Ding! Times Up? The Challenges of Being a Widow of a Certain Age

A man gave me a compliment……and I fell apart. It wasn’t untoward. It was actually a very nice compliment, but it wasn’t just that. I want to make sure I describe this compliment accurately because it has everything to do with my reaction to it. It wasn’t “Nice dress” or “Your hair looks great today” or the casual “Hey, beautiful” or even the dreaded cat call. It was a compliment with an encouragement. I had just been to a workout, and in passing, the man said I “looked great” and whatever I was doing I should “keep doing it”. See? Nothing to it. Right? I thanked the man, wished him a nice day, got into my car, and dissolved into a salty sea of my own tears. They came hot, heavy, and plentiful, and I felt ridiculous.

My body has only ever belonged to my husband. I don’t mean belong as in a possession or property. I mean belong in the sense that I was suited or matched to Paul. That with him I was in my rightful place. He was my home. I was part of him. I was his missing rib. In Mark 10:8, this relationship is described this way, “And the two shall become one flesh; so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.” One flesh. Exactly. Marriage is the emotional reintegration of the flesh to the original configuration of man created by God. I am finding it hard to think of myself as a single being.

I’m a teacher. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that in my previous posts. I teach middle school, and middle schoolers are not known for their tact. Anyway, one of my eighth graders recently asked, “Hey, Ms. Dunn, you gonna get back in that dating game?” The world ground to a halt, screeching and crunching on its axis. I expelled an audible breath of air like I had just been punched in the chest. I literally had no response for that. I was lost for words, and that is rare.

Recently, I was shopping with an elderly family member, a man. Another man in the store approached us and briefly spoke with me. Moments later my family member said, “Malia, that man was flirting with you!” The tone in his observation implied two things: a) that I was somehow unaware of the flirtation, and b) incredulity that I did not respond in kind. My response to my family member’s comment was a hearty “Hmph” and “Phssh”. To that he added, “Come on, you’re still a good looking woman.” Suddenly, I felt like I had an expiration date stamped on my forehead. The implication of the entire exchange was that I should consider another relationship quickly while I am still viable. Do you feel like punching someone in the nose right about now because I do! I mean what the hell?! What fresh, new kind of hell is this where I better get on with it before I am no longer marketable?

All of these are pretty overt examples. I could provide countless more examples of the subtle pressure that exists in conversations with friends and family about the brother whose wife died last year, the friend who never married, and the single, church member whose name comes up over and over and over again. Enough already. When I ignore or politely decline these suggestions, these advances really, I inevitably get this response, “But you’re so young. You’ll find someone else.” For the life of me, I am not even sure what that means. I am not even in contact with a universe where that makes sense to me. I mean I understand people who remarry. What I don’t understand is how it’s somehow a foregone conclusion related to my age, or how a relationship with someone else will provide some kind of relief to those who love and care about me. I know people mean well and want me to be happy, but again this means that people think I can’t be happy or fulfilled unless I’m in a relationship or married?? This leaves me feeling confused and hurt as if I am not sufficient on my own. Is this the way it is for all single people or just widows of a certain age? Is there a constant, subtle pressure on singles to find someone? Uugggghhhhhh.

Just a few weeks before Paul died we were out together, and we saw a friend of ours whose wife died of cancer two or three years ago. He was with a lady. They were holding hands and smiling warmly at one another. I was surprised. It looked awkward to me. No, it didn’t look awkward. It felt awkward, out of place, out of time. It stirred feelings in me that made me uncomfortable. Our friend and his wife had been young sweethearts, married for more than 30 years, and were utterly devoted to each other. You never saw one without the other. Later, on the car ride home, it was still bothering me so I talked to Paul about it. I said it was so strange to see our friend with someone else. I was having trouble reconciling it. I told him it seemed disloyal. Paul disagreed. He said he was happy for our friend, and that it was right for him to share his life with someone else if it made him happy. I grabbed his hand and held it tight. I told him I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to do the same if and when I was ever in that position. Paul said, “Well, that’ll be something you have to decide for yourself, but I think it’s fine.” The rest of the car ride home was very quiet, uncomfortably so. Did I ask Paul about it because on some deep level I wanted his blessing? Did his response represent how he really felt, or was he already taking care of me and my future?

I have no idea what the future holds. I do know that I place no expectations on myself one way or the other in terms of dating or marrying again, and I need others to do the same, to have no expectations or to assume what I will do. I am enough, and God’s grace alone is sufficient. What I have, what I don’t have, what I am and what I’m not, where I am in this place and time, it’s all God’s grace, and it is sufficient for me.

2 Corinthians 12: 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Peace, Malia

The Locust Years

It was 1989. I had just turned 18, and he was 30. He called me his date with fate. How very true. Family and friends thought the age difference was too much, but it wasn’t. Someone we met maybe two years or so before Paul died recently described us as glowing when we were together. It’s true. We glowed. We also laughed. A lot. Our home was filled with laughter. Paul had a tremendous sense of humor. He was known for his humor and his dimples. He had the most amazing dimples. He was handsome and charming.

I could go on and on. Really. I could. So, am I glorifying Paul through my writing? I’m not even really sure what that means, but another grieving blogger addressed the dissonance between the living person and the memorialized persona in a post about her daughter, and it got me to thinking. Am I remembering only the best aspects of our relationship, only the good times, not being realistic about the challenges and difficulties we faced? Who does that serve? Am I painting him only in the best light? Is it a case of rose-colored glasses? Yes, it is, if rose is the color of love. I loved Paul. There’s really no other explanation. I have to go to another language (eros, pragma, agape) in order to amplify the word we use in the English language because l-o-v-e is not enough.

