stress and fatigue can, in turn, weaken one’s heart. “Were you unhappy with me, or was I watching you die?” I wanted to ask him in the days that followed his passing. I replayed our last conversation in my head, searching for clues. When I told him that night how much I resented his withdrawal, he sounded resigned. “I just need some space,” he said. “Can you give me more time?”
We were to get together in the days that followed, but I canceled those plans. “Let’s decide at a later date if it makes sense,” I wrote him. But that date never came.
Every religion and culture has rituals for loved ones of the deceased. Wear black. Sit shiva. In the Confucian Code, there are five grades of mourning obligations, ranging from 27 months of austerities for a parent to three months for second cousins. But there are no guidelines for mourning someone you dated for a relatively short time. To much of the outside world, my life appeared unchanged. Yet internally I was shattered. I broke down sobbing reading “Green Eggs and Ham” to my son before bed and while lying in savasana at the end of yoga class. I could not cook the simplest of meals, instead shuttling my son to a neighborhood restaurant, where he munched on chicken tenders and french fries as I nursed a glass of wine and struggled to focus.
Each expression of grief was complicated by the fact that I did not feel entitled to it. Was it greedy for me to mourn him? Pathetic? I felt both uniquely close and like an interloper. At his memorial service, a lone bagpiper played and heads in the room nodded knowingly as his friend announced, “Matt loved bagpipes.” “Bagpipes?” I thought. “Bagpipes?” It seemed like something I should have known.
In death, we memorialize the best of a person, often reducing the complexity of our relationships to a more two-dimensional version. Immediately after his passing, any lingering anger or disappointment dissipated like vapor, leaving only sadness and longing. Was I honoring his memory, I wondered, or falling in love with his ghost? Alternative scenarios raced through my mind. If he had lived, would we have made our way back to each other? Receded from each other’s lives? Become friends? Might we have had a different last conversation — one in which I was less brittle, more generous?
Death also lays our fears bare: Fear of the fragility of life, of course. But his death forced me to confront something deeper — the loss of a quieter, more companionate version of love. A version I had hoped might be enough. One that perhaps he had, too, but ultimately found lacking. A version that for a short while made me feel less alone in the world. Or maybe just less frightened of reaching the end of my own life without someone to claim me as theirs.
I write these words to claim him. Not because he belonged to me or because I occupied any more significant role in his life than I did. But simply because he mattered to me. We mattered.
I write to define the undefined, to invent a grieving ritual that fits our increasingly secular times, one in which who we love, how we love, does not always fit into neat boxes.
“Can you give me more time?” he asked me.
Oh, how I wish I could have. Even if not one moment had been spent with me.