When somebody dies, they tend to get elevated to an untouchable godliness that can only be bestowed upon those who can no longer do anything wrong. Any of their past mistakes have been smoothed over and forgotten; they are remembered fondly and reverently. The bad parts of their lives are mostly erased and not spoken about; we do not want to tarnish the memories of the dead. Especially the ones who died too early.
I decided a while ago that I would not write about “really” bad stories. If a person isn’t here to tell their side of the story, it seems unfair. Maybe even pointless.
But it is also silly to paint a picture of a person using broad strokes and ignoring the details that made them human, even the unpleasant ones.
I find this happens a lot when remembering my husband. The good memories rise like cream to the top and we neglect the murky, unpleasant ones that sunk to the bottom.
When you lose your spouse, you go through phases. Sometimes it is unbearably painful and sad and you miss them terribly. Other times, you think about what you hated about them, and then you feel guilty for thinking that you ever hated them. Sometimes you’re indifferent. Sometimes nostalgic. The feelings are an elusive shape-shifter.
I have a confession to make.
I am a better wife to a dead man than I was to a living husband.
And I suspect that if he could come back from the dead, he’d be a better husband. We would all be better people if we could learn the lessons death teaches us and then get a re-do. If only life worked that way.
I wasn’t the worst wife ever.
I just wasn’t as good as I could have been. Sometimes I wonder if I was ever cut out to be a wife. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a wife. I’m fairly confident that I was made to be a good mother, but I’m not so sure if I ever had it in me to be a good wife.
Kenneth and I agreed on all of the important issues that usually plague marriages: money, how to raise the kids, politics, religion. We never had to worry about those landmines.
But on other issues, like how to keep the house clean, we were fervently at odds.
He hated that I overscheduled our time. I found a journal entry of his where he wrote about how he wanted to write a book, so then he could show me that he did it, and afterward I’d have to agree to let him be lazy and watch movies and leave him alone for the rest of his life.
Part of me stung when I read his thoughts scrawled across that page in his sacred journal. How could I have made him get up and do things in his final weeks and months? Why didn’t I let him watch movies and drink beer? He should have been resting. I’ve had plenty of moments where I contemplated whether or not I was responsible for his aorta exploding.
The other part of me smugly thinks, “Good, you got to go to Paris again and experience Israel and other places and we did lots of things as a family because I made us do it. I helped you live your final days of life as fully as possible.” And then I feel like a self-less angel. Mother-freaking-Teresa.
But it’s always more complicated than that.
When somebody dies, it is natural to beat yourself up and to think about what you could have done, should have done, or would have done. I’ve been mostly kind to myself about the entire ordeal. My pragmatic self realized early on that hindsight is a foolish barometer of how we should live.
But I do acknowledge that I was too harsh as a wife. Too judgemental. Too rigid in my thinking. Too no-nonsense. Too intolerant.
I don’t accept all of the blame. A lot of it falls squarely back on my husband’s shoulders, too.
But I take responsibility for having made a lot of mistakes. I wish I could apologize. I wish we would have held hands more. I wish I didn’t get mad at him so quickly. I wish I didn’t think he could have been something more than he was, or expected him to change in ways that had long been settled. I wish I would have complimented him more. I wasn’t patient enough with his struggles. I wish I would have surprised him more often. I wish I would have given him more attention instead of drowning in the duties of motherhood. I wish we would have gone on date nights.
I came across a quote a few months ago by Eckhart Tolle:
“To love is to recognize yourself in another.”
I didn’t do that. I know I held him up to standards that were too high, too inhumanly possible to achieve. Standards I wouldn’t want to be judged by today.
But that was before I had been fully bitch-slapped by life. I didn’t know any better. You never do. And then you do, and you wish it could be changed, but there is no such thing as living backwards.
In widowhood, I feel like I can objectively look at marriage since I both experienced it and lost it. There are pros and cons. There are no right or wrong answers. Marriage is messy, just like life. It is not a pretty Disney fairytale, but it shouldn’t be a horror movie either if you marry the right person.
Except there is no “right” person in the sense that there will ever be somebody who completely embodies the image in your mind of what you want. There is no such thing as a perfect person. There are only compatible people.
