Last Sunday after service, I was introduced to a woman around my age who had just lost her husband to another cancer. It was a hallway meeting, rushed, and we scribbled e-mails and gave our two-sentence summaries. When I mentioned just having remarried, her eyebrows rose in an "mm HMMM" that I remember from meeting my first young widow.
My connection to Marie was a surprise from church and happened during Gavin's last several months. Of course, I was in a cranky e-mail conversation. In this case, I was complaining that a certain local politician, eligible for an upcoming election, was scheduled to present a sermon. I didn't like him because he was promoting the light rail that was planning to run through my porch. I knew of one serious ethics violation* and the gentleman's general dishonesty and didn't feel we should give him such a bully pulpit.
I was referred to the worship committee. After some e-mailed discussion of the issue, Marie wrote, "On another note, I don't know how you'll take this, but I want you to know that my husband died after several years fighting cancer and I had small children at the time. It's been several years, and I am doing much better now. But if you ever want to talk, about anything at all, I'm here."
Did I ever.
We had coffee in a reading nook that was multitasking while her kitchen underwent remodeling. Copper granite, her late husband's art books, and a toaster oven resting on a bookshelf next to a jar of Smucker's.
We talked about his illness, and ours. Her kids had been two and four. His death was a surprise; he had good odds after a second chemo but then broke his hip and died from complications. Yes, there had been life insurance. She had long ago abandoned grad school to stay at home and they'd moved to an area she didn't like for his job. She didn't know what to do next or who she was but she knew she had to take care of her kids. And all her friends were married with kids the same age.
She told me two things that had a huge influence on me. HUGE.
(1) Grieving can take many forms. Listen to your body. It may not be what you expect. "Ummmm... like what?" Well, for her, it had manifested as intense horniness. I laughed. Okay, if anything happens.... I guess I will just respect what my feelings and try not to be too shocked.
Almost two years later, when the wave of horniess hit me, I told her and she said, "What took you so long?" When had these feelings started for her? "Um, the next day."
(2) Wednesdays, wine, and West Wing. Marie had no identity, no direction, but some time to grieve and take care of things. What did she know about herself? "Well, I knew I liked wine. And I liked to watch the West Wing."
So every Wednesday she would put the boys to bed early, open a bottle of wine, and watch her favorite show. "Were you studying wine?" "No, it was pretty much anything. I wasn't ambitious or intellectual about it."
Somehow, for Marie this ritual dedicated to herself turned into an evening out each week, and dating and sex, but I don't remember the details too well. She was married and in grad school when we met. Now she's starting a new career that is good for her and uses her talents. Her family is pretty well settled in (and the kitchen is finished).
What I remember was how she carved something out from this tiny nook -- just a little bit of insight into one or two things she enjoyed, no matter how ordinary.
And these two bits of advice from Marie were instrumental in my journey, even though he was still alive and fighting. Of course, I knew I would need them, so I listened despite myself. Someone had been through it, and out. She'd even had choices on what steps to take.
I try to pass on Marie's wisdom whenever I can, though I'll admit I get some funny looks. Hey, we're not all Unitarians.
* In the end, he was disqualified from that election because he didn't meet the eligibility rules -- and he's, um, a lawyer. Nah, nah, I was right.
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