Me Without You

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I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,   
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,   
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

Pablo Neruda, One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII

19 years ago today, Rob asked me to marry him. As he fumbled to unpin the diamond ring from the inside of his jacket pocket, I thought he was joking. We’d only known each other six months. Though I’d known for a while that I wanted to marry him, I was surprised when he popped the question.

For all the years that followed, I knew exactly who I was. I was myself, yes; but I was also Rob’s. I belonged to and with someone. Our marriage became part of my identity in an intimate, beautiful way. To borrow from Pablo Neruda, I knew no “other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you.” I loved our one-flesh life.

The death of a spouse is, among other things, a crisis of identity. I’m not single. That’s what I was before I met Rob. I’m not married now either. (Just ask my accountant or my attorney.) I’m not unattached because death doesn’t separate bonds of love. But I’m also free to form new relationships. Rob even encouraged me to do that if he died young. In a world that uses labels to organize reality, I find that only one really fits me now — widow. I still cringe when I say the word myself. I never wanted to be Rob’s widow. I wanted to be his wife.

I can’t fully express what it feels like to change your emergency contact because your husband is dead. I can’t adequately describe the tightness that fills your throat when you check the box “widowed” on a form, when only months or days ago you checked the “married” box beside it. I can’t begin to communicate the deep grief that floods your body and overwhelms your soul that first time you try taking off your wedding ring. When you look down and see your finger suddenly naked, abandoned. When you realize you no longer know even your own body without him here. You are now a stranger to yourself. When you start to realize what “widow” really means.

I said “yes” to Rob that night. When we sat down at a restaurant soon after, he proudly announced to the waitress right away, “We just got engaged!” Already, we knew who we were. No longer two, we were already one. An item. Together. We belonged to each other from that day on.

For the rest of my life I will wrestle with how to put words to this beauty and pain of loving and losing. I will grieve the pain of this unwanted change. I will sorrow over how Rob’s death has amputated, how part of me is gone forever. I will draw comfort always from the many ways he remains a part of me even though he is gone. How I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine is a truth that defies the grave. I will work to allow death to remake me in all the ways Rob always said it could. And, no matter what lies ahead, there will never be a me without him.

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