It occurred to me recently that I had acquired yet another label in my life. One more label that defines me and tells my story in such an easily digestible way that almost anyone could presume they understand me. In the past when I attained a new label, I’ve often felt like I entered an exclusive club. There, I would know the secret handshake and the proper quips that would lead to the head nods, smirks, and occasionally, the full-blown maniacal laughter that only shared camaraderie can bring.
That certainly happened when I became a parent. In that moment I felt the rare, inexpressible terror that comes from being genuinely responsible for the life and potential happiness of another person. I have heard others speak of similar thorny feelings about parenthood. There’s not much in life that resembles those awkwardly entwined vibrations of love and obligation, which only happen as you come to know your child and they come to know you.
Nearly two decades ago when remarkably both my parents passed away in the same year, there was, again, an indescribable feeling that only another person who’d lost a parent would know. As an only child especially, that feeling of being truly alone in the world — just you and no net — had such a stark, shocking resonance there were times it nearly took my breath away to think about it.
As an African-American female, there are certainly a wealth of universal feelings, associations, and mantras that I share with other women who fit that billing. However, there are times that labels are so global, it’s the individual who shines and it’s much harder to tease out the similarities in the group. For example, being labelled an artist or a New Yorker or a Democrat comes to mind.
Once in a while a new label can offer such an internal safe harbor, you might wonder why you waited so long to engage in creating this fresh version of yourself. I felt that when I got married and became someone’s wife. I felt it too when I published my first book last year and became an author. Both times there was excitement and fear of course, but there was also a deeply peaceful, if somewhat transitory state where I knew without a shadow of a doubt I’d made the right decision.
I suspect at least part of the reason I’m dwelling on these reinventions of myself is because it’s my birthday. Birthdays for me have always been a time of self-examination and renewal. And because I also have a limited need for coddling and a tendency to ignore apparent complications as if they were meaningless, I got married on my birthday.
Don’t judge. At the time it seemed like a good idea for many reasons. Being an incredibly smart and witty man, my husband, M, looked at my birthday wedding as the boon that it was for his inherent absent-mindedness. As he put it, “I’m putting all my eggs in one basket and then I’m gonna keep a sharp eye on that basket.”
M and I, on the face of it, had little in common when we met. We married young luckily. As the years passed it became clear to me that the things we did have in common were fundamental to how well our relationship worked. Both of us could be called radically independent, intensely private, secretly sentimental and romantic, and always boldly irreverent when it came to finding the humor in any scenario life handed us.
Today would have been my twenty-ninth wedding anniversary. Sadly M passed away six weeks ago before reaching that milestone with me. Hence my new label: widow.
I have to confess I’ve always liked the word widow despite its obvious melancholy implications. For one thing I like a word that can use not one, but two, of the interesting and often forgotten letter w. There are only two offered in Scrabble. Play Hangman twenty times in a row with a friend and you’d be lucky to see a w twice, even though I’ve managed to use it five times in just this sentence.
Being a writer, I also like that widow has another meaning that is often associated with the equally gloomy word with two meanings: orphan. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, A short last line of a paragraph carried over to the top of a page is sometimes referred to as a “widow”; when the first line of a paragraph appears at the bottom of a page, it is sometimes called an “orphan”.
When discovered I’ve always found widows and orphans on the written page interesting. There they dangle, alone, hopefully carrying their own unique timbre to hold the reader’s interest and not disturb them with their oddity. It is not lost on me that both these labels apply to me now particularly since both applicable meanings of these words are not dissimilar I think.
M, who may have loved words even more than I do, would have enjoyed examining their double meaning in this context. A true and gifted artist from birth, my husband was a relentless supporter of my writing career and my artistry. But he also had the nature and sense of play of a copy editor. For my birthday last year he happily (and lovingly) presented me with a portable copy of Strunk & White’s latest edition of The Elements of Style as if it were a diamond brooch or front row seats at a Maxwell concert. Thing is, I loved it and carry it with my laptop, everywhere.
This is a week where many began it talking, writing, and thinking about love in all its permutations. For me these days in mid-February have, for many years, always been like triple doses of espresso on the subject. Someday I’ll feel comfortable enough to write more about my husband and the life we shared but for now I am just relieved to say he died a happy man because he knew he was loved.
As for me, I am grateful because I too was loved and I still am by many in my life. However, I’m also reminded of a quote a friend of mine shared recently by a relationship blogger and poet named Sahai Kodhi: “The fact that someone else loves you doesn’t rescue you from the project of loving yourself.”
So as I dangle out here alone, it’s nice to know that I still have something to do as well as something to look forward to.