It was a year into widowhood, and an old group of friends of mine had suggested a short trip out West, a long weekend where we could reunite and also lose ourselves in the landscape of the desert. It had been a good decision to go, I realized, as I sat with them the first night and drank margaritas and tried to brainstorm how to find me a man who could drown my sorrows, at least for a night. We laughed a lot and talked about the days before we had children. They spent a good amount of time listening to me talk about my terrible first dating experiences and telling me the same thing that all of my friends said back at home: “You will not be alone forever.”
It didn’t help. As with my friends back home, I knew they truly believed that I would someday find another man, maybe even get remarried. But it was impossible for me to imagine, and even with all of the love that they wanted to radiate towards me, their promises felt empty. In the worst part of my mind, I thought, How easy it is for them to say that I will find happiness again. They have perfect lives and men who lay in the beds next to them. It is easy to say all of this when you can say it wearing a wedding ring. Even with my old friends, I felt bitter that they had something I believed I’d never have again.
At that point, I had progressed through the immediate shock and grief of losing Shawn, and though I still missed him deeply, I was in a new phase where what I was missing was the relationship that made me feel secure and happy and loved. I knew I’d never meet anyone exactly like Shawn again, but even to imagine that I’d meet someone else, someday, felt impossible. This new grief woke me up in the middle of the night and made my heart race at 4 AM for no reason other than that I had started to understand that the loneliness I felt might never go away.
After a day by the pool, we headed to Joshua Tree. “I went there once,” I told my friends as we drove toward the park.
“Oh yeah?” someone said back. Everyone was only half listening.
“Yes, I went there…I think it may have been on my honeymoon,” I said. Now they were all paying attention.
I paused. “Or, maybe not. God, I can’t remember. Maybe I went there some other time.” I sat and thought about it for a minute as I watched the desert landscape turn from suburban lawns to dirt fields with low bushes. I noticed then how bleak the landscape was beginning to look. It stirred up a memory from years before, and I tried to think about how I had arrived at the park then.
“Now that I think about it,” I said, “I may have gone there with my college boyfriend. Oh my God, I guess I can’t remember who I came to Joshua Tree with. That feels weird. I should remember if I came here with Shawn, right?”
We all marveled a bit at my inability to remember this part of the trip. “I feel like I’ll know when we get there,” I said. “But what I definitely remember is that we arrived—whoever ‘we’ was—at the ranger station with U2’s album The Joshua Tree blasting and we asked the park ranger if people ever arrived playing this album. With a deadpan expression, he replied, ‘Every single car.’”
Everyone laughed, and then we settled into our drive, chatting first about the mundane (“How much energy do these wind farms actually produce?”) and then moving to more serious stuff. I talked about dating as the landscape kept changing. Black birds, probably crows, flew everywhere, kicking up the dirt and scaring away the small rodents.
We started to talk about how I was feeling. “It’s just hard to think about a future that’s happy,” I said.
My friend Rebecca was driving, so she couldn’t turn to look at me, but she spoke to me firmly. “Maybe you can’t see it,” she said, “but I see a happy future for you.”
“That’s comforting,” I said. It was, a little bit. “I want to see it, but I can’t.”
It was an honest response. God, how I wanted to know that there was happiness in my future.
“I know this might sound weird,” Rebecca said, “but you should really try a visioning exercise.” Rebecca’s job, as a life coach, meant she sometimes had some insights that the rest of us didn’t always see. I listened. “The idea is to envision a moment at some point in the future and notice all the details of that singular moment…the sights, the sounds, the feelings. In a way, it’s like deja-vu in reverse.”
“I’m not sure I fully understand,” I said.
“When I first did a visioning exercise,” Rebecca said, “I was grieving. I miscarried in my second trimester, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to have a child. Here was this thing I had always wanted—to be a mother—and I wasn’t sure if my body would let me do it. But when I tried this visioning exercise, I saw a very clear picture. I was at a house, on a lake, with two kids. They were playing by the water. And my husband was inside mixing me a cocktail.”
