I was pulling out of the parking lot at work last week when my phone rang. It was a girlfriend from Maui. I was delighted to hear from her and answered the phone in a sing-song, “Heeeeey theeeeere! How’s it going?” I could tell immediately from her voice that something was wrong. “It’s been a pretty rough day. I’m afraid I have some bad news.” Her voice trembled. Scenarios started to zip through my mind. She and her husband were splitting? No, this sounded worse. Her elderly dog had died? No, this sounded like someONE had died. Her husband? Who? What was happening? “It’s Matt. His brother posted something on his Facebook page that made it sound like he may have taken his own life.” Air whooshed out of me like a deflated balloon and I pulled over. I felt sick to my stomach.
Matt and I had started dating when we were both living in Maui. Friends introduced us thinking we might get along. He was gregarious, smiley, liked international travel and was outdoorsy, and an athlete, all things that would appeal to me. We started spending time together and soon found out that we had other things in common too. We had both lived in Santa Cruz and were both starting to make plans to move off island and move back there. We also both had this peculiar connection with owls. The owl was my totem animal and his too. We had both had odd and unusual interactions with owls. Soon we started to notice that every time we were together, an owl would appear. For real. In person. Who has every heard of such a thing? We took it to be some sort of good luck sign from the universe. The word for owl in Hawaiian is pueo. Our nicknames for each other were Mr. Pueo and Mrs. Pueo.
We attended a friend’s wedding and Matt held me close and whispered, “You know what happens to people who go to weddings together when they are in love?” I shook my head and looked shyly at the ground. “They get married too.” I was warm from head to toe and giddy with happiness.
I enjoyed being with Matt. I am more reserved. He would chat with every person we encountered as we walked to our spot on the beach or in line at the store. I was impressed by his lack of fear in the water. He would dive through the biggest waves and swim and swim. I’d content myself on the sandy shore unless there were no waves at all. He had a knack for finding treasures of expensive sunglasses, watches, money, you name it, all presumably dropped by tourists in the rough surf. It was rare for him to come back without something. It was so funny.
We fell in love, or as close to it as I have experienced. I completed my move to Santa Cruz first and Matt soon followed. We found a beautiful little house in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A place with wood floors, french doors in the bedrooms that opened out to gardens, a fireplace, and an enormous picture window that looked out to the mountains. As we started nesting we had some minor head buts as I am a minimalist who prefers a couple high-end nice things while Matt was a “treasure collector” and longed to fill all the spaces with his finds from garage sales, the flea market, and Goodwill. But it was so silly and fairly good-natured.
At first Matt said he deserved a vacation from work and had decided not to seek new clients for his carpentry, handy man, and construction business. He wanted a month off. Fair enough! He was having a hard time wrapping his mind around all the festivals, athletic competitions, breweries, music, restaurants, and activities Santa Cruz had to offer. He was overwhelmed by all the options. Maui is a small island and somewhat limited in this regard. In the summer, in Santa Cruz, you could find something new going on every day of the week. He wanted to do it all and I laughed out loud and joined him. We were having so much fun!
The second month I started to worry a little that he still wasn’t working but he said he had saved enough money and that there was nothing to worry about as he was taking his time. I would have been worrying if it was me but trusted he knew his own finances well enough. I was a little uncomfortable that he wasn’t returning phone calls from my friends and co-workers who were looking to have work done. That had been a key point for him in Maui. He had been so successful there because he answered phone calls within a day, showed up on time, and worked hard. And he did beautiful work, I might add.
The third month might have been about when the drinking started. Or at least it was the first time I noticed it. But still…
We enjoyed going running and biking together. I had told him when we first met that I didn’t want to exercise with him as many of the men I had dated in the past were athletes. My experience with them had been that they needed to beat me and rub it in or beat me and yell at me to go faster. It took all the joy out of something I loved. Matt was having none of it. He rightly said it wasn’t fair to him to cut him out of that part of my life. So, I gave him a chance, dreading it the whole time. He was true to his word. He was nothing but encouraging and just enjoyed being out-of-doors with me and spending time together. that was all I had ever wanted from any of those old boyfriends. We ran trails, explored on our bicycles, and hiked.
Then “episodes” started to happen. Like the time he got black out drunk and attacked one of our house guests. I stood in the kitchen wearing my apron cooking a nice dinner and crying because I was too scared to go out and see what was happening. I just kept thinking, “Who’s life is this? Who is this? This isn’t my life. I don’t do drama. How am I here and what is happening?”
