One evening my friend (who became my husband) and I were sitting in his dorm room getting ready to go to the end of semester banquet. He looked at me and said, I like you. I laughed and said, oh well I like you too. And he bowed his head and repeated, “no, I mean, I like you.” He hung on the word like for an extra second to emphasize as in more than just a friend.
My cheeks warmed, and the mutual affinity was innocent and sweet. Those words changed my life, and I started recalling all the missed moments of him flirting in the dining hall or out of the lecture halls. The evenings of attending readings and him making an effort to sit next to me. As the kids would say, I lacked game and missed all those hints.
Fast forward a couple of days, and he texts me asking if I wanted to come to New York City for the 4th of July. I emphatically accept, and our first official date away from the campus was July 3rd.
The 3rd of July now trails me like a shadow, I try not to acknowledge it, and I try to ignore it like a leaky faucet. It’s not a date I highlight too often, but when the calendar months turn over, I know it lays there like an iceberg ready to tear my mental and emotional wellbeing. And when I begin to sink, others have been pulled down with me too.
When I feel the unsteadiness, I’ve improved on my coping methods over the years. But the first anniversary was so horrible, I’ve actually forgotten about it. Well, not entirely. I remember some of it, but the finer details have dissolved. Though recently, the anxiety, panic, loneliness has started slicing me and the sharp, vivid recollections of that day are flooding back.
So what happened that day? I spent the day in New York City by myself but then visited a friend for a training session, and then went to the restaurant of our first date and went home. Oh, but before I visited my friend, I scattered my husband’s ashes in the designated place he requested.
I’ve never realized the significance of this day. I do remember the tears of walking through a park scattering his ashes. I walked to the part of the park where he proposed to me. Walked to another location where we would sit to enjoy coffee and pastries. I went to the tree we sat under on the first 4th of July we spent together. Then, sprinkled him on a ledge where I took one of my favorite pictures of him. I spread my husband throughout the park and then worked out with my friend.
It has taken me three and a half years to begin processing this day.
But why now? As I head toward the 4th year without him, why has it taken me so damn long to acknowledge the impact of July 3rd?
Since reassembling my life, I’ve always chased the collision of my physical anguish to match my emotional. I share my grief with others every day when I’m instructing a class, but it’s not a boo-hoo kind of grief. It’s the RESULTS of my pain. It’s why I wear a shirt reading “My Grief Made Me Do It 26.2.” This life where I’ve done triathlons, half marathons in the freezing rain, half marathons in the blazing heat, a marathon, I am pushed by the need to find my breaking point where physical anguish is as broken as my emotions. The closest I’ve come to feeling that blend was this past summer training in the Alabama heat during the long 15, 16, 17, 18 mile runs beginning at 4:30 am.
After I scattered his ashes and I went to workout with my friend. It’s the only time I have considered a “full-on, clear-cut, this moment couldn’t get possibly worse,” workout and it was with one of my closest friends, and someone who inspires me professionally and supports me personally. Larry, was a great friend to me that day and I pulled him down in my grief without him even knowing it. That’s how twisted grief is.
The problem with all the other attempts of complete physical and mental destruction was because I was doing it alone. I could hide, and pretend everything was okay. But when I did that 90-minute workout with Larry after scattering my husband’s ashes and arriving at the fitness studio Larry trains at, I couldn’t hide my tears, the bone fragments, and dust on my clothes. I was exposed, and Larry did precisely what I requested. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “break me.”
Often I think about moments where I feel people have let me down, and I blame my widowhood. They don’t understand, how dare they make that comment to me, how insensitive are they? But how many of them are responding to me, and adhering to my requests or reacting to my behavior?
Being widowed doesn’t define me, though when I cannot explain my unexpected reactions— especially in the early stages— grief was to blame. But closing in on four years, I sometimes think when I am reactive and abrasive toward people close to me I need to take a step back and breathe. Yes, I am a widow, but when did it become an adjective?
In my profession, I try to motivate, inspire, teach and improve others. I need to practice what I preach, and if I’m stuck in a moment from four years ago, am I growing as an individual? I battle with this daily because I do think about my husband every day.
This is why I do not talk about the lead up to my husband’s death too often. First, it’s painful to recall, but mainly because it’s the journey of self-improving and redefining I find to be captivating. Likewise, the people I connect with are also looking to push forward in letting the worst moments remain behind them. During my grief, I became an optimist.
The workout on July 3rd was brutal. Absolutely horrendous and painful, I’ve forgotten about it. But as these feelings from that day bubble back, there’s guilt for asking one of my best friends, someone I grew up with, to do something that might not have been okay to do.
As a personal trainer now, if I had a client who requested a workout that will break them, I would suggest another day when they are there mentally. But Larry isn’t my trainer. He is my friend. And as a friend, he was there to have dinner with me on late nights after I visited with my husband in the hospital. To be the third wheel on bike rides through Brooklyn, take the train to New Jersey to spend time with us when my husband was in hospice. Larry was one of first friend’s at my husband’s funeral and months later he came out to help pack my things up to move into a new apartment. He even came out to train my lacrosse team, just because, he’s a great person and has an incredible heart.
And I asked him to do something that only a true friend would do. He kicked my ass and at the end of the 90 minutes I was panting, sweating and crying. Wishing time would rewind rather than laying broken on a gym floor. I felt bad for myself, and he then hugged me. He showed me, unconditional love when I felt alone, abandoned, tormented and hollow. And love alone is what all of us who lost our loved ones are looking for.
Sometimes we miss signals and clues. We try to forget the hard stuff, as best we can, but reevaluating those tough moments will reveal the significance of the event, or get us better equipt to see the world in a clearer lens.
Thank you, Larry, for being a good friend to me on July 3rd and hundreds of days since.