I was a turtle without its shell after my husband died. The air outside stung my skin during those first few weeks. I felt so exposed, so porous and so frightened. The first time I left the house alone at night, I could barely breathe. It was one month after he had died and my lovely and loving friends had come across the country and were taking me to dinner on Christmas night. My doormen eased me into the cab as if I were made of glass. He told me to call him if I wanted him to come get me. The look on my face must have frightened him. I arrived at the Central Park South hotel a bit too early and took a seat in the lobby. There was a piano player and I thought; “maybe I can do this”. I heard the first notes of “Christmas Waltz” and started to tremble. I should’ve been hearing that song at Birdland, as I did for the past five years. I would’ve been sharing a bottle of champagne with my husband, both of us looking better than usual in the table’s candlelight. By the time my friends came to swoop me into the dining room I was walking like a newborn colt.
Those days are far behind me. Thank God. I have forged ahead, making new friends and adventures. There are times I’m exhausted from the efforts. But I’m not scared anymore, and I no longer feel exposed…that is until recently. In the space of just one month I have felt, not so much like a turtle without its shell, but like I was being shown to my cell past the lifers. I’m not a prude and I certainly don’t take it personally when men gaze. But to have a man (I’d Just Met) grow angry because I didn’t want to have sex with him? That I take personally. When another man, after a first coffee, grabbed my breast; that I take personally. Chalk these up to bad dates. But then I was out of town and took an Uber, and the 28-year old driver spent the 20 minute drive hitting on me. No, there is nothing remotely flattering about this. And if you think there is, just picture that first walk to your cell. I was trapped in the Uber with a man telling me how hot I was. I arrived at my destination shook. I found a seat in my favorite restaurant, near enough to the piano bar and far enough from anyone else. While I ate, my waiter brought me a drink “from this really great guy and his girlfriend.” I declined but my waiter insisted that they’re great people. Fine, I’ll keep an open mind. Fast forward an hour when I ran out of the restaurant and hid waiting for my Uber. Yes, my 50-year-old self did not see the request for a threesome coming. The next day I could not shake the feeling that I had brought this on myself. I rarely go out to dinner by myself, but I was traveling and I just love this restaurant. I looked at the dress I had worn and actually wondered if I had “asked for it”! I spent the entire day feeling a bit sick and very very sad.
The next night I went out with two couples. I had never met one of the wives before and she had decided, before meeting me, that she hated me. I was dressed like a country club matron, and mostly kept quiet. In other words, there was nothing remotely threatening about me. But then I remembered my 20s: a single woman was either prey or a threat. That was the law of the jungle. I’m hopelessly naive, particularly for a cynic, but I just didn’t realize this was still true at my age. I’m not willing to stop being me so that other people can feel secure or treat me with respect. I will wear what makes me feel strong and happy. But I’m not sure I’ll go where I want to go. I have no desire to feel so exposed, so porous and so frightened ever again. The feminist in me rages against this decision, but my well-honed sense of self-preservation will prevail.
I am a homebody and an introvert by nature. It takes an awful lot to get me out that front door. But I do it. I do it all the time. Sometimes it’s fabulous but often times it’s not. But I still keep forging ahead. I don’t know what else to do to feel as if I’m still alive. The thing is, it takes so much strength to fight my own nature and participate in the world. I don’t have the strength to fight everyone else. And I shouldn’t have to.
“You’re so strong”
I lost count of how many times I’ve been told that. It’s happened so often that I’m almost inured now. In the beginning I wanted to demonstrate how strong I was with one swift kick. They meant well, and it is true, but it felt dismissive and to be perfectly frank I’d love the option of not being so strong. I look around and see people who aren’t forging ahead and making scary lonely decisions. I see and know people who have suffered loss and have a village of family and friends swooping them up and into their lives and homes. When you’re strong, no one volunteers to take care of you.
