One of the first things I did after Tom died was go looking for comforting reading material. Strangely, the first book I thought of was a novel called Good Grief about a young widow rebuilding her life. I had read it years ago because the author, Lolly Winston, has some connection to someone I know or knew—I can’t remember who! It is lighthearted and generally upbeat without being cheesy and I copied and hung up one quote that has sort of become my mantra: “I’ve decided it’s important to love the life you get and somehow learn to let go of the life you dreamed of.” By mantra I mean I look at it every day and tell myself it’s a great idea and I hope I can get there as soon as I stop being so pissed off that my dreams are not going to come true.
So here is the bedtime story: Once upon a time there was a twice-divorced single mom, none-too-young but still in the thick of parenting due to some interesting choices along the way, who had almost, but not quite, given up on love. She was, in the words of her wise and kindly therapist, an exceptionally bad picker and anyway she was too busy to think about anything as horrible sounding as going on a date in one’s mid-50s. For one thing, what would you even WEAR!? But one day a pop-up ad appeared on her AOL homepage for a website called Senior People Meet, set up exclusively for those over 50. Perfect! He won’t know what to wear either and he will probably be 75 and to him she would look good! She scrolled around a bit, sent a couple tentative messages, started chatting a little and even set up a coffee date or two. Everyone seemed very nice, but no magic occurred. Then one day a handsome bearded man in a tweed jacket sent a little message. His profile spoke of playing in a band, of having lived in Italy, of loving nature. They exchanged a few notes and then she went north for much of summer and communication stopped. A while later he said he had missed hearing from her and if she didn’t want to be in touch anymore that was ok, but he wanted her to know he was genuinely interested in getting to know her. She said the lapse had been involuntary. He asked if they could talk on the phone. She hates phones and suggested cutting straight to coffee. He invited her for a meal to his home in the remote wilds of northern Oakland County. She laughed and explained that it was a little soon for home visits. They agreed on coffee. She came straight from church thus solving the thorny dress code problem. She sat down, said “so, tell me about your band” and 60 minutes later, having uttered nothing more than “Oh”, “Interesting” and “I see” she announced that she would have to be leaving. He was positive that was it. She thought he was nice (if a bit chatty) and emailed that since he did not appear to be an ax murderer she would now happily have him cook her dinner. She started to fall in love that very night with the care he took cutting an onion, the patience he displayed waiting for the potatoes to cook, the pleasant shock he showed as she hoisted herself up on the kitchen counter as there was nowhere else to sit. There were rocky moments along the way, but the outcome seemed pretty certain from the get go. He accepted and loved her daughters, she helped him move out of his house and shop. She took him to her favorite place and he loved it too. He got her to hike and kayak and stay active. She let him help work her crossword puzzles. They read side by side, cooked meals together, played games with the girls. He moved close by and several years passed happily.
One day she heard her youngest daughter refer to him as “My mom’s boyfriend” and something snapped. He was no such transient-sounding thing! He was the love of her pretty long life, a permanent fixture and one of the greatest blessings imaginable. And he was rapidly becoming the father her daughters needed and deserved but had never had. She wasn’t sure how to fit 4 people into 900 square feet but she decided it was time to try. She was too old-fashioned to do anything but marry and so they did—on a Tuesday afternoon, because her brother was in town, because it was Oct. 1 and near the anniversary of that first dinner. (Only much later did she realize that the date also resonated so powerfully with her because it was the 7th anniversary of the day she finally screwed up the courage to leave her horrible second marriage.) It was a simple small ceremony with a dinner afterward mixing the two families. They were happy.
Here was the plan: Keep working as the carpenter and music teacher they were for a few more years until their youngest daughter left for college, sell the house and move to Leelanau, living in the cottage that had plenty of room for full time living and entertaining. They would each continue to work a little, but their combined pensions/social security would be enough coupled with investments to get by and have a little extra for travel and fun. They would join the church choir, she would volunteer at the library, start a mahjong group on their road, he would meet all the ice boaters in the area and maybe do some Habitat for Humanity work. Keeping the house in good repair would be easy with his carpentry skills and ability to fix nearly anything. They would see much more of local couples they enjoyed and start a whole new life among people who were their age and shared a love of the beautiful peninsula. Downstate family and friends would come and visit in the good weather months and they would try to head south for a bit each winter. Life would be good. He was her favorite person and she knew she would always be happy just being with him.
Here’s what happened instead: Eight months after the wedding, when he finally had insurance as her husband, he agreed to get the long-pesky kidney stones checked out and in frighteningly short order came back with a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer. He was filled with chemo over and over in the hopes of eeking out 2-3 more years, but in the end he died in 8 short months.
This does not compute. This is not the life I wanted. I suffered through 16 years of a terrible marriage because I had taken vows and given birth to two innocent children who deserved an “in tact” family. I stayed right up until the moment when I awoke sobbing, told my husband he had to take the girls to school and he had to help me leave him. He did the former and ignored the hysteria of the latter as did I until the day I saw a for rent sign in my tiny town where nothing is ever for rent. I suddenly realized I could actually do this. I could free myself, rent that house and move in with my daughters. It was so far from that easy it isn’t funny, but in the end I did do just that and despite the endless fighting and tens of thousands of dollars wasted on lawyers I was free at last and I never once looked back. Ultimately my girls also freed themselves and are stronger and happier people for it.
We needed Tom. We deserved Tom. He was our Prince Charming and White Knight and Father Christmas all wrapped into one. (As he always modestly claimed, the bar was pretty low.) We loved him and he loved us and being part of our motley, bruised little family. He changed our lives for the better and forever. But we really weren’t finished. We had so much more living and loving to do. We were robbed by God or the universe or the health care system or our own complacency but in any case it is decidedly unfair. We want a mulligan, a do-over. This time he will never smoke, even to get a break in the Coast Guard forty years ago, he will not be addicted to coffee and I will drag him by the hair to a doctor the first time he has a kidney stone attack. They will find his cancer early and it will be treatable and we will be scared but they will get it all and we will go on with the life we had made together and be even MORE grateful. He will see Alyssa graduate and he will walk her down the aisle. He will bounce her children on his knee and teach them to make beautiful things like he does. He will watch Franny overcome her anxieties and go back to school, get a great job and have financial security and career success. We will grow old and help each other navigate new challenges. One or the other of us will spend a few years alone but only after many many many happy years together. That will be the end of our beautiful story. All the decades we spent in other unhappy relationships won’t hold a candle to the wonder and joy of finding each other and living happily ever after. The End.
Except it wasn’t. I have a pillow made out of his crazy sun and moon bath robe instead of him sitting next to me in it. I have a beautiful handmade quilt of his favorite T-shirts instead of his Greek god body sweating through them as he worked. I am grateful for the pillow and the quilt but really I just want HIM. There is a very real possibility that I will smack the next 60-something couple I see walking hand in hand.
So….. It looks like it may be quite a while before I learn to love the life I got. But it’s a worthy goal. Maybe somebody else can do it while I get used to the idea. In the meantime I need to send out for a couple pints of Ben and Jerry’s for my pity party.