Tomorrow is my husband’s former wife’s birthday.
She would have been 76 had she not gone into that good night, taking with her his life as he knew it. At the time of her death they had been married 48 years.
I had met him shortly thereafter—10 days to be exact.
“How about we buy some flowers for tomorrow as a kind of birthday remembrance?” I suggested today, and he said he liked the idea.
It was a little over three years ago when I first went into the house where my husband and his wife had lived together—the same house where she had taken her last breath, with only him sitting nearby—and saw the box. The plain brown box that they had put the ashes in, standing on the stereo. I knew what that box was, and to me it seemed abandoned and plain-looking all alone in its brown wrapper.
When he came back from walking the dogs that day, he saw I had moved the box to a spot in front of the window and wrapped it in a scarf. I had stood brass candle sticks and incense to one side of it.
“What would you think if I put this picture of the two of you next to the box?” I asked as he approached the little altar I had made. “It won’t look so lonely that way.”
My husband had no family living nearby when his wife died—no one with whom to wrap the box of ashes in a scarf or to set up a little memorial altar. And because of the enforced aloneness that geographical separation brings, he faced alone the loss of his (’til then) one and only love.
When he and I met for the first time a little over three years ago, he was freshly widowed. There he was, sitting with me—the complete stranger who had responded to his Craigslist ad—trying to make conversation.
And make conversation he did—sort of. He never stopped talking.
Somehow, though, I had the presence of mind to realize that his almost non-stop transmission was necessary, given his devastating loss.
He keeps talking, I thought, to keep from sobbing.
So I let him go on and on—and on—about where he was born, where he went to school, how he happened to move to the United States from Canada and a multitude of other stories. And as I listened and tried to keep track—as I listened and heard all that he wasn’t saying—I fell a little bit in love with him and felt an inner resolve to stick around until he was done talking. Or, at least until he quieted down.
In the weeks that followed, I would fall in love with him a lot and decide to stick around for life. We were married six months after we met.
No doubt I knew I was signing on for the dregs of his grieving process, but I didn’t know what I myself would go through.
I didn’t know that I would be jealous of his wife, a woman I had never met. That I would feel threatened by the mere mention of her name. That I would consider myself not a smart as, not as attractive as, not as educated, savvy, well read or you-name-it as this woman who had owned my husband’s heart from the time he was a mere boy of 20-something.
I was jealous of their history—of their mistakes and their victories—and I was threatened by the “fact” that while I had left my previous marriage because it wasn’t working for me, given the choice he would have preferred his previous marriage not end at all.
I thought I was over all that kind of insecurity, but I surely wasn’t, and it would dog me.
Then came a particular Sunday breakfast about two years after we were married. I had yet again voiced feeling second-rate compared to his ever-so-accomplished previous wife when my husband gave me a look—a tender yet pained look.
“Honey,” he said, leaning forward and placing his hand on my knee in his characteristic way, “she was just a person. A person like you and like me. You’re the one who is making her into something more than that. I’m not doing that; you are.”
And just as I was about to argue with him and give him all the reasons why he was wrong, he carefully added:
“Don’t you see that if you wanted to make yourself out to be the victim in all of this, you’re doing a pretty good job of it?”
Sometimes we need someone to lean forward and put their hand on our knee to tell us the very things we aren’t able to admit to ourselves.
So, when I suggested today that we get flowers to mark the occasion of my husband’s former wife’s birthday, I was able to do it without a single shred of jealously or resentment—thanks to his comment at that remarkable breakfast.
I was able to do it with genuine appreciation for her and love for him.
He decided to go over to Safeway to get the flowers, and when I was done with my meditation, he came in the door from his morning walk with his former wife’s birthday flowers in his arms, having carried them all the way back.
I took the flowers and put them on the coffee table in our living room where I added some special stone carvings to keep them company, along with the same picture of my husband and his wife that I had put on the altar with her ashes three years ago when he and I had first met.
She would have been 76.
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Toby Israel