“I’m so sorry.”
That’s all he had to say when he slowly opened the white metal door that separated the ICU from the waiting room. We had been in that cramped, windowless room with no news for what felt like years, or no time at all. It was hour 36 at that hospital for me. I was still wearing the ratty pajamas I had on when I got the call that “your husband was hit by a semi-truck while riding his bike and you better come quick.” By now my face was swollen from lack of sleep and the type of crying that only comes from allowing yourself to think about the reality that yes, your husband could die when you two were peacefully falling asleep on the couch just a few hours before.
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor said. I stared at him blankly, frozen in time. He didn’t need to say anything else. I knew Jeff was gone. It was the first “I’m sorry,” I’d hear in a string of what I’m sure will be lifelong “I’m sorrys” when people realize that yes, at 30 years old, I became a widow.
The year after Jeff was killed brought obvious empty firsts — first Thanksgiving, birthday, Christmas, anniversary — in addition to more awful firsts than you’d like to contemplate. The first time you roll over in bed, arm sleepily outstretched thinking you’re rolling over for a hug, but feel an empty “his side” instead. The first time your dog bolts to your husband’s old desk after a walk outside, searching for her dad there, then in the bedroom, then in the bathroom, then back to you, with full eyes wondering where she was supposed to look next. The first time you sit to dinner at a restaurant table set for four, when the fourth isn’t coming.
The bad firsts, expected and otherwise, either sting or take you so far down, you need superhuman strength to claw back up. Then, there are the other firsts — the unexpected or unfamiliar. The first time you take a trip where no one has any idea that you’re a widow, allowing you the freedom to feel like just you again. The first time you entwine your fingers with another man’s, and feel a different shaped palm resting with your own. The first time you don’t buy watermelon at the grocery store in summer because that was his favorite fruit and actually, you hate watermelon.
As I sit well into year two of young widowhood, the firsts have largely come and gone. Now, I’m on to the “seconds,” staring the second Christmas without Jeff in the face. By now, people, including me, have moved forward from the initial shockwave that resulted from Jeff’s death. Jobs continue, friends get pregnant, rent gets paid, parties happen. And as we move back into the routines that slowly but surely creep back up, the seconds come along — unnoticed by many, felt differently by a few.
For me, in many ways the seconds have been harder than the firsts. The seconds mean that this set up is your new normal. Last year, you sat down to Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by friends and next to your little brother instead of your husband. You had a nice time, but what you actually wanted was to finish the night on the sofa asleep on Jeff’s shoulder instead of your dad’s. This year, you anticipated that the memory of Jeff’s and your turkey recipe would linger over the room, so you prepare a few jokes and have an extra few sips of red wine to cut the tension. Next year it might be easier, and it might be different. But for me, the seconds, the reminders that this is the way it is now, that he’s not coming back, are crushing. And much harder than the firsts.
Before my husband was killed, I was blind to the reasons why the holidays were hard for some. How could anyone be that upset at otherwise loving family gatherings, the goofy white elephant parties with friends, or the copious amounts of sweets tucked into every corner of the office kitchen? But now, I get it. The holiday parties are fun, the carols still bring a smile to my face, and the excessive amounts of Mrs. Myer’s toffee-chocolate candy will definitely settle deep into my molars again. But there’s a shine to it all that’s missing, its absence made more acute by the fact that you know it’s now routine.
I have no idea what the thirds will bring, or what the fourths will. The seconds have taught me to leave space for the unexpected in my own grief. And most of all, they’ve taught me to send more love out than I think people need this time of year.