So I forge ahead, through sheer will and a shark-like sense of how to survive. I don’t stay in the past, musing how it’s the pictures that got small. There is no shrine, no visible reminders to the unknowing eye. Of course, I know that the mini wooden giraffe perched on a cabinet was a shared joke. My husband was heading to Africa for business, during that insurance ad campaign which featured a mini-giraffe. When he asked what I wanted him to bring home I did my best Veruca Salt and demanded a mini-giraffe. Two weeks later, he handed the 6-inch carving over (with a small bag of precious stones.) There are little things like that scattered around and in my closets. It’s not that they’re a monument to him, it’s that they are us.
I’ve consciously fought being a living monument to my husband. I’ve seriously considered changing my last name and I had my wedding rings reconfigured into a necklace. However, I could throw out the entire contents of my home and closet and you know what? It wouldn’t matter. As long as I’m alive, I will be a living monument. It’s not that “love never dies” or anything else terribly twee. It’s that we were together too long and too much that I can no longer discern where he ends and I begin. And maybe, just maybe, that makes me stronger than I know.
I’ve kept a journal since I was eleven. The pages were never filled with artful passages but high-pitched strum and angst. I’ve avoided reading them but it’s a pretty safe bet that 90% of the strum was about boys. They are all (except for the current one) packed in a box, topped with a note in bold Sharpie: “Destroy Upon My Death.” (The note is for my sister whose curiosity and hunger for drama outweigh any sense of integrity.) The curious thing is that it is not a large box. There are only two journals for the entire 18 years I was with my husband. Lots of things happened during those years. Lots. But I was rarely sad and/or filled with angst. My marriage wasn’t boring but it was relatively calm and steady. These past four years have been anything but.
I have probably filled more notebooks during these past four years than I have my entire life. It’s not just the grief, I’m lost.There seem to be too many paths to take; a luxury, I know. My kingdom for simply a fork (versus a loom) in the road. I have tried so many roads, and gotten lost or reached a dead end more times than I can count. These journeys are probably invisible to everyone else, as they are more about my perspective and/or trying new things. I have tried work, play, dozens of volunteer gigs, politics, religion and apathy. I have dated people I considered good matches and people I knew were anything but. I have grown my hair and shrunk my wardrobe. And when none of it feels enough or right, when the loneliness and loss come crashing upon me, I grab my journal. I’d be embarrassed to read what I wrote a year or two or three ago. I fear I would discover little if any personal growth. If my journals were a therapist they would probably tell me it’s time to shift my narrative.
Life IS loss. My rabbi once told me that not everyone experiences loss. I argued (yes, with a rabbi) that was impossible. To be alive, in any real sense, means you have suffered loss. Even if it was “just” the loss of a dream or one’s youth, it is still loss. I accept that the cost of survival is learning how to live. There is even something to say for the creative freedom it allows. At least that’s what I tell friends over lunch or drinks. But I’ll tell you the other truth; it’s hard and sad and very lonely. I know I’m less lost than I was, but I still struggle for direction. This is particularly frustrating for a gal who has an exquisite sense of direction (seriously, my husband used to say you can spin me and I’d always point north.) I am learning self-care, which is huge progress. I am also learning not to say “yes” to everything but to trust my own judgement again.
Regaining trust of judgement is nothing to sneeze at by the way. The thing about being lost is one tends to ask for directions (regardless of one’s gender!). This is not always a great strategy, as no one knows you as well as you do. I’ve received some rubbish advice these past few years! I saw a therapist…once, who told me that the reason I still had sadness was that I made no difference in anyone else’s life. She said I lived a very self-absorbed life and I’d always be unhappy. So…I turn to my journal. I write and write and write, in the pursuit of clarity. I rely, as I always have, on my dreams to reveal my inner thoughts. And I live. I put one foot in front of the other. I do the things that make me happy whenever I can. I seek out experiences that feed my soul and spend time with people I love. That’s all I know to do. But oh do I miss the assuredness I had when married. I so miss feeling solid in my life…feeling I HAD a life.
Today is my husband’s birthday. It’s the fourth since he’s died and the first that I’m “celebrating”. I made a cake. The same cake I’ve made dozens of times and the one he made for me the week he died. It is fail-proof and ridiculously simple and yet it sits on my counter, sunken, misshapen and tilting precariously. I think where I screwed up was in my self-consciousness. I was acutely aware that I was making a cake for my dead husband and wondering how crazy that really was. I thought all this while crying and stirring. The crying didn’t prevent me from eating the disaster, mind you.
