I had envisioned what life would be like without my husband.
I would reinvent myself, eventually. Maybe wear hats and pass myself off as eccentric. I would focus furiously on work and wave off expressions of sympathy.
My wedding ring would remain on for at least a year, maybe more. I would spend more time at the gym and doing cerebral things at home. Read more books. Attend more concerts and movies alone. Listen to podcasts. Cry silently during rainstorms.
I thought about falling in love again but couldn’t fathom being interested. I would remain a grieving widow for years, cloaked in dark self-absorption. Spend my Saturday nights with my cat, eating popcorn and chocolate ice cream.
It had been surprising the night that Dennis slipped in the announcement during dinner.
“Boys, your mom has my permission to remarry after I’m gone.”
Neither of us was good at serious discussion. I immediately piped up: “Yes, and I’ve scheduled a date for next year.”
We had been trying to keep things real, but also light. My husband of 26 years had been diagnosed with kidney cancer the prior year, but had handled surgery and subsequent treatment well. Now the cancer had traveled to his brain, and while he didn’t say it out loud, he must have known he was dying.
We all thought he had more time. What choice did we have? How does one really know?
Six months after that dinner, he was gone. It was a mind-numbing time, a blur of images and hospital stays and failed rehab that rapidly progressed to hospice and a funeral. Little did I realize at that moment what a gift Dennis had given me with that impromptu announcement.
I left my longtime job as a news reporter and started a new career. I bumbled through grief counseling, overspent, overdrank, raged at banks, raged at the phone company, raged at a driver who yelled at me for not leaving my parking spot fast enough, and spent $200 in a sentimental snit at a Cracker Barrel gift shop. I cried through restorative yoga, called my best friend twice a day and plodded through the machinations of work.
I wore a hat twice, a feminine brown felt hat that made me feel like Carly Simon but also strangely guilty, as if I should not look too happy during a drab time.
I expected there must be some definite mourning time, stark and one-dimensional like a black-and-white movie.
And yet, what really happened is, I fell in love barely a year after my husband died.
It was near Valentine’s Day, and my best friend and I sat on a couch, sharing a bottle of red wine and talking about what it would be like to re-enter the dating scene. She was married but was mad at her husband that night. We sat side by side on the couch, reading descriptions men provided of themselves on a dating website.
Many gave themselves names like “Surburban-Romeo” or “Yearning-for-You.” Often, they posed with their motorcycles and included a plea for women to share only the most recent pictures of themselves.
We tried to guess who was cheating on a significant other. We determined what code words indicated that the man was seeking sex or a cheap date.
And yet, a few posted very thoughtful descriptions of themselves and what they were looking for, whether it was simply companionship or a life together. My imagination and memories went to war. If I fantasized about going on a date, what did that say about my loyalty to the man who packed me a picnic basket of snacks to take to work when I was pregnant? Who made me laugh nearly every day of my life, even on the same days he made me cry?
I had surprised myself by agreeing to venture onto the dating app. I was lonely, bored, and frustrated over the tedium of paying bills, heading off to work each morning and making dinner for one. I missed Dennis tremendously. There were small reminders of him everywhere ― just seeing the scritch-scratchy handwriting in his checkbook brought great waves of sadness. The hole he left was cavernous and touched virtually everything in my life. But he was not coming back. I was still here and standing still, or worse, living in the past, and that was not going to change what happened.
I was also curious about whom I’d attract. I replayed the night of Dennis’ announcement and silently asked for his approval again.
I was drawn to a man on the dating app who called himself “Steve from Round Lake.” Simple. Direct. I liked that.
We met for the first time at a coffee shop. He arrived early in khaki shorts. I was nervous to be on my first date in nearly 30 years.
I had heard horror stories about meeting someone online. Would I recognize a scam artist or potential stalker or be able to extricate myself from an impossibly awkward date? In my late teens, I was too nice to some of the worst sorts of men because I was flattered by the attention. I had certainly grown in many ways over the decades ― finishing college after running away at 18, building a career, raising two sons. But to risk emotional annihilation by venturing into a new relationship ― this was one area where I was not confident that I had advanced.
I did everything wrong, of course.
Within 30 minutes, I blurted out the story of my life. I told Steve how my husband had died. How my sister had died. Before that, my dad had died. I told him about my politics. My religious forays. How I lost Jesus. I found Jesus. I lost Jesus again and then I found Him again. I lost religion. I told him if someone else dies, I might become a Buddhist, ha ha. I managed to shut up for brief periods of time and allow Steve to talk. At least, that’s how I remember it.
We sat there for at least two hours, chatting into the late afternoon. I trusted him immediately. Perhaps that was irresponsible.
We talked about getting together the next day. I suggested a walk at a forest preserve.
He promised he wasn’t a serial killer. I believed him.
