it's complicated

How Soon After Widowhood Can You Feel Good Again?

Photo: J.V. Aranda

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It was yet another monster snowstorm in Boston, except for us, this one was completely different. The hot cocoa and early morning snowball fights that had once thrilled my family of four were now a thing of the past. The man who had held my hands inside his coat pockets to keep them warm, who slept next to me for more than a decade, was no longer around. He’d committed suicide six months earlier.

My husband’s death came out of the blue and at the height of a successful career as a robotics professor.  That first winter of my widowhood, trapped indoors, I baked more cookies and watched more Gilmore Girls with our two young daughters than I could have ever imagined.  I took them out to play, but we all knew who would have relished the record-breaking snowfall more than anyone: their father, a sledding maven who never got cold and delighted the girls by drizzling maple syrup on freshly fallen snow and filling up a big bowl for each of them.

Without him, I was left to manage it all solo — the chapped lips and frozen socks, the mid-week days of no school, and the slow, aching hours. I turned into the kind of mother so burdened by circumstances that I no longer saw magic in their snow angels, or beauty in their faces, pink with cold. I was consumed with one bleak thought: Will this winter ever end?

Then, in March, during a thaw, a friend emailed: “Hi there, do you have a minute for a quick call about a potential guy?” On the phone, she told me that he’d been divorced for several years, and had one daughter. She mentioned his intelligence and kindness. There was, of course, a catch: this man was also a professor — at the same university as my husband. “Is that a deal-breaker?” she asked.

Well, I thought, I’m a 51-year-old widow with two kids and a part-time job in public radio. I’m not really in a position to be choosy.

I soon got an email from the man I’ll call M:

Hello Rachel, Apparently we have friends, or friends of friends, looking out for our social lives. These friends think that perhaps we might want to connect. It’s not really something that I do … But … I’ve started ice climbing this winter, and it occurred to me that meeting a stranger through friends can’t be much more frightening than being stuck on the ice 30 feet up not knowing what to do …

There was more to the note, about his research on tiny, light-emitting particles, and how deeply he was affected by my 50-year-old husband’s death. He was born in France, grew up in the Midwest. He had my attention.

I wrote back, trying to be fascinating and not widow-like, whatever that meant. I wasn’t hiding the fact of my extreme baggage, but I also aimed for a tone that suggested, Hey, I’m still cool. Or at least functional. I mentioned the family opera my girls and I were involved in. They were singing solo parts, and I had choreographed.

We agreed to meet at a French bakery in Cambridge.

That’s when I began to panic. Here’s a partial list of the reasons why: My expectations. His expectations. Was I ready to do this? (I’d been a widow for only nine months.) What about an outfit? Should I wear contacts or glasses?  Are there new rules for dating? (I hadn’t dated in 15 years.) Should I tell the kids? Why would he want to go out with me anyway?

Plus, I’d been advised by experts that my first foray back into romantic life should be casual, low-stakes, with someone I wouldn’t consider relationship material. M — with his Harvard degree and fame in the rarified world of nanotechnology — was too alluring. Clearly, I was doing widowhood all wrong.

As the date neared, my foreboding escalated into dread. I felt like I’d entered an unforgiving time machine where I was 14 again, a chunky, insecure adolescent, frantically changing outfits, throwing each bad choice — the suggestive top, the all-black suit, the borrowed velvet —  onto the bed and calling girlfriends to come over and help me. My brain was on fire, my body gripped by an adrenaline frenzy. He won’t like me; I’ll never have sex again. I tweezed like crazy. I complained about this to an old friend, who said I should be happy that at least my nipple hair wasn’t yet gray.

This is why people stay married, I thought to myself; why they stay in bad marriages, even, so they don’t have to go through this. My husband saw me give birth, twice, and even took video. After that, it didn’t matter if I wore contacts or tweezed resolutely.

Somehow, I managed to settle on an outfit, and we met.

The moment I saw him, I thought, “He’s too put together for me.” M was tall, with a whiff of French grandeur and reserve, one of those men who looks slim even in winter layers. I barely clear five feet and carefully avoid anything bulky, even in the cold. I considered leaving the café immediately, but he saw me, and smiled. So we ordered — hot chocolate for him, tea for me. I prattled about my kids and my moods, feeling unkempt, hyper-conscious of my Brooklyn-Jewish-peasant roots, oversharing and bursting out of the little jacket I soon regretted choosing.

But he didn’t seem rattled that most of my rambling kept looping back to death. I couldn’t edit myself, so I shared my theory that my husband suffered from bipolar disorder (though he was never diagnosed) and my anxiety that this trauma would ravage my daughters’ lives. He took it all in while I kept talking. I didn’t get up to feed the meter (I would eventually get a ticket), afraid that our connection, his attention — whatever it was we were sharing in the corner of this bakery — the promise of him, or someone like him, someone new, alive and looking at me, would be lost. Three hours passed. Was this chemistry?

I guess the outfit was okay, because we arranged a second date. We sat on bar stools at the dark, trendy restaurant across town where my husband and I had celebrated my 50th birthday one year before. Over prosecco and red lentil kibbeh, M said he wanted to tell me something. Years ago he’d been diagnosed with a type of blood cancer, he explained, but now he was cancer-free: healthy, athletic and with an excellent prognosis.

Later, on the phone, he said, “I hope I didn’t freak you out too much.”

I sank back into another sort of swivet. I can’t date someone with cancer, I thought. I couldn’t let death, or the threat of death, be part of a new relationship. I didn’t want my person to die again. I wanted a guarantee. Really, I deserved one.

But that night, alone in my bedroom, I chuckled aloud. Guarantee? Who gets that?  My husband was healthy and vibrant, loving and loved, and now he’s dead. That guarantee unraveled like an old beach towel. But, maybe, I thought, if the healthy guy died, might the guy with cancer live? The oddball logic seemed perfectly rational to me.

Still, I wanted some reassurance. I flashed back to an episode of Mad Men: Betty Draper learns she has a suspicious lump on her thyroid and asks Don,  her ex-husband by that season, to say what he always says. “It’s gonna be okay, Birdie,” he replies. In the past, my husband’s mere presence always offered that sort of grounding.

But one thing M said kept coming back to me: “Your kids could have been destroyed by this, but they seem to be doing all right.” It was a very kind thing to say, but it also offered reassurance of another sort. If the kids were all right, maybe I would be too.

M’s cancer past is part of his story, like my husband’s death is part of mine. And while I wouldn’t say those facts are at all sexy, they do relate to sex in a way. The first time M and I really kissed — in his kitchen, for almost an hour, with the kind of full-throttled desire that clears the debris of loss — it felt as if both of us were coming back to life, crawling out of some dark hole. Blinking as we emerged from solitary confinement, we clawed our way up to the light. We were two battered souls who’d seen death up close, with the kind of gut-clenching dread that compels you to grab your kids, steel yourself, and hope that yours is not the one plane in a million going down.

Sex, when it eventually happened with M, felt like the opposite of death. I fell back into the sheets and laughed.  It was shocking to feel so good. Was this allowed? Or was I, in some way, cheating on my husband?

Now, three years later, M and I envision a future together with our daughters. Still, there are moments in the late afternoon, the breeze on my body, that I get a fleeting sense I’ve betrayed the vows my husband and I took years ago. But more often I think: in middle age, somehow, I’ve been given a fresh start. And with each caress, and such pleasure in our midst, I feel lucky — like I’m young, with new promise, a little like I’m saving a life: my own.

How Soon After Widowhood Can You Feel Good Again?