In my life, where I don’t always know whether my fingers will graze sky or ground when I reach out, sometimes our fingers interlaced is all that I need: I don’t need to know how it’s all going to unfold.
On the eve of the second anniversary of my husband’s death, a Monday, I drove an hour to celebrate my boyfriend’s birthday at his place. Technically, my boyfriend’s birthday is the day after my husband’s death anniversary, but Monday was the only day that week we could get our schedules to align.
My boyfriend and I had been seeing each other for around nine months at that point. The week prior, my husband Steve and I would have marked 11 years together.
I met my husband on my 20th birthday when I joined a backcountry trail crew for the summer. Ten months after we met, Steve and I started dating, and we were married a year and half later despite spending much of the first year of our relationship 1,200 miles apart. There were a lot of folks who raised their eyebrows at the short timeline, and at our ages, 22 and 24. We were never ones to worry much about others’ judgments or tradition, however, and we said our vows on a sunny autumn day on the same mountain where we met.
Steve and I were together for nine years and five days.
Nine years, one wedding, two dogs, one mortgage, one brain tumor, five cats, two brain surgeries, one baby, two radiation therapies, 12 chickens, one failed “mini” IVF procedure, seven wedding anniversaries, and three chemotherapies later, I was a 29-year-old widow with a 3 ½-year-old and six pounds of ashes sitting on the linen chest at the end of my bed.
After Steve was diagnosed at the age of 27, I had returned to school for nursing in the hopes of being able to better support our family. I eventually left the program to take care of Steve during the last months of his life. I returned to school six months after his death but, despite my academic success, I was miserable and it became clear that my heart was no longer in it. Part way into my second semester, and just shy of a year after Steve’s death, I once again departed the program.
Leaving school this time was a turning point. Shortly thereafter, I found a job I loved helping survivors and their families navigate the frequently devastating world of brain injury and did some heavy lifting with my grief. I also began to embrace the fact that I was starting to find happiness in life again.
A couple months later, I decided I was ready to think about dating again. I knew that I wanted to be absolutely forthcoming about my life, but that hollering “widowed single mama with a partially-healed broken heart and a boisterous preschooler in tow” from the rooftops was potentially going to be a tough sell.
While I was ready to seek companionship, I also knew unequivocally that I did not need a relationship: to be happy, to be successful, to thrive. I had survived hell on earth and had no interest in wasting anyone’s time.
After numerous conversations, false starts, and first dates, (including one date who kept telling me how sorry he was over and over and another fellow who wondered whether I was concerned about who I would end up with in the afterlife if I ever got married again), I started to wonder if the output of energy was worth it. Shortly after that, I went on a date with B.
After a couple of lunch dates, we began seeing each other more frequently. We agreed that we wanted to see each other exclusively but that it would be short-term, as B was planning to apply to graduate school just a few months down the road.
I think we were both immensely relieved by the lack of expectation and the freedom that those parameters provided, especially since our previous relationships both held significant marks of tragedy. I was also still in the process of reconstructing myself as a person in the aftermath of Steve’s death, and being able to seek companionship without the weight of a full-on relationship became instrumental in that rebuilding process.
Before I met B, if someone had told me that I would be comfortable with, and truly embrace, the idea of such a casual relationship, especially as a single parent, I would have shaken my head in disbelief. While I have no issue with the concept, it just wasn’t anything I had ever considered for myself, but it ended up being exactly what I needed. In some ways I think it afforded me the opportunity to open myself up more than would have been possible with the pressure of “long-term” and “future” weighing on my mind.
With B, I can speak freely about Steve, about my daughter (who, despite B’s claims of having no talent with children, he does wonderfully with), and about my past, and I never feel judged or pitied or that I am burdening him. We talk about my grief openly and intimately. There is no discomfort or defensiveness on his part, and he is supportive of my history as well as my current journey.
Life, in its funny way, has altered things over time in ways we didn’t see coming, much like I never expected B’s birthday to be the day after Steve’s death anniversary. B’s grad school plans were delayed by other projects and his return to reserve military service, what was supposed to be short-term has now well surpassed a year, and while we each maintain our independence, our lives have slowly intertwined as we have grown closer.
After B’s birthday celebration, we talked about how our relationship had evolved and changed. We talked about how we were on the same page but uncertain of what the future held. I don’t believe in promises or the future or surviving anything unscathed. I know better than most that even if we claimed to know exactly what we wanted for our relationship, where we wanted it to go and what we wanted it to be, that things often don’t go as planned and so much of life is simply out of our hands.
B and I care for each other deeply, and he cares enormously for my daughter, and that is what is important to me. In my life, where I don’t always know whether my fingers will graze sky or ground when I reach out, sometimes our fingers interlaced is all that I need: I don’t need to know how it’s all going to unfold.
I know that I do not dream like I used to. I know that I no longer feel able to really plan for the future like it might exist, although my daughter reminds me daily that it does, but I also know that I am grateful for my time with B and that we somehow managed to find each other in the fog and the fray.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in central Maine. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.