I decided it was time to write the love story – the story where I fall in love again after my husband dies. The love had already happened – I had been seeing Bear for four and a half months and was a smitten kitten. Bear had watched me write volumes about my grief, but I had written very little about him and it was time.
It took me a week to write it. Bear knew what I was working on and kept asking how it was progressing. On a Thursday afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, the first draft was finally done. The story ended with our trip to Paris, a scene where he holds me, I finally open up about all of my fears, and I have an epiphany that maybe I was finally no longer alone in life.
I emailed the piece to Bear early that afternoon. At 7:30pm that night, he sent me a note saying “Awesome! I’ll read it tomorrow in between meetings.”
What? Huh? If someone wrote a love story about me, I would run to the bathroom stall and read it while sitting on the toilet if necessary. I wouldn’t be able to wait until the next day. I realized that this was yet another of many signs I had argued away. Signs that Bear wasn’t all-in.
Bear had been distant for a while. I told myself the distance was due to the walls I put up around my sadness, but my gut knew there was more to the story. He pulled away a month before we went to Paris, telling me how overwhelmed he was with his life – his 12 hr a day job, house repairs, his (genuine) need for 9 hrs of sleep a night, his exercise, his personal growth. Plus, there was our 11 year, 3 month, and 7 day age difference, which Bear had convinced me didn’t matter, but… maybe it did matter. Bear was just 5 years out of graduate school, 3 years into living in Seattle, and hadn’t yet found his full stride in his life. Isn’t that what your 20’s are for, anyway? Figuring out who you really are? In truth, I was also holding a bit of disappointment over Bear’s need for his friends to not know, before meeting me, that I was an age 40 widow and single mom (“I just want you to make a good first impression. We can tell them after you meet them and after they see how awesome you are.”). He flat-out insisted that we tell his parents that I was 38, telling me “They have a certain idea of 40. They watched that movie “This is 40” and joke about it all the time. It’s better this way. Trust me.” I told him that I wanted to be with someone who was proud to have me as his girlfriend, baggage and all. He insisted he was proud of me and couldn’t really understand that his actions and words didn’t match. Looking back on it, that was really when the fracture in our relationship appeared. Then, a month into this somewhat distant stage, we went to Paris and I thought it would be a chance to reconnect. We DID reconnect and I came home filled with bright shiny new hope, but maybe that beauty and love only really worked in fantasy land when we were away from all of the demands of real life…
That brings us to back to early January when I had written part 1 of the love story, several weeks after returning from our glorious European jaunt. Bear read the essay the day after I sent it to him, told me it was “just beautiful” but by then I was already deflated. I had been aching for him all week – because he was so busy we had agreed on only one date a week (though we used to see each other several times more than that). Sometimes (including this week) the ache would get so bad that I would have to actively focus on shutting down my rampant over-abundant sexual desire. I saw him that night, Friday night. I wanted him to come to a gathering at Bev’s house, so that he could meet more of my friends, but he had chores to do at his home and didn’t come over until 10pm. I was sad. My body felt that things were shifting. We fooled around a bit, but Bear wanted me to go down on him instead of having sex. I had gone off birth control, as I was having my tubes tied soon, and Bear didn’t like condoms. Didn’t he know that I was starving for more connection? I didn’t care about orgasming but had a need for him to be inside of me, to look into my eyes and kiss my neck and face while making love to me. I kept reaching an energetic tendril towards him, but he wasn’t reaching back. I was too sad to ask for what I wanted, so I satisfied him and then when he offered to pleasure me, I declined as I was just too low and my body had begun to close off. We set a 6:30am alarm and went to sleep in preparation to get an early start and hike Mailbox peak.
Bear and I had been taking various hikes together as part of his training for an upcoming climb. He wanted to climb Rainier, the mountain that took my husband’s life. I understood the call of the mountain – my summit in 2012 was one of the proudest moments in my life, and would have climbed it again if John hadn’t died there. So, rather than asking him to stay away from the mountain that is the source of my greatest pain, I stood by him. I bought him crampons, microspikes, and mountaineering boots for Christmas and promised to take him to some of my favorite icy peaks.
I woke up before the alarm went off, feeling heavy. Ugh. I was excited to get on the trail, not excited about the thick grey sense of doom that was expanding within me. Bear was sound asleep so I laid there for a bit, hurting. My grief for John has often manifested in my stomach as nausea or a sense of a pool of black tar in my belly, but my pain for Bear was different. In that moment, the skin covering the middle of my chest tightened, as if someone had pinched it with a clothes pin. It was time to get up, so I gently spooned Bear from behind. I kissed his neck, and whispered “I’m going to make our breakfast, sweetheart.” He mumbled sleepily, I got up, we showered, ate eggs on toast with chorizo and Beechers aged cheese, grabbed our gear, and hopped in my Subaru Outback.
We barely talked on the drive down I90. Bear could tell I was distant and was shutting down accordingly in his own way. I flipped through Sirius XM satellite radio stations and mulled over my intentions for the day. In fact, it was a gorgeous bluebird crystal clear day – unusual for January in Seattle. I had childcare until dinner time and was genuinely looking forward to kicking a snow staircase up the mountain. At the same time, I knew an icky relationship talk was inevitable. Ugh. We pulled up to the trailhead and loaded our packs – snow shoes, poles, microspikes, crampons, glacier glasses, buff, glove liners, summit mitts, softshell, hardshell. Oh how I love getting on the trail, ready to tackle the elements! Still, we barely talked. Bear was faster than me and began to listen to podcasts on his Android as he hiked ahead. I felt so terrible! How did we get to this place where there was so much love, but also so much disconnection? How would I tell him that I loved him too much, that I wanted more than he had to give, and that I needed to set him free? In an asbergic-way, I determined that a relationship conversation on the way up would derail our summit attempt, and that I shouldn’t say anything until we had begun our descent.