Paul was interested in many things; music, art, nature, science, engineering, how things worked. He was curious about the world, an intellectual, but he never managed to truly find his place in the world. He did, however, find his place with me, within our relationship and marriage. We both did. We were each other’s shelter from the storm. I fully realize that other people didn’t experience Paul the way I did though. He was sometimes lost in translation. He wasn’t always easy to love. He could, quite frankly, be a pain in the ass at times. Even within our own families, with his parents, with our son, and among our friends, Paul’s remarks and reactions to situations were sometimes misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. At times, I found myself translating Paul to other people because I understood him in ways that other people did not. He didn’t always communicate well, himself or his feelings, to others. He didn’t typically allow others to deeply know him. He was often emotionally defensive.

It is not a case of me remembering only the good times, the best parts of our life together, because I do remember everything, the good and the bad, the ease and the challenge, the joy and the suffering. I do possess a full-view perspective. Moving forward, I am reflecting on the experience of my marriage to Paul in its entirety and using it to inform current and future relationships with those I love. I am talking to God about what He wanted to teach me through my relationship with my husband, and I am grateful for ALL of it. Even the bad memories are good, valuable, useful, and cherished. So, you see, it’s not a case of rose-colored glasses. What it is a case of, is love.

Not too long after Paul died, I ran into a friend I had not seen in a very long time. She said she was sorry about Paul passing away, about everything I had been through, and then said this, “It’s just not what you signed up for, is it?” I felt like I had been struck by lightning. A burning hot rumble of thunder reverberated in my ears. I paused and then flatly said, “Actually, it’s exactly what I signed up for. When we took our vows, I said I would be there in sickness and in health and until death do us part. It wasn’t always easy, but we kept our promise. I’m proud of us.” To be totally honest, for all my bravado in that moment, I never really felt like I had a choice when it came to loving Paul. We loved each other and that was that, through thick and thin, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was never perfect, but most of the time, it was really, really, good. Except when it wasn’t. That’s marriage.

We are all broken and flawed, and Paul was no exception. He struggled with addiction. Let me be plain here. Paul suffered from alcoholism. I don’t like to say that Paul was an alcoholic. You may think that is just semantics, but it’s not. One is a disease from which one suffers and for which they can attain treatment. The other is a statement of identity. Alcoholism is not who Paul was. There was a time when I was confused about that. My confusion actually made it more difficult for me to help him fight the addiction because when I was confused about who he was, I mistakenly thought that meant that I was fighting Paul, and in some cases, I was, which was not healthy or therapeutic for either of us. When I learned how to separate him from the disease, I was finally able to hate it and still love him. It was a breakthrough for us that ultimately led to his long period of sobriety and our recovery.

Joel 2:25-32 “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”

Yes, we had significant challenges and times during our marriage that were very difficult. We had locust years, but they were redeemed by God as promised. I recently had a conversation with a long-time, family friend whose son has grappled with addiction for the better part of 20 years. She told me that sharing our family’s story about our struggle with addiction was part of the beginning of her own family’s road to recovery. She told me it was because we had been so open in sharing our struggle that they were able to make some progress. When I heard that, my heart sang. Paul would have been so pleased to know that. It’s a good example of what I mean when I write about the correlation between being thankful for suffering and achieving true healing, redemption, and restoration. My friend had begun the conversation by saying, “I don’t know if I ever told you…” and admitted that she didn’t talk about it much. You know, almost everyone I talk with who has dealt with addiction says something very similar. You see, addiction, and, yes, I am intentionally referring to it in the third person, wants to be a secret. It wants to be a private matter because that is where it can do the most damage, where it can use shame like a vice-grip to continue holding its prisoner captive. The worst thing that can happen to addiction is to blow it up, as they say. In that way, it loses so much of its power. Every person you tell breaks another link in the chains. We didn’t truly begin to recover, to live transformed lives, until we blew up the circle of accountability, started being open and sharing our struggle, owning our addiction story, and treating the whole family through counseling and fellowship with other families who were also battling addiction. For us, addiction was not just the third person grammatically speaking. It was also the third person in our marriage. I am so thankful I learned how to love my husband but hate and wage war against addiction. I learned to stop patterns of behavior that supported the addiction not him. Addiction was not Paul’s identity. Addiction, in the third person, can be hated, fought, and defeated, day in and day out, and each day of sobriety can be counted as a fresh victory.

Years ago, when we were in the thick of the battle, this passage from Ephesians 6:13-18 gave me strength for each day. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”

This post is for all the men and women, children, and families who have been touched by addiction, for those in recovery and for those who are still battling, and there are so many. Addiction doesn’t care who you are, where you live, what family you come from, how smart you are, how much money you have, or where you work. In fact, it will use all of that to take the advantage if it can. If you are battling addiction in any form, take courage, friends, and fight. You are worth it. Your loved one is worth it. Start by firmly grabbing hold of that addiction and dragging it out into the light where everyone can see it and call by name. I know that is terrifying, but addiction is using that fear to terrorize you. Stop giving it the ammunition it needs to continue its horrific work.

Finally, I will leave you all with this. This hasn’t been an easy post in so many ways. The current revision count is 25. The highest ever for me. I have wrestled with it the way Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok. As I was sitting at the kitchen table struggling with it, out-of-the-blue I received a text of pure encouragement, love, and positive energy from someone I hadn’t seen or heard from in over a year, someone so special to both Paul and myself and who truly knew Paul as I did. Word-for-word she said, “…you rise to meet tasks with grace. Even when you feel like you can’t, you do.” Stunned, I replied that I was working on a post that I knew was important, but it was taking all the strength and courage I could muster, and that I was pretty sure she had just channeled Paul so that he could tell me I was doing the right thing. Her reply was that people needed to know that it’s hard, but it can change with God’s help. She said the cycle of destruction can end, and even in the darkest days, God sends light. And, she gave me a new name.

All my love, Melly