I was the first person to know that my 40-year-old husband Shawn was going to die. His doctor told me as I sat alone in a windowless office with a photo of a flower on the wall. I screamed and clutched the nurse who stood next to me, and then I dry heaved in the trash can. When I managed to breathe evenly again, the doctor said, “Do you want to tell him, or do you want me to tell him?”
“I’ll do it,” I said.
But I couldn’t. I saw Shawn, surrounded by a dozen other hospital beds and I could only sob. When he opened his eyes, the doctor told him. “It’s cancer,” she said.
He took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. Everyone left, and we were alone.
I cried and clutched his body. He was stoic, rubbing my neck though he could barely move from the anesthesia. We talked about the future, the possible treatments and his potential death. We knew his chances were very slim.
“It will be okay,” he said a million times. I was inconsolable.
Finally, we were quiet for a long time. He broke the silence by saying, “Marjorie, you’ll have to move on.”
I looked up. “What?”
“You have to get remarried,” he said.
“What? No.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You can’t be alone forever. Plus, it would be good for the kids.”
“No,” I said, “No, no, no. I can’t talk about that.”
We spoke about death at times over his six weeks of treatment, but I didn’t like it when he’d bring up my future without him. Just days before he died, he sat up in bed, finally awake after a morning of napping. “You need to start dating again after I die,” he said.
“Stop,” I said. I hated that he kept coming back to this topic.
“No really, you do,” he insisted. “You’re young. You’re beautiful. I know it won’t be right away, but you’ll have to find someone else.”
I started crying so hard I couldn’t speak.
“What?” he said, smiling a bit at my intense reaction.
“I don’t want to be with anyone else,” I choked out. “I just want to be with you!”
He wrapped his arms around me as I cried. They were not the arms that I was used to, the same ones he had held me with for 15 years. Cancer had withered them. But he was still Shawn. He still loved me more than anything in the world. He loved me so much that he wanted me to be happy, even if that meant being happy without him.
For months after his death, I felt dead inside. One day, some of my girlfriends were talking about a man whom they all found particularly attractive. I could appreciate that he was handsome, in the way that I could recognize beautiful people in a painting. But he didn’t make me feel anything else.
“It feels inhuman,” I told them. I didn’t want to date, but it was strange to feel nothing toward any man, especially such an attractive one. “Even when Shawn was alive, there were times that I could see some other man and think that he was hot,” I said. “Now, it’s just gone.”
“That seems totally understandable,” one of them said. Everyone nodded in agreement.
But they weren’t living my life. They couldn’t understand what it felt like to be so hollow. I knew they were trying to make me feel okay, but I realized that I didn’t want to feel okay. I wanted to feel alive again, even if it would be terrifying.
More months passed, and nothing changed. I made plans to take a few days to write in solitude, and booked myself a hotel room. As I set my things down on the desk, I decided that I would do a trial run and take off my wedding ring. Tan lines showed where it had been, but I still felt naked without it. “It’s just for these two days,” I told myself, and went outside to work.
I sat by the hotel pool. I wrote about Shawn and his diagnosis, often staring off into the distance. Other people lounged around the pool and worked on laptops as well.
“What are you working on?” the man at the next table asked. I looked up. I had been writing about Shawn’s physical decline, so I was vague in my answer. We talked for a minute, exchanging pleasantries about where we were from, and he asked me, “How did you end up in D.C.?”
It was an innocuous question, and I thought about how to answer it. Should I tell him I found it to be an interesting city, full of educated and international people? Should I tell him it was actually a great place to raise kids? Or should I tell him the truth?
“I married a guy who got a job in D.C.,” I said.
“And,” he said, after I paused, “I’m guessing it recently ended?”
“Something like that,” I replied.
He waited for me to say something more, but I didn’t quite know how to respond. Instead, we talked about traveling for a while. Finally, it circled back to me.
“I was married,” I said as I touched my ring finger, “but not anymore.”
I told him I was widowed and he told me he was divorced. We talked about the sadness that follows the end of a relationship, though I knew he could never really understand what it was like to be separated forever from your partner when neither of you wanted it. He was kind, and asked lots of questions. We talked about our families, our careers and our childhoods. I laughed. Then, like a light switch, I felt it.
Immediately, the guilt was almost as palpable. I had done nothing besides talk to a man as we lounged by the pool. Sure, it had been hours of conversation at that point, and I knew I was crossing the line into flirtatious territory. But it wasn’t cheating.
Attraction is a strange thing, but damn if I didn’t feel it at the pool that day. We ordered drinks, and I felt his eyes on me. I looked up and smiled, realizing that I was having fun. Still, I wasn’t a 22-year-old looking for a good time. I had so much baggage. What was I doing flirting with a stranger less than a year after my husband died? What did that say about me?
Those questions swirled around in my head. I was conflicted, to be sure. I wish I could say that I recoiled from him after this moment, but I didn’t. I liked sitting next to a handsome man who clearly enjoyed my company. This feeling — one of being desired by another person — was something I experienced almost every day during my 15 years with Shawn. To feel just a glimmer of it again was like magic. It woke something up in me.
I did not fall in love with that man at the pool. He went home to his life in another city, and I to mine. For weeks afterward, when I thought about our interaction, I still felt a pang of guilt alongside the longing. It wasn’t as though I wanted him, specifically, but rather that I wanted to be able to feel a spark like that again. It was such a hallmark of my relationship with Shawn that I missed deeply. It felt wrong to want that with someone other than my husband, but it also felt good to have those emotions again. I didn’t know how to reconcile both sets of feelings.
I didn’t tell anyone right away. What would my friends think? Maybe they would tell me that it was great, but I was convinced not everyone would approve. I didn’t know the “right” amount of time that was supposed to pass until I was allowed to start dating. “Are you sure that you’re ready?” I could hear people asking. That question, of course, has all sorts of judgment within it.
What I did know for sure was that I was still grieving Shawn. I still cried in the shower most mornings and clutched my chest at night when I wrote about our life together. The man at the pool had not changed that.
Time passed. One evening, I found myself at a bar with friends. We were laughing about something one of them had read about in a magazine, and the topic made me miss Shawn. “If only he was here,” I said, “I know he would make this conversation even more fun.”
One of my friends hugged me. “Maybe he is here,” she said, “and maybe he’s happy that you’re happy.”
I thought about that for a moment. Was I happy again? What did it even mean to be happy after Shawn’s death? Was that something I could allow myself to really feel?
Just then, I felt someone come up next to me, and I turned around.
“Hi,” the stranger said to me.
I looked at him, and he smiled. He was handsome. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.
I took a deep breath.
“I’d love that,” I said, and smiled back.