Sometimes, when I try to remember my life before Shawn, I draw a blank. I can remember fun college parties, my awesome job working at a summer camp, and a general warm feeling about childhood. But right now, everything still seems a bit hazy, and thus my memories aren’t always so clear. For those memories, I need people from way back when. I need people like my friend Gabrielle.
Gabe and I met in Italy, thrown together as roommates in a city where we didn’t speak the language or know the culture. It was the spring of 2000, and we were young and stupid and adventurous. We had a deliriously fun 5 months together and have remained close friends ever since. So when she texted me, “what are your plans next weekend?” I immediately cleared my schedule to see her.
We spent Saturday taking walks and drinking coffee and talking about Shawn. She knew him well, as we’d all spent a number of years in DC together before she’d moved away. That night I decided we should go out to dinner. I forgot to make reservations and so the only time I could get was a 5:15 reservation. We went anyway, and sat next to an elderly couple who were both well into their 90s.
“So,” Gabe asked me at dinner, “what things are turning out to be harder than you thought? Or is anything turning out to be easier? Or do you just feel like it’s all hard, like you expected?”
Here’s what I told her:
Single parenting is turning out to be harder than I initially expected. I guess when I was facing the possibility of life without Shawn, I imagined it would be similar to when he would travel for work. But it’s so much harder. Because there’s just me, and I know that. Because there’s no end to it being just me. Because I have my own grief and can’t handle the tantrums or the whining like I once could. Because even with a million friends around me, and my dad living with me, the only person who can put my kids to bed and cuddle with them at night is me.
Not everything is quite that impossible. Organizing the money situation, and making sure we’ll be okay financially is a huge stress, for sure. Since I did absolutely nothing with our finances before this year, I was worried I might never be able to understand them. But I figured out how to auto-pay most of my bills, I managed to make sure the mortgage was covered, and I even got together all of our tax documents. It’s not pretty, and I know I’ve overpaid for some of the services I’ve needed, but I’m doing it.
The thing that’s been about like I expected, if I could expect it at all, was the grief I feel from missing Shawn. Because he was sick for 6 weeks, and we knew that it was possible he would die at a young age, I started thinking about this prospect before he died. The grief I felt then was so overwhelming it nearly made me unable to function. And yet even with this anticipatory grief, I assumed that it would be worse if he died.
I was right. It’s worse.
What I told Gabe at dinner that night was everything I’ve said a million times before – that I miss him as a partner, as the one who loved me more than anyone. That some days it’s hard to get up and function because I don’t even know who I am without him. I was always half of the pair Shawn and Marjorie, Marjorie and Shawn. Now it’s just me and I’m not even sure what that means.
Gabe looked at me and said, “I knew you before him.”
She continued, “You were incredible then and you still are now. You are enduring the worst pain, but I know who you are. Who you are, at your core, hasn’t changed. I know I’m right. I knew you before.”
She proceeded to tell me all the wonderful things she knows about me now, and remembered about me as a 21-year-old. I started crying, though I guess I just continued crying from earlier in our conversation. The two 90-year-olds were seated just a few feet from us, and I could feel them looking over at me, if only slightly.
They distracted me for a moment. Why couldn’t that be us? Why couldn’t 50 more years go by and Shawn and I walk into this restaurant, me holding his hand and him smiling at me? That was what we were supposed to do. That was the plan, dammit. He was supposed to be mine until the end of time, or at least until we organized our days around dinner at 5:15.
“I just feel so lost without him,” I told Gabe. She understood.
The next day, after she headed home, I got a text from her. “If you ever need reminders of how amazing you were before you met Shawn, I’m your girl,” she wrote. “Your years together only enhanced the awesome that was always there.”
Maybe more than ever, I need people like my friend Gabe. Her words are a great ego boost in a time when I desperately need them. But more important, she can remind me of who I am. Of who I’ve always been. Even when I can’t remember myself.