Some Deaths Before Dying, by Phil Christman
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January 2022 Issue [Readings]

Some Deaths Before Dying


From “How to Be Married,” an essay in the collection How to Be Normal, which will be published next month by Belt Publishing.

For some of us, there’s a season on the cusp of young adulthood—around sixteen or seventeen—when all the deepest failings and yearnings of our nature announce themselves as symphonic themes that the rest of our lives will restate with greater complexity, perhaps, but never again so pristinely. We adults view the struggles of teenagers with pity, amusement, and contempt, reactions that preserve our distance from our own memories of being so young, so susceptible to the characteristic pain of this period: pain constituted, in large part, by the absence of perspective. Every breakup, every fight, every death, every friendship lost to gossip or to moving trucks seems unsurvivable precisely because you haven’t survived many such losses yet. You wonder, rightly, how it can possibly be done. And yet there is something admirable, even beautiful, about these storms of rage and sadness and fear, which recall the goddesses and gods of classical mythology, who also live outside the dulling and comforting repetitions of time.

I had the weird good fortune of meeting my wife first during this period, then again in the compromised time of adulthood. In high school, Ashley and I were both invited to attend a conference in Washington for young journalists. I knew my family absolutely could not afford this program, and I had to be talked into even applying. After many leaves bagged and begging letters sent to relatives and church acquaintances, I went. So did she.

I had no more idea how to talk to my peers in Washington than I did my peers back home. My lone friend was a kind young man who wanted me to come to his room so we could listen to Depeche Mode together, the possible overtones of his invitation lost on me. (God bless him.)

On the last day of the conference, a girl talked to me. This in itself was not too shocking, but she continued after the initial pleasantries were over. Later, I ran into her while I was waiting in gloom for the dinner-dance to begin, and she talked to me some more. I found this confusing, though it made me deeply happy. She laughed at my jokes in a way that wasn’t politesse. I laughed at hers. Every detail she told me about herself was the strangest thing I’d ever heard. She was from El Paso, Texas, for example, and I thought that was such an interesting way to be from somewhere; I had never tried it. She had a mom, to whom she was close—think of it, a mom! To whom she was close! She enjoyed theater, she told me with her mouth—the exact right shape for a mouth, I suddenly realized. Her nose had very light freckles. She eventually used the word “existentialism,” which made the connections between us altogether eerie, for I, too, knew what that was.

I kept waiting for the moment when she would explain that she found me very nice, that she would tell her boyfriend back home about the great new friend she had made. This moment only came later, when, with almost no premeditation, I kissed her. She was not upset.

We hung out at the airport the next day and then flew home to places that did not have each other in them. She dropped the boyfriend, and we wrote to each other every day for months. But I was a coward. I could not risk that much happiness again, so I went back to my life and despaired. For six years, we barely spoke. An interesting fact about life: a person can be wrong for years about what he or she can’t get by without. When we began talking again, I made a self-deprecating joke about that kiss. She informed me that it had been “the most romantic moment of her life.” Then we started to talk every day and, within weeks, we were together. That was 2005.

That is the story! Who could live up to it? Not me, certainly. In the years between meeting and dating her, I had lost my heart a few more times, and I had learned the miraculous healing power of laughing at one’s old selves so as to take the current one very seriously. So many of our entanglements in our twenties are about the joys of being intimate, being intense, without having to be known. Was I ready to be done with that most delightful form of self-harm? It’s a miracle that I didn’t break up with Ashley in that first year—not because she was wrong, but because she was so right: if I stayed with her, then I would have to start caring about what happened to me, and then to the embarrassing series of silly men that I lived in flight from having been.

The choice she posed (without meaning to) was this: I could be one self, could accept a love that, being meant for both me and for the seventeen-year-old version of me, exposed the falseness of the separation I’d imposed between them. Or I could break up with her.

Dealing with such a furious ambivalence so early in the relationship was great preparation for being married. Forget all the conservative nonsense about the “benefits of marriage”: the reason to do it is because you have met someone interesting enough that, death being inevitable, you’d prefer to experience it with them.

I noticed a doomy turn in my own thinking soon after Ashley and I finally married. A good marriage is a “eucatastrophe”: it ends a phase of your life well but decisively. Not only was my time as a single person over; all the obvious narrative peaks in my life were scaled. I saw only a long corridor, then death. We conquer death, if at all, through faith—perhaps the sort of religious faith that involves an afterlife (which is never, by the way, the consolation you’d expect it to be) or perhaps just a faith that things can both die and also matter.

If you’re going to have any kind of distinctive life at all, you sometimes have to ignore your internal weather, the evidence not necessarily of your senses (though sometimes those too) but of your emotions. For those of us with mental health issues, “faith” in this sense is especially necessary. It’s a kind of faking-it-till-you-realize-you’ve-already-made-it.

My wife and I don’t face extreme challenges, but between my depression and anxiety and her overwork and overwhelmedness, we sometimes have to, as the writer Melissa Broder puts it, kiss each other with closed hearts. Young people think of this as a kind of treason to the self, but it’s actually the opposite. It’s refusing to let today’s mood be the final vote on what you are to each other. It’s losing the vision but caring enough to give it time to come back.

Why do it if it’s so hard? When Ashley and I returned to each other, when we return to each other again in small ways every day, it’s as though each of us has been living both the close, sordid lives of our own self-consciousness and a larger, more expansive life that we don’t know about, that we need the other person to generate. That even when we were apart, even while I lived these misadventures and disappointed myself and other people, it had taken place inside a pair of parentheses.

I go through the details of my days hoping that it all has meaning, but that meaning, too, flickers in place; I cannot be sure that it is there, or that I see it. Ashley looks at this shambles of a person every day and sees someone else. She sees that person so intensely that I am renewed. I can never deserve this; all I can do is try to return the favor. When she dashes herself against some bureaucracy to secure a small mercy for someone else and fails to do so, I tell her, because it’s true, that I don’t know anyone else who does as much good for as many people as she does. I shovel snow. I clean the bathroom. Most of all, I see the more than there is in her that is in her. As she sees the more than there is in me that is in me. We will help each other remember it, till the error that is time is corrected and all those flickers stay in place.

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