ONE MARCH AFTERNOON IN 2010, I logged on to Facebook and glanced at my relationship status. My 42-year-old husband, Frank, had been dead for a month, but it still said "Married." Then, in a surreal, only-in-the-21st-century moment, I changed it to "Widowed." I hesitated, but I had to do it: No word but widow described what I was. Single said too little. I noticed the other options: It's complicated. Well, yes (what loss is uncomplicated?) and no: Death leaves you with zero options. Separated. I was that, too, but more drastic and sadder than the word usually suggests. Some hope that separation from their spouses might be temporary; mine could be nothing but permanent.
So, at age 39, after seven years of marriage, I was no longer married; I was a widow. And this, the only appropriate designation, felt hard-earned. Frank's sickness and death belonged to him, but they had changed my life, too, making demands and requiring sacrifices. The path that led me from wife to widow had been long, crooked, and painful. I had spent the previous two years watching my husband fight, with grace and heartbreaking optimism, a rare and aggressive form of esophageal cancer. When his cancer briefly disappeared, I rejoiced with him; when it reappeared, we despaired together. I rode beside him in ambulances to emergency rooms late at night. I asked questions in oncologists' offices and took notes. I cried on the phone to impassive health insurance bureaucrats. And one morning, when I left the hospice to feed our cats and make some calls, Frank died. A chaplain led me by the hand to her office, and I sank to the floor, crying, deeply sad--and guilt-ridden--that I had not been with him at the very end.
Although I decided to wear my wedding ring for a year after his death (as a respectful gesture to Frank and to keep unwanted male attention at bay), six months in, I felt ready to date. I had started to miss companionship, the everyday pleasures of having a man in my life. Yet when I started dating, widowhood became the woolly mammoth in the room--guys would try to avoid the subject completely. The first man I dated after Frank, a sports fanatic from Brooklyn whom I saw for two months, would tense his jaw and say, "I'm sorry," before changing the subject to football. "I'm sorry" is not an unreasonable response. But I felt sorry enough for myself; after a point, I could hardly bear having anyone else feel sorry for me. Other men, once they learned of my history, avoided me altogether. As soon as I'd get comfortable enough with them to talk about it, usually after a few dates, they'd pull away--no more e-mails or calls. One date was texting me regularly to make plans and tell me jokes, only to downgrade his correspondence to Facebook the more he learned about my past, then fade out completely. He never conveyed the reason he bailed, but it was clear he wanted someone breezy and uncomplicated. As a widow, I was anything but. In hindsight, I admit that wearing my wedding ring and discussing Frank may have signaled that I wasn't ready to move on. But I felt torn between feeling very attached to his memory and also taking tentative steps toward a future without him.
Widowhood also has had a strange sanctifying effect on how men perceive me. Maybe it's because so many guys have called me "courageous," but as soon as I utter the word "widow," I sense I'm being seen as a living saint and that my marriage was flawless, which of course isn't true. "You must have really loved him," a few men have said in awe. Well, yes, of course I loved him, but our marriage was like most: It had highs and lows. In the year before Frank got sick, we'd gone through marriage counseling and even a trial separation, but there was never any question that I'd be there during his illness. But it seems as though Frank's death smoothed all the rough edges off our relationship, leaving behind something ideal, untouchable, and intimidating to men.
Some guys have even turned my widowhood into a weird power struggle, a game of "Whose life is harder?" One recent date loved to vent about his everyday stresses--the grueling hours he logged as a music producer, the intensely competitive nature of his work--but would stop himself by saying, "I know this is nothing compared to what you've been through." Maybe he was trying to be sympathetic, but it seemed as though, in some bizarre way, he resented my situation, that in terms of our life experience, the playing field wasn't even and his problems couldn't possibly bear any weight. Part of me wanted to shake him when he complained of routine problems, to make him put things in perspective. But he also helped me understand how alien and incomprehensible my situation must seem to someone who has not lived with such a loss.
I've been dating for almost two years now--some guys lasted just one date, others for months at a time. However, there always seems to be a barrier between us, and it's often Frank. But I don't want to blame just the guys. Not only can I seem frustratingly ambivalent about what exactly I want from a relationship--I'm still trying to figure that out--but before I became a widow, I held my own judgments about these women. Recalling my days as an English major, I recall depictions of tragic, desexualized widows--from Naomi in the Bible; Widow Douglas, the stern and pious caregiver to Huck Finn; Widow Quin in Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World. At a young age, I concluded that widows were different from other women, set apart, other. And then I became one.
Not long ago, I met a man with whom I instantly hit it off. A friend of a friend, he looked me up when he was traveling through New York from Europe. We went out for drinks and had a great time, telling stories about our childhood and swapping anecdotes about our lives as writers. I'd assumed that our mutual friends had told him I'd lost my husband. They hadn't, but I still felt comfortable discussing it with him. Perhaps because it didn't feel like a real date, only a hastily scheduled get-together, I felt none of the pressure that goes along with courtship. And his kind, nonjudgmental demeanor made it easy for me to open up. Instead of pity, he responded with empathy: He wanted to learn more; he understood how essential it was that I talk about it. And that's what my other dates had been missing: a simple acknowledgment that widowhood was central to my story, and an interest in it. Our evening ended platonically, but it reminded me that I still had the capacity to connect with a man. In a small but significant way, something shifted for me that night. It felt good--and restorative--just to have a crush again. It was a small step toward truly moving forward.
I don't believe that the dying mean to teach us anything. But I do know that there was nothing Frank wanted more when he was sick than to live another day. And that's worth remembering: Take it one day at a time. I don't know if I'll ever marry again. And even if I do, although my Facebook status would change once more, I'll carry the experience of widowhood forever. But the burden does get lighter. And where once the possibility of ever having a relationship again was unthinkable, I don't feel that way anymore. I don't feel tragic, or anomalous. I feel ready. Almost.