One morning when our puppy was six months old, she leapt onto my bed, right where my late husband used to sleep. That was quite a feat -- it's a high mattress -- and I had to make a snap judgment about whether to let her stay. The vet's stern voice boomed in my ear.
"Don't let a puppy do anything you don't want her to do later," she warned.
I could picture my late husband's eyes rolling with dismay as Sadie's blond Cockapoo butt wiggled on his pillow. Elliot considered our bed sacred. His loving attentions made me feel sexy and safe.
Without my husband, the rules for the puppy were entirely up to me. My kids and I had brought her home to cheer us up after Elliot's agonizing death from pancreatic cancer. Sadie was joyful medicine, but I knew nothing about training her. I liked her grassy Milk-Bone smell and careless way of flopping down wherever she felt like it, but Elliot would surely have objected to having her all over our clean sheets.
If this became Sadie's habit, might there be another man someday who would disapprove? Then again, so what if he did?
After two marriages and 15 years of motherhood, I had to confess I was tired of subjugating my desires to the needs of a husband or a child. This strange new stage of life seemed to be a rare time when I had leeway to give in to whatever seemed easiest. If I had to put up with the sorrows of widowhood at 47, shouldn't I at least get to savor its small freedoms too? And so some nights I crawled into bed so exhausted from my job as a reporter that I didn't bother to take off my clothes. I made a whole meal out of corn on the cob. I relished eating dinner early with the kids instead of waiting, stomach gurgling, for Elliot's 7:40 train.
I tried to extend this sense of liberation to the bigger issues as well. There were moments when I felt a kind of wonder that for the first time in a very long while I felt no pressure to meet a man or make one happy. Now, for better or worse, I could focus on pleasing only me.
And so, as I watched Sadie explore the soft yellow sheets on Elliot's side of the mattress, it surprised me to realize that I had even envisioned a far-off future with another man who might have an opinion about the rules for the dog.
Even now, more than two years after Elliot's death, when I try to wrap my mind around that image it escapes like a firefly. I ache to have my husband back, to sink into him at the end of the day. Yet as much as I miss Elliot's warmth, jokes and infinitely deep brown eyes, I find it a relief to be untied from his extreme needs for my help, especially when he grew weak -- the home IVs, sponge baths and weird easy-to-digest meals. I don't have the energy to take on the constraining burdens of anyone else's moods or schedules or children. So how could I even think about being part of a couple again? When I picture a timid foray on an old-fashioned date, I imagine Elliot watching from my shoulder like Jiminy Cricket, looking betrayed.
"How can you do this?" he whispers. "What about me?"
That's my version of magical thinking. Joan Didion kept her late husband's shoes because she figured he would need them when he came back to her. I have no delusions that Elliot will walk through our front door. My controlling vision is one of Elliot watching me with sad, possessive eyes if I ever find myself interested in anyone new. Then I lash out at myself for suppressing my own needs yet again, even for the sake of a ghost.
The possibility of my finding love again was something Elliot and I couldn't talk about when he was sick. It came up only once. I wanted to elicit his permission because without it, a date would feel like cheating.
"What am I going to do without you?" I asked on a drizzly Sunday afternoon as we walked to the movies. "How am I going to manage on my own?"
"You'll probably be remarried in six months," he teased, "and it will probably be to someone in my book group."
He dismissed the subject with a joking wave of his hand because it was too painful to entertain. It's hard to imagine having a connection with any man like the one I had with Elliot but I would like to believe that someday I will let myself be open to it. Who wants to wind up one of those crazy dog ladies who puts her poodle on dialysis and just marks time between bimonthly visits from grandchildren?
I'm a hypocrite, though; if I had died before Elliot, it would kill me to see him touching another woman. (There's that magical thinking again.) I would want him to be happy but I would be jealous if he fell in love. A friend once laid out the rules for her husband.
"If I die you can marry a new wife," she said sportingly. "You just can't sleep with her."
So how long is long enough? When can you let go? A friend told me that when her mother died, the other women at the Florida retirement community pounced on her father with casseroles. There was a protocol among those in the brisket brigade: "Two weeks is too early, four weeks is too late."
Four weeks. Unfathomable.
Sometimes I look for clues in the newspaper. Here's an interview with Joyce Carol Oates, who was engaged 11 months after losing her husband. That seems awfully fast. Here's a mention of Love Happens, a Jennifer Aniston movie. The male lead is called "blocked" because he hasn't had a relationship since his wife died three years ago. So three years is seen as too long?
I know deep down I don't want to wake up alone for the rest of my life. Someday I will want to roll over and feel a man's enveloping strength. Having had the joy of a rich partnership, I can't help wanting one again. Someday.
For now, I have learned, there is a certain power in being on my own. With great kids and a worthwhile job, I don't need a man for income or self-esteem. There is no biological clock. Simple companionship would be nice. Nothing complicated.
At some point, I will have to believe that Elliot would understand. As a bereavement counselor once told me, "Even when you lose the person you feel most connected to, you don't lose your deeply human need to connect."
Who knows if I will ever marry again. But if that should happen, I have a plan for my vows. "Till death do us part," I'll say. "Me first."
At least, for now, I have a dog sleeping next to me where my husband used to be. I let Sadie stay that day she jumped onto the bed, and she joins me any time she wants. I listen to her breathe, so peacefully. Curled on Elliot's pillow, she is adorable, unwitting proof of the enormous capacity of the human heart to keep making room for more.
Excerpted from "The Last Kiss: A True Story of Love, Joy and Loss," released by TitleTown Publishing in 2012. Please visit www.lesliebrody.com
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