We all laughed at that. Rebecca and her husband had two young kids at that point and they vacationed in the summer at a lake house they bought after having their first child. And her husband happened to make great cocktails. The vision had come true.
But really, was it actually crazy to think that her future would be one where she would have kids? I said as much to her.
“Trust me,” she said, “when I did this exercise, I thought it might never happen for me.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll try it.”
I started to think. What did a happy moment look like for me in the future?
The landscape out the window had turned completely into desert. Every once in a while, a lone trailer appeared, but otherwise I saw mostly dirt and low-lying brush. As we approached the park boundaries, the landscape became dotted with the spiky and otherworldly Joshua trees. They rose out of the dirt and stretched up to the sky, with branches that appeared to have fingers that grasped at the clouds. The austerity of it let me think of a scene that somehow appeared both in my mind and before my eyes. I let the vision form for a minute before I spoke.
“My kids are older in the vision,” I said. I was crying, but I didn’t look at my friends. I kept staring out of the window. “We’re at a pool somewhere, and they are playing on rafts. I’m sitting on a bench of some sort and a man sits next to me. He’s my partner. But he’s not Shawn.”
I could see the picture so clearly in my mind, though I knew, logically, that it wasn’t real. “I can see it,” I told my friends. “But it feels impossible that this could someday be my life.”
“Why?” Rebecca asked.
I didn’t totally know why, but I had an idea. I’m not sure I would have told my friends in another time and place, but in the desert, it felt like everything was laid bare, and so I felt I could do that as well. “My kids will never have that,” I said. I was crying really hard. “I just can’t imagine another man loving me like that.”
For months, I’d been telling my friends that I wanted something even less serious than a boyfriend. “I just want to have a lover,” I said to my friends, who laughed and talked excitedly about finding me new prospects. It seemed like fun, in a way. The young widow and her lover. I liked the sound of that.
But it was a lie. “I don’t think I’ll ever get remarried,” I said to one friend and then another and then another before it became what I thought I believed. But when I was forced to see a vision of my future, I wasn’t alone with the kids at the pool.
Time passed after that trip. Years, in fact.
And so many things happened. I learned how to single parent without second-guessing every decision I made. I learned how to be alone, and yet to find so much joy in my life. I learned a lot about myself and about the way I wanted to be in the world. And of course, I met Chris.
And yet, even with all the time that has passed, I often think back to this moment at Joshua Tree. It was right at that point when I was starting to wake up to the world, starting to think about what else there might be beyond my grief and loss. I wanted so badly to have a glimpse of the next thing…but I couldn’t see it. At that point, I only knew two other young widows, and all three of us were so raw in our grief that we couldn’t lead each other anywhere. In the media, I could identify a few young widows, but what could famous people really show me?
I needed some hope. And because I didn’t personally know any other young widows who were beyond the initial stage of grief, it felt like I was staring into the great unknown. What might it be like in the future? It would be better, right? How could I really know that?
I needed to see it to believe it. I needed someone to show me that things would be different, someday. I didn’t need to know that I’d find a new husband (that part seemed really impossible) but I did need to know that my life would be filled with more joy and more satisfaction in the years to come.
Sometimes, what’s so hard is not being able to see the future. Or even to imagine a small piece of it.
I don’t think I could have really pictured a life with Chris back then. But there’s a part of me that wishes I could transport myself back in time to three years ago and spend a few minutes with Marjorie-of-the-past. I’m not sure exactly what I’d say to her, not really.
Maybe I’d tell her to focus on the vision I had with Rebecca at Joshua Tree. Maybe I’d say there’d be a day when life would feel joyful just like the feelings I’d had during the visioning exercise. Maybe I’d give Marjorie-of-the-past a clearer picture, and tell her that, in fact, I’d have a moment in the summer of 2020 when the vision would come true and I’d text those same friends about the moment I was having by a pool with Chris and the kids. Maybe, I’d even go so far as to show the whole future, and I’d show her this video of our wedding.
Or maybe that’s more than she would need to know. Maybe instead, I’d just sit next to her and say hello and offer no clues about the future. Rather, I’d simply hug her close and let her feel the way my body is steady now.
Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.