Shawn and I were married when I was 25 and he had just turned 27. Back home in small-town Oregon, many of my friends were already married by 25. But my friends outside of my hometown were somewhat scandalized. At some point during our engagement, I overheard one friend ask another, “how long have they actually even known each other?” Another dear friend of mine asked me, “are you sure you want to marry Shawn? Like, for the rest of your life? You’re only 25!” None of these people really knew Shawn. They only knew that I was deciding to get married at a fairly young age.
But everyone who knew me and knew my relationship with Shawn understood that I wanted to be with him every moment. His parents loved to tell the story of when I first came to visit them and the four of us went to Niagara Falls and Shawn and I snuck off to lay in the grass and look at the sky on a beautiful day. We wanted nothing than to be with each other. I remember that day. It was perfect.
As I grew up and got a mortgage and children and a million other stressors, I used to say to my friends, “thank GOD I married Shawn. I mean, I was so young and dumb. What if I had married someone who wasn’t so great? It could have happened!”
I always said it in jest, but there was some truth there. Shawn and I met and were married when we were still in the throws of massive infatuation with each other. I was mad about him and I know he felt the same about me. We didn’t have real jobs or even a real plan, but we had that youthful optimism and stupidity that led us to believe that everything would be great so long as we were together. But did we really know each other?
I guess the answer to that question is “no.” But does anyone? Isn’t love always a bit of a leap of faith?
We grew up together, in many ways. I look back on the photos of our wedding and think that we look really young. We could not have known that we would stay up until dawn one night a few years later, worried about his immigration papers. We could not have known that I’d find myself pregnant with Claire the day before he flew to Iraq and that I’d sob and beg him not to go. We could not have known that we’d bring kids to the emergency room more times that we could count, and that we’d narrowly miss having a real emergency when Tommy was unexpectedly born in our house. There is just so much that we could not have known.
But we took the leap, and 14 years ago we said “yes…until death parts us.”
I put on my ring that day and other than a few times when we traveled internationally, I never took it off. It wasn’t a big ring, and in the past few years, Shawn would regularly ask me if I wanted a nicer diamond or a flashier ring. I always said no. I wanted the ring that reminded me of who we were when I first put it on. I wanted the ring he picked out for that 25-year-old girl.
Now I can’t take it off. I’ve actually tried to take it off for a few minutes at a time in the past few months. I put it in my jewelry box and try to see what it feels like to not wear it.
It feels weird. I always put it right back on.
I’ve had a ring on that hand almost every day since I was 24, when Shawn proposed with a ring made out of a coconut shell. I didn’t have a career or really even any life goals when we got married. All I had was Shawn. And so when I take off the ring, I feel like a girl again – just one with a mortgage and children and veins that pop out of my arms. I never minded growing old. I loved my birthday and I didn’t care that my body had sun spots, because I had everything that a middle-aged woman would want. Without that ring, I feel like a 24-year-old girl without a plan trapped in the life of a 39-year-old woman with so many responsibilities.
It’s not about the ring, of course. It’s about what it symbolizes. It’s been almost 6 months since Shawn died, but I still can’t manage to fully come to terms with what it really means to be without him. I was with him almost my entire adult life. Really, I didn’t make any adult decisions until I met him.
And now, here I am in the middle of my adulthood – the one where we should be celebrating all the ways that we have made it – and I am alone.
Yesterday should have been our anniversary. We usually spent it in Austin, hopping from bar to bar and sometimes staying out way too late. Whatever we did, it was fun. I knew I’d be sad this year and so I made my sister and my cousins and the rest of my family keep me busy all day long. We swam, we ate tacos, and we told hilarious stories that made me laugh so hard that tears pricked my eyes as sweat ran down my back from the midday heat.
I spent the day with this new type of anxiety that comes during times like these and doesn’t go away. But it was a low-grade kind. I think it was because I was surrounded by a million family members who didn’t leave me alone and who told me stories about Shawn and our many years of life together. They fed my kids and brought me beers and let me write a lot while also making sure that I was never really alone. It could have made me feel smothered, I guess. But it didn’t. Instead, it felt good.
I actually emailed a friend who’d also lost a spouse for advice about what to do on days like anniversaries and birthdays, and he emailed back, “I have no real advice other than to surround yourself by love on each one.”
So that’s what I did.