IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Married My Terminally Ill Childhood Sweetheart

We did it so that after he was gone, his family could remember him in his beautifully fitted suit and feel thankful that they saw their son get married in his lifetime.
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Publish date:
November 19, 2015
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death, healthy, marriage, widow, grief, Terminal Illness

Twenty-two is a young age. It’s a young age to even be in love, and a young age to have been married. It’s certainly a young age to be a widow. Yet at the tender age of 22, I have been all three of the above.

When people ask me about my life, I tell them that I can divide it into three definitive parts: the before, the during and the after.

I'll start with the before.

It was winter when we met. I remember because it was the first day of the year where the snow fell thick enough to warrant skipping school.

He threw a snowball in my face. You'd think a guy who would throw a snowball into the face of a girl he didn’t know would be kind of a tool. But then he apologized, bought me a Starbucks, and made me laugh until my sides hurt.

I remember thinking that he was good-looking and he thought that I was funny and sometimes life is just simple like that. We spent the day together nursing hot chocolates and lying about what kind of music we liked to listen to. I was 13 at the time and he was a year older.

And that’s where it all began. It’s a terrible cliché but sometimes you meet people and you just know that everything they bring to your life will be beautiful.

We grew up together from there. I watched him pass his exams and he watched me fail mine. We learned to drink beer and how to love each other as best we could, even as young as we were.

Eventually, I dropped out of college and we backpacked through Europe like we were living in some B-grade rom com. I look back on it now and wonder if it could really have been as perfect as it is in my memory. It must have been damn close.

We had 1,215 days together in simple, perfect, happiness. So when the cancer hit us, it hit us hard.

Lung cancer. Stage 3. In an almost-20-year-old who’d never smoked a day in his life. This part of my life would last 294 days and it would be filled with the best and worst memories, because love and suffering so often come together.

Two months after the diagnosis, we got married on the beach. It was unbearably hot, but nothing burned us anymore. Nothing was a tragedy until death do us part, however short a time that may be.

I was only 19, and in many ways, the wedding wasn't about us. There was no romantic proposal or days spent planning the occasion. We did it so that his family could watch us walk down the aisle on that beautiful beach in the Maldives. We did it so that after he was gone, they could remember him in his beautifully fitted suit and feel thankful that they saw their son get married in his lifetime. For me, it was just another memory to put into the box before the end. We all imagined what it would be like if the bride and groom actually got to live full lives together.

And the end came too soon. I wish I could say I handled it well, maturely even. Instead, I pushed away everyone who tried to support me. I spent too many nights screaming at the people I loved for trying to understand.

I lashed out at everyone because it had to be somebody’s fault. It didn’t make sense that cancer could take him now; this perfect boy, in the prime of his life. He didn't even smoke.

It’s one of my biggest regrets. But I was angry. We were teenagers and our lives were being stolen from us. We should have been traveling and arguing about what music to play in the car. We should have been fighting about stupid things just as an excuse to make up again.

We should have been living, but instead we spent our last days in the cold, sterile confines of a hospital room. Our world was reduced to the outline of a bed.

Still, I prayed for us to endure just a little bit longer, because suffering indefinitely seemed better than having to say goodbye.

I was barely an adult when I became a widow.

When I buried him, my partner, my best friend, that’s when the after began. I don’t remember a lot about his passing. I suppose the mind has a way of shutting out the memories which cause us the most pain. But I remember standing at his funeral on a beautiful, clear, September morning, and thinking that I would never heal.

The service was beautiful, but lifeless in the way all funerals are. It’s been almost three years now and still, whenever I hear the word widow, that’s the image that I see; just a hollow girl standing in a black dress, sweating in the sun.

Relationships are hard now. I think they’ll continue to be hard for the rest of my life. When you know you’re losing somebody you love, you live in a kind of suspended reality that you’ll never find again.

We cherished every moment together, every word. We jumped on every train that was going somewhere we’d never been. It was more spontaneous and filled with adventure than a normal relationship could ever be.

Sometimes I date. Often I don’t. Any attempt at a relationship seems to wilt under the shadow of my ex-husband’s memory. While I am thankful for all the beautiful things he brought me, my bonds with others now feel relentlessly inadequate.

When you have been so open with another human being, literally faced death together, every other relationship seems shallow and empty in comparison. As a result, I’m overly sarcastic. I’m probably not as kind as I should be. In many ways, my suffering has made me falsely entitled.

However, I’m at a stage in my life now where I am starting to realize that my after might not have to be my end. I realize now that the after is me.

I might never be the same girl who sipped hot chocolate in the snow, thinking that life is inherently kind, but maybe that’s OK.

Today, I can open my little box of memories. I can scoop them together like a snowball and throw them at someone I don’t know. Even through all the pain and the suffering, every moment has played a part in defining who I’ve become.

I know now that life is short. Maybe my suffering has in some way bought me to the life I have now, even if it’s not one I wanted or expected when I skipped school on that snowy day and met my best friend. I would do it all over again.