Falling in love has never been this complicated before.
When John died, I had no idea what dating would look like. When would I be ready? Would I ever be ready? Would a future love be able to let me love John and him at the same time? Early on in my grief process I became involved with a brilliant Silver Fox with ocean deep steely blue eyes. We connected deeply, but that is fodder enough for its own story. Silver Fox caught me before my heart closed down, before the tar of grief seized up the gears inside my chest. After SF there was a long drought, and then when I began dating again, I wasn’t all-in. I called it ‘practice dating’. I practiced flirting; practiced if, when, and how to present the single mom and widow baggage; and shared a few mostly lukewarm kisses. It was easy to meet men online and set up dates, but in truth I found that fantasy was better than reality. I would meet a man online; flirt with him; and allow myself to fantasize that he might be the sort of sweet, intelligent, and outdoorsy man that I could fall for. He and I might text in sexy ways, I would build him up in my head, and then I would indulge in fantasies that he would be the one to unfreeze my ice. I did this knowing that my fantasies weren’t reality, knowing that the man I had not yet met in person could never live up to the ideas I had spun in my head. It was safer that way. Sometimes I would delay the first date as long as possible, knowing that, once I met him in person, the fantasy would be no longer and my Masturbation Fantasy Rolodex would have one less entry. Some of these men lasted only one date, a couple lasted a bit longer, but still – my embers of desire seemed all but dormant.
Although I was plagued by apathy, I was not plagued by guilt. When John was alive, we talked about death quite a bit. John had strong premonitions, all of his life, that he would die young. He would look guilty when he mentioned it… as if some part of him knew he would leave me behind some day. John always told me, with great emotion, that he would want me to find love again if he ever passed. John’s running joke was that I would have to find somebody younger, because nobody older could keep up with my athleticism and voracious sexual appetite. That’s how it was – he would tease me, I would laugh, he would grab my ass, I would kiss him, and we were happy. The thing is – that was the past and it is not my future. There is another future for me – one that doesn’t erase or negate my history but rather builds on the lotus flower that blooms from the mud of my struggle and loss.
I was pursued by various men – interesting, kind, intelligent men. However, nothing stuck. On one hand, I felt so much desire for deep connection, but at the same time I was detached and shut off. I began to find comfort in my walled up sanctuary. The separation allowed me to let go of my expectations, which in turn allowed me to be more in the moment, and that’s when I met him.
At that time it was August 2015. John had been dead for 15 months, I was in a deep slump, and I turned to the mountains for therapy. I planned a trip to the Enchantment Lakes with my widow friend Laura, who lost her partner in the accident with John. We parked my camper van at the trailhead on a Friday night, slept, and woke up early the next morning to hike the whole 19 miles in one day. As she put on mascara that morning and I lined my eyelids with smoky blue, we joked about how the mountains were the only place where we cared about looking good, because the only men we were interested in were bearded mountain men.
All day we teased each other about the men we met on the trail. “What about him?” “You mean the dirty one who looks like he slept in his car? HOT!” We were both so broken, we didn’t expect to actually meet anyone… the chatter and fantasy was all we had. There was a group of 3 men we spent the day leapfrogging. I said – “They have beards, what about them?” Laura smirked and said “Cute, but they look a little young for you, Holly.” She was right. Too young, and probably too innocent to stomach all my pain. Back to fantasy, reality was too disappointing.
We finished the 19mile hike and the group of 3 men offered us a ride back to my camper. I was surprised when, a week or so later, one of them reached out to me. I’ll call him Bear. Bear and I flirted and he asked if I would like to meet for drinks. He knew nothing of my children or widowhood, only that I love mountains, have an engineering degree, and was 40. I hesitated, and all but dismissed the idea immediately simply because of his age – 29. Regardless of John’s teasing, I’ve never been into younger men. I like a man who is confident, established, someone who doesn’t need his hand held. I don’t want to deal with any drama, bullshit, insecurities, or games. I prefer men who know exactly what they want and where they want to go in life. My grief and status as a single mother only solidified this intention within me. What younger man could ever handle all my baggage and trauma with grace?
Having said all that, I couldn’t resist. I hated his age but loved everything else about him. Bear had a beefy but compact muscular body built up by years of competitive wrestling in college. He held a Masters in Biomedical engineering, loved hiking, backcountry skiing, sport climbing, knew how to use power tools, raised chickens in his back yard, and was basically my dream guy. For better or worse, athletic outdoorsy geeky engineers who have full gorgeous beards are my kryptonite. I was putty.
