“I’m so sorry,” the clerk said, handing the papers back to me, “but this won’t work. It’s a copy, and we need the original death certificate in order to issue you a marriage license.” She nodded sympathetically as I sighed.
My heart sank. I knew it wasn’t a big deal, really, because we still had time to get all the paperwork together. I knew that part of marriage is just getting the contract in order, and that had nothing to do with love. I knew we could eventually get everything sorted.
I was still totally overwhelmed in that moment.
We’d come to the town hall in Chris’s hometown in Maine, since we’re getting married there in October and we needed to get our a marriage license beforehand. I’d forgotten to pack Shawn’s death certificate when we left for Maine, but remembered when we were 5 hours into our drive that I kept a copy of one in the glove box of the car. “I’m always prepared!” I joked with Chris.
The two older kids were at camp, so we just brought Tommy who was super excited. He wanted to take a picture in front of the building, but couldn’t quite figure it out, so a passerby took one for us. We told her that we were going to get our marriage license. “Congratulations!” she said joyfully, and Chris squeezed my hand while Tommy danced around in his orange “save the goslings!” hat that he got from Chris’s parents, Nana and Pop.
The local town hall was simple and small, and each office served a variety of purposes. The Town Clerk’s Office, where we were headed, was where you went for everything from absentee voting to birth certificates to hunting and fishing licenses. (You can also get your shellfish license there, which I suppose is a special category in Maine!) As we entered, we joked about how maybe we could also apply to be clammers while we were there. The moment wasn’t a big one, but we were ebullient.
And then, we couldn’t get the license.
I mean, who cares, right? We’d already been dealing with all sorts of changing rules and regulations around Covid and we’d already had a number of minor setbacks in the planning process. We’d already been planning for a wedding that could get cancelled, at least the “big party” part of it. This was just the contractual part that had been delayed, not the actual wedding. When I’d feel stress, Chris would focus me, reminding me that – no matter what – the two of us would get married in October, and that’s what mattered. I knew he was right.
And yet. Something was bugging me.
I guess a lot of people might imagine that I was feeling conflicted about my love for Chris. But I knew that wasn’t it. I loved Shawn so much, but one thing I know for sure is that I’m not torn over some sort of “love for two men” that sometimes widows feel. I love Chris.
Still, the nagging sensation remained.
That night, my body shut down and I laid listlessly on the couch. Chris didn’t quite know how to help me, but when the sun went down he pulled me outside and we stood on the porch and looked at the bright orange sky. I laid my head on his chest and I felt good, but still overwhelmed. I knew it wasn’t because of the marriage certificate, per say. It was a deeper emotion, one that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Someday you’re going to die,” I said to him.
He didn’t laugh, because although sometimes I say this sort of thing to him in jest, I wasn’t in that mood and we both knew it.
“I’m not going to die,” he said. “Not soon, anyway,” he amended, before I could correct him.
We stood there for a long time, until the bright orange in the sky faded to a hazy pink.
I’ve thought back to that moment a lot over the past few days. I’ve been trying to understand my own emotions, figure out why the marriage license/death certificate drama was such a big deal to me. It’s something I’ve processed a lot throughout the years with my widow group, the Cabal. What does it mean to find love again after loss? Many of us are dating again, and a few of us have even found someone. Once, when we were all talking about it, one of my friends – someone who had found her second love – said this:
Falling in love again means that someday, I’ll watch him die.
Yes, I get that there’s all sorts of caveats to this (the likelihood of Chris dying now is low, I could die first, etc.) but that’s not really the point.
Falling in love again means taking that risk. I mean, really, getting married is a fundamentally irrational act. In what other world would you enter into a contract where you don’t really know the final terms? Chris might die soon or I might die soon or we might live to old age together. Any number of things could happen to us in the interim. Yes, loss is something that I’ve grappled with for the entirety of my relationship to Chris, but right now – and in that moment at the town hall – I was so aware of what it means to love again.
It means I could lose again. It means I could watch him die.
It’s a morbid thing to think about, especially when you’re planning a wedding. To be clear, it’s not like I’m obsessed with this idea all the time. It’s just that there are moments when it hits me. Moments when I think about those words my widow friend said.
A few days before all of this, Chris and I had been at the laundromat waiting for our clothes to dry. It was a hot day, and the inside of the laundromat was well into the 90s, but the breeze blew through the open doors and we both had a break from work and I felt relaxed as I watched the clothes go around inside the dryer. Chris was reading the local paper. At one point, he looked up and said, “this is really beautiful” and then started reading the obituary of an elderly local woman. The end went like this:
Judi’s children wish to acknowledge the tremendous care given by their father at the end of her life. It was not the stuff of romance novels, but it was the ultimate love story.
Bits of lint swirled in the air above the dryers and my sweaty shirt stuck to my back. It was not a beautiful moment there in the laundromat, at least not to outsiders. But hearing Chris read the obituary brought that feeling to my chest, the one that’s hard to identify as good or bad. I felt both overwhelmingly happy and also quite sad, thinking about this woman and her husband who cared for her as she died.
Falling in love means you commit to that. You commit to watching someone die. Or at least to that potential. It’s something I understand now much more than I did at age 25.
A few days after the initial rejection at town hall, we tried to get the marriage license again. We got a friend to send the original death certificate from our house in Washington, and the moment it arrived in Maine, we headed straight for town hall. We’d spent the morning out on the water with Tommy and Chris’s parents and our niece and nephew, and were hot and sunburned and still in our bathing suits. My hair was in knots and I was really tired from an early morning wakeup, and both of us just threw on clothes over our suits and drove to the town hall before it closed.
We did not take photos as we entered.
“You guys again!” the clerk said when she saw us. We laughed. Us again!
It took a few extra steps, but we got the license. We had 90 days to get married, according to the contract.
“If you want to back out, there’s still time!” Chris joked with me as we walked to the car. I laughed.
But he wasn’t wrong. There was still time. Time to save me from the heartache, someday. Time to protect myself from loss. Time to make sure I don’t have to watch Chris die, someday.
I started to cry in the car, which I think surprised Chris a little bit. He comforted me, brushing the hair out of my face and stroking my cheek. “I’m so excited to marry you,” he said.
“I can’t wait to marry you, too,” I said, which was the goddamn, totally irrational truth.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.