As someone who has lost a loved one, your mind always seems to sense when an important date is coming up, even when you thought you weren’t thinking about it. Yesterday morning, I woke up in a funk. I didn’t know why I was feeling so sad on the day after I’d done a century ride on my bike; usually the effect of the endorphins generated from a great day of riding keep me in a generally satisfied mood for days. But yesterday I woke up feeling absolutely lonely. As I stepped into the shower, I felt a heaviness in my movements and the single thought slipped into my mind: I want to be in love.
Once something like that is worded in your mind, a longing and sadness just hangs on your heart. I felt almost desperate as I remembered the freedom of being in love. Perhaps part of the reason I was thinking about this was because I was reading The Time Traveler’s Wife and the descriptions of the passionate love affair between the main characters, Clare and Henry, reminded me of the all-consuming passion I’ve felt at times in my life with Mike. Many of the sexier scenes of the book reminded me of the playfulness of intimacy when you’re in love and comfortable with your lover. I was reminded, with sadness, of entire Saturdays in the winter spent at home, in and out of bed, with breaks to eat and watch The Fifth Element. Young, crazy, maddening love–I miss the overwhelming comfort and completeness of it, of not wanting to be anywhere else but in that single moment, savoring every kiss, every touch. I now know why one of my friends warned me that I might have trouble reading this book because I was a widow.
As I was driving to work, the mention of the date on a news segment reminded me of the date–September 21–and I knew why I was feeling that way that morning. Today, September 22, is Mike’s birthday. He would have been 41. As I continue to tick away real numbers for my age, I am reminded of how Mike’s age counter is suspended forever at 32. I’m now older than him. I found a way to catch up with his age, which we used to joke about because we were six and a half years apart, and at 23 and 29–the age we were at when we met–it seemed like planets apart. When he was graduating from high school in 1986, I was graduating from sixth grade (we did have a graduation ceremony). When I graduated from high school in 1993, he’d already been out of a college for a year, after having taken the “five year program,” and held his first job. I graduated from college in 1997; we met at a now infamous party called Woodchuck in 1998. It was like I was priming my whole life to be old enough to meet him. To be his wife.
Despite being old enough to date him without it being obscene (as it would have been had we met up until I graduated from college), our age difference was also the source of many pop cultural disconnects between us. It was kind of funny. I still remember sitting in the car as the first few notes of a song began to play and screaming, “Vanilla Ice!” because I thought the song was “Ice, Ice Baby.” Mike gave me one of his bemused looks and said, “No, sweetie; this one is the original. From my decade.” It was, of course, Queen’s “Under Pressure.”
Sometimes his older age made him feel a sense of urgency about things. He wanted to have kids right away because he didn’t want to be too old–or what he defined as too old–as they grew up. He wanted to still be young when they graduated from college. Being younger, I had no desire to have children just yet. I told him that I wouldn’t even think about children until I was 30. I just wanted time with him for several years. He agreed. I wonder now what would have happened when I turned 30, if the hints would have started and he would have urged me to have children. I wonder if the girl I was pre-widowhood would have wanted children. I can’t remember anymore. I don’t want them now. Part of it probably has to do with dealing with loss, I am sure. Part of it is also that I don’t think I’ve ever really wanted to have children, not since I was a little kid. But maybe with him I would have thought differently. I have to admit that images of little Mike/Heidis have actually seemed like a good idea every once in awhile.
I always was aware of the fact that because he was older, he might die first. It was something on the back of my mind. A warning for the future. The distant future. Who knew it was something I’d have to deal with so soon? When you’re in your twenties, the reality of “surprise” death doesn’t really come to mind. Old people die. People you don’t know die randomly–car accidents, heart attacks, cancer, freak accidents. It’s not supposed to happen to you.
Mike should have lived to be 41. I should have lived to find out if I really did want to have kids with him (the old me might have). I should have had the chance to chose my future, not have it thrust upon me abruptly one sunny Saturday morning in April when we were supposed to spend a happy day together riding bikes on the towpath with a friend. Because Mike traveled a lot for work, coming home Friday and leaving Sunday, Saturdays were our special days together. Like Clare in The Time Traveler’s Wife, I was always waiting. I always had him on Saturdays. Our date days. When he died, I found myself most alone on Saturdays. Which is why my social calendar is still filled to the brim on weekends. Eight years later, I still make sure I’m busy on Saturday to fill that gaping painful void in my heart. For a long time, I had to keep myself busy to not think about being lonely. Sometimes I still find myself feeling a little melancholy on a Saturday in which I’ve decided to lay low; the echo of how I used to spend my Saturdays with the love of my life still haunts me when I’m alone.
This past Saturday, I am sure, also contributed to my feelings of longing. I was amongst some friends, newly married, who were talking with excitement about their new lives. I wasn’t jealous, I wasn’t even sad as they talked. I basked in the warmth of their conversation, the vague remembrance of feeling once what they did; I was fueled by the happiness they conveyed instead of lost in frustration and anger beneath it. This is a big move forward for me because for the longest time just the mention of agreeable marriage life caused my heart to thud harder, my palms to sweat, tears to well up in my eyes. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that I remember crying all the way to work the Friday before my brother’s wedding. “Not fair,” I whined to myself in the emptiness of my car, one of the only places where I feel safe to let my emotions without anyone seeing. “Why me?” I implored. But now I’m somehow capable of being happy for my friends finding good relationships without turning sorrow inward on myself.
Still. It affects me. And I get pulled into the maelstrom of sadness, if only in small little waves that wash over me in a moment when a stray thought finds words in my mind. I miss being in love.
I stopped for gas on the way to work yesterday and as I opened my wallet to reach for my credit card, I saw the engagement picture of me and Mike that I have kept there–transferred dutifully from new wallet to new wallet. Suddenly, the picture seemed out of place. Why was I still keeping it there? Eight years and I carry his photograph in my wallet as though he still waits for me at home. As if he’s still going to call me from some city where he’s teaching his programming tool to a bunch of eager developers. As if he did make it to 41. I suddenly felt slightly embarrassed. What must people think of me when they see that picture in my wallet? And I know they see it for everyone notices the picture of the labrador puppy I keep in there, a picture that came with one of my wallets, which now gets transferred to the new ones like the engagement photo, because I want a dog but do not feel I have the time to take care of one. (Is it like having a virtual pet, then? Is Mike a virtual husband?)
With a sigh, I told myself that it’s probably time I removed the picture. But I know that I can’t really move forward until I’ve fully accepted that I can’t go back. Perhaps this is why every romantic relationship I’ve had since Mike has failed, because I can’t let go, I can’t even remove his picture from my wallet. I don’t have any pictures displayed of Mike in my house; I haven’t put any up since I left Colorado. I’ve long since abandoned wearing my wedding ring. The wallet is the last hold-out, the last finger grip on a scrap of the past I don’t want to completely leave behind. Ironic that I should realize this the day before his birthday. But probably significant too.
I haven’t removed the picture yet. I think I have a problem with showing myself and everyone else such an outward sign of acceptance. I don’t want people or myself to think that removing the picture makes everything better, that I’ll miraculously transform into a new person and become free. I will always love Mike. Part of me will always mourn a little. However, I know that in order to love again–to rid myself of this loneliness I dread–that I must let go enough to let another in.
I will remove the picture. Soon. Just not today–this day, his birthday. Another birthday. Another reminder that life moves forward without Mike. Mark off another year not lived. He would have been a handsome older man. We could have had a great life.
Mike skiing at Winter Park in Colorado. Circa December 2000, I think.