Yesterday, June 21st, was the 31st anniversary of the day Bill and I met. We both attended a weekend Widowed Retreat at a camp on the Hood Canal. In the course of a grief workshop, we discovered that our first spouses had died on the same day of the year, two years apart. They both died a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve.
I had been invited to come and do a poetry reading of After the Fire, a book that tells the story of the eighteen years I spent with a man who died of chronic alcoholism at age 42. I went to the retreat feeling very nervous. Since I had divorced my husband prior to his death, I felt as though I hadn’t quite had my ticket punched. Having that divorce decree meant I was no longer married to my husband when he died, but it didn’t mean I no longer cared. Still, when he passed away, I remember one of the guys at work saying to me, “What are you so upset about? You divorced him, didn’t you?”
In other words, when I arrived at the campground I was conflicted, to say the least. However, the hostess who greeted me at the door welcomed me by saying, “If you need to grieve, this is the place to do it,” and I decided to heed her advice.
That evening, rather than going outside to do the after-dinner egg race, I went to a grief workshop. There were thirty-five or so people seated in a circle in a large room. For starters we were to say our name, our spouse’s name, what they died of and when they died. Because I was nervous, I sat next to the facilitator. As a consequence, I was the one who spoke first. “My name is Judy, and my husband’s name was Jerry. He died of chronic alcoholism on New Year’s Eve, 1982/83″. A third of the way around the room was a guy who said, “My name is Bill, and my wife’s name was Lynn. She died of breast cancer on New Year’s Eve, 1984/85.” I noted that we both had that date in common, and when it came time for sharing I looked forward to hearing what Bill had to say which turned out to be … nothing. He said NOT ONE WORD!
When the workshop was over and we repaired to the patio for a bonfire and s’mores, I went looking for him with a chip on my shoulder and blood in my eye. After all, I had talked about real stuff in the workshop, and he hadn’t. When I spotted him out by the fire, I strode up to him and said, in a very truculent fashion, “So what are you, the strong silent type?” I thought I was being insulting. He thought I was giving him a compliment. He knew he was the silent type, but he wasn’t so sure about the strong part. “No,” he replied, “it still hurts too much to talk about it.”
Within five minutes, I was literally crying on his shoulder, sobbing away like a ninny while he stood with one arm wrapped around my waist while wondering what he should do with the other arm. I remember thinking to myself, “This is so stupid, but it feels so good.”
And that was the start of something grand! The following weekend was the pub party for my first book, Until Proven Guilty. Bill came to the event and had to talk his way inside because my daughter, who was running the registration table, didn’t see his name on the official guest list. He came early and stayed late. At the end of the evening, when he asked if he could see me again, I said sure, in a month—because I had a month’s worth of previously scheduled events on the calendar, including my first ever drive-yourself book tour. He thought I was giving him the brush off, but it was the absolute truth.
When I came back, I called him. Our first official date at the end of July was for the monthly meeting of his widowed support group. For the next while we spent a lot of time talking and crying and comparing notes. Although having a spouse die of cancer or alcoholism seem like very different situations, they are both long-term chronic health issues in which one crisis follows another, and each new crisis is followed by a new normal that’s worse than the one before. Bill and I had both seen our hopes and dreams shattered, so we had a lot to talk about in that regard. By Labor Day we were holding hands.
I could see that Bill was definitely marriage material, but I told him that since I’d tried married life once and wasn’t very good at it, I wasn’t the marrying kind. In mid-September, however, when he was invited to a job interview in northern California, I was devastated—a reaction which seemed at odds with my “not-the-marrying-kind” position. And when he saw my reaction, he didn’t go for the interview, either.
By mid-September we were laughing more than talking or crying. By mid-October we were engaged, and we got married on the 21st of December—a six month courtship from beginning to end. Our position was that having loved and lost once, we didn’t want to waste a minute. We’ve had more time together than either of us ever anticipated, and I’m still glad we didn’t get engaged and married in slow-mo. It was the right thing to do, and we both knew it.
So last night we went out to dinner just the two of us. This weekend we’ll travel to Moses Lake where our eldest granddaughter is getting married. My fondest wish for Lauren and Marcus is that the next thirty-one years are as good to them as the past thirty-one have been to Bill and me.
It doesn’t get any better than that.