Next were the personality swings. I got up in the middle of the night to use the toilet. I sat and sat because Matt had started to have anger flare ups. I sat, because I couldn’t decide what to do that would make him less mad. Should I flush and possibly wake him up? Or should I leave it but then he might be angry to find an unflushed toilet in the morning. I couldn’t decide what was safer. Finally I decided to flush. Wrong choice. In the morning I received a verbal bombard. He stomped his feet and slammed doors. He yelled at me that I was the most selfish and horrible person he had ever known and he wasn’t at all sure he could continue with the relationship because, really, who would want to be with someone like me? I tried to explain how torn I had been about the right thing to do and that I was sorry and in the future I would not flush, but he was so enraged, he couldn’t hear me. It was not a situation where we were trying to come to a mutually acceptable outcome. He was full of anger and rage and it needed to come out. I was just happened to be in the way.
Eventually he would apologize and cry and tell me how sorry he was but after a few times, I had to recognize it was just going to happen again. And it did. Over and over. But then we’d go to a party and he would be so full of smiles, so affectionate, holding my hand and hugging friends, it was so hard to put together with the man who grabbed my shoulder and roughly shook me awake one morning saying through clenched teeth, “Get up and make me coffee. NOW.” I’m an independent woman and am not one to be ordered around, but at times like this, he scared me badly enough that I did what he said. It was like it was Matt but not Matt. It was still Matt with the beautiful tanned skin and signature bushy blond eyebrows, but I tell you there was someone else looking out at me through his eyes.
I had no first hand experience with alcoholism nor mental health issues. I had no frame of reference for what was happening. I tried to be encouraging, I tried fighting back, I tried getting him to accept professional help, I tried to introduce him to friends, to get him to join other guys in cycling groups. I tried everything I could think of but what can you do for someone who bursts out with “I’m so fucked up!” but then won’t tell you anything more? I finally gave him an ultimatum. Make an appointment with a professional or that’s it. I’m out. I couldn’t live walking on eggshells and feeling a knot in my stomach every time my car headed for home. I was not 100% sure he wouldn’t hurt me when he had been drinking so heavily he had no knowledge or memory of what he was doing. It might not even be on purpose, but if he did, he wouldn’t even remember it. I wanted so badly, to have Mr. Pueo back.
He was a no-show at the appointment.
I told him he would have to move out. He agreed.
I was out mountain biking with some friends a few days or weeks later, I don’t remember. My cell rang. It was Matt and he told me he was at the house and really, really drunk and I better watch out. His words were slurred and his sentences not complete or making sense. I was alarmed but soaking wet and covered in mud. I went home and backed my car into the driveway so I could leave quickly if need be. I just needed a dry set of clothes. While he did not hurt me, he scared me so badly I was shaking and I fled the house as quickly as possible.
Three days went by. I was living on a friend’s couch and wearing scrubs from work. Matt wasn’t answering phone calls, texts, or emails. I became concerned and asked a sheriff to come to the house with me. I needed clothes and toiletries. I, at this point, was afraid he had killed himself or might hurt me if I reappeared. I was dreading opening that front door. The lights were off, the heat was off. It was cold and dark. There were wine bottles strewn all over the house. The sherriff opened the bedroom door gingerly. Matt was not dead, but he just lay there in bed, the covers over his head. “Hi there sherriff. Sorry if I’ve put you through some trouble.” He was still drunk but different. Beaten. It was the saddest thing I have ever seen. I collected a few things, thanked the sherriff, drove a few blocks away and pulled over, put my head on the steering wheel and cried and cried and cried. My heart broke in two for him and for me and for us. It still makes me weep to think of that. He was so strong in body but to see his spirit broken like that just…oh God.
He disappeared. I didn’t know what had happened to him but I moved out of the house too. I’d hear through the grapevine that there had been a sighting in Maui, that a friend thought they saw him at a mountain bike race in Tahoe. He did send a letter of apology. I appreciated that. I knew now that his intention had not been to hurt or frighten me but that there was something wrong he had no control over.
So when I got that call last week…well, the best way to put it was that I was in shock, but not shocked. I had been afraid he would do that when we were together. But I was so mad and sad that he would choose such a permanent option instead of trying to get help first. I’m so, so sad that he felt so powerless and so out of control that this was the only thing he could do. Could I have been more gentle, more firm? Was there something else I could have done? The pain he must have been feeling to find death a relief is unknowable to me. A friend of a friend who lost her long time partner to suicide said, “For us, we love life and death is something to be feared. For them it is the opposite. Living is too scary.” Maybe it is selfish for me to wish he hadn’t done it. I still think, with medication, therapy, mountain biking, and the support of friends and family who cared about him, he might have made it out the other side. But who am I to say? In the end it was his life and he gets to choose what he did with it.
Mr. Pueo, may you wing your way through the night in silence and peace. May you now be able to truly see beyond.