We met for drinks and he immediately charmed me with his words. Somehow, I was relaxed and at ease. I had felt so much resistance on all the other dates, so much tension, hardness, but all of the sudden that was gone and I felt like Holly again. I felt simply….present, and alive.
Eventually, I brought him home and shamelessly had sex with him all night. It was glorious, and afterwards every fiber of my being felt lighter than it had since before John died. Still, I was detached. I decided that an actual relationship with this man could not work due to our age difference. I set an intention to enjoy the night for what it was and not contact him again. Of course, Bear was my kryptonite. I didn’t reach out to him but he texted me the next day, telling me that my life philosophy was amazing, asking to see me again. I silently decided that there really wasn’t any risk in seeing him again. Since I already knew it wouldn’t work long term, I wouldn’t get attached.
Bear and I spent the next few weeks romping around. We camped, we hiked, we cooked, we discussed favorite books, we went to the ballet, and we had lots and lots of phenomenal the-sky-is-parting-and-the-angels-are-weeping sex. Part of me knew I was falling for him, but the rest of me put up protective walls. I allowed myself to focus on his age as the reason why we couldn’t be a couple. I objectified him, calling him my young lover, my bearded hottie. I saw my doctor (as I did every 6 weeks due to crippling insomnia) and was told that my color was much better, that I was looking healthier. I explained that I was having tons of hot sex with a buff, intelligent mountain man. At the end of the visit she said “My advice? Keep having sex with the hot beefcake.”
It was around that time that Bear called me on my shit. We had just had sex and were spooning – him behind me. He kissed my neck, nuzzled me, and said
“Can we talk about something?”
“Why do you have such a problem with our age difference?”
Thank you sir, but may I have another? No seriously, there is something totally hot about a man who calls me on it when I’m stuck. He was direct, honest, but also kind as he continued to brush his beard against my neck and back. I softened into him and spoke my truth – that I had objectified him and focused on his age as a defense mechanism, because I was afraid of getting hurt, afraid he would break my heart. I still melt when I remember what Bear said next.
“Holly, don’t you understand, before I met you I thought I was going to have to settle. I thought I would never find a woman who was all of the things – outdoorsy, athletic, intelligent, loves sex, etc.. Then, I met you.”
“So, I guess, if you feel that way, then a few more wrinkles around my eyes won’t really matter?”
That was the moment I knew that our age difference really didn’t matter. It was also the moment that something really crazy and ridiculous happened –
I began to smile again.
Sure, I had smiled on many occasions in the 16 months since John had died, but they weren’t real smiles. I would lift the corners of my mouth for the camera when hiking with friends, or when serving my kids’ birthday cakes, but my eyes never sparkled and my heart center wasn’t lifting. The difference, once I welcomed Bear’s warmth into my heart and allowed myself to feel safe, was profound. Everyone noticed. People who didn’t know I was dating someone would comment that I looked different, better, brighter, some even used the word glowing. To be clear, my grief was still an ocean. I still lost my best friend and my children still didn’t have a father. Bear didn’t take away my darkness, but he did add a lot of light alongside the pain. I realized that it made no sense to wait for the pain to go away before I moved forward in life, because the pain was never going to fully go away. So, I allowed myself to get swept away by Bear, while also still often crying for the loss of John.
Bear watched me struggle with my ocean of pain and began to show me the depths of his beauty as a human being. About 6 weeks after we started dating, he watched me get spun up by an upcoming trip to Portland with the girls. Isabella was on the competitive team at the local bouldering gym and the Portland Boulder Rally was the first meet of the season. One of the ways that my grief-related PTSD manifested was as an adrenaline response when preparing to travel with the girls. John and I always used to pack up for trips together and he would do all the driving, because I hate driving. After he died, I would all but hyperventilate while packing for a family trip, because such trips slapped me in the face with the fact that we were 3 instead of 4. Bear watched my anxiety build, and said “Would you let me come with you, so that I can do the driving and help with the kids? Would you please let me help you?”
