Surviving the first year, with help from Buffy

When my husband died, I had no idea how I’d recover. After two years of nursing his terminal illness, our household was drained and I was just plain exhausted. As the breadwinner, I had worked full time through his illness; as the mother of a small child, I was desperately needed at home. 

Perhaps it looked to the world like I could make it. Gavin had told me, over and over, “you’re stronger than you think.” Grief was overwhelming, but I knew that would run its course in time. My therapist assured me I had all the right tools in place to build a path up out of loss, a new life, to get my mojo back. But I just wasn’t feeling it. I needed an image… a narrative… a mentor.

I also needed something to do after putting my daughter to bed. I had abandoned most hobbies (and been abandoned by most of my friends) after our long fight. My eyes hurt too much to read. I was doing all the work, in all departments: estate, job, home, self care. I needed a little time out, some escape.

And I found something passive that held tremendous healing power: the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I pledged to watch all 144 episodes, seven seasons in order, that first year, as part of my self care. I swore, too, that I’d always have the essentials, red wine and dark chocolate, on hand.

I was converted to watching Buffy late in its run when a friend revealed to me that the show’s setting — a high school — had been built on top of the actual gate to hell. The blond and perky cheerleader heroine was burdened with her duty to save the world, and she did it over and over. This scenario was familiar. Duh! The entire show was ironic.

I didn’t get that when I caught my first fragments of Buffy episodes while surfing through Saturday afternoon reruns. The show’s special effects were superior to those of Dr. Who, another cult favorite I never got into, but I couldn’t understand why vampires would be marked by forehead bulges. Were they supposed to be Cro-magnons? The other characters were cute teenagers living in an idyllic suburb. I’d been a city girl and a brainiac who barely survived high school. No way could I identify with this laughable show.

When I finally surrendered, I enjoyed the last 2 seasons, action packed and subtle, postmodern to the max, while completing grad school. The legion of Buffy fans will tell you it’s a deceptive show, deep and dark at times, with real heart and occasionally, silly as all hell. Vampires — ordinary vampires and spooks in film — have always seemed to me to have as little to do with death as an amusement park. Even when the sets, costumes, and effects are “convincing,” movie monsters don’t grab me. At their best, the creatures are metaphors, unconvincing and fleshless. Death in a movie is a fake climax guided by music and lighting, when real death is blank and empty. I’ll always favor Beckett over Hitchcock and certainly over chainsaws.

The writers of Buffy don’t make any of those easy mistakes. After my experience of watching my husband die, living in the warm lap of mortality as that event approached, Buffy’s world seemed important and worthwhile. I could feel her duty, her struggle, and her fight against evil and root — with relish, like a good cheerleader — for the right side to win.

So every night, I settled on my couch with a glass of wine and opened a Netflix envelope. I spent an hour or two watching a girl younger than me kick ass, make fun of goths, and kiss boys (Yes, there is sex in Buffy. Good sex. Talk about the teenage years I never had!). I kept an eye on her friends, even the goofy ones, as they helped out, sometimes haplessly. I sat through the blood and the imaginary monsters. I made friends with ambiguous demons of all sorts, because nothing is black and white in the show; bad guys become lovers and friends break into evil. Watching Buffy is fun, but it’s rarely simple. 

Over and over, the premise of the show, its characters, its choices and even a few of its conflicts were real for me. Two events in the series spoke out to me in particular as a grieving person, and they are both about the hurt of our world.

In one episode, the partner of teen witch, Willow, is killed violently before her eyes. Slowly, grief transforms her: after losing everything, she comes to feel all the pain of humanity. Overwhelmed, her eyes turn black and she knows she must end this unbearable existence for everyone. It is loss that pushes Willow to cross over the edge — not a will to power or any desire to join with dark forces.

Like Willow, I could feel cracked open to feeling too much. I didn’t feel so much like destroying things, but then, life as a Mom grounded me and didn’t have any access to the tools of black magic. But I was awed that the story presented by Buffy’s writers isn’t the fairytale vision of what pushes evil.

