I Followed the Rules

DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley stands outside of house and hands son his shoes

I followed the rules.

They weren’t written, of course. They weren’t even said, at least not explicitly. But they were there.

Find a nice man. Wait to sleep with him until you’re sure he won’t run out the door the next morning. Make sure he knows you are in the relationship for something serious. Get engaged while you’re still young, and married within a year after the proposal.

Buy a house as soon as you can afford it. Don’t go to Starbucks every day if it means you’ll get to buy that new couch at the end of the year. Don’t drink too much or do any drugs, and call home to check on your family. 

Work hard at your career in your 20s. You’ll have time for kids and fun trips later, now is the time to focus. Stay up late finishing grad school papers and invest in getting more letters after your name. 

Have kids, but not until you’re able to afford a bouncer and a crib and nanny’s salary. Breastfeed for a year and feed your baby organic food after that. Give your kid a sibling or two. Save for college. Wait to go to Disneyland when the kids are old enough – maybe 9 or 10? Don’t waste too much money on date nights. 

Devote yourself to your children. Save time and money whenever you can. Exercise. Watch what you eat. Smile at strangers in the supermarket. Give a tip to the mailman at Christmas. Go to the doctor, get every mole checked out.

Make sure to check all the boxes. Do not leave anything to chance.

There were more rules, of course, but these were some of them. Follow these rules, they say, and you will live a happy life. Don’t deviate from them too much, because if you do, things may start to fall apart. You don’t want that, you know. You want a happy life, and a happy life means following the rules.

And so I did.

They weren’t all bad rules. I had a good life for a long time, and maybe some of that was from following such advice. But under all of these unwritten rules was this message: do this, and you will live a happy life.

It didn’t really matter in the end, did it? I followed the rules. I played nice. I checked all the boxes.

But I didn’t get the end result I wanted. My husband still died right when I was supposed to be reaping all the rewards the “rules” said I would get.

When I see someone else living the life I’d imagined, there is a part of me that cannot believe that things turned out the way they did for me. I look at other people, I see their long marriage and relaxed weekends and new cars and I think: that is supposed to be me.

Sometimes, in my darkest moments, I think to myself, “what did I do wrong?”

Of course, I didn’t do anything wrong. I know that. Bad luck is bad luck, and honestly, I had a lot of good luck in my life too.

And yet. I had years and years of conditioning – by society, by school, by the media. Over and over again, I heard the same thing. Make good choices and you will be rewarded.

Maybe it’s true in some ways. I have a great job, a loving community, and three awesome kids.

But at night, when I crawl into bed and see the empty pillow next to me, I sometimes still feel confused about how it all turned out. I wonder how it is that my life looks like it does when I always got the car inspected and was on time for my dental check-ups and used only organic soap.

“But no!” I think in those moments, “it can’t be! I followed the rules.”

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

18 Replies to “I Followed the Rules”

  1. Wow, exactly what I have been telling myself lately, how did this happen? I followed all the rules too! 😔 It’s hard NOT to be upset when you realize you will not live the life you always thought you would. Thank you for sharing❤

    1. Yes, I think sometimes it can be paralyzing to know that our plans just haven’t worked out. It’s also just SURPRISING to me sometimes. Like I can’t believe MY husband died. Thanks for reading.

  2. I think we all want that illusion of having complete control over our lives, but it just doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. I remember after John Lennon was killed, his wife, Yoko Ono, remarked that he had been very health conscious and followed a strict vegetarian diet, etc. In her grief, she found herself bitterly telling their young son to “Eat whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.” Of course it does matter, but it just shows there is no magic formula that insures that nothing bad will ever happen to us.

    And if I can open a religious can of worms here, I know people who were shocked that someone who had advanced liver cancer could die leaving a wife and three little boys after his church family had been fervently praying for him. It just did not compute for them. How could God let this happen when they did all the right things; said all the right prayers?

    1. Oh, yes, I’ve thought a lot about writing about this issue – how do we deal when our prayers aren’t answered? I’ve written a bit about religion and death, but this really gets me thinking (I currently don’t have many answers, to be honest.) And I love this: “it just shows there is no magic formula that insures that nothing bad will ever happen to us”

  3. I always say that ‘We followed all the rules, how did this happen’. My husbands did all those unwritten rules. When he died everyone knew he was a great man, dedicated worker, husband and father. One of the last things he said the me and our
    4 children before he passed away way was ‘live and be kind’. I always knew he was saying dont follow those unwritten rules life is to short.

    1. Totally. I don’t think Shawn followed all the rules in the same way I did (in fact, I think he broke many of them!) and he often encouraged me to think outside these rules. It was so healthy for me. I love that your husband was the same way, and I love those words, “live and be kind.” Beautiful.

  4. This is how I feel. I lived mostly by the rules. Your posts have been striking a chord with me when I have needed to feel understood the most. The thing that stuck out on this one was that it wasn’t supposed to happen to me. That may sound selfish. We were just about to start enjoying our 40’s after following all of those rules in our 20’s and 30’s. I feel like we had finally arrived and all of our sacrifices in our 30’s were about to come to fruition. We were settling in to our lifestyle and he was in his prime. Now, I am here without him, often asking these same questions as you and many other widows are doing on here.