Bear showed up an hour before we were supposed to leave for Portland with his overnight bag and bright energy, the energy of someone who sweeps in and makes everything better. I was filled with stress – not because anything was wrong, but because that was my body’s chemical response to the trip. I took a shower and while I was showering Bear came in to pee. I pulled open the curtain and there he was – gorgeous beard, big smile, biceps bulging out of his t-shirt, hand knit mountain man beanie. Right then and there, while he was holding his junk mid-stream, the words came to me – “I would follow you anywhere”. These words didn’t come from analysis in my brain, they just sprouted naturally out of my chest. That was the moment I knew –
I was in love.
Or perhaps I should say – I was in LOVE!!! I didn’t tell Bear right away. I was so full of emotion (both joy and sorrow) that I feared it might overwhelm him. Even after we finally said those precious words to each other, I would try not to say them too often. Sometimes after we made love I would put my head on his damp and salty chest, close my eyes, and say it silently in my head over and over – iloveyou.iloveyou.iloveyou.iloveyou.iloveyou.iloveyou.
Even though Bear helped me and clearly wanted to be there for me, I did my best to protect him from the deepest darkness within me. Occasionally I allowed him to comfort me, but mostly when I fell into my pit of despair I would keep my distance. After all, these weren’t his burdens. I wanted our relationship to be about Bear and Holly; not about Bear, Holly, and Dead John. I became consumed with fear in a way I had never experienced before. What if he sees how broken I truly am and runs away? Will my grief, sad children, and complicated life be more than he wants to take on? If he does leave me, can I cope with yet another loss while still so fragile? If I tell him I’m afraid of more loss, will that make him feel boxed in such that he can’t leave me if he wants to?
There was the night that I fainted at dinner at a friend’s house. I was sitting up, eating roast chicken stuffed with ham and mushrooms, and all of the sudden I began to lose hearing and vision. My friends tell me that my lips went blue and my left arm was both bent and shaking uncontrollably. They dragged me to the couch and I came-to immediately. My doctor told me later that it was a vaso-vagal response, mostly likely brought on by the stress and exhaustion of my long haul as a widow and single mom. In that moment, however, we had no idea what it was – a stroke? A small heart attack? Bev said
“Give me Bear’s phone number. I’m calling him.”
I laid there on the couch, still woozy “No, don’t call him! He is in an airport about to get on a flight for work. If you call him, he will either cancel his trip and mess up his job or stay up all night worrying when he can’t help anyway.”
Bev looked concerned and said “Ooooh kay. You sure?”
“Yes I’m sure. Don’t call him.”
Then, there was the doctor’s appointment when I broke down sobbing. I had decided to get my tubes tied, mainly because the idea of a baby and 3rd C-section at age 40 put in a place of panic. I needed some control in my life, and had to make sure that my virile boyfriend didn’t impregnate me. Bear offered, a few times, to go with me to the consult, but I told him “No, I will be fine, I don’t want you to have to take time off work.” I was NOT fine, however. The doctor and I went through my reproductive history and general health – my 2 traumatic C-sections, my miscarriage, my year of post-partum depression, my PTSD and insomnia as a result of the death of my husband. The doctor and I both cried. I felt horrifically alone and needed a hand to hold. I went home and cried for most of the rest of the day.
I didn’t give Bear the chance to help. I was afraid to ask too much of him, afraid to over burden him. What if I leaned on him, and he said it was too much? What if I became too needy? If he saw all my hairline fractures, would he still find me appealing? In many ways I shut him out. I sensed frustration and sadness on his part due to my distance, but still I was too afraid to open the kimono.
After we had been dating for a few months, Bear and I embarked on a luxurious trip to Europe. We planned to base ourselves in Paris and take quick day trips out to both Amsterdam and Bruges. I had been holding back from Bear for a while, and hoped that maybe the trip would help us to connect more deeply. The first day started out so wonderfully! I took Bear to my favorite spot – Musee Rodin. We walked hand in hand through the gardens displaying The Thinker and The Gates of Hell. We looked at some of his earlier pieces, inside, and I told Bear of how much Rodin detested being commissioned for busts and sculpting what he thought to be frivolous details such as hats and fancy clothing. Later, Rodin would move to the simple naked body. He was scandalous at the time because he refused to even cover the genitals with fig leaves. Bear soaked it up, and then suggested we move on to Napoleon’s tomb and the Military Museum. There, the tables turned and it was Bear’s time to play teacher! He pointed out the traditional bayonets, which flanged out in all 4 directions. Bear said they were eventually outlawed by the Geneva Convention, because they made holes that couldn’t be sewn up. He explained why the ancient shotguns needed cloth to pack around the bullet, and how the concept translated to modern day pistons. It’s just so sexy when a man has things to teach me! They day felt easy, balanced. We were a happy couple, strolling in Paris.
