In what seems like another lifetime, when I was 27 years old, I married a handsome, funny bartender I met at Mardi Gras, a guy who delivered cocktails with the grace of a figure skater. Tony and I were so in love we blazed through every obstacle to our union, the most obvious being that he was gay. Though he had been with men since he was a teenager, we had a connection that short-circuited everything.
When I was 36 years old, I became a widow with two little boys aged 6 and 4. Tony died of AIDS in 1994, almost 10 years after his diagnosis. I had been HIV-negative all along, and our sons were too. But even without that, the future seemed so bleak I could barely conceive of it.
Always, my biggest fear was for the boys, losing their father so young. Tony had been working from home since the younger one was born, so in love with being a dad and so good at it, too. He was a naturally nurturing and domestic person; he had taken exquisite care of all three of us, and our clothes, and our house, and our yard, not to mention our hair — after figure skater and bartender, he became a hairdresser — how the hell was I ever going to do it all without him?
Twenty-four years later, losing Tony is still the worst thing I have ever had to face, though some years earlier we had buried a stillborn baby, so I had some experience in the unspeakable hell department. But as I write this, Tony’s sons are 30 and 28. They are fine in all senses of the word. And though I still sometime reel at the unfairness, at all he has missed, at his utter irreplaceability, I’ve come far enough to see that becoming a widow so young was good for me in some ways.
First, I don’t feel the need to flee when tragedy strikes. As hard as it is to know what to say or do for someone who has just gotten the worst news of their lives, I am one of the people who can stay in the room. I’ve been in that room before. I don’t know what to say or do either. But just by existing, I am proof that death and loss are a part of life. That there is a future, even if at the moment you would rather there weren’t, and you don’t have to face it alone.
Also, I have learned that if grief is ever to be relieved, it has to have somewhere to go. It has to be expressed and shared. I got so much benefit from writing a memoir about Tony that writing about loss became central to my life. Not only doing it myself, but becoming a teacher so I could help other people do it too. If you don’t bottle it up, if you let it flow, mourning eventually shades into something sweeter — simply remembering. I bridle when I hear a funeral called “a celebration of life.” When bereavement is so raw, nobody is celebrating. But over time, remembering becomes tender, heartwarming, even celebratory. A kind of grace.
In the year before Tony died, I tried to get my head around what my children would experience and how I would help them. I read books; I went to counselors; I worried. But in the end, it was they who helped me. They were at an age where forward momentum is irrepressible. They had to go to school. They had go out and play. They had to grow up. Their resilience was almost biologically determined. Their loss wasn’t something that would happen all at once; they would be dealing with it for the rest of their lives, but only as much as they could assimilate at any particular point. And there wasn’t a blueprint; each of them dealt with it differently. But neither was destroyed or irreparably broken.
Partly because Tony was such a competent partner, I was terrified of single parenting. I was afraid of the work, the loneliness, the solitary decisions and challenges. But in the end, I kind of loved it. I think I ended up closer to the boys than I might have been otherwise. I was a little more competent than I thought I was, but I also got really good at asking for help. Then, because I needed so much help, I got good at offering it, too: Single parents are the pillars of the favor economy. As for the horror of making decisions alone, I definitely learned the pleasures of driving the bus.
Thirty-five years ago, I met a guy in a bar. He really changed my life.