When a Widowed Parent Starts Dating Again
I have four parents.
My birth parents split up when I was pretty young. I remember them being married, but there’s a part of me that can’t quite believe it. They…aren’t a natural couple, shall we say.
Fortunately for everyone, they found much, much better matches after they divorced. Equally fortunately, everyone stayed cooperative and cordial during the split-up, joint child-rearing, and beyond. This cordiality grew into actual friendship and then deep affection over the decades. My stepdad and my stepmom raised me as much as my mom and dad did. When my now-husband and I were dating, and things became serious enough for me to introduce him to my parents, he remained a bit confused for a while about which parent was “real” and which was “step”. Because they’re all real, all four of them.
Well, I had four parents. But my mom died last summer. Now I have three parents. Three living parents.
It’s really hard to think of Mom in the past tense.
She and my stepdad were like swans: mated for life. They did everything together. They shared an email address and a Facebook account, and a lovely house with only one bathroom. They traveled the world together and took thousands of photos. They agreed on everything (except the garbage disposal; don’t bring up the garbage disposal). My mom’s how-to-make-a-holiday-meal instructions to me literally say “Hand the prepped turkey to your man…three hours later, your man hands back the cooked turkey and then you…”
I always used to joke that, when their time came, they had better go together (maybe on one of their fabulous trips), because there was no way either of them were going to survive without the other one.
But that’s not what happened.
When Mom got her cancer diagnosis, it was scary, but there was reason for hope. My stepdad, however, just had a feeling that things weren’t going to go well. He began facing the fact of losing her long before any of the rest of us.
I don’t mean to suggest that he didn’t do everything he could to love and support her in every way, and to try everything the medical system was willing and able to do to cure her. Not at all. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing her…but somehow, somewhere deep inside, he knew he was going to have to.
The second night they ever spent apart (after an overnight business trip she took in the 1980s), in thirty-four years of marriage, was when she was in the hospital recovering from the first surgery.
They would go on to spend more nights apart, as she had additional surgical procedures, and then, sadly, as she went home for the last time, under hospice care, and a hospital bed was brought in. Even then, she preferred their bed; we would help her in and out of it when she became too weak to navigate the climb herself. At this point she was sleeping more, so we gave her a whistle to call for our help if she woke up and no one was in the room.
Then, confused and ill and on so many medications, she’d forget to whistle for us, and would try to get up on her own. After she fell several times, we urged her more strongly into the hospital bed, which of course she hated. Even more than the symbolism of the thing, it was just an awful bed: thin, hard mattress, and so narrow; horrible metal rails on both sides. And of course their good sheets didn’t fit on it, so we had to use some old half-polyester ones dredged up from the back of the linen closet. I don’t know anyone who would have been comfortable sleeping there.
It occurs to me that maybe I’m focusing on beds because focusing on the details of one’s mother dying of cancer is just too hard.
The day she died is a weird sad blur to me. I know that so many people came through the house — the house that had been so quiet in the days leading up to her death, when she was, at last, mostly just sleeping.
My stepdad cried and cried and cried, and dried his eyes and cried some more. My brother and I were more hollowed-out; teary, at times, but more empty, disbelieving. Mom was only 73. Far too young to die.
Over the next months, my stepdad grieved. He lost weight; he lost hair. We all mourned, of course, but his was the primary loss: fresh and immediate. He had lived with her every day, for so many years, and now he was alone in the house. My brother and I phoned him; our dad and stepmom, who live nearby, stopped by to see him frequently. His brother whisked him off to Hawaii for a week.
My stepdad knew he needed to get out and do things, to meet people, to keep busy. Not to deny the loss; but to remember that he’s still living.
At a mere 63 when she died — ten years younger than my mom — he was far too young to be a widower.
“Don’t do anything drastic for a year,” we all told him. “Have fun, date, whatever you like; just don’t make any commitments till at least a year has gone by.”
They had been so happily married. I know that men who have had good marriages are quicker to remarry after the loss of a spouse. But they had had such a good marriage, such a unique marriage, I wasn’t sure if he was ever going to find anyone who would measure up to Mom. I could as easily see him remaining solo forever as pairing up again.
Then, not long after the new year, we were talking on the phone and he said, “I’ve signed up for some online dating sites. Just to see how they work, what’s out there.”
Oh my god, I thought. Is he serious? Isn’t it too soon? But out loud, I said, “That’s great! What are you finding there?”
“I’m not actually going to contact anyone,” he said. “No one lives close enough anyway.”
“Well let me know how it goes!” I said.
The next time we talked, he’d actually sent a message to a woman. She hadn’t replied.
But the time after that…he’d struck up a correspondence with a woman in a nearby town, and they’d agreed to meet for coffee.
“My stepdad is dating again!” I told a few friends.
“Oh my goodness!” they said, and “Good for him,” and “That’s what men do.”
I’m not privy to all the details — and I wouldn’t share them here even if I were; it’s his story, not mine — but there soon came a point where the word “girlfriend” was used. As in, “My girlfriend…” this, that, or the other. It came up a lot in conversation, that word.
He was very happy. It was so nice to see. And so weird.
There is no longer a girlfriend. Again, not my story to tell. He’s a little sad, but he’s all right. He’s eager to move forward again. He’s happy to have had the learning experience.
Why is this so weird for me? It’s not like I want him to sit home and mourn Mom for the rest of his days. Or even a minute longer than he “needs” to (however one figures such a thing). He’s young, he’s a great guy, he has decades of experience being an excellent husband; and, perhaps most important, he’s lonely. He was in his twenties when he and Mom got together, and he’s a twin: he’s really never been solo.
I actually do want him to be happy. I want him not to be alone. And yet…every piece of this process feels like another step toward us all putting Mom…in the past. First there were her clothes and other belongings to sort through. Because why does Stepdad need to keep her clothes? He doesn’t. But this feels weird too. My auntie and my sister-in-law and I took the things we wanted, and could use; the rest…can go away.
Why does getting rid of things feel like another little death? Mom is not her things. She’s with us all, in our hearts. And we’ve kept plenty of mementos to tangibly remember her with.
I’m terrified of what happens when her husband, her most cherished possession, belongs to someone else. What happens when another woman occupies Mom’s house with him — or if he sells the house and moves away?
I think that’s what “too soon” means, in my initial reaction to his entering the dating pool. It’s not too soon for him; it’s too soon for me. It seems that I’m not ready to face letting Mom go further than she’s already gone.
Well, I had better get ready. Because he’s not her possession, no matter how much she cherished him (and she did). He’s his own person, and he gets to be the boss of his own life. He grieved, honestly and thoroughly; and he’ll miss Mom for the rest of his days; but he’s now ready to open his heart to someone else now — or at least, he’s ready to give it a try.
I hope for the best for him. I really do. And, as I think about it more deeply, it occurs to me that there’s another angle to look at this all from: the amazing man who is my stepdad is not going to fall in love with an unremarkable woman.
This doesn’t have to be a loss. He’s not going to leave us; he’ll be bringing a new person into our family. She won’t be my mom — but no one could be.
I already have plenty of room in my heart for four parents.
I’ll bet I can find a place in there for a fifth.