The next morning, I woke up at 4am covered in sweat, the kind of sweat so profuse that the bed sheets become soaked and horrifically clammy. I was having another adrenaline response and instantly became filled with fear. Fear was like a thick heavy snake that slithered in through the wound of my broken heart and lurked inside of me, sucking up light and optimism. My brain knew that my various fears were irrational, but that awareness never mattered in the horror of the moment. When I became consumed by fear, I became despondent, icy, distant. I didn’t want to wake Bear, so I got out of bed and sat on the couch to cry. We were supposed to get up at 6:30 in order to catch an 8am train to Amsterdam. Eventually, as I sat there in the darkness, I realized that I had to make a different choice, regardless of the consequences. There I was, in Paris, with my awesome boyfriend, crying in the dark, not letting him in. Why the hell was I here at all if I was going to keep putting up walls? If I showed him my darkness and he ran away, what then? Well, at least then I would know, and I would be able to move forward, albeit through more tears.
At 6am I crawled into bed, woke him up, and cried my fucking eyes out on his chest. I told him how afraid I was. I told him I didn’t know if I could survive losing him, but that I was also deathly afraid that if I told him how much I really loved him then he would feel trapped. I revealed that I had known the whole time it was me holding back, that he had wanted to be there for me but that I hadn’t let him. I said I knew we couldn’t move forward unless I surrendered and told him of these fears, and that I did, indeed want to move forward. The whole time Bear held me tenderly. He stroked my hair slowly, over and over. He brushed his fingertips over my cheek and kissed my forehead. He enveloped me with his arms until I felt completely encompassed by his nurturing light. I said “When these fears come up again, I’m going to tell you.” And he said “Yes. I want you to. I want you to tell me.” I cried a bunch more, and then said “We should get up and get ready for the train.” To which he replied “Shhh. Not yet. Lay here a bit longer. We have time.”
By the time we got on the train, the snake had exited my body and I felt excited for the day ahead of us. Bear and I read peacefully on our kindles for 3 hrs, holding hands. We arrived in Amsterdam, hit Damstraat, and proceeded with our grand plan of inebriation before visiting the Van Gough and Rijksmuseum. After inebriation, bagels, and a visit to the flower market, but before getting to the museum, Bear realized his passport was missing! Pick pocketed in the market perhaps? Who could know, and we were not sober, so we put our two adled brains together to make one good brain, made it to a police station, filed a police report, got online to print out the forms needed for the consulate, got new passport photos, and then found a dingy guest house for the night. The consulate wouldn’t open until the morning, so we wouldn’t be taking a train back to our darling Parisian studio that evening. What a lovely team we were! It wasn’t a disaster, it was an adventure, and we were happily together. Sometime after the 2nd time we made love that evening and a 3rd time when we did it in the middle of the night, I said to Bear “There is nowhere in the world I want to be right now besides this shitty hotel room in Amsterdam with you.” “Me too Tiger, me too.” He said.
Our Amsterdam dalliance had cost us a precious day in Paris, but we didn’t care. We procured Bear’s emergency passport, hit the museums we had missed the day before, and zipped back to Paris later that night. By the end of the week, I said to Bear “Do you think we can bring this magic back with us to the real world?” “We can, Holly. We will!” I left Paris thinking to myself that maybe, just maybe – I am not as alone as I thought I was.
What will happen with Bear? I don’t know. In fact, in spite of our wonderful trip to Paris, our relationship began to show hairline fractures when we returned. What I do know now is this – I can love again and I can be loved again. I can experience joy and throw myself over the edge of the unknown. It’s true that I’m still a single mom. It’s true that I will never stop grieving for the loss of John and for the loss of my children’s innocence. There will always be parts of my life that I must navigate solo. Still, I’ve finally realized, that maybe, just maybe – there is joy in my future. My life is a story, and there are more chapters that have not yet been written. I am sad and I grieve, but I am also opening back up, reaching out. I have re-joined the land of the living, and that feels damn good.
Stay tuned for Bear, Part 2.