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What A Widow Taught Me

The house was full of life. By this, I mean dinner was cooking while one of our kids was shouting from upstairs,  “Mom, can you help me study?” And the other by my side was asking, “ Can I have 5 dollars for my field trip? “ Our dogs were barking at their bowls for dinner, the house phone was ringing, and my cell was simultaneously buzzing. I checked my phone in between checking the chicken and the garlic bread (that I always seem to burn) and saw a text from a friend come across my cell that said, "Call me ASAP.” I was thinking it must be pretty important so I dialed in the midst of the mayhem. She is crying as she picks up, tries to tell me gently, but bursts out into sobbing, " Jen's husband had a heart attack and died!" Jen is a close friend to us both. It took me a few moments to grasp what she was telling me — and the magnitude of it. Words such as these always seem so surreal and take a while to digest. We talked briefly about the circumstances and I hung up, feeling complete shock.

My kids, now at my side, having heard me gasp in disbelief and now crying,  were understandably concerned. “What’s the matter, Mom?” I told them I would need a minute to myself and that someone I knew lost a family member — and that we could talk about it later.  I summoned my husband, who had just arrived home, into the bedroom and told him the horrible news. We are all in our 40’s, so this death is exceedingly premature and unexpected. We hug, he holds me while I weep into the shoulder of his shirt, saturating it with my tears. I am thinking of her, her kids, and what they must be feeling and going through. I am thinking of the raw place she must be in. I can’t help but think of my own life and how horrible that would be.

In the following weeks I, of course, called her, brought her family dinner performed the usual condolences, and allowed her some space. Since the funeral, I could not get out of my mind the way she looked that day — as if a part of her had died as well. At his gravesite, relatives took the kids from her side and left her as she had asked. As we were getting into our car, I turned to see her as she lay on the cold spring ground next to his casket. I simply could not imagine her grief. It haunted me.

Months passed and I would routinely check in, but we did not talk the way we usually did. She was stilted and distant,  insistent that she was coping, but her voice would give her away every time. She was clearly deep in grief, as to be expected, and managing just basic functioning with the help of all of us.

One afternoon I asked her if she wanted me to stop over to talk. She finally agreed. Both of our kids were in school so we could talk privately.  I asked, “ How are you really doing? “And she immediately broke down. “I miss him just so much it hurts to live. I still can’t believe he is gone. He is everywhere here — his clothes, our comforter, Amanda’s eyes, Josh’s walk, the bookshelves he built. He’s in our favorite TV shows, every movie I turn on, every song on the radio. How am I supposed to go on? I am getting up, being a mom, but all I really want to do is ball up under the covers and pretend this isn’t happening.”

“Heather” she said, “I ache for him.  I wish I just had one last moment, one day — okay, a month, okay — forever."

Without thinking I said, “What would you do with him if you got him back for a month?” Quickly, she responded as if she had been thinking about her answer all along. Here is what she said.

“ I would always wake with a smile on my face, no matter my mood, knowing that I had a man who loved me like he did, so unconditionally and fully. I would do all the things we planned to do ‘someday’ with wild abandon. There were so many things we were waiting to do ‘later on’ when we had more money, when the kids were grown, when it was a better time.  I would hold him tight as much as I could, for as long as I could, every one of those days. I would forgive his flaws and mistakes, and let go of resentment and be fully present with him. I would give up bickering — because nothing really matters that much. I would tell him how much he meant to me, the way he always appreciated me and the way he cared for the kids and me, and the fact that he always put us first. I would thank him for helping me grow into the strong woman I am today from every trial that we overcame together. I would thank him for our children — a true expression of our love and a combination of all that is good in us.  I would tell him that he always made me feel safe and cherished, and how grateful I was for that and how it always grounded me.”

She continued, “We would watch the stars and make love in a hut on the beach in Tahiti. I would tell him every single thing I loved about him. There would be no yelling, frustration, anger, disappointment, fighting — no baggage — just peace and forgiveness. We would have no time for any of those things. What we had was beautiful. We would celebrate the beautiful thing that we had together… if I only had one last month with Tom.”

widow secondaryTears streaming down my face, I turned and embraced her and told her that what she had shared was so completely amazing. We stood together for a long time. I felt her wave of grief and felt her knees buckling. We made our way to the couch. I passed her a cup of tea. She wrapped her hands around the warm mug,  coming back into her body — drifting away from her fantasy back to reality. “I need to tell you something,” she said, jolting me from my tears. “It’s something I have not shared with anyone yet. “ I listened closely. “The day that Tom died, that morning we had had a fight. There were some longstanding issues and I was not happy with him. We parted angrily with unkind words. He went to work and we were trying to cool off. I thought we would talk later and mend things… I, I never got that chance.” Then she looked at me and said, “Do you know how guilty and terrible I feel now?  I feel like shit! I’ve been walking around here talking to the sky telling him that it all didn’t matter, that I was sorry, that I didn’t mean what I said. I feel like a crazy person. I can’t change any of it — that’s the worst part.” I stared at her blankly, not knowing what to say. Silence fell between us.

A few moments passed and finally I offered up all I had – the only consolation I could think of.  “ Jen, that moment pales in comparison to all the years of life you shared together. Happy times. Memories. You guys are so much bigger than that moment – you know that and, and if Tom’s able to see or hear you, he knows that, too.” She thanked me and I could tell she was emotionally spent now and she said she needed to rest.  I gave her one last hug and turned to grab my purse and car keys. I told her to call me – whenever she needed me. She thanked me and went towards her bedroom. “I’ll check on you later,” I said as I reluctantly headed for her front door.`

I sat in my car in her driveway for half an hour, just staring out the window, thinking of all that was good in my marriage, my family, friends and my life. The notion that it could all be snapped away at any given moment was terrifying.  I had seen it all through her eyes, and it left me permanently changed. Jen taught me so much in that moment. I vowed to never part angrily, to forgive quickly, and to honor our life and one another today, as we are never promised tomorrow.

My hope is that Jen will forgive herself and that she can move forward, treasuring the memories and knowing she felt and lived love – a blessing not everyone experiences. I will do my best as a friend to give her all the love I can to help ease her pain and loss in any way possible. Jen will forever remind me not to take for granted what I have, and to live with the expression of gratitude for my partner every single day.  We should all live like we are dying — since the reality truly is that we all are. We   just don’t know when our time is up.