That Could Have Been Us

It can be painful to see people so obviously in love when I’m breaking inside, but it’s not other young couples that make me fall apart.

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Marjorie and Shawn (Stefanie Harrington Photography)

A few days after my husband, Shawn, died, I was watching a stupid movie with my friends, trying to find some sort of escape from everything I was feeling. In the movie we chose, the main character finds out her new boyfriend is a widower. Turns out, he’s emotionally unavailable to her because he’s still in love with his dead wife. 

My friends were horrified that they had chosen this “innocuous” movie for me. But really, it didn’t bug me. I knew that my husband was gone — some character in a B-rate movie wasn’t going to make me know that any more or less. 

But I get their worry. They want to protect me, as many people do since my husband died six months ago. Since that movie night, I’ve had dinner with friends who have specifically requested we sit at tables far from any young romantic couples, so as not to upset me.   

But honestly, it’s not needed. It’s a bit painful to see people so obviously in love when I’m breaking inside, but it’s not the young couples that make me fall apart. 

It’s the old ones. 

‘For the past few years, my friends and I have been in a stage of life where we bicker with our partners and feel stressed about work and money and are overtired because of the demands of parenthood. … This was the stage of life my husband and I were in when he got sick.’

Last week I was at a bar with friends, again trying to distract myself. A live performer was singing a slow ballad beautifully, and everyone was sitting around having a drink and talking. I actually felt fairly relaxed. Then, just as one of my friends was starting to tell a funny story, I saw an older couple, probably in their 70s, get up and slowly move to the center of the room. There wasn’t a dance floor, but they pretended there was. The man took his partner into his arms and they danced around. She had her head back, laughing at something he said. He looked at her with a glimmer in his eye. 

They could have been Shawn and me in 30 years. 

I started crying. It took a minute for one of my friends to notice. “Oh, Marjorie!” she said, and followed me outside. I tried to tell her why the old couples make me so sad, but I couldn’t really put it into words. My mind was racing with the horrible thoughts that sometimes flood my mind ever since my husband died — the ones that make me want to sob and scream at the same time. 

Marjorie and Shawn (Stefanie Harrington Photography)

I remembered dancing with Shawn on our wedding day and on the night we found out we were going to have our first baby. I flashed back to the last time we danced, in our kitchen, when he had to clutch the counter afterward to deal with the pain from his cancer. 

We were supposed to grow old together. We were supposed to travel the world together after doing all the hard work of growing our careers and raising kids together. We were supposed to be together when we were wrinkly and creaky, arguing about stupid things and then dancing in the middle of a bar after one too many drinks. 

We were supposed to be that couple. I was supposed to be the one laughing at his witty personality. He was supposed to be the one looking at me with adoring eyes. We were supposed to be in our 60s and 70s and 80s together.

But I couldn’t say all that to my friend. I just told her it was the old couples that make me sad. And she knew what I meant. 

Because for the past few years, my friends and I have been in a stage of life where we bicker with our partners and feel stressed about work and money and are overtired because of the demands of parenthood. Sure, we take time with our spouses on a special night, but we aren’t on the dance floor with them at random bars, happy to just be with each other. Right now, we are trying to make it through life with them.  

This was the stage of life my husband and I were in when he got sick. I knew he loved me — he showed me often — but we didn’t have days and weeks or even hours of nothing but each other. We didn’t have what that couple on the dance floor had because we were caught up in living the busy lives of young working parents.  

It took cancer and a month in the hospital for us to slow down as this couple already had, and say all the things that couple probably says to each other each morning when they get up and have coffee for an hour before walking the dog together. 

My husband dreamed about retirement. He wanted wake up at noon every day and have friends over every night. He wanted to travel to far-flung places and work more in the yard. He loved his life, but he also recognized that it was busy, and that the future held the promise of relaxation and appreciation in a way that was impossible at 40. 

He looked forward to nights when we would have nothing better to do than hang out at a bar, listen to someone sing, and hold each other close.   

So did I. If only we’d had more time, that couple could have been us.  

By day Marjorie Brimley is a high school teacher and mother of three. She spends her nights replaying the crazy encounters that go along with being a recent widow and blogging about them at DCwidow.com. She has written for the Washington PostThe CutScary Mommy and Fatherly. You can also find her on Facebook and onTwitter @dcwidowblog.  

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