Oh, how glorious the summit was! I never tire of the 360 degree view from the top of Mailbox. Rainier was out, in her majestic and fierce-but-peaceful way, and I said my usual silent “I miss you, I love you forever” to my sweet John. Bear and I sat in the snow, mostly upbeat, feeling accomplished and endorphin-y, eating chicken and quinoa salad with beets and aged balsamic that I had packed that morning. Eventually, we plunged stepped back down the snow covered boulder field and made our way along the trail as it wound into the trees. We paused, sweaty, to de-layer, and that’s when I spilled. I started gently, asking him how he was feeling about us, and then tumbled into my feelings about how we were spending less and less time together, and how it felt like there just wasn’t space for me in his very full life. We both began to cry. There was no anger or blame, no negativity, just sadness and love. He told me how he was in a state of panic, never feeling like he could keep up with his life. I told him I understood, and that I could see that he was just beginning to forge his path. I knew that Bear wanted to be what I needed, but…wanting is not reality. Bear opened up about how torn he was – I was the kind of woman he had been looking for, but he wasn’t ready to find that woman yet. He had to find himself before he could find her. Still, Bear didn’t want to give up on us. So I asked one last question –
“Tell me this, sweetheart. Just answer right away, don’t stop and analyze. Tell me the truth. Ok?”
“Ok.” He said, a bit wary.
“When you think about us breaking up, is some part of you relieved?”
“Don’t over think it!” I insisted.
“Well, a little bit.” He said, and then quickly added “Just because then I would have time for all the house projects, and my job, and…”
I looked right at him and said “There’s your answer.”
After that, we barely talked for the 2 hours it took us to descend. I hiked ahead (I’m faster on the downhill) and he hiked behind. Nothing had really been decided yet… I knew Bear well enough to know that he needed space to chew on what we had already said. It became dark. I hollered back to check that he had a headlamp, and plodded along. The temperature began to drop and parts of the trail froze up solid. It would have been the right time to put on my spikes, but I was too sad and heavy to care. I slipped a few times, once going down hard enough that I could have really hurt myself, and in fact, I think I wanted to hurt myself, because maybe if I inflicted physical pain then it would cover the pain of the new tightness of my chest and the year-and-a-half old nausea in my belly.
We silently arrived back at the car, de-geared, and began to drive home. Eventually, as we sat in traffic on I90 by Mercer Way, he said
“I think you are right. We have to break up.”
We were quiet then. I began to cry as I drove. He held my hand. I asked him to stay the night so that I could be in his arms one last time, and I could feel that it was what he wanted too. He went home, showered, and came back after I had tucked the kids in for the night. We got into my bed and he sweetly held me and stoked my hair as I cried. We slept some, then made sweet love for the last time, slept some more, and in the early morn I crawled back into his arms to cry again. He cried too. My 7 year old, Melanie, woke up at 7:30am and knocked on the locked door. She said “Mama, what’s wrong?” I told her I would be out soon, which I was. She asked again why I was crying. I softly told her that Bear and I had decided to stop dating, but that we still cared about each other and no one was angry. Her face clenched up into a miserable frown. Melanie hadn’t spent a ton of time with Bear, but still she had become a bit attached to him. I had my maternal moment of panic, knowing that I had to manage not only my grief about Bear but hers too, and, grabbing at straws, said “I know you want me to find you a dad someday, sweetheart. Someday I will find somebody awesome, when it’s the right time.” She looked at me, crossed her arms, and said “Mama, BEAR was awesome.” “I know sweetheart. I know. I’m sorry.” Ugh. Blah. Bleah.
Bear got dressed and came out of the bedroom. Melanie ran to him, hugged his leg, buried her face in his clothes, and said nothing. My heart has so many scars. So, so many scars, because I carry hers and mine both. And then he left, and that was it.
Now, a couple of weeks after the breakup, I am sad but not heartbroken. I ache to have someone safe and kind to hold me, stroke my hair, and kiss my forehead; but that person doesn’t exist and my needs are not so extreme that I will reach for something unhealthy out of desperation. The fact is, alongside my sadness I am also surprisingly optimistic for the path ahead that I’m beginning to glimpse – optimistic in a way I haven’t been since John died. I have had many victories in these last several months. I found that – I have not shut off to feeling. I am still able to reach for deep connection, in spite of all of my darkness. I still have so much love and sweetness to give to a partner. I am still beautiful, and I am worth loving. In fact, as I sit here, typing these words, I observe how strong and stable I feel. I had a successful 4.5 month relationship, fell in love, celebrated him as an individual without needing to compare him to John, and was able to peacefully set him free once I knew we weren’t meant to be together.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a ball of sunshine at the moment, but I would say that I am peaceful, confident, and full of my trademark tenacity. I will grieve for Bear and will of course continue to grief for John into forever. In parallel, I will eventually love again – no question. It’s who I am. Even given my ocean of sorrow and continued struggles as a widow and single mom, I still believe – it’s worth it.
Love is worth it.
Postscript – It is not my intention or desire to give a play-by-play of all of my relationships as I re-enter the dating world. However, this was my first real love post-loss and thus was a huge milestone that I felt was relevant for those of you who are sharing my journey through my words. Thank you, again, for sharing my tears and my victories.