June 17, 2006, was the day I left Manhattan and moved west to Colorado, with only my 5-year-old twins by my side.
"We're taking a great adventure," I told my daughter, Rebecca, and son, Casey, trying to amplify everyone's courage, my own included.
Only hours before, we'd said goodbye to family and friends and to the apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side where the twins were born -- the apartment where we lived as a family of four with their father, Brett, and later, after his long battle with brain cancer ended, just the three of us.
Extreme life changes are rarely sudden, but this one came to me clear as the Denver skyline. I'd turned 40 in May and along with that milestone birthday came the end of a decade of caregiving and mourning and the beginning, or so I hoped, of a brighter future.
Why Denver? Well, my college roommate Julie Malek lived here, and each time I visited her and her family -- sometimes with Brett, sometimes on my own -- I felt a connection to the mountains, a sense of peace and permanence. I needed that now. We all did.
The decision to move across the country emboldened me. Certainly, grief was present, but now there was a larger scaffolding of hope and possibility. New scenery, new friends, a new school for the twins, new writing options and, for me, managing a house. With no more building superintendent to check the heat or fix the broken cabinet door or shovel the snow, my homeowner responsibilities quadrupled.
My dad bought me a power drill and said a prayer. Little did anyone know I'd become fast friends with a neighbor who could easily host a DIY show on HGTV.
Nothing could steer me off course during my inaugural year in Denver. So when I read about the widowed news anchor who was selected as a 5280 Magazine's "Most Eligible Single" in February of 2007, it was only fitting that I should reach out.
I knew nothing about Steve Saunders or his father, Dusty, the longtime Denver television critic turned sports columnist, nor brother Patrick, also a journalist. Because I was a recent transplant, I had no sense of Denver's media culture: how Steve spent two decades flashing his high-wattage television smile for local viewers, at the time as weekend news anchor for 7 News.
No, I wrote Steve because of the likeness of our stories. Since he, too, had lost his spouse to cancer and was raising children -- two teenage boys.
What did I have to lose by writing him? I fired off that first email without hesitation, purposely dwelling more on making a new life than widowhood. I attached a glamorous photo taken at my sister-in-law's wedding.
Two weeks passed. No response.
Maybe he never received the email? In a burst of courage one gray morning, I decided to try again. This time, Steve responded straight away, apologizing for his slow response. He wanted to talk. He wanted to meet.
When we finally connected a few days after this email exchange, I was struck by Steve's candor.
"My son Dylan is really annoyed it took me this long to call you."
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Because he thinks you look like Teri Hatcher." (I never realized middle-school boys watched "Desperate Housewives.")
While the banter about Dylan and his older brother, Ryan, was sweet, it was a little disarming to learn Steve had already conducted extensive research about me. He Googled my mother's art and read an engagement notice from my first wedding to Brett. "I'm a journalist -- I Google everything," he said, in his defense.
Later, I would meet his longtime co-anchor Katie Trexler, who confirmed the newsroom's zeal for Steve to date. Everyone wanted to see him move forward.
I played it cool on the phone, letting Steve do the asking. Which he did... for that Thursday night. We agreed on drinks, because that is what people do on first dates, lest one get swept into a long evening with a tiresome talker or otherwise poor match.
And yet, I found myself caving when Steve called hours before we were to meet, suggesting dinner, too. He'd already told me that he hadn't dated in the four years since his wife died so I knew he was a little less seasoned than me this second time around.
"Let's see how the evening goes," I said with as much encouragement as possible. I admired him for asking.
The attraction was immediate and shared.
I can't say how long we chatted over drinks, but eventually, we simply moved to the dining room, where the conversation deepened. It was inevitable that we would trade war stories.
I talked about the very toughest moments for me, and he did the same. How surprised we were to learn that our spouses shared an oncologist in New York City and that quite possibly we had all attended the same Bruce Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden. And yet here we were, joking now, about Chris Rock, "Seinfeld" reruns and our children.
Both of us lost track of the hours. It had been a profound and magical evening, clinched by a lingering kiss goodnight.
The next day, Steve asked me out for that Saturday night.
I liked Steve enormously, but thought it was in his best interest to date other women. Younger women. No matter what developed between us, we could be lifelong friends.
Steve did go out with another woman he met through the magazine article, but he acted true to himself by pursuing what he wanted: Me.
I met his boys, he met my twins and soon, it seemed, we were fixtures in each other's lives.
As with any new couple, there is a honeymoon period, and certainly, we enjoyed focusing on having fun for several months. Movies, walks in Washington Park, art openings, dinners, even a few away overnights. My twins graduated from kindergarten to first grade, and Steve's boys became full-fledged teenagers.
And so began the process of blending two families. By then, we knew we wanted to marry someday, though we let all four seasons pass in order to ride out the bumpy moments. For Steve, these included taking on the responsibility of parenting two young children again; for me, the terror of teenagers, combining two houses and double the laundry. There was also the fear both of us shared that God forbid, we could lose again. Was it worth the risk?
Flash forward to today, nearly five years since our wedding at Cheesman Park. I still can't believe I plucked Steve from a magazine. I'm so glad I took that risk, as I am about every leap I've made in life. For Steve and me, the past is simply part of our story, but not the whole part. Our story is still being written, still being lived, past and present and future at once. In the words of Joni Mitchell, "Well something's lost but something's gained." With Steve, I feel the unflinching light of everyday.
Photo credit: Ellen Jaskol
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