OK, I tricked you into clicking this thinking it was a sexy polyamory story when it’s really just a story about how my husband died and now I have a boyfriend and I have A LOT OF FEELINGS. Read on, you perv.
Like all of your most annoying coupled friends like to tell you, I found him when I wasn’t looking.
I’d been widowed nearly a year, after my beautiful husband died in my arms from a brain tumor that hollowed him out from the inside, snipping apart all of his wiring day after day until at age 35, he was gone.
I’d spent three years of marriage at his side, coordinating radiation appointments, making sure he took his chemo pills at night while we watched The Sopranos, waking up to tend to our baby so he could get the sleep he needed to survive.
“Don’t worry,” more than one moron told me while I stood, stunned and slightly drunk, greeting hundreds of faceless mourners at his funeral, “you’re still beautiful, you’ll find someone.”
I was 31 years old.
Also, I was not super looking to find a new man when my favorite one was in two plastic bags just a few yards away from me.
I knew they were right. I would find someone. And that someone would probably fall in love with me, maybe because of my history or maybe in spite of it. Men are attracted to strength, and also to scars, and in the months of blind grief that followed that funeral plenty of men raised their hands to say, “Hey! Wanna give me a try?”
I did, sort of. I was lonely enough to want to kiss someone, or eat dinner across from them, but also just dead enough to think that I may never come alive again, that I’d spent my Lifetime Supply of Love on Aaron.
It was well spent too.
Aaron and I met in the fall of 2010. Our first date lasted for six hours and ended with a handshake, and that was it: We were together. All day, we chatted online (apologies to our former employers) and every possible evening, we were side by side. We worked quietly on the couch on our laptops, we binged on our favorite shows, we went to trivia nights in dark bars and made Christmas cookies with our friends.
And then, my perfectly healthy boyfriend was improbably sick. Inconceivably sick. And my love for him tripled and quadrupled with every single blood draw, chemo pill, and MRI.
When we were married — two weeks after a brain surgery where they removed a golf ball-size tumor from his giant noggin — we said the same words our parents and grandparents did: for better or worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.
We had four years together. Four years to watch ‘Buffy’ and eat cheese in bed. Four years to learn the meaning of love, which is watching ‘Buffy’ and eating cheese in bed.
Worse was a brain tumor that shut his body down ruthlessly and robbed him of his autonomy day by day. His sickness meant so much chemotherapy and radiation that we weren’t supposed to share water glasses or “exchange bodily fluids,” which is a sexy medical way of saying “no boning.” And when death parted us, it was side-by-side in the same kind of tiny hospital bed where we had promised ourselves to one another the same night the doctors had found that biological stowaway in his skull.
We had four years together. Four years to watch Buffy and eat cheese in bed. Four years to learn the meaning of love, which is watching Buffy and eating cheese in bed and acting like everything is totally fine when one of you has a seizure in front of your dinner guests and needs to be thrown onto the couch and held in place so he doesn’t seize on the kids.
When Aaron died, when he breathed out for the last time and didn’t inhale again, I felt my heart blow open, and the secret to life rush in: It is just to love, as much as you can.
But I couldn’t. I’d used it all up, the romantic stuff at least, carrying my husband to the bathroom and tying his shoes, rubbing his head when the tumor pressed against his brain and made his eyes hurt, pushing morphine through his dry lips when he slipped into unconsciousness and into the space between this world and the next.
I wasn’t dumb enough to think I’d had sex for the last time at 31 years old, I’m not a total weirdo. But I assumed that the next man who loved me would be just that: a man who loved me, whose affections I accepted and mimicked, but who would be pretty cool getting basically nothing in return from me other than some basic human decency and some good sex as long as there isn’t anything I’d rather watch on TV.
Really great, right? Like, hey, wanna come love and adore me while I give you nothing? Sign right here.
Bizarrely, I did not have a lot of takers.
On the anniversary of my husband’s first brain surgery, I had two small hearts tattooed on my wrists in his handwriting. One faces me, the other faces away. They were small reminders to myself, that the love he gave me isn’t gone. That I can cultivate it within myself and that I can give it freely to others. It will always come back to me, it will never run out.
