This month marked the 25th anniversary of my first husband’s death, a cataclysmic event that changed my life forever. Even now, so many years later, so many days lived, so many joys savored and sorrows suffered, it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around it.
A quarter century. Sounds both vast and miniscule, this passage of time. And paradoxically, it also feels like a lifetime ago and just the other day.
This year, as I do every year, I sent our five children, now adults and some with children of their own, a text about the commemoration of something none of us expected or, I dare say, deserved. It wasn’t intended as a reminder, no need for that, but a message that no matter how scattered our lives are, how diverse our worries, this would always be a thread pulling us together.
That morning I also phoned a dear friend, somebody who doesn’t need an explanation of all the mixed-up feelings this date invariably triggers. Like me, she was a widow with young children when her husband succumbed to cancer just months after mine had died of a heart attack at 37. Though our paths had crisscrossed several times over the years, it was this shared tragedy that bonded us.
We have, out of both necessity and convenience, developed a shorthand for the language of grief. A word, a gesture, a sigh. These things are enough for one of us to convey to the other that deep-seated sadness that all mourners must eventually lock away for survival and safe-keeping. This year, however, I needed the benefit of a full conversation. I needed someone willing to be the sounding board to the endlessly circular ruminations that we women tend to indulge in.
“Don’t you ever wonder what …” I began. I didn’t need to finish the thought. She’d been there, done that.
“Of course,” she assured me. “We’re human.”
And vulnerable. And curious. We’re also surprisingly nimble second-guessers.
We wonder at how our lives life might’ve been different had death not visited us so early. Would we worry about the same things? Be living in the same houses, same neighborhoods? Would we have stuck with our careers? Would we have so many new friends and new interests?
What about our children? Would they have chosen the same professions? Married different people? Developed other interests, outlooks, personalities?
There is, of course, no way of answering these questions with any level of accuracy. Some say that hindsight is 20/20, but I don’t believe in such perfection. Imagining the paths we might’ve taken is more like being blindfolded in front of a birthday pinata. You’re striking with only the vaguest sense of direction. And yet, knowing this hasn’t stopped me from asking, prodding, exploring — for no good reason, I should add.
I’m usually happy with my life, the people who love (and annoy) me, the choices I’ve made, even the surprises that sporadically throw me for a loop. I feel blessed to have remarried a good man who helped me raise my children. But occasionally — though less often now — I step back into a past that can’t be recovered, nor should it be.
My friend believes you don’t have to lose a spouse to engage in the game of what-if. In fact, age often prompts us to reflect on how we would rewrite the past. She warns, though, not to wallow in regret. While it can offer valuable lessons, it also has the tendency to suck hope from the future.
A quarter century after thinking there was no way out of the darkness, I’m both the same and different, a woman forged as much by setback as by success. I’d claim that those years have made me smarter except that I’m reminded, almost on a daily basis, how much I still have to learn and how little I can control.
And that, in the end, may not be such a bad place to be, perched somewhere between wisdom and humility.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.