By Sarah Kilch Gaffney
The other morning, I thought to myself, I wish Steve could see my girls. He would love them so much. The problem is that Steve, who was my first husband, has been dead for over seven years. There isn’t a world where Steve is still alive and my youngest two daughters exist.
After meeting on a backcountry trail crew working on the Appalachian Trail, Steve and I married young. He was 27 when we got the terminal diagnosis: a massive brain tumor the neurosurgeon estimated had been quietly blooming in his brain for over a decade. He lived for another four and a half years.
When Steve died, I found it hard to imagine ever finding love again, mostly because I found it impossible to imagine someone fitting into the intricate puzzle of grief that was the life I shared with my daughter Zoe, who was three at the time. I had lost the person I was supposed to grow old with, and she had lost her beloved father. How was anyone going to navigate that? What strange shapeshifting or uncomfortable squeezing would have to take place for someone to fit into the space left behind? And who would want to contort themselves like that?
From the very beginning, Brian was at ease with my loss and grief. He was both truly interested in my experience and desirous of giving me any space it necessitated. When people in my life began to meet him, they remarked how different he was from Steve. How could he not be? I thought. No one love is the same as another, sure, but I was also not the same person anymore.
Steve is paused, existing in the ether as the man he was in life, but the woman he married is long gone. Grief of that magnitude is uncontrollably transformative, and you come through on the other side wholly changed, whether you like it or not. The good news is that the shape of your grief-space also shifts with time, and it’s possible for another person to fit into your world without conforming to the original hole left behind.
Zoe was so young when Steve died, so her grief surfaces here and there, but mostly she doesn’t remember. I tell stories about Steve, her room is full of photographs of him, and we make cupcakes or cake for his birthday every year. My grief still comes in waves. Brian is there to support us both however and whenever our grief manifests. He is tender and kind and gentle with our grief in the same way he is with our babies. He loves Zoe fiercely, but he also takes great care to make space for Steve.
And so, absurd and impossible as it is, I sometimes dream about my two families coming together. I imagine Steve squeezing my youngest daughter’s squishy thighs or delighting in my middle daughter’s curls when they catch the sunlight just right. I envision them both rapt at the kitchen table as Zoe recounts the latest book she’s read or shares the most recent story she has written, demanding to know which character is their favorite.
I dream of standing at the kitchen window looking over the backyard as I watch Steve give Brian pointers about chainsaws and felling trees before they walk across the grass so Brian can show Steve the raised garden beds he built for me last fall. Sometimes I wish we could all just sit on the back deck together and have a beer.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado. She lives in Maine with her husband and three daughters, and you can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.
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