Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 1, 2016
Five years ago today, my husband died.
My daughter was about to graduate high school, turn 18, go off to college and start her life. She had weathered his diagnosis of melanoma and seen him through 17 months of struggle and regimen, pain and hope. She had weathered my moving out of the house for six months, as I worked to figure out what was wrong with our marriage, even as he was trying to cope with his health. And she weathered my moving back in after our reconciliation, which coincided with the discovery of a tumor on his spine and subsequent neurosurgery and hospitalization. She was there with me at the end when he died at home, his brain overcome with lesions. She saw him struggle for his last breaths — a 53-year-old heart that was not ready to stop.
We sleep in the same bed for a month afterward to heal the trauma of his death, and then we begin the complex and unpredictable process of grieving. We compartmentalize, keep busy. I pack up some things and leave others alone. She works; I work; we exercise. The permanence of the situation becoming clearer, we began to truly feel the gaping hole a daily familiar physical body leaves after its disappearance from Earth. I wonder how so many people on the planet can be going through the same grief. So much loss, so many holes — more holes than people, it seems.
When she leaves for college, I am alone in my house. I put in a new bathtub and get in it every night to play Words with Friends, 10 games at a time, for the company and to keep things very, very simple. I go to work. I feel the love of my community. I listen to my daughter tell me about her new girlfriends at college, strong, smart, beautiful young women with whom, by the grace of God, she bonds. One of them has lost her father recently, as well, and there is additional support and understanding. I feel she is being watched over.
Exactly one year to the day after his passing, my throat swells up — I can’t swallow — and I go to the local doctor for a strep test, which comes back negative. Because it has a tendency to, my story spills out, and I ask the doc if he believes in metaphors. Gently, he says he does. “I guess I can’t swallow something,” I sum up. There’s something lodged in my throat; it’s a lump the size of a walnut, stuck there. In a moment of grace and epiphany, I realize what it is I cannot swallow: The idea that my widow’s year is up, that I will be asked to get over it now and move on. Once I grant myself a little more time, I get better.
That same month, I reconnect with a man I’ve known for 20 years. My daughter watches, heartsick and angry that I’m seeing someone so soon after the death of her father. She watches us struggle through early days, two middle-aged people trying again. Meanwhile, she meets someone, and begins the first major relationship of her life with a sweetheart her father would have liked. She attends her own mother’s wedding and finds herself in a family larger by three adult stepbrothers and a 6-year old stepsister. She weathers the jealousy of her mother in another mother role, and then just barely weathers as she watches her mother sell the house she has called home her entire life.
Against all odds, she opens to a new stepfather and begins to develop a real relationship with him, despite the hole her own father has left. She asks me what if she isn’t grieving right. Why doesn’t she cry more, is there something wrong with her? Why does it seem, in some ways, to get more real and painful the farther out?
Meanwhile, I take the pulse of my own grieving, even as I begin the journey with a new partner once again. We buy land and start the process of building a house down the road, in a fresh place. Life moves us forward like a river, heaving underneath, bigger than us.
Amidst it all, the coexistence of things mystifies me most: the goodness of finding companionship again, for instance, even as I continue to dream of the man I spent 26 years with, trying to resolve in sleep what I cannot in my waking life. It is hardly parsed out into easy beginnings and ends; things overlap. How do I create a peaceful container for all the splashing, mixing and overflow?
Here on the cusp of my daughter’s 23rd birthday, I’m grateful for the beautiful gift of watching my child choose light over dark again and again. Her father would have admired this. What I hope I have given her is a sense that life is big, bigger than we can know; and every time we open our hearts to new growth — tiny buds sprouting from what appear to be the bare twigs of winter — we heal not only ourselves but also those lucky enough to be around us.