There’s a major snowstorm today in the northeast and it’s not the first time that has happened on his birthday. I’m reminded of a time we had to abandon the car on a hill and hitchhike home after seeing a band in a dive bar. We found some vegan restaurant workers with a van that reeked of bong water and found our way home through darkened country roads to our snow covered home and 9-month-old Bichon. We moved to the city years ago and I know exactly how we’d be spending this birthday. I would be making his annual “peanut butter & jelly” breakfast (challah french toast, layered with nutella and warm preserves, topped with berries and maple syrup) and we’d spend the day seeing Harry Potter on Broadway. He would’ve loved it. I would take him to an old school restaurant for dinner (we had been making our way through all the classics; 21, Four Seasons, etc.) and fall into bed.
This is the first year I have indulged in any birthday celebration or fantasy. Part of me resents this experience. It’s bad enough I have to get through every other holiday and milestone; NOW THIS?! But I also am reveling in this private time between me and my memories. I miss him so much. My life is different now, as am I. I don’t think I’m living in the past. But oh what I would give for one day back in time. I’d even go back to that disgusting van filled with stoners if it meant sitting by his side. Together we were so much better than we ever were apart.
I can’t go back. Life is not a movie. But I can spend today thinking of him and remembering what it felt like to have everything I’d ever wanted and needed. Happy Birthday, Husband.
I stood in the lobby during intermission, stretching my legs and untwisting my spine. A well-dressed man in his seventies approached me and asked what I thought of the play thus far. I had no particular interest in discussing the play or talking to a stranger, but I was polite. He excused himself at some point (men’s room?) and I scurried back to my seat. Moments before the house lights dimmed, he appeared at my seat and fortunately was ushered back to his seat by…an usher. I enjoyed the second act (Jerry Springer – The Opera isn’t for everyone, but what can I say, I liked it) and actually plotted my escape from my admirer(?) during the curtain call.
It’s a large theatre with a grand staircase towards which I dashed. I’ll say this for the old guy, he’s spry. He followed me down the stairs and said…wait for it…”So the next show we see together we should see together.” “Excuse me?”, I sputtered. Some incredulous (mine) and persistent (his) banter ensued. I got to the bottom of the stairs and continued to order my ride-share on my phone. He was still by my side and on his phone and said; “Okay, I need your phone number.” I wish I’d been drinking so I could’ve done an old fashioned spit-take. Like the good middle-aged western civilization trained woman I am, I was unflaggingly polite as I explained that I don’t give my number to strangers.
I told my 31-year old friend Matt this story and he asked; “Did these kinds of things happen to you when you were married?” After I explained the difference between flirting and creepy aggressive not okay behavior I admitted that no, these things never happened to me when I was married. One of the more unexpected experiences of marriage was the feeling of safety. I became safe, to others and to myself. I was no longer made to feel suspect by married women. Nobody looked at me askance when I spoke with their husbands. And I too was safe. I was safe to be any and all versions of myself, to express myself any which way at any time. My husband was my champion.
Being faithful never occurred to me as I never knew any other man existed while I was married. Periodically my husband would point out an admiring man or observed admiring glances. I never noticed or cared. He was my entire world. I don’t judge the way others behave in their marriages, but for me flirting (let alone smooching or more) just wasn’t anything I could even imagine.
I became single at the very age at which they say women become invisible. Yet, I’ve never felt so obvious, so exposed. When Matt asked me that question I found myself wondering if that man would’ve pursued me so aggressively had I still been married? Did he spot something in me; some sort of loneliness or vulnerability? Am I, after 4+ years, perpetually giving off some sort of availability vibe? Or…are there some men who are very aggressive and entitled and it had nothing to do with me?
I can take care of myself. I no longer feel perpetually fragile. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the experience shook me. During the earliest days of single-hood what I would long for is to run home and tell my husband about the weird event. Now what I long for is to feel that invisible shield of safety that came with marriage. I don’t want strangers making me feel unsafe. I don’t want dates criticizing me and/or taking liberties they haven’t earned. How could I be this age and feel as vulnerable as I did at 17?