“The definition of ‘home,’ is the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. If you ask me, home isn’t exactly a place. A house is a place, but home? Home is a feeling; it’s where you’re safe, loved, and have the ability to be yourself without fear. For nearly two decades of my life, my home was anywhere I was with Kenny Courtney.
When we were barely 17, a romance was born out of summer camp hokiness, and grew into a love based in friendship and mutual respect. When faced with growing pains or difficult circumstances, we always chose each other, even when it may have been easier not to. We were opposites in many ways — he was math, I was literature, he was logic, and I was ‘all the feelings.’ On paper, we made no sense; yet somehow, in life, we made it work.
We were married at twenty-five. I bounded down a sandy aisle in Punta Cana, my heart so full of joy and great intentions. In a beautiful white gown, with a giant grin on my face, I declared I would love him, for better, for worse… in sickness and in health, till death did us part. I’d heard those words hundreds of times before, but had no concept of what they really meant.
Married life was easy, fun, and we faced no resistance, until we began trying for a baby. Two early miscarriages deflated my bubble. We had to take a pause, though, when my father passed away after a life-long battle with mental illness and substance abuse. Kenny helped me plan his funeral and pack away his apartment, holding my hand through it all. I decided, when the dust settled, to take the spring and summer ‘off’ from trying, rather than risk more disappointment.
Then…I was late. Then, I was late(r)… three weeks late, I finally broke down and bought a test. I didn’t even want to bring it home, for fear Kenny might see it. Instead, I peed on a stick, in the bathroom of a Starbucks. Classy, I know.
Positive. EEK! I had no choice, now, but to fess up to Kenny. If he was mad or scared, he didn’t show it, but that was Kenny — always calm. At my first ultrasound, I anxiously scanned the room, landing on Kenny’s face, where we locked eyes. Seconds later, the unmistakable ‘thwomp thwomp thwomp’ of a heartbeat blared. His eyes went WIDE. The look on his face when he realized that the little bean was alive, and OURS, was indescribable. 30 weeks later, on a rainy December morning, our baby girl, Cameron, came into the world, with big brown eyes and a head full of dark brown hair.
Kenny always looked at Cami with the same face he made when he heard her heartbeat; she was his piece de resistance. A tough newborn period quickly morphed into the blissful baby, and then toddler, phases. When she was 2.5, after an exceptionally easy pregnancy, her little brother Benjamin joined our family. Those first days of Benny’s life were perfection. We were happy. We were in love, with each other and our family. What came next, we never saw coming.
Nine days after Benny was born, we sent Cami off for a day with Kenny’s family. We nestled onto the couch for an afternoon nap. I remember it as clearly as though it happened today… that last glance at the baby in his swing as I dozed off, feeling so content.
I was jostled awake by the sensation of the couch moving. Confused at first, I quickly registered what was happening and ran to the kitchen to call 9-1-1. I couldn’t get there fast enough — like one of those nightmares where you’re running, but not getting anywhere. I watched as Kenny’s body flailed uncontrollably. His lips turned blue. ‘HURRY!’ I begged the dispatcher. His eyes rolled back. ‘PLEASE!!’ I pled, over and over. What felt like an eternity was likely less than a minute. His body calmed and his color returned as a bewildered confusion came over him. ‘What the F–K was that?’ he asked as he caught his breath.
Hours (and several scans) later, Kenny’s parents sat with us in the ER. A nervous doctor ambled past the curtain. He blurted out, ‘There’s a tumor…’ I know he said more, I just don’t remember any of it.
Everyone began to cry immediately, except me. I didn’t move a muscle. It’s a reflex of mine to smile when people enter a room, as though being polite. After he said the word ‘tumor,’ though, I still sat there, grinning. I didn’t dare move. I couldn’t. Moving made this real. Moving meant he’d really said what I thought he just said. Nope. Not Kenny. Not me. I’m still bleeding from giving birth. Nope. Not happening.
So I sat there, not acknowledging anything at all. At some point — maybe it was seconds, maybe it was minutes — Kenny’s mother ushered me over to my sobbing husband, who pulled me in close and choked out the words, ‘Don’t you let me be a vegetable.’ The weight of his words shattered my shock and my face began to crumble. ‘Do you hear me??’ he said, still whispering, but determined that I understand. I shook my head. Again, he said, ‘Don’t you EVER let me be a vegetable.’ Those words would echo in my mind for years to come. Sometimes, they still do.
Weeks later, he had an awake craniotomy, and tried to get back to ‘normal.’ We did our best to live in-between scans; vacations, beach days, date nights, and weekends in. However, about 2 years later, any normalcy was lost when his doctors discovered the tumor had become aggressive. About the same time, I found out that I was pregnant. The timing was the absolute worst, and also, practically divine intervention. Just after these revelations, Kenny began a clinical trial, in which it was recommended he never procreate again. We’d accidentally gotten pregnant the last month it ever would have been possible.
Throughout my pregnancy, Kenny endured a clinical trial, an intense summer of chemo, and a month of radiation. Two days after his last treatment, Nathan, our miracle in the madness, was born. I’m not saying he’s an actual gift from God or anything, but, as a baby, he looked a lot like paintings of the baby Jesus. JUST. SAYING. Jokes aside, Kenny’s battle during and after my pregnancy was evidence of life’s fragility, but Nathan’s existence, both then and now, was the reminder I would need of life’s resilience.
