Tuesday, October 23, 2007

'Widowed'? No, That Box Can't Tell The Tale of a Heart

This article was in the Style section of yesterday's Washington Post. The same thing that happened to this woman also happened to me the other day when I was filling out some forms in a doctor's office. I sent her an email and asked for permission to put this on my blog.

By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007; C08

For our 10th wedding anniversary, he gave me a delicate gold bracelet that encased 35 perfect, tiny diamonds.

For our 20th anniversary later this week, I will bring 19 red roses and one white one to his grave. Nineteen for the years we had together; one for the promise of an eternity yet to come.

Please don't call me a widow. The word conjures images of an Italian grandmother in heavy black stockings, a lace mantilla and a heavy shawl. I am a 43-year-old working suburban mother of two. I don't look like anyone's vision of a widow. More important, I don't feel like one. Seven months have passed since he died and I feel as married as I ever have, maybe more so -- more committed to all the plans we had made together, whether for the toolshed in the back yard or for the 11-year-old boys now, inexplicably, absent their father.

I was first confronted with this idea that I was a widow, not in the hospital room where his body lay lifeless, his spirit already gone to a purer place; not following his casket down the aisle of the church; not the first night I tried to sleep alone in our bed. No, it was in an oral surgeon's office filling out new-patient forms.

There it was: "Marital Status," followed by four boxes and the letters M, S, D, W. I barely managed to ask the receptionist for the key to the ladies' room before the mind-numbing shock gave way to body-wracking sobs.

Till death do us part. By all legal, moral and spiritual definitions, my marriage is over.

We had loved each other through lots of good times, some not-so-good times, in sickness, oh yes in sickness, and in health. Yet, there is a part of me that still feels his presence in the home that he redecorated in the last days of his life, in the car he gave me for my 40th birthday, in the heart he stole the day I first met him 23 years ago.

The phenomenon of phantom pain is well-documented in people who lose limbs. They feel sensation -- even pain -- from arms or legs no longer there. Their suffering is real, sometimes excruciating. Mental health professionals describe the loss of a spouse as one of the most stressful events in a person's life. I know about phantom pain. Mine is not in my arm or leg but in my soul -- where a cannon blast has left a jagged hole that no prosthetic device can ever hope to repair.

I don't see my marriage so much as being over as being interrupted -- rudely and unexpectedly interrupted. Some will say this is an unhealthy attitude, that I'm trying to keep my husband alive, that I'm stuck in the past, that I'm not "moving on" with my life. There are well-meaning people who advise me to date, remove my wedding ring, color my hair.

Understand me: I am not pining for what I lost. In the worst days of those 19 years, we had more happiness than some people have in their entire lives. I did nothing in my life to deserve the goodness and sweetness we knew, so I refuse to curse the fates and say that I don't deserve the sadness that is now part of life. I move on when I walk the dog each morning, talk the boys through the latest middle-school crisis, take on a new challenge at work.

But I believe that while we love many people in our lives, each of us, if we're lucky, gets but one "love of my life." I have mine. He no longer shares my bed, but he will always share my heart. It is enough. It has to be.

When I fill out forms these days I leave "Marital Status" blank. There are some questions that simply can't be answered by checking a box.

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