It was only four days after she died that somebody first broached the subject of the next phase of my love life. The funeral service had been that morning. Afterwards, in the midst of people offering their condolences, one of the guests told me, "One day, if you're ready, you'll find love again."
I appreciated that the sentiment was couched in a hypothetical statement, particularly since such concerns were the farthest thing from my mind.
It didn't come up again until the summer. I was at a party where many of the guests were her friends -- including Rachel, one of her sorority sisters. We talked about her job, her husband and her son. With a mix of hope and concern, Rachel asked me, "Are you seeing anybody?" It wasn't a casual question.
"No," I replied. "I'm not really interested in that."
Rachel looked a little surprised and disappointed. "It's been eight months," she said. That's how I found out about the timeline people expected me to be on. At some point prior to eight months, my status was supposed to change from widowed to single.
Her friends mean well when they want me to "move on" this way, but it still strikes me as strange. There are a whole host of unwritten rules about relationships that people begin learning in high school through trial and error. Seeing her friends trying to play matchmaker for me instinctually feels like a violation of the code. But of course, there is no betrayal here -- this is just a situation that we never had to think about as teenagers.
Why do her friends want to set me up with other women? I try to understand what motivates them to bring it up, and the reasoning shifts over time. In Rachel's case, I think she wanted some evidence that I was getting better, that I was no longer the shell-shocked man who fumbled his way through the eulogy.
The dating question makes me anxious every time it pops up. It forces me to reveal more than I want to. Admitting to my lack of interest in rebuilding my life is like confessing that the months and years aren't helping me heal. Nevertheless, the questions keep coming and, as time passes, people become more direct. Simple questions about dating (Are you dating?) grow into opinions (You should be dating) and requests (Let me set you up with somebody).
Kimberly, another one of her friends, is passing through town. We haven't seen each other since the funeral, so we meet at a diner for breakfast to catch up over scrambled eggs and pancakes. Since Kimberly's six-year-old daughter is also there, our conversation leans heavily on implications. "How are you doing?" she asks, looking into my eyes for a real answer. When I tell her I'm doing as well as I can, she understands what I mean.
Kimberly wants to know if she can set me up. I politely decline the offer with the same explanation I gave Rachel: I'm not really interested in that right now. Kimberly accepts my answer without objection.
After we finish eating breakfast, we walk to a playground. I push Kimberly's daughter on the swings, but not as high as she wants to go. Her dad probably pushes her harder, but I'm nervous about breaking somebody else's child. People seem so fragile to me.
Kimberly and I watch her daughter play on the slide. We're standing just far away enough for us to have an uncensored adult conversation. "You're really good with kids," she says as she looks at me with unmasked sadness. "Are you sure we can't set you up with somebody?"
Why do her friends want to set me up with other women? Earlier over breakfast, Kimberly was asking the question because she wanted to fix my widowhood with another woman. Later on the playground, after sensing my untapped potential as a father, her concern shifted from me being alone to me having no future to call my own.
Whatever their reasoning is, people inevitably come to the same solution: they can cure me with a woman. The problem is that this prescription is based on a misdiagnosis of my condition. Yes, I am alone, but I am not lonely. I do not yearn to build a new future with somebody, whoever she may be. I do, however, miss the very specific future I once had with her.
And so I dread the possibility that one of her friends will ask me the dating question since I'll never be able to give them the answer they want to hear. At the same time, I do find some comfort in these conversations because I know that they're just trying to look after me in her absence.