On a spring night in April of 2017, he passed away in his childhood home, his mother asleep by his side. There is much that happened in those two years, but I prefer the world remember him as the beautiful human he was before cancer took over. I learned, fully, what my marital vows had meant on that sunny beach, and I like to think I fulfilled every one of them. That I honored his wishes, to the best of my ability, even if it was harder for the rest of us.
I’ve been the sole guardian of my heart, and the hearts of my kids, ever since. I’ve focused most of my time trying to sort through the aftermath, figuring out how to be a solo parent, and what the second half of my life might look like. The first year was a blur of trying, and failing miserably, to feel anything other than pain. It didn’t matter where I was, who I was with, how pretty my house was, or even how pretty I could make myself — EVERYTHING hurt. I was lost, listless… ‘homeless.’
When I felt ready to date, I knew there would be hurdles, but I had no idea how challenging it would be. I met some nice men, but no one who ‘fit the bill.’ I considered ‘settling’ a time or two out of sheer loneliness; but when I looked at my babies, I always came to the same conclusion: I could never subject them to a life of dealing with someone not invested in them. On the flip side, I couldn’t envision a life where I settle for someone JUST for the kids.
I’m aware of the complexities of being with a widow and a gaggle of children who come with a list of ‘demands’ such as, ‘Must be willing to honor the memory of our late husband/dad, not be scared of spending time with his family, and must be willing to listen to Hamilton, on repeat, every day, possibly for the rest of your life, or until you go deaf.’ All things considered, it was a long shot.
Earlier this year, though, I sent a friend request to a boy who’d sat in front of me in Marine Biology in high school. Within minutes we were chatting, and minutes after that he had me laughing. He told me he actually didn’t remember me AT ALL (ouch), and he thought a mutual high school chum was setting us up. I told him that I was not, in fact, friending him as a form of a ‘blind date.’ It didn’t matter the intention, though. I liked him. I REALLY liked him. He was funny, smart, confident, unassuming… and it terrified me.
Despite a clear chemistry, I kept him at an arm’s length for months. We’d talk, and meet occasionally, but I knew his patience would only last so long. It occurred to me, eventually, that I had avoided ‘diving in’ because I was afraid. It had taken me 3 years to find my own happiness again, to become at peace with the ideas that I might remain alone and raise my kids alone. He could be the ‘real deal’ and it felt like a gamble I wasn’t quite sure I could make.
But then… how would I feel if I didn’t hear from him every day? He’d somehow, over a matter of months, become one of my best friends. I felt free to be myself around him, and we always had fun when we did hang out.
One day, I laid it all on the table for him. I explained the many reasons I’d been afraid — the guilt, the worry, the risks I felt. I also told him exactly what I needed out of a serious relationship. I hadn’t cared enough about anyone since Kenny to be so forthright. And yet…
He didn’t run. He took some time to mull over my (many) thoughts, but he didn’t run. As I worked to get out of my own way, his actions ‘spoke’ his feelings for me and for my kids. He showed his respect for my late husband and our grief, and it became easier for me to let my guard down. We spent more time together, with my kids and his son, and before long, it felt right instead of scary.
We did have some learning curves. My kids took to Matthew and his son quickly, but organically. Yet, as they grew attached, they each experienced moments of anxiety; what did this mean for us? What if he leaves us? What if he doesn’t like us? Instead of slowing down to ease any doubts he might have had (he showed none), Matthew plunged forward, with consistent displays of love and encouragement to each of them. Every day, as we grow more into a ‘modern’ family, my heart feels more full, more open, and oddly enough, more convinced that Kenny is with us always.
With every giggle my kids squeal out while being tickled, with every morning filled with silly banter around the kitchen counter, or with every new life experience, I see the fulfillment of all the joy Kenny hoped for us. I feel, in my bones, that he’s smiling down on us and laughing with us, even if we can’t hear him.
It’s a bizarre feeling… there are moments I wonder if it’s a betrayal to either or both of the men to feel that way, but that is the nature of duality as a widow. I love them both fiercely, but differently. Kenny was my first great love, who I had the luxury of loving when I didn’t know anything bad could, or would, happen. We fell in love when it was easy to, and experienced all the firsts of life together. It was sweet, and then, tragic.
Matthew is the man who fell in love with the woman I am now — a mother of 3, with no time on her hands, and no room in my life for pettiness. He’s the man I fell in love with when it was far harder for me, because I no longer have the luxury of loving anyone, without knowing, all too well, the bad things that can, and may, happen. He waltzed into my life, and started to take care of me, even when I actively resisted being taken care of. He’s the one I held out hope for. Matthew is the man worth the risk of going to Hell and back for, if I had to, already knowing what the flames feel like. They are two totally different bonds, one no less than the other.
Life can be strange in its ability to seem mundane, but also absolutely unpredictable at the same time. I woke up this morning to the sound of four happy children chatting gleefully in the next room and my love next to me. I shuffled down the hallway, kissed the kids, and wandered down the stairs in search of caffeine, when an old familiar feeling washed over me.
We don’t even live in the same house, but it doesn’t matter – I’d know that feeling anywhere. I smiled as I poured my coffee, and turned on the oven to make breakfast. Everyone began to assemble around the counter, the room grew loud, crowded, and abuzz with energy, and I could only muster up one thought: ‘It feels SO good to be home, again.’”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Megan Courtney. You can follow her journey through Instagram, Facebook, and her blog. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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