About a year after Shawn died, I had a short but passionate relationship with a man I’ll call Derek. It ended badly.
I didn’t want to admit to most of my friends that the breakup hit me really hard. I told them that I wasn’t sure why I was down, but that I seemed to be experiencing new grief. Really, the original misery over losing Shawn had never gone away. But my relationship with Derek had tamped that grief down, had made it smooth around the edges, encapsulated in a vessel that I could hold and manage. Somehow, our breakup had broken that vessel and the grief spilled out everywhere.
I was more honest with my dad. I had to be. He was living in my house and would catch me crying in the moments when I thought I was alone. Sometimes he would say something to me, but usually he just put his hand on my shoulder for a moment before leaving the room. He knew I’d tell him if I wanted to talk.
I stumbled through the weeks, realizing that the “year of yes”—once an effortless and fun idea—was weighing me down. I’d tried again with love, hadn’t I? So where was my happiness? Wasn’t that some sort of exchange that I got for trying new things?
One afternoon when the temperature was finally a bit above freezing, I went on a run and then took a bike ride with Claire. It was the first time since the previous fall that I’d been able to really be outside, and had relished the expansiveness of the day. Now I wanted to go outside to the garden rather than be cooped in the kitchen cooking. “Let’s just eat cereal,” I told my dad. “I don’t feel like making dinner.”
He agreed. I think he could see that I needed to be in my garden much more than I needed to roast chicken. Afterwards, every single one of my fingernails was black with dirt.
I came inside to wash my hands and my dad was reading. “How was it out there?” he asked. He set down his thick book.
“It was great,” I said, honestly. “Sometimes I just need to dig in my garden to feel a bit of relief.”
“I understand,” my dad said, though he wasn’t a gardener. He looked at me for a long bit, his face steady.
“I’ve been feeling so down lately,” I said, maybe a response to the silence. “About Derek, somewhat, but mostly because I can’t kick the feeling that I’m going to be alone forever.”
I didn’t say it. I didn’t say that I was going to turn out like him. But he knew what I meant. Still, I didn’t worry that he’d see my struggle as some sort of a dismissal of his own choices—he’d been clear from the outset that he would never remarry. I could feel the beginnings of tears on the rims of my eyes, and I blinked hard.
“Maybe you’ll be alone,” my dad said, “but there’s one big thing that’s different between my situation and yours. You live in a big city, with lots of people. It will be a lot easier for you to meet someone.”
“But I might not,” I said, cutting him off a bit. I didn’t want false encouragement.
“You might not,” he admitted. My dad was never one for beating a point to death, and he shrugged slightly. Still, I knew he was trying to help me feel a bit better.
I took a deep breath, willing myself to keep my composure. “I’ve been so down lately. Sometimes I feel like I can’t go on, you know?”
My dad nodded. Of course he knew how it felt to be me. That wasn’t the sort of thing that time and space helped. He still remembered what it felt like to be alone in early widowhood.
And yet, my dad had found meaning outside of any romantic relationship. He had decided that romantic love would be an impossibility, maybe because of his location, or maybe because his heart wouldn’t let him go there. But either way, he had decided that he would remain single.
I was trying to do the opposite. “I won’t end up like my dad,” I’d said many times in the year after Shawn died. There was nothing wrong with the choice my dad had made, that I knew for sure. “I’m happy,” he would say, if either my sister or I asked him after my mom died.
But that wasn’t me. I didn’t want to be alone.
“I think what I’ve been realizing over the past few weeks is that my relationship with Derek was important for me not just because I liked Derek but because of what he represented,” I said.
My dad nodded. “Yes,” he said.
“I wanted Derek to come in and be a replacement. He isn’t Shawn. But somehow I got it in my head that I could make a new life with him. And that as long as this new life resembled my old life, I’d go back to being happy.”
“But that didn’t happen,” my dad said.
“No, it didn’t,” I said. “The crazier thing is, I didn’t love him!”
It wasn’t just that I wanted a new boyfriend or a new lover. It was that I wanted someone to show me a path forward, someone to show me what a happy life could look like. I didn’t want empty promises of a good year. I wanted someone to show up and reinforce my upward trajectory.
I kept talking. “I created this idea of a new life with him before I had any sort of feelings like that for him. That’s how bad I want someone new.”
“I understand that,” my dad said. I wasn’t sure if he did, actually, since it wasn’t something he desired. But he seemed to understand that it was human to feel the way I did. And if nothing else, my dad understood humanity.
In an effort to distract myself from the emotions that were almost overwhelming me, I began wiping the kitchen counter. But I kept talking. “What I think I’m starting to really understand is that I might not get a new life that looks anything like my old life,” I said. “I might not have a new partner. I might be alone. And I still have to find a way to make meaning of my life.”
“Marjorie,” my dad said, waiting for me to look up. Then he stared straight into my eyes as he said, “you are making meaning of your life. You are raising three kids. You are teaching. You are writing. All of that is making meaning. You are doing it. You are making meaning already.”
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.