Marriage is a living organism that must be tended to, fine-tuned, invested in, and if it is alive, it evolves. You have to be ready for the changes. Marriage is strangulation. Marriage is an agreement. It is devotion and loyalty. It is soul-sucking and all-consuming. It is also loving, safe, and warmth. Marriage is a tedious marathon from which you do not get a vacation from. Marriage is both wonderful and stupid.
There are a lot of aspects about marriage that I miss. I miss being a parent with my husband. I miss being able to gaze fondly at our children and then making eye contact with each other, knowing that we are mutually invested in life’s greatest creation. That we created this family together. There is nobody who loves my children as much as I do, except their father. And now he is gone.
“Daddy loved you guys so much,” I tell the kids on a regular basis. “He gave me all of his love to make sure I love you enough for me and enough for him.” They smile, leaning toward me as I kiss their cheeks.
When I tuck them into bed at night, I tell them, “Mama loves you. And so does Daddy, wherever he is.” And I think they believe it.
I miss having somebody to vent to. To truly vent to. Somebody invested in finding solutions to my problems. Somebody who shares my burdens. Somebody who wouldn’t flinch to try and relieve me of my burdens.
Somebody to adult with, to squish the bugs in the house, a person to ask “what do you think?” when I’m indecisive about what color to paint the house or whether or not I should buy a new patio set for the backyard. Somebody to share responsibility with, so I’m not the only one to blame. It was less scary living life with a partner.
I miss sitting next to Kenneth on the long drive to our annual camping trip, listening to music, talking about politics.
I miss having somebody in the world who thought I was the smartest, prettiest, most amazing woman out there. I never had to question his loyalty–ever. He would do anything to protect me.
I miss having somebody who thought I was beautiful even in my pajamas, first thing in the morning, with or without shaved legs.
There were also a lot of things I didn’t like about marriage. Our life was not a fairy tale. We both had journals filled with complaints about the other person. I do enjoy my freedom as a single woman. I make big decisions like where to go on vacation and I don’t have to negotiate with anyone. There is no way in hell Kenneth would have approved us going to Japan last December. I come and go as I please. My house is always clean and organized. Nobody is keeping track of where I am. I get to sleep with whoever I want! I get to drive to my tennis class in a red convertible. Nobody ever asks me what I bought from Zappos or Amazon (okay, sometimes my dad does, but there is never any teeth in those inquiries). Complete freedom.
But upon examining the good, the bad, and the everything in between, I know that if I was given a magical choice, I would marry Kenneth again. I would trade the vacations and my red Miata and my freedom in an instant if I could have my old life back, even the bad moments.
Too bad there is no such magic in life. So instead, I get to decide how to live my future. I get to use the knowledge from this experience and become an improved version of myself. My consolation prize. It is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime, bittersweet gift.
I can choose to live my life with flexible expectations.
Kinder to myself.
I can love more deeply.
Be softer with people.
Keep an open-mind.
But most importantly, I can dig deep inside of myself and know, honor, and respect who I am. No apologies. I like a lot of freedom. I’m a loner who is very independent. I need time alone. I need to be able to make decisions without somebody hovering and commenting and bothering me. I don’t like to be micromanaged. I like men who have a lot to say and who are super smart. I require creativity and wanderlust and thinking outside of the box. I like to be challenged.
And when and if I find somebody I deem worthy of my time, I will remember that I am not in the business of changing. Or micromanaging. Or smothering. Or mothering. I will try to be honest and communicate, have patience and respect, and to love unconditionally.
But I’m not in a hurry for any of it. Intentional living means not forcing square pegs into round holes. It means being happy living with yourself, knowing that the life you have built for yourself is good enough. You are good enough. It means keeping an open mind for whatever else may unfold in the future.
When I married Kenneth, we said vows and promised to love and care for each other as long as we both shall live. Even though my wedding ring is no longer on my finger, I am still loving him by the way I raise our children, making sure he has flowers at the cemetery, and the way I try to keep his memory alive. Life moves on. The pain is always there, but so is the love. You don’t stop loving the dead. You just learn to make room for more love.