Last night at 4:30 a.m. I sat in the back of an Uber listening to my date talk about the differences between football and futsal. He held my hand, tracing swirls between my fingers and palm. It was our fifth or sixth date. We’d just spent the evening in downtown Porto grabbing drinks and dancing at a local club.
Exactly two years before that, May 4th, 2017 11:30 p.m. EST, I lay on the floor of my graduate school apartment, unable to catch my breath as my boyfriend of nearly seven years told me, over the phone, that he didn’t want to be with me anymore. He had been the last pillar keeping me upright after the sudden death of my father just ten months before that.
Marking an anniversary can be positive and negative. There are happy anniversaries: weddings, birthdays, the date of a big move; and sad anniversaries: a death, break-up, the day you lost your job. Since my father’s passing, I’ve added a whole slew of anniversaries to keep track of: my parents’ wedding anniversary, so that I remember to always send my mother flowers; my father’s death, which I don’t acknowledge except to be sad and call in sick to work; the day I left the U.S.; and May 4th, the night my ex dumped me.
Last year, I dreaded the one year anniversary of May 4th. Of all the anniversaries, it felt like the most significant. My father’s death had been traumatic and devastating. My ex had been the metaphorical three-legged stool I was still able to stand on. Without him, I didn’t think I would survive the grief. And quite honestly, I didn’t want to.
In the weeks leading to May 4th I woke constantly with night terrors. Images from that night rolled through my mind on a loop: falling off my air mattress, which I used as a couch because I’d sold most of my furniture in preparation to move with my ex; calling friends to my apartment because I didn’t know what else to do; smashing a picture frame and throwing up in the bathroom. Most of all, I remembered the feeling that I’d never be happy again. It was like a line had been drawn through my life: my happy life and my life now. I’d lost my father without warning and now my best friend and person I thought would be my life partner. How do you recover from that?
I moved to Asia and tried to recover. I built a new community, started new jobs, and found that I could make it without a partner by my side. To mark the first year anniversary, I went to a tattoo parlor with a close friend and got a semicolon tattooed behind my right ear. As a punctuation mark, a semicolon represents a sentence that has nearly come to an end, but not enough to warrant a period, and thus continues. As a symbol: a semicolon represents someone’s struggle of wanting to die, but continuing to live. I spent the evening drinking and dancing with friends at a Star Wars themed club.
I felt both proud and sad: proud for all that I had done, but sad that I still didn’t feel totally like myself. Grief changes you and the way you live your life, but the ‘not myself’ feeling still felt like more than that. I figured much like the date of my father’s death would always feel heavy and sad, May 4th would forever feel like a clusterfuck of emotions: anxious, proud, sad, determined, and also a bit angry.
This year, about a week before the end of April, I made note of May 4th. I opened my Google calendar to find a good weekend to go on a day trip. When I saw the weekend of May 4 and 5 I thought, I better make sure I’m busy that day. Just like in Bangkok, I figured I wouldn’t want to be alone. Or would it be better to be alone?
And then I forgot.
May 4th came and went, and I didn’t even notice until the afternoon of the 5th when I scrolled through Cinco de Mayo posts on Facebook. Even on the 4th, while friends posted the usual May the Fourth Be With You statuses, the fact that the day was the anniversary of my life’s turning point didn’t even cross my mind. Instead, I had a truly fantastic day: I’d slept in, made decent progress on a new essay, met two friends for a coffee and a long walk, wrote some more, met some fascinating women at a friend’s going away party, and ended the night dancing for hours with a Portuguese man who is so attractive that I have to resist just staring at him (and he’s sweet, witty, and funny, but you can’t stare at sweet, witty, and funny).
Besides noticing the date for a brief second in my Google calendar, I hadn’t thought about May 4th at all. The weeks leading up to the date hadn’t been full of nightmares and even remembering the night didn’t make me want to curl into a ball beneath my bed.
I hadn’t been in Bangkok for long when I first realized that my ex did me a favor by breaking up with me. All along, one of our biggest differences had been my love of travel and his apathy towards it. I wanted to live in different countries and see as much of the world as possible. He didn’t. With each new experience I had in Thailand, and with each new country I visited, I knew I never would have had any of those things had I stayed with my ex. If we’d stayed together, I wouldn’t be in Portugal right now having achieved the long-held goal of mine of landing a full-time writing job. I wouldn’t have met any of the friends I now have and, let’s face it, my ex and I would have broken up (or divorced) eventually because I never would have been happy with his small town life and he never would have been comfortable with my adventurous one.
May 4th will continue to be a significant anniversary for me, but not for the reasons I once thought. Grief is a process. Whether it’s a death or a break up, it takes time to learn how to live with it in your life. My one year May 4th anniversary felt both happy and sad because I was still trying to find my way while shouldering two loads of grief. Now, on my second May 4th anniversary, it’s easier to see not just all that I’ve accomplished on my own, but how much more I will continue to accomplish.