I told myself exactly that, I wrote it on Instagram, but I didn’t believe it.
November 3 is my late grandmother’s birthday. It’s the day Aaron had his first brain surgery in 2011. And it’s the day, five years ago, when I had my first date with Aaron. I didn’t want to go because he hadn’t given me any notice, he just asked me out on gchat like we were teens on AIM. Plus I had a hair appointment. But @carlytmcinerny looked at me in the mirror and said YOU ARE GOING DO NOT WASTE THIS HAIR. I met him at Loring Pasta Bar. Like, for actual dinner not just a few hours of drinking and then “watching a movie and never speaking again.” We determined how many kids we’d have (at least 3) and who would stay one with them (him). We went to the Varsity to see Mayer Hawthorne and even though I’m a giraffe, he made me dance with him and I still liked him. After the show we got a coffee and sat on the curb and talked until the cold made our teeth chatter. And then. He shook my hand? And kinda half hugged me? So, that was not at all confusing. I got my hair done last week and just realized after being every color possible, I’ve let my natural color grow out again, the way it was when I met him. Maybe it’s all just a coincidence, but I found a note from him in all my unpacking, and reached out to @charlie_forbes_tattoo, the man who gave me my wedding tattoo (Now) and my @sjmcinerny tattoo (Semper Fi. He had an opening. Today. Now I have these: the heart Aaron used to sign his notes to me. One on each wrist. One faces out. One faces in. I’ll see them every day, and remember that the love I got from him I can give to others freely, that there will always be enough, and it can never be lost.
A photo posted by Nora McInerny (@noraborealis) on Nov 3, 2015 at 5:33pm PST
You’re supposed to leave new tattoos alone, but I kept pushing my sleeves up and running my fingers over the scabs on my wrists, over and over the hearts Aaron had drawn for me on a Post-it years ago while I sat next to a stranger in my friend’s backyard. He was funny and cute and kind of shy and didn’t get weird when I said things like, “So, tell me about your divorce!”
The stranger turned out to be kind and caring. He makes a lot of eye contact. He laughs super hard at my jokes and he doesn’t really use the Internet so I can reuse popular tweets in our conversation and he just thinks I’m incredibly witty.
He isn’t Aaron. He never will be. He doesn’t have to be.
My Lifetime Supply of Love for Aaron was used up, as it was meant to be. And that space in my heart will always be occupied, like the women’s bathroom at any sporting event.
But a cool thing about your heart is that it is constructed exactly like Hogwarts: filled with secret passages and rooms you never knew existed, a place where new love can grow alongside your grief, your sorrow, your own inner happiness, and all of your insecurities. It has room for all the feelings, even the ones you’d rather not admit to having, like how you’re sort of jealous of your niece’s hair and skin tone even though, you know, SHE IS A CHILD.
But that is the cool thing about feelings: You’re allowed to have them all, as many as you can, all types, all at once. Like Girl Scout cookies.
I am a real feelings binger, folks. I feel the ache of loss always, now with a little sprinkling of guilt because, you know, am I even allowed to be happy? My beautiful husband is dead and always will be. Feelings, like Girl Scout cookies, are the kind of thing you can never stop having. But we can allow ourselves to have them without judgment. HAVE THE DAMN COOKIE. Can I grieve and still love someone new? YEP.
I love “how we met “stories, because they can mean anything you want them to. So, here is ours. We were in that backyard for a winter bonfire. His chair collapsed while he was introducing himself, so all I saw were his shoes flying through the air while he dumped wine up his nose.
We stayed up until midnight (COOL MOM ALERT), and when we left the party, I sat in my car and searched through friends of friends of friends on Facebook until I found him and sent him a message that reflected exactly how much chill I have.
“I think you’re very handsome and funny,” I typed from my station wagon, “you should ask me out.”
His name is Mr. Hart, and like my tattoos, that means exactly what I want it to mean.
Nora McInerny Purmort is the author of the forthcoming memoir It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too).