My wife and I were very close – what you’d call an “item” – for 26 years. So when she died of fucking cancer four years ago it felt like one half of my personality had been abruptly amputated.
Photos became suddenly very precious. It began with the funeral service and the picture presentation we bereaved types put together for the ceremony. I had a powerful urge to hoard every image ever taken of her, and so I asked friends and family to send me everything they had. I put a selection of them in chronological order so we could run the slideshow.
My face appeared about halfway through the sequence as we met, courted and travelled together. Then came our wedding. Then along came our son, first as a shiny newborn, then fun little kid, then cool teenager, then young adult. Lots and lots of good times and sunny, happy days. Then a few of her wearing the chemo bandanna. Then it was over.
It was moving and funny and very sad for everyone to sit through. But as I watched during the ceremony and in those tough months beyond, it seemed like my life was over, too.
My future was a blank. I couldn’t make up my mind about anything. I quit work then went back to work again a few weeks later when my boss asked me to help out, though just for a few days a week to leave plenty of time for dedicated moping. I was determined to complete the kitchen renovation we’d been planning, in my wife’s honour, then thought about moving house, then staying put, then moving again . . . But I could hardly see my way past an evening, let alone a coming weekend.
For some reason I thought that I’d start to feel better after a year. But that didn’t work – and that first anniversary of her exit was a shocker that took me right back to square one. I thought I was a pretty smart guy, but it still took me another six months or so after that until I finally got it together to google “grief counselling” and take myself off to see a shrink.
I told my therapist about this feeling: that when I looked at the photos of our married life together, now over, it felt as if my life was over too. No, I wasn’t about to top myself: I’d simply already met the love of my life and raised a son who had already found his feet in the world. Anything else that happened in my life now would just be a postscript.
She asked questions and ran some tests. As I suspected I wasn’t depressed – just bereft.
She kept reminding me how young I was at 52, and how much I could look forward to. I felt dubious.
But by now I was craving female company. As I began to grow accustomed to my singledom, virtually every instance of female contact became charged with ludicrous meaning. The smallest kindnesses from any vaguely attractive female I would interpret as potential courtship. It might only have been the merest hint of a sideways glance in a queue to buy a sandwich. But . . . was this woman interested in me? I really was quite mad.
“Why don’t you try dating?” my shrink asked me. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” So we ran through the available women in my world. There were a few singletons in my suburban sphere, and a couple of attractive women at work. But I couldn’t face the prospect of knowing someone already, then have things turn sour, then have to bump into them on a regular basis.
“What about internet dating?” my shrink asked. Too brutal, I said. “A few email exchanges couldn’t hurt, could they?” she countered. No they probably couldn’t. So I signed up.
Was I even prepared to enter another relationship? Yes. No. Maybe. I knew I was a better person as one half of a couple. But the notion of re-partnering seemed preposterous. How could I contemplate falling in love with someone new when I was still in love with someone else?
One thing I knew for sure: I had to change something. You cannot wallow forever. You cannot revise forever. Stop looking at pictures of your past life. Find something to look forward to, which might mean sticking your neck out.
The email exchanges didn’t hurt. And after a few hiccups I soon overcame my yips about dating for the first time since my teens. I met some very decent, caring, attractive women, and dated several of them several times. Over the course of a year I got well-practised at dipping in then backing out. My shrink praised me for being “discerning”.
Then a friend texted to say she had a friend who had been recently dumped. This friend was very attractive, very smart, a great cook, very funny, looking to get back into circulation after a 17-year relationship went suddenly south. Let’s do it, I wrote back.
That was just over 18 months ago. Last Saturday morning, as we ate breakfast, planned our day and discussed our coming holiday, my girlfriend said that she would like to talk about our future.
I said okay.
Men’s Health Week runs from June 13-19. For more info check out menshealthweek.org.au – #MensHealthWeek