“‘Cancer is a gift.’
My late husband wrote those words while undergoing treatment for terminal brain cancer. For 13 months, those who loved him watched helplessly as his speech and mobility eroded, all the while marveling as he inspired us through his writing and teaching to celebrate each tiny blessing. His body began to fail him at 39 years old, yet he focused what little energy he had on reminding us that we need not waste time on worry or fear. Rather, if we keep love at the forefront of each day, he insisted, we will live a life full of meaning and purpose.
‘A fat lot of good that does me now,’ I would scowl later. I was unwittingly widowed at 35 with three small boys, and I was angry as hell. Angry at him for leaving us, angry at cancer, angry at the Universe for betraying the hope born when we married 12 years prior.
We struggled a fair amount together. Always torn between our passion for creating and our need to pay the bills, we had done our damnedest to find fulfillment. Infertility and illness, extended family crises, moving several times, and the joy of our three exquisite – and demanding – boys who came to us through adoption. We had been through it, man. Just at the point when we thought we might be figuring it all out, BAM! He dies of freaking brain cancer. Yeah, I was pissed.
Peering out from the funnel cloud of grief and fury, it became my mission to rebuild. I sold our starter home, picked up my kiddos and, with equal parts reaction and optimism, moved us to a town in which we didn’t know a soul. ‘You’re the lady who bought that crazy old house, right?’ Yep, that’s me. Emphasis on the crazy. My friends who lived within driving distance, familiar with my outrageous stubbornness, checked in regularly to make sure we hadn’t gone completely off the rails. I busied myself with projects, focused on the kids, and began to figure out just what in the holy heck I was going to do with the rest of my life.
I worked, I wrote, I managed the remodel of the 200-year-old house that I had bought on a whim. She (to me the house was a she…projection much?) too had been through it. Just like us, she needed thoughtful care. She needed her potential to be realized despite the obvious wear and tear. The house was our own personal metaphor. I would restore her and by doing so, I would restore us.
Of course, none of that was as simple as it sounded; neither the house nor I would be reborn without some serious setbacks. People in town told me stories of her resident ghosts and how she had been left to waste away. She definitely held all sorts of surprises. It was a huge project, and one that took an enormous toll. Still, I loved that house with my whole heart.
The pinnacle of our house journey was resurrecting the tiny room that sat playfully atop the turret. When we moved in, the pitiful little storage space had served mercilessly as a litter box for the previous residents’ cats. Full of flies and feces, broken windows and drafty rafters, that space was begging to be beautified. After nearly a year, and using way more resources than I had been prepared to expend, it emerged a jewel box. It was the Room of My Own where I could see clear across the Hudson River and into infinite possibility. I finished the work for my graduate degree up there, and it was there I discovered I was matched with the man who would become my new partner (thank you, online dating). My personal ivory tower. It was the perfect vessel for my own restoration.
Gradually the inner tumult began to fall away. I had always carried faith in finding love again, despite the odds. Admittedly, ‘widowed middle aged woman with three rambunctious boys, two scruffy pound puppies, and a house falling down around her’ made for a tenuous tagline on my profile. Hello, baggage! Still, I maintained we had abundant love to give. Perhaps we were not a typical storybook ending, but we had buckets of resilience, a dash of grit, and were ferociously fixated on making it work. We also carried a little secret: at the core of our collective soul, we understood that with devastating loss came an opportunity to live more fully. Day by day we inched our way into our new version of normalcy. That process still goes on, and will for the duration, I expect. And that’s ok.
Seven years out from having our hearts smashed to bits by that perilous ‘gift,’ I still remember my late husband’s words. We walk down the aisles of our favorite big box store and see rows of posters peddling quotes to similar effect. ‘Live, laugh, love,’ they espouse. ‘Follow your dreams,’ and ‘always give thanks.’ These epithets may seem trite, but to us they ring with resounding truth. I even have a few of them hanging in my new house — the house we share with my now husband, who appreciated immediately the invaluable perspective provided by our past. The old house is now in the hands of someone who needed her help on his own journey of rebuilding. I hear he is making great work of it.
Never would I have imagined that I would be grateful for what we endured. The ache of love lost has not dissolved forever; it has, however, dissipated and given way to a beautiful, unexpected story. I think of the man I loved in my previous life every day. I remember how he shone with brilliant insight as he stared down his mortality. Without question, his unfailing faith in me and the kids guides us even now, and it humbles me to reflect on how far we have come.
Widowhood has been a confounding lesson. It’s not a label I ever wanted. I most certainly never anticipated it, and I would never – not in a million years – wish it on my worst enemy, if I had one. As a reluctant recipient, though, I am now at peace with it. The wisdom gained has allowed for a sense of ease that only comes when we let go and ride the wave. It’s tough for me to admit, but my late husband – at least in part – may have been right. (I always hated when he was right).
Death is inevitable. Life is elusive. Love is eternal. The grace available to us in order to embrace it all – well, that is most definitely a gift. And for that I am eternally grateful, as I will be also for the last six words he ever wrote, and which I discovered just hours after he shuffled off this mortal coil: ‘Choose well. Choose wisely. Choose love.’ A helluva directive from a 40-year-old dead guy if ever there was one. As my now husband, our kids (he adopted all three), and I spend each day growing a little bit more, these are the words I rely on as my compass. They guided me to my new partner, to my new home, and now a new career working with others to gain mastery of themselves. I love this life. All of it. No exceptions.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Merritt Minnemeyer of New Paltz, New York. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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