I was walking on the beach with my dear friend Kelly one day a few months ago. We were talking about everything that you talk about with a friend you’ve known for 20 years – our families, our careers, our futures. The sun was setting as we walked, and I took a moment to let the water run over my toes and to feel really alive.
It’s great to feel that way. When it happens, I often find myself able to think about the future.
At that point in my life, I’d just ended the first romance I’d been in since Shawn’s death. I was reeling from the emotions that the breakup made me feel.
But I was coming out of my misery. I was starting to realize that the ended relationship was just the first of possibly many different relationships I might have in the future. It was a first glimpse of my potential future.
“I think I’m okay with the end of that relationship,” I told Kelly, “but it makes me feel unsteady again.”
“I get that,” she said. “I think the first breakup would understandably make you feel that way.”
“In a lot of ways, I want to recreate my old life,” I said. “I want what I had before any of this happened. In all honesty, I want exactly the same thing that existed two years ago – I want my life with Shawn. But if I can’t have him, if he’s really gone forever, I want to get as close to it as I can. Having a relationship, even if it was brief, was something that made me feel like maybe, someday, I’ll be able to have that life again.”
She listened closely, as she always does. Yes, Kelly is a therapist. But she listens to me like that because she’s my dear friend.
I continued. “Maybe it’s the not-knowing that’s hardest. Because if I’m being honest, I know there are other options for my future. I might never get remarried. Maybe I’ll get my kids through this early stage of childhood and then I’ll end up solo and traveling the world, writing about widowhood. Maybe I could even make a documentary. There aren’t a lot of people talking about young widowhood around the world.”
I started to get excited about this idea.
“I could pitch it to some famous documentary maker and we could interview widows around the world,” I said. “I mean, maybe I could do something really interesting with that idea. Maybe I could make a film that could someday get shown at Sundance!”
“You could totally do that!” she said. I knew she meant it, even if it was just one of those things I was saying out of the blue.
“But another part of me hopes that I meet someone new,” I said, “and I live a life that’s a lot like my previous life. Maybe it will be another single parent, someone with kids of his own. Maybe we’ll end up traveling all over, visiting great resorts and enjoying our Brady Bunch family. In that life, I spend most of my time worrying about things like the best kind of sunscreen to get for our vacation.”
Kelly smiled. “So that’s the choice, you think? Sundance or sunscreen?”
“In a way, yes,” I said. We both laughed a little, knowing that it was a mildly ridiculous set of choices.
Kelly seemed to turn over this idea in her head. “I think the idea that it’s one thing or the other might be a bit limiting. I really don’t think it’s an either/or choice.”
“Maybe not,” I admitted. “Neither of them are particularly likely to happen, I guess.”
“Or maybe they’ll both happen,” she said. “Or something totally different will happen. You can’t really know.”
“Ugh,” I said. “That’s what’s hard. If I knew, right now, that my future was going to be one way or the other, I could get behind the idea of whatever life I was going to live. Even with how much I want another relationship someday, if you told me it would never happen for me, I could make peace with that. It’s the not-knowing that’s hard. How do you plan when you have no idea what the future is?”
“I get it,” she said. “That’s really hard, because you can’t know the future. We seek comfort in knowing and planning and it can also be comforting to feel like you only have binary choices for the future – it’s just simpler to think that way. The imagined twists and turns can feel so overwhelming. But only imagining black and white choices can be self-limiting. We want to know….but we can never know.”
We both stared out at the waves. I knew she was right.
“So,” Kelly said, “why can’t your future be sunscreen and Sundance….or something else equally amazing?”