For over a decade, there was one photo that always hung in Shawn’s office. In it, he cradles me in his arms, my white wedding dress draped over his body. Our heads touch at our temples. We are beaming.
It is one of my favorite photos, rivaled only by a few I have of my children.
When Shawn died, I moved the photo to a special bookshelf in the basement bedroom, right above where the kids kept their board games. I wanted them to see it every day and know that there had once been a great love story in their house.
Often when I’d go to the basement to get something from our pantry or to play air hockey with the kids, I’d stop and look at that photo. Sometimes I would laugh, thinking of the fun we had that day. Sometimes I’d cry, remembering Shawn. Sometimes I’d just feel wistful. How much I hadn’t known when I smiled for that camera at age 25.
In many ways, I had followed my father’s example of what to do with all of the old photos and mementos. Rather than take down the things that reminded me of him, I put up more photos of Shawn after he died. Like my dad, I didn’t want to forget, and even though I knew a photo couldn’t capture all that Shawn was, I still made sure to keep them around.
The basement bedroom was where I kept all of my favorites, for some reason.
I didn’t think much about the placement of all of these images, at least not until I had someone new staying in my house.
And not just anyone new. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that this spring, I started up a new romance with a man named Chris. We were just friends for a long time, but then I confessed how I felt.
And he said he felt it too.
When he eventually came to DC, we both knew that we had to take it slowly. In normal times, he would have stayed with his sister, or in a hotel. But these are not normal times, and we both knew he’d have to stay with me. The kids were on board with it, and we set up a room for him in the basement.
Chris wasn’t the first person to sleep in the basement bedroom, obviously. Over the past two and a half years I’ve had a string of friends and family members come and stay with me. They all loved seeing photos of Shawn around my house, and almost everyone commented sweetly on the image from our wedding day that sat above the board games.
But obviously, it was a different thing for Chris to sleep in a room surrounded by images not just of Shawn, but of me and Shawn. Our wedding day. Family photos from years ago. Party pictures and backyard picnic shots and an image of our family in the Oval Office. And more than one photo of Shawn looking lovingly at me (if you need some examples, you can certainly find them on this blog!)
I didn’t really think about it, and neither did my children because they are so used to seeing their father’s image around the house.
But when Chris came in my house, and I was bringing him clean sheets and towels, I looked at the room. God, I thought, there were a lot of photos of Shawn up. Was this going to be weird for him? I mean, I’ve been open with him about Shawn from the beginning. He’s read my blog. I’ve told Chris about my love story with Shawn and about what it was like at the end.
But it’s one thing to know about a widow’s lost love, and another one to stare at her dead husband every night.
I mean, Chris didn’t say that. He’s much more thoughtful than that. But I certainly thought it. Should I have taken down the photos before he showed up to stay?
It took me a few days after he arrived, but I finally brought it up. I knew it must be strange for him to sleep in a room surrounded by Shawn’s things. He reassured me that it wasn’t. It led us on an interesting conversation about the future, and how Shawn would be a part of it.
Yes, we were talking about the future. Isn’t that what two people who are falling in love talk about?
Because yes, we were falling in love. Or maybe had already fallen at that point. I’m not sure exactly when I crossed from “falling” to “fallen” but it doesn’t really matter. By the time he’d been in my house for a few days, I knew one thing:
This was real love.
Maybe I knew it right away. Maybe I knew it that first night we talked on the phone, and I hung up and sat in my recliner for almost an hour, thinking about our obvious connection. Maybe I knew it when I told him about my family, and my dad and my sister and even my mom. Maybe I knew it when he shared about his life and his family.
But maybe I knew it most when I finally told him about the day Shawn died. Maybe I knew it when I really let him in. When I said, “here is my life, this is what I’ve seen.” When I showed him the real horrors and joys of my life, and he sat through my tears, holding space for the life of mine that he never knew. Yes, maybe it was then that I knew. What an odd thing, to feel that I loved him at the same time that I was remembering the love I lost.
Still, I wondered, did he feel insecure that he was not my first great love?
About a week after his arrival to DC, I was in the kitchen cooking and he came up to me and kissed me on the neck. I looked up at him and smiled and he said, “you are the love of my life, Marjorie.”
Oh, what I felt for him in that moment: joy, pleasure, love. Everything good that I could feel towards another was wrapped up in that moment. And yet, I couldn’t say the exact words back to him.
Because, of course, he is the second great love of my life. And that certainly doesn’t have the same ring to it.
One late night, we talked about this. I told him I loved him, which he knew, but I also told him how my love for him was separate and different from my love for Shawn. How they were both important loves for me – one in the past, and one right now. I knew it must be strange to sleep with Shawn’s photos next to his bed, but I didn’t want to take them down. Did he understand that it wasn’t a competition?
“I do,” he said. He didn’t want me to change anything, and he wanted to remember things about Shawn for the kids – and for me.
And then he said, “Marjorie, I think maybe we should think about our love in a different way. I know that this is the second time that you’ve felt love like this. I’m your second love, but I don’t feel like I’m in second place. You found love again, not a love that’s less. I’m second, as in ‘again.’ Not second place.”
I loved that. Yes, I’ve fallen in love before. Yes, I’ve felt a pull towards someone that I can’t ignore – something so powerful and all-encompassing that it takes over every other emotion in my body and my heart.
Now I get to feel it for a second time with someone new.
Yes, Chris is my second great love. But he’s not second place.
He’s second, as in again.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.