I started grieving for my husband in the neurologist's office at the moment her words lopped a chunk off our future together.
"Unfortunately, the news isn't good, Stew," she informed us. "I'm afraid you have ALS … Lou Gehrig's disease … and there is no cure."
I lived the next two years on autopilot, trying to balance a full-time insurance job with the needs of our four- and six-year-old girls, and an increasingly dependent and sometimes angry and demanding husband.
Our nine-year marriage had been less than the perfect image outsiders might have imagined: two tall blondes doting on their giggling, tow-headed tots. An absence of intimacy and connection had left me feeling alone. Some nights, Stew would quietly leave the family room where we were watching television. I'd go looking for him and find him sound asleep, having gone to bed wordlessly and without me.
During his illness I devoted myself to caring for Stew, waking in the night to roll his lanky 6'2" body or adjust his pillows or fingers so he wasn't rigid the next morning. I watched the relentless progress of his disease, as it methodically paralyzed a man who'd once loved to golf and ski and transformed him into a pale, gaunt mass of bony protrusions and nuggets of atrophied muscles pushing up his clammy skin. Despite our differences, I yearned to ease the pain I imagined he was living with.
The quiet end to our nightmare came on June 27, 1999, five days before his forty-sixth birthday. Grief was not new to me; my father had died several years before. However, this mourning was different. It was tinged with relief, which felt like a betrayal.
Feeling alone one night, I Googled "Widow Support" and clicked on the first link: WidowNet. The website had been started by a widower who had lost his spouse and wanted to create a place for fellow widows and widowers to post their struggles. I was spellbound by stories of torment and heart-wrenching loss. I'd found a place of kinship; others who would truly understand.
I spent hours in front of my computer, writing to virtual strangers, all of us connected by sorrow. I formed friendships with several other grievers, meeting at local WidowNet gatherings and chatting on the phone. Friday nights I'd nestle the kids into bed, pour a glass of Cabernet and socialize with the kindred souls in the chat room. Gradually, a kind of solace seeped into my days.
Timidly, I pondered the possibility of dating, available men being scarce in my isolated Canadian town. The failure of my first marriage led me to mistrust myself, worrying I'd fall for the first suitor out of utter loneliness. I declared that cohabitation was not for me and vowed only to date those interested in the occasional dinner, art gallery expedition or movie. I would never get married again!
Meanwhile, WidowNet was still my lifeline to the outside world. I was touched by the sensitivity of many of the men there, good men who were willing to expose their innermost struggles, something I hadn't been used to in my marriage. My curiosity was piqued by the like-minded tone of a widower called "JS". His pain was unconcealed, as he wrote about how overwhelmed he felt at having to help his teenage daughter shop for a swimsuit. Hunched over the keyboard I'd scroll through his posts, speculating about what he was like.
One day I found a picture of him at a WidowNet luncheon in Maryland, smiling jovially, sporting a dignified mane of salt and pepper hair. Then I discovered that one of my new friends from the website knew Jeff, I dared to ask her what he was like in the flesh, emphasizing the importance of height. I was 5'10" and didn't relish feeling like an Amazon. She assured me he was around 6'1" and a youthful-looking 42. He was retired Navy and now an IT professional. She urged me to email him, confident we would hit it off. I shoved the suggestion aside, feeling embarrassed for even having asked. I did not want to seem desperate.
Still, his posts continued to intrigue me. I composed many witty and titillating responses, only to quickly delete them. It must've been courage-inducing red wine that finally impelled me to shoot off a lighthearted email to him. Jeff's funny reply spurred an immediate attraction.
Over the next few weeks, I learned more about his wife Joy, who had died suddenly from a heart-attack at 42, brought on after an epileptic seizure, leaving behind three teens, two boys and a girl. She died almost exactly a month before Stew.
Snow still lingered in my garden in March, but our online flirting blossomed into hours of long-distance phone calls. Grief began to seem like only an insignificant catalyst in bringing us together. We traded our deepest dreams, crowed competitively about our cooking abilities and laughed far into the night.
I was staggered by the fairy tale I had been cast into. Never had a man listened to me so intently, asked for my opinions and candidly admired my individuality. He made me feel like I was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It felt so right and I felt so right with him.
Overwhelmed by the speed with which our relationship had grown, I was petrified to tell this supposed stranger exactly how I felt.
"But he isn't a stranger," I'd argue with myself, "I know him … I just know him." I had to admit that, as insane as it seemed, I was in love with someone I'd never met.
Carefully, I confessed my feelings in an email, hoping he wouldn't run away screaming. Instead, he agreed it was time for us to meet.
"See you soon, baby!" He said eagerly when he called from work to tell me he was leaving Maryland for the 12-hour drive north. It was a chilly Friday night in April, the bite of winter still suspended in the Canadian air.
His arrival was slated for after 11:00 p.m. Restlessly pacing, I'd stop at my hallway mirror to pat down imaginary stray hairs. Every nerve ending felt combustible, yet I was so sure of what was about to happen. Laying eyes on Jeff, touching him, would snap the last puzzle piece into place.
Finally, headlights illuminated my front porch.
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