We met several times that first week. I invited him over for dinner, and he helped me cook one of those meals where the recipes are delivered by box and contain exotic-sounding ingredients. Steve politely ate the meal, something with chicken and couscous, nodding and saying, “Not bad.” Later, I learned that he prefers a basic diet, and separates his vegetables from the meat.
And yes, we were intimate right away. A lot. I lost an earring in the couch. His dog became jealous. The neighbors noticed an extra car in the driveway.
I mentioned the possibility of the “L” word when describing my impressions to my best friend. This was only one week after I met Steve. Cringing in response to the look on her face, I quickly explained, what I mean is I can just imagine spending a lot of time with this person, perhaps into old age ― sharing a spot on a backyard deck, sipping coffee together and talking about politics or a good book or the squirrels.
She was aghast. “You’re just lonely,” she said. “Take it slow,” she pleaded.
“This was your idea,” I argued.
This was less than a year after Dennis had died ― about five weeks before the anniversary of his passing. Deep down, I knew that had I been in her place, I would have felt the same way. Worse, I felt guilt ― and fear ― that I could be so overpowered by feelings in such a short time after my husband’s death.
Is it ever too early to fall in love after the loss of a life partner? My grandfather died midlife, and my grandma never remarried. I am not sure she even went out with another man. “Sex is overrated,” she would say whenever an embarrassing scene came on the TV.
I decided that I better go on some dates with other men, just to be sure I wasn’t in some kind of grief-induced fog that had impaired my better judgment.
I told Steve that I felt the need to do this, to be sure that I didn’t swoon for any Bob, Bill or Harry who paid attention to me. “It’s only fair to you, too,” I said, and meant it. We were eating sandwiches in a restaurant very near where we had first met. I could see a flicker of disappointment, but he said he understood.
What beautiful blue eyes he has, I thought.
I agreed to meet another man from the same dating website. By this point, I had apologized to my late husband in my prayers, telling him that, surely, he didn’t mean for me to literally hook up with someone so soon after he died.
The new man invited me to meet him at a hip restaurant, a wine bar. He strolled in 10 minutes late and was wearing a black leather coat.
“Your hair looks darker than the picture,” were his first words to me.
“Yours looks the same,” I answered. He was bald. He didn’t laugh.
For the next 30 minutes, he talked about himself and his career as a recording artist. He dropped names that I didn’t recognize and asked for three different samples of wine. He talked about how he received free vacations by writing stellar reviews for resort websites. Note to self: Do not believe gushy vacation reviews.
I paid my half of the check, and by the time we reached the parking lot, it was obvious: no sparks ― in fact, it was more like the repelling sides of two magnets.
I couldn’t wait to see Steve from Round Lake again.
We share many interests, and yet we differ enough to challenge each other.
He grew up in the Jewish faith, while my parents were Catholic. He likes country music. I prefer blues and rock. He doesn’t drink. I love a glass (or three) of wine. He has a Hoover. I’m an Oreck owner.
The first time he met my kids and best friend was the day I had to euthanize our family dog, Butters, a much-beloved, 130-pound yellow Lab. My boys live about 40 miles away, and the dog would not come out from under a bush, so I called Steve.
The news was dire and unexpected, as Butters had seemed to be in perfect health up until that morning. We learned he had a large mass pressing on his heart, and the prognosis was not good. I decided to postpone euthanasia for a few hours, until my boys could come home. Steve waited patiently, holding my hand as I ugly-cried off and on that day.
My sons were sobbing, too, as they shook hands with Steve and muttered their nice-to-meet-you’s. It was a difficult moment during an impossibly difficult year. I thought about how I had lived with a husband, three cats and two dogs only 12 months prior.
As time passed, my boys came to see Steve as a steady presence in my life. He’s nothing like their father, and maybe that makes it easier in some ways.
People always say grief is not linear, and it’s certainly not something I have been able to orchestrate or control, as much as I’ve tried. Up close, sickness and death is raw and ugly. But there are also breathtakingly simple moments to savor. Humility and gratitude at the generosity of others and a recognition that life deserves to be lived.
One thing I’ve learned is that most of us don’t get to decide when we die and the same is true for when we fall in love. Dennis was a ferociously witty, volatile and adoring man, and I loved him with everything I had for nearly three decades. I never imagined what it would be like alone or how to find my way forward without him.
I have experienced all the stages ― grief, guilt, sorrow, denial and pangs of fear ― and sometimes revisit those dark moments. It can feel like life is one big dream. I didn’t expect that to happen. But I’ve decided not to question or, more importantly, squander it.
Today, Steve and I live together with his dog, Oreo. Last month, on our six-year anniversary, he asked me to marry him and I said yes.
I don’t know where we go from here. But I will wear a hat.
Lisa Black is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Fort Worth Star-Telegram who now works for a nonprofit agency. She gets fired up about social injustice and has written over the years on wide-ranging topics, including the quirky, criminal and catastrophic. She enjoys telling a good story, hiking, reading and travel. She lives with her boyfriend, a dog and five lizards.
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