    1. YES, YES, YES. We too were just about ready to start “reaping the benefits” of our lives in our 20s and 30s. It was the time to not be quite so strapped for money and strained by young kids. Ugh. I’m so sorry. And I’m glad that my blog can be a tiny bit of salve on that wound.

  5. This is the classic “why do bad things happen to good people” issue. Unfortunately, life is not transactional in that way; it does not offer an idyllic pay-off for following all the rules (including prayer); it is unfair. Life is more complicated, subtle, and paradoxical. One person’s tragedy is others’ opportunity to show love. Even though we see this happen (Grandpa Tom, for example), it is pretty hard to comprehend – for me at least – when you have lost your single greatest source of love. I have a friend who keeps reminding me to appreciate my beautiful 50-year marriage. This is doubtless good, positive-thinking advice, but it seems somehow useless; I have a lot of trouble when everything I appreciate evokes a sense of loss. Where God is in all this is pretty difficult to discern. There aren’t too many times that I felt closer to God than when I was with Sue. A hint may come from a saying attributed to St. Theresa of Avila, which I have sung as an anthem and heard used as a blessing: “Christ has no hands but ours.” I think the suggestion is that, for the healing of any one person, it is up to the rest of us to practice love.

    1. This is so beautiful. I love it. “Christ has no hands but ours.” I am going to remember this phrase.

  6. All of your posts are relatable and I feel could’ve been written by me, but this one is extra, extra right on with me. My husband actually talked about this in the week leading up to his death. He said, “We were doing everything “right”, but did we fully enjoy it?”;” Were we focused on hitting goals and setting them that we missed the journey attaining them?” It broke my heart. I’m goal oriented and a rule follower, but feel I’m also in the moment and love the journey, but I’ve had to really look at this aspect of my life. Thank you for articulating my feelings for me!

    1. Kara, I’m so sorry for your loss. What you say here reminds me of Emily’s speech in “Our Town.” I saw it performed by my grandkids’ high school class a few months after my husband died and this quote always brings me to tears:

      Emily: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! Wally’s dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it – don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?
      Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
      Emily: I’m ready to go back.

  7. Michael Zoosman says: Reply

    Marjorie,

    Unfortunately, many religious teachings the world over feed into exactly what you poignantly describe as a subliminal message in our society that is known by many names (i.e. the prosperity gospel). I’ve found Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People to be a helpful foil for some of this – a testimony from a bereaved parent who had much wisdom to offer…

    Wishing you the very best,

    Mike

  8. A further thought: All those good things that can happen when you follow all the rules are enjoyable and make fond memories. In my view, however, what builds up the sense of deep, lasting connectedness is having gone through together – having shared – the bad times. This bond-building effect would seem to be inoperative for the death of a spouse, because you aren’t together afterwards. But perhaps the effect actually intensifies – only the deeper connectedness manifests itself as deeper grief.

  9. Hi there, Im 3 years in since July and still missing my love, we were together 23 years and have one son 11 years now. I can really relate to this bog because my husband did all the right things, didnt eat meat for over 40 years, only ate organic food, didnt drink unless I wanted to go out for one or two!! he felt guilty if he ate anything with sugar, lived in the moment every moment, and spent as much time as he could with our son exploring nature. I remember when he was admitted to the hospice, saying to him, “whats happened, there are so many drunks on the street and you are here?” and his response was why not me! ! and that’s the way he was. I still say Whats happened? For his anniversary for the past 3 years, my son, myself and over 25 friends and family take an adventure walk through the fields and woods near by that he took our son on many times when he was little, this year I didnt feel up to it and asked my son if we could leave it and he said, “Mum I will do this walk every year and take my own children when I have them”, its that important to him. He loved his Dad. I did do it and enjoyed it as much as everyone else and I know he was with us. Thanks for the blog, reading blogs like this has helped me get to here and I will continue reading. I wish you all peace and if you can smile today..

    1. Thanks so much for reading. And yes, I wrote about this also in my post “Asparagus Cures Cancer” that you may want to read here: http://dcwidow.com/asparagus-cures-cancer/

      Thanks for reading. Everything is just that much harder with kids. But in a way, it’s also easier, because the kids bring us such joy. I wish you peace as well.

  10. I thought the same thing. Lost my wife during simple surgery 3 months ago and we followed all the rules. Her a nurse and me in law enforcement. She was a great nurse and substantiated when like 15 of her patients attended our wedding. Did as we should and now at 45 with 2 teenagers I am left to keep our dreams alive. Not fair. Just sucks. But maybe that’s the point. I just know my boys are everything now. I remind my boys to follow the rules but also to enjoy life like we did as we traveled the world since our kids were 3. Glad we did. God bless and great use of this blog. Us young widowers are kinda on our own but your writings have helped me. Everyone is scared for you and your next step, and all I want to do is heal my kids hearts.

    1. David, I’m so sorry for your loss. What a great thing to say – follow the rules but also enjoy life. I’m SO glad Shawn and I met abroad, and traveled a lot before we had kids. And thank you for reading – I’m glad it’s a space where you can feel supported.

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