He sat on the edge of our bed and told me that he wanted me to find someone else after he died.
Although I was unable to see it in the moment, I realize now all these years later what a kindness it was. In the days after my husband Steve and I learned that his brain tumor was terminal, he sat on the edge of our bed and told me that he wanted me to find someone else after he died. At the time, I wanted to hear nothing of it.
I was 25 and he was 27; we had been married for just over three years. A few short months later I would be pregnant with our daughter. His oncologist was optimistic and gave him five to 10 years because he was so young and had no other underlying health conditions. Looking at him then, and for a couple of years afterward, you would never have known he was sick. He was there, by my side, and the last thing I wanted to think about was the altogether abstract concept of his dying.
I threw myself into Steve’s treatment, care, and rehabilitation. I tackled the insurance companies, his speech therapy sessions, and radiation schedules. I researched chemotherapies, started working toward nursing school, and managed his deluge of daily meds. I kept endless notes on med side effects, cognitive function, and seizures. I could complete a neurological exam in my sleep.
I coordinated with doctors and hospitals who often seemed incapable of communicating with each other and drove tens of thousands of miles to make sure he made it to his appointments and got the best care possible. Somehow I believed that if I did everything in my power to take care of him, he would live.
The truth I could not face was that he was going to die no matter what I did. And then there was an even darker truth: He would die before even making it to the short end of his original prognosis.
But now, looking back almost a year and a half after his death, and nearly six years after that first oncologist appointment, I am fully aware of how those early words were a gift. As I begin to move through life again, and especially as I start to date again, there is no question that Steve loved me and wanted nothing more than for me to be happy in this life.
Steve was always a kind and generous person, but he went above and beyond on this one. It means so much to me to have that knowledge to hold close. I don’t have to wonder how he would feel about me going on a date (and I like to think he’s right by my side laughing at the awkwardness and mystery that is attempting to date again in my early 30s after an almost 11-year hiatus). Instead of feeling guilty or strange, I am at peace with watching this next stage of my life unfold, and I believe so much of my confidence and calm comes from him.
Toward the end, as the tumor progressed, Steve expressed concern for me: He was so worried that it would be hard for me to find someone else as a single mother to a young child. Though I was wholly uncertain at the time, I assured him I would be fine.
The truth is, I am still enormously hazy about what lies ahead, but I am moving forward nonetheless. Despite my “widowed single mother” label (which is, after all, just a label), and all of the real or perceived baggage that goes along with that, I am choosing to be happy and open to what life has to offer.
A common misconception, my suffering has not made me fragile, but rather so much stronger than I could have ever imagined. My perspective is different than most, but I also know fully the great possibility that lies in love.
Six days before Steve died, we marked nine years together. That kind of love and time doesn’t just disappear when a person dies. I like to think that someday I will have another partner in life, that time and circumstance will once again collide for the better. It will take a special person to acknowledge and accept that Steve will always be a part of our lives, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. In the meantime, and for the rest of my days, I will be grateful for Steve’s love and kindness and all the gifts he gave along the way.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury outreach coordinator, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in central Maine. Her essays have most recently appeared in Hippocampus, Modern Loss, the Mid, and Brain, Child. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.