At the end of season five, I felt Buffy’s relief as she sacrifices herself for her little sister and the fate of the world. This death is oblivion, which I felt strongly from contemplating my own loss. When Buffy is brought back to life, I agreed with her sadness at returning to this plagued and difficult world. She’s in a funk most of season six, performing her duties with little zeal. She just doesn’t want to be “here.”

Like me working through that first year, Buffy doesn’t find any tricks for her getting her groove back. An episode called “Once More with Feeling” suggests that living through an all-singing, all-dancing spell could break any mood at the same time as it encourages the viewer to suspend a last level of disbelief, if she had any left. In the end, Buffy and her friends save the world one last time, not without losses and costs. Good men die, an eyeball is poked out (and shows no sign of magically reappearing), and the whole town collapses into dust.

During my most difficult year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed me that everyone hurts. The world of Buffy is tough and often painful, like that of a Grimm fairytale, but I felt, as Buffy usually did, that this world is worth fighting for. There are no superheroes, although you get points for agility and teamwork, and once in a while you find a magical talisman or a talking book. By being honest about loss, Buffy gained my trust so I was able to enjoy the relief of rescue at its conclusion. By being silly and exuberant, the show kept me listening and broke down my intellectual barriers.

Watching Buffy every night required me to rest. It gave me color and excitement in the comfort of my own home, and a role model par excellence.

Most of all, my year of Buffy taught me that my imagination is probably my best and most intimate tool, and one I can’t live without.


Gavin's 9/11 drawing

My late husband’s drawing about September 11 was a memory of what a beautiful day it was, you know, otherwise. So clear and bright, mild, touched by a fresh breeze. His piece captures also the mystery, the gradual entry of that smoke and fog we couldn’t place or understand, not any piece of it. The sense that our whole world was about to change but we didn’t quite wish to believe it even as we grasped to know something. To know anything. To be included somehow and to be back in the world.

September 11 started as a quiet day, with birds chirping. We couldn’t hear birds after around 9, depending on where we were, but after some chatter, the day was quiet and calm again as we all hoped the state of knowing nothing, feeling only jumbled wouldn’t last. We scrambled to compute how many and who while we had no information and while so many parts were moving.

So yeah, like you all, I remember.

9/11 wasn’t my first loss, my primal one, but it was a sort of entry into adulthood, a turning point, like becoming a parent. 9/11 was most like the shock of Gavin’s diagnosis of terminal cancer and only a little like losing the man himself and grief and all the adaptation and transformation that we call widowhood.

So it’s an apt drawing, I think, that tells me many stories. Gavin hid this drawing, a bit, and I just discovered It last week, as I said goodbye to the last parts of “his” part of our home. (Forgive the crappy photo.) Unlike his sea drawings, I didn’t have any negative feelings — this event and loss are so much larger than his cancer and death, injuries I can remember in great detail still, and so much more “healed” (how can a nation SAY that?).

Seeing them reminded me how big that day was, how specific, and really, how beautiful our world, even one corner of polluted sky.

I was thinking about this as I drove home, bloodied a bit by bureaucracy, after handling the last bit of home sale business, something particularly thorny and so deeply entangled with Gavin’s time of illness and my worst breaks. It was a flood of feelings but I took care of every bit, pinned it down with numbers and maps, and connected people to solutions. As I left, relieved, I was remembering that distant day and the drawing, and I left the garage: there was the sun in a big clear sky, innocent and present like a child.

That sunlight was fresh and blinding after a week of solid drubbing, of oppressive wet, of trees destabilizing and bridges sinking, a week or more when nothing could be done easily, at least 8 days of crying for the WORLD AROUND ME TO CHANGE DAMMIT, of praying over nearby thunderclaps at 3 a.m., the few good moments in the week were pure gratitude when I remembered how close I had once been to moving to Seattle.

Today's sun was a message to me to keep my eye on the bright that you can’t see behind the sky.


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