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It just seems wrong somehow. Here we are, two people so in sync that we are sometimes spoken of as one name (CoryNPaula, or PaulaNCory)—except when it comes to dancing. I am hardly Ginger or Fred to start with, and Cory claims to have few dance moves, though she looks pretty good alone and (I am loath to admit) not bad with another partner. But put us together and what have you got? Awkwardness doubled, any semblance of rhythm or spontaneity squashed.
“Just let me lead,” she’ll say. “I thought I was,” I’ll reply, stumbling over my toes and hers. We usually make a valiant effort for maybe half a song at most before going back to circling each other in our standard “close-but-no-touching” shuffle.
Our love had gotten us through a lot over our first 25 years together and was surely strong enough to withstand anything yet to come.
Oh well, if we are going to struggle to find our rhythm together somewhere, let it be on the dance floor. Elsewhere, it’s been effortless: we’ve been full enough with our love for each other that there has always been plenty left over for those around us. Our friends often tell us they aspire to a partnership like ours. But “relationships are hard,” they say. “You have to work at it.” We sometimes nod or mutter in agreement, so as not to be too insufferable. But in truth, we are thinking, “not so much” and “it’s not tricky at all, actually.”
Our love had gotten us through a lot over our first 25 years together and was surely strong enough to withstand anything yet to come. As I told Cory at our wedding in 2008, “you have an inexplicable but unwavering confidence in my ability to do anything—with you by my side, there is no pain we can’t endure.”
Was that true? When our son suffered a sudden and fatal cardiac arrest—our beautiful, beloved only child gone in an instant—we knew immediately that we would be putting that vow to the ultimate test.
Nothing could be taken for granted now. “Attention must be paid” became our mantra. We could no longer assume that the ways in which we had become accustomed to caring for each other would still work. In the past, when one of us was in pain, the other was hard-wired to become their caretaker, to somehow make it better.
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I remember one moment on what should have been Alex’s 20th birthday celebration—July 4, 2012—but was instead the third day after his death. I started weeping, so our friends rushed to ask Cory to come and be with me. “Of course she is crying,” Cory said, and continued on with what she was doing. She was right. We didn’t run to each other every time one was of us was breaking open. We each knew we had to leave the other to her own rhythms.
We knew too that the waves of uncontrolled grief—the floods of tears, the moments that caused our loved ones so much pain—were actually the best moments, not ones to be comforted out of. They were the moments of relief from the agony of trying to function in the world.
In the weeks after our son died, we walked alongside each other, each on our own journey. We could hardly look at each other. Not because of anger, hurt, or avoidance, but because in Cory’s eyes I saw her despair, my despair, and the despair of not being able to help her. And she saw the same in mine. It was a long time before we could hold each other’s gaze for more than a moment or two. It was too much. Like touching a flame.
Then one day, Cory came up to me and brushed her lips lightly on my cheek. “This is me kissing you,” she said. Then she kissed me a second time, whispering, “And this is Alex kissing you.“ And it was. It just was. There was such agony, beauty, and truth in that moment—an intimacy beyond any in all our years together.
Cory fell into her grief more easily, weeping, retching, walking, and weeping some more. She dreamed of him, talked to him, communed with his spirit. I couldn’t do that yet. My brain—my protector and best friend through those first weeks—decided instead to keep me occupied with an obsessive focus on the details of Alex’s memorial, and specifically on how we, his parents, would pay tribute to him. Day and night, sleeping little, I scanned photos, hunted down video clips, articles, and recordings. Cory let me go that way, knowing that it was what I needed to survive until I was ready to touch the flame. And I let her go her way, in awe and envy of her connection to him, of her softness and openness. She talked to him for both of us and she brought him to me when she could.
We have come to know instinctively what the other needs, when to come close, when to give space.
Now, six years later, we are still finding our way, learning together how to navigate this new terrain, but never judging the route that the other has taken. We have come to know instinctively what the other needs, when to come close, when to give space.
We have also never stopped talking about our son and our grief. And we are back walking together, eyes locked on each other again, holding our boy between us and within us, closer than ever.