Preparing to grieve my ex-husband’s death had become familiar; a routine performed in solitude. My procedure was always the same. I’d fill his favorite silver mug with chamomile tea and type his name into a search engine. I would scroll the death notices and inhale the steam; it smelled of sunlight and grass. I would wrap my hands around his mug until the tea grew cold. After four years I still hadn’t found an obituary but I knew he could be dead. I knew he had been homeless. I knew his health was spiraling downward. I suspected he still drank heavily. I was tired of the shame and silence that surrounded loving him. Alcoholism overshadowed his life. I did not want it to overshadow his death.
My Second Family
At the end of our ten-year marriage I had become terrified that he’d die. Almost daily I would help him to bed after whiskey binges led him to black out. He never remembered the way he crawled down the hallway and how I turned him on his side so he wouldn’t choke on his vomit. In the mornings I’d wipe his clammy forehead and smooth his black bangs. His thick hair still curled at the ends just as it had when we met. We were just kids then, only 12 years old.
During our teens I spent so much time at his house that his parents and brothers became my second family. His mom fed me bowls of molé with tortillas while his dad and I discussed books and music deep into the twilight. By the time we got married in our twenties, the wedding ceremony made formal what we had known all along: we were family. In our twenties we partied, but I assumed it was just a college thing. I grew out of it and into graduate school.
By the time I began teaching college and seeing music therapy clients his party binges had turned into daily drinking. He began punching holes in the walls of our apartment. When I confronted him, he began to hide his drinking. A drunk driving arrest led to rehab and a year of sobriety. But he relapsed and refused help. He began verbally abusing me. I contracted my world around him until the threat of physical violence became obvious. Eventually I got counseling and spiritual advising and we divorced. I no longer sat with his mom and dad at the kitchen table.
But Orlando and I stayed in touch. After all, we had been friends since seventh grade. He’d call and tell me about his homelessness, his ejection from a halfway house for being drunk. I remarried, moved, and built a healthy life. The gap between our lives widened. After a few years he stopped calling.
A Way to Feel Connected
I began my search for his obituary.
My search began as a way to feel connected to him. All typical social contact had been severed by both the divorce and his behavior. At first, acquaintances had fallen away after his violent outbursts in public. Then friends stopped calling after he borrowed money and didn’t pay it back. Even his siblings seemed to become disillusioned after he passed out during a backyard barbecue in front of his nieces. By the time we divorced his family had taken over his care and I dropped out of contact with them. United in our love for him, yet fearing for his life, we seemed to retreat from each other as if disconnecting would help us move forward.
When his phone calls stopped and he dropped off social media, I was shadowed by the sense of him wandering the world alone. I would picture him drunk and in constant danger of an accident or cumulation of uncontrolled diabetes keeping him a hair’s breadth from death. I could no longer turn him on his side and wipe his forehead. My search became the only way I could care for him.
Each time I didn’t find an obituary, it meant there was still a chance he was alive.
Six years after our divorce, his family sent me an email. Orlando had died from a pulmonary embolism, just four days from what would have been our eighteenth wedding anniversary. They did not invite me to the funeral or burial and I craved a way to externalize my grief. I sent a request to the Michigan coroner for his death certificate. When it arrived a few weeks later, I went into my garden and read it repeatedly as in ritual. The cause of death was listed as accidental. I tried not to imagine what had happened. I ran my fingers along the coroner’s signature as if the letters could connect me to everyone who loved Orlando.
I Needed a Place to Put My Pain
Most family written death notices are quite simple, and I’m not sure why his family didn’t write one. Perhaps their grief was too heavy to share publicly. Perhaps they were ashamed of him. Or maybe it just wasn’t a meaningful part of their grieving process. It wasn’t the length of the obituary I needed, nor its ability to express the complexity of his life. It was the simple and public recognition that he had existed. That his life warranted notice. The grieving process needs two things: solitude and community. An obituary would have allowed me the feeling of sharing my loss with others. I knew that when we divorced I had abdicated my rights to the family. But I still loved him as I had since childhood. I needed a place to put my pain.
So I once again returned to brewing chamomile tea in his favorite mug, a silver travel mug that was the only thing of his I’d kept after our divorce. I would cup my hands around its rotund shape and for a moment feel his warmth again. I opened my computer, but instead of typing his name into the search engine, I typed it across the top of a new document. I wrote all the words I had searched for. I gave him an obituary.
Jimenez, Orlando Reyes, 42, of Waukegan died on August 20, 2016 at a hospital in Detroit. His death was ruled accidental. Orlando will be remembered for the way he loved to make people laugh and for his engulfing hugs. He is survived by his parents, two brothers, and two nieces. He is also survived by his ex-wife, his childhood sweetheart. She continues to use his favorite silver mug in which she brews tea that smells of summer and hope. In lieu of flowers please forgive the addiction and remember the soul. On the other side of addiction only love remains.