I was at a party last weekend. I was there for my good friend's birthday, and Antonio, my guy of almost nine months, was with me. Joel, my beloved husband, has been gone for 15 months. I know. I didn't expect things to happen so quickly. But they did, and as I've been finding out, anything can happen at any time -- death, for example -- and also love.
So, I'm at this party with my boyfriend, an expression that still feels awkward when I say it, and I'm introduced to a very nice woman. We're talking and come to find out that her nieces are good friends with my daughter. So, it's established: I'm a mom. She notices Antonio and asks me, "Oh, is that your husband?" An innocent enough question. I say, "No, he's my boyfriend." The word so clumsy in my mouth. How can I have a boyfriend when I still feel like someone's wife?
This woman then asks me, not in a "dishy" way, just conversationally, "So, what's the deal with your ex?"
It's so perverse, but I love this moment. It's kind of like when you see someone reach for a glass of water, then take a sip and realize it's vodka. It's unexpected, takes a second to compute, and the reaction is a strong one. I brace myself and say,
"I don't have an ex. I'm a widow."
Sure enough, she closes her eyes, embarrassed, maybe even mortified by her faux pas. But how could she know? She put her hand to her heart, "I'm so sorry. Oh my God." She then took a deep breath and asked very quietly, "What happened to your husband?" I said, "He had MS and a compromised immune system. He actually died of West Nile Virus."
And then, something happened that I could never have predicted. After delivering this news, and having dropped this bomb several times over the course of the last year, I was met with a reaction altogether new to me. Her eyes got wide, her face became full with enthusiasm, she smiled. She placed her hand on my arm, practically giddy. "Wait a minute!" She said, "I know you! I know your whole story!"
It felt like a Hollywood moment. The kind where you've been talking to someone you just met, someone nice and vaguely familiar and you realize, "Hey! You're that actor! I knew that I knew you!"
The truth is, she probably did know my story, it's been news in "the village" where I live -- the good, the bad, the sad, the shocking... people talk. We just do. She was excited, it seemed, to come face to face with the woman who survived such a strange and tragic loss.
Something else happened at that party. Before this incident it was a lovely affair, complete with a bartender, catered sushi and a table full of desserts. Then, I saw a man who my husband and I were acquaintances with almost a decade ago, when he was married to his first wife. Apparently, his second wife is also a widow. My friend, the host of the party, was happy that he and I were in the same room after so many years. My friend told me that he was "devastated. Absolutely devastated" when he heard about Joel. I never heard from him. Not a card, not a note, not a voicemail or text. That's fine. Really, no problem. But at this party, he was one of the first people I saw when we arrived. Guess what he said when he saw me?
Nothing. Not a word.
This, from a man who is married to a woman who also lost her husband! You would think he would know the protocol. But no. He just waved to me from across the room. Not even a smile! My friend later said to me, "He probably didn't know what to say." Well, here's my Public Service Announcement to those who are rendered speechless by the site of someone you know who has recently suffered a major loss. You simply say: "It's nice to see you."
Maybe it's because I'm not crying in the corner. Maybe it's because I'm actually out of the house. Maybe it's because I don't "look like" a widow, but perhaps I am my own private mirage -- the landscape changes depending on where I am and who I'm talking to.
But at that party, I was someone's mother, someone's widow, someone's girlfriend and eventually, after we sang Happy Birthday and the candles were blown out, I was just another party guest, waiting for my piece of cake.