So here we are. It’s about that time of year again, just a few days away from the four-year anniversary of my husband’s death. My “on this day” Facebook memories reveal a four-years-ago me who was celebrating a year in her first house, going on one of the best long weekend vacations of her life, and hoping to be a mom. She had NO idea what was coming.
Every year as I watch these memories pop up, I somehow want to go back and warn her. I don’t know if I want to tell her to soak it in while she can or to flee for the hills. But either way, something bad is coming. She just doesn’t know it yet.
This year, I’m more aware of it than ever. Spending the last several months working on the re-launch of Determined to Shine has been a somewhat strange process. It’s been exciting, finally getting the class ready and really pulling all these pieces together that I’ve dreamed about for several years now.
But it’s not lost on me that all of this great stuff is possible because something really horrible happened.
Many of you know this part of my story. Boy meets girl, they become best friends, and seven years later, they finally tie the knot. Then before you know it, there’s a puppy and a house and a picket fence and hopes for a baby on the way.
Many of you know this part, too. That things didn’t go as planned. That things went horribly, horribly wrong. He pulled the trigger, and just like that I was a widow at 31. Then before I knew it, it was sleepless nights and PTSD and how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-through-this.
I once wrote that grief is a long, tricky spiraly thing. As the four-year anniversary of my husband’s death approaches, I know this to be more true than ever. The more time goes by, the more I understand and accept that in more ways than one, this cycle will continue for the rest of my life. It changes and moves and shifts – the only constant part of this grief is that in some way, it’s always there.
It’s been incredibly obvious to me that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t loved Dan – and if I hadn’t lost him. But he is no longer the only man in my story – and this is the part I haven’t yet told you.
It was October 25, 2013. I was getting ready for what I was convinced would be my last first date, at least for quite some time. Not because I was so sure about this new man. But because precisely the opposite was true. I’d gone on a few first dates since moving to Madison and trying out the online dating scene, and I was just tired. It wasn’t working for me. It was a big city, and I was lonely without the friends and family I’d be surrounded by in Iowa. But this dating thing was just not working out. A few dates were awful. A couple were just awkward. In one instance, it didn’t feel like a romance was brewing, but I made a friend. (Hey, Kevin!) But I was tired, and I was just done. I’d already committed to meet this one last guy, and I thought it would be rude to cancel. So I found myself walking into a restaurant that October 25.
TJ was handsome. He was sweet. He was adorably nervous. I’d soon find out that I was his first date back on the scene after his own marriage ended.
“Oh my gosh,” I said. “Are you okay? The first date back is terrifying.”
He laughed. “Thank you. You’re right. It is.”
Just two days later, TJ met me for lunch downtown. He showed up and told me he had a gift for me, and he promptly presented me with a bag of cheddar cheese curds.
A message to my friend after lunch: “He showed up with cheese. I’m pretty sure I’m going to marry him.”
A year would go by before we’d spend more than two days apart. (But don’t get any funny ideas about that marriage thing – we’re quite happy just as we are.)
I often hear from people that falling in love again somehow negates the past or means that I should no longer be grieving. Or that it means I didn’t really love my husband in the first place. Or that I couldn’t really love TJ. Somehow, there is still an idea floating around out there that a person should only love one person in a lifetime.
These comments slice like knives. I met my husband during my first week of college. We were best friends for nearly four years before we started dating, near the end of my senior year at the University of Iowa. When he died, we were approaching six years of marriage and ten years together. I had, quite literally, spent pretty much my entire adult life loving this man. How could that possibly mean nothing?
A few years before he died, Dan and I were talking about what would happen if one of us died young.
“I’d never love again,” I instantly replied.
He paused. “For your sake, I really hope that’s not true.”
And it wasn’t.
Falling in love again doesn’t mean I don’t grieve, and it doesn’t mean that I’m not still hurting. I miss my best friend. I miss the life we shared, and I miss the promise of a future and children that never got to be realized. Falling in love again does not change this. It does not make the trauma any less severe. It does not make the pain of the past go away.
But I do not live in my past. I live in today – and falling in love again has made my today pretty great.
Loving TJ has given me so much. It’s allowed me to understand that losing a great love does not mean I cannot experience great love again. To understand that endings do not mean that no new beginnings are possible. To understand that after great darkness, there can be light again.
TJ and I have shared game nights and 5Ks in tutus and Disney World and dancing in the street. He brings out the best in me, keeps me grounded when I’m anxious, and loves it when my inner child comes out to play – preferably with Legos.
His kind heart and genuine concern for every person he meets bring me joy I hadn’t known in a very long time.
I have learned that love is not a zero-sum game. To give it to one does not take it away from another. I spent ten years in love with Dan. His place in my heart remains, and always will.
TJ’s presence in my life has not made Dan’s grow smaller. It has simply made my heart grow larger. As humans, we have a somewhat infinite capacity to love. When a mother has a second child, she loves the child as much as the first, and she does not love the first any less.
This is the life I’m living today. Together, TJ and I are building a new chapter of our lives. We love each other fully and completely. We live for today, because we know that today is the only one we are guaranteed.
Obviously, I certainly would never wish anyone an early or traumatic end to a marriage. But there is something somewhat magical about having been loved – and getting to love – two different men so deeply in this one short lifetime.
As the anniversary of the worst day of my life approaches, I know that my heart has grown larger. That I have experienced love and compassion and joy beyond what I knew was possible. I am strong. I am loved. I am grateful. And I remain, as ever, determined to shine.