This essay was first published in Modern Love Rejects. Thanks to Peggy for sharing it with us!
On what was supposed to be a five-week honeymoon trip I stood on a cliff above the Mediterranean in Portugal and realized I was going to be a widow. I was pregnant; my husband was simmering with fever in our pension bedroom. With a certainty that was never disproven I saw I would be raising our child alone; that his lymphoma was no longer in remission. Jim died three years later at the age of 40; I was a widow at 33.
Even a long illness doesn’t make an abrupt ending easier, but I managed, stoked by encouraging friends and love for Emily. “You’re so strong,” friends said. “It must be hard to raise a child on your own.” Sometimes it seemed easier than with a partner, especially in the first-year grip of grief. I let Emily eat sugar while sitting on the counter so I could talk on the phone. I warmed her clothes with an iron so she would get dressed before daycare. I could feel Jim’s disapproval as though he was still watching from our bed.
In years defined by Emily’s progression from daycare through grade school there was one romance, safely long distance, with no pretense of a future. For the most part dating seemed like too much work, the need to find and pay a babysitter–life already too packed with job, carpool, garden, friends and cats. But on the cusp of age 45 I despaired that my romantic and sexual life was over. I decided a 13 year-old daughter was no longer an excuse for not having an adult life, so I posted myself on Craigslist. After all it had worked when I sold my car.
And it worked again (perhaps because I put car in my subject title). I met someone local, never married, sensual (his wording), generous, absolutely smitten and a wonderful cook. The first kiss was nectar after a parched decade. I’d read romantic descriptions, “his eyes lit up,” but didn’t believe it was real until I watched it happen in Martin’s blue eyes across the table from me at a coffee shop. That was the day we first kissed.
It was a deliciously adult romance and we were delighted with each other. The moment of change came when Martin first asked me to marry him, after only six months. It slipped out of him like something in his windpipe that needed to be dislodged in order to breathe. But it couldn’t be unsaid, and it seemed to shift the dream quality of the moment into FUTURE in threatening capital letters. Why did he have to ask me that, I wondered? I started dreaming about Jim again, both healthy and close to death.
I began dreading the moment when Martin would appear on my doorstep. His pleasure at the sight of me felt like a demand that I couldn’t meet. Then there were all night bouts of itching in private places that plagued me. Within weeks it all came down to sitting on an examining table naked from the waist down (except for Frieda Kahlo socks I wanted the doctor to admire). “What’s really going on?” my doctor asked. Sobs came out instead of words, without a sense of why or how I would be able to stop.
Dr. R held out Kleenex and announced, “I’ve been expecting this.”
She’d only known me five years. I’d known myself for 45 yet she was telling me I was suffering from depression. Just itching, I wanted to say, but still couldn’t speak. She implied that allowing a new partner into my life had opened the compartment where I’d stuffed my grief for eleven years because there were school lunches to pack, an old house to maintain, hours of reading aloud before Emily would fall asleep.
She read me a list of questions. Have you found yourself avoiding activities that used to give you pleasure, such as sex? Have you had any persistent physical symptoms? Have you been turning down invitations or avoiding friends?
I didn’t pass, or was it that I got too many questions right? She dared to suggest medication and insisted she wanted to see me again. That only happened to me once with stitches that needed to be removed. I left, crying even harder at the possibility there was something wrong with me. Me, the person everyone proclaimed so strong? The wife who diapered a baby with one hand and de-accessed Jim’s Port-A-Cath with the other? I’d been my sister’s Matron of Honor just three days before Jim died. I had raised our daughter, held onto the house and dealt with two dying cats within six months. I had coped with everything: work responsibilities, Emily’s borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder, a broken side sewer, sewing orange yarn onto pink cotton undies to create a Raggedy-Ann wig the night before Halloween.
It was getting dark as I walked home. Cold and exhausted by crying I thought, a latte would be really nice right now. Another voice in my head said, that’s $3.00: you don’t deserve to spend that on a latte. Two weeks later I started taking an anti-depressant.
There was no overnight miracle. For the first weeks I thought I saw birds in my peripheral vision, experienced electric shocks in my head and strange yawns in the afternoon, dizziness and the most hallucinatory dreams I’d ever experienced without a 104°fever. The hardest part was admitting that I might really be suffering from depression — and that I knew it wasn’t the first time. At a soccer party the room went coincidentally silent when another mother and I discussed anti-depressants, leaving our words in the air like cartoon bubbles – high functioning depressives.
“Let’s give it a year,” Dr. R had said. One year passed and then another. Quietly my life changed. A non-fiction book got written. The weekly columns I’d assumed would bleed me dry instead filled me with more ideas every week. Every act seemed more possible, from exercise class to making an offer on a house with Martin a year ahead of the schedule based on Emily’s high school graduation.
We moved in the middle of a Seattle snowstorm and Emily’s college applications; our first night in the house was Christmas Eve. Definitely not the time to stop taking the little white pill, I’d say to myself even as I seemed to be the only person who spoke a common language partner and daughter. During the strain of the first year of our new household I kept my pill cutter handy, transferring 10 mg Lexapro halves into a tiny aluminum canister.
“You have to marry me now,” Martin said after we survived escrow, new wills, the first year and the fact that Emily had still never spoken directly to our new housemate. But from my point of view there was even less reason to get married once we’d gained access to his superior health insurance and consolidated our living arrangements. Eventually the new home seemed like reason enough to gather all our friends and family members from across the country, succumbing to peer pressure.
A wedding or honeymoon at this stage of life is mostly semantics; a disingenuous ploy like mentioning it’s your birthday or anniversary in case of a free dessert. It’s an excuse to order wine with lunch in Italy and travel in the First Class compartment to Zermatt. It’s a state of mind, and ultimately a gift wrap on a European holiday attached to Martin’s February business trip to France. But if I’d only planned to pack two things they would have been my passport and my Lexapro.
The first thing I did in the hotel in France was pull apart every thread of my luggage, including turning socks inside out. The slight pinging in my head that usually signaled more than 24 hours since medication had started in earnest. The pill canister officially wasn’t with me; the time difference was nine hours. I paced until my doctor’s office would start answering their phones.
“So you forgot your Lexapro,” the doctor’s nurse extracted from my rant.
“I didn’t forget my Lexapro,” I said defensively. “I think one of the cats must have knocked it off the coffee table while I was packing.” I could picture the cat dribbling my pill case like it was a hockey puck.
I tried to convince the nurse to overnight a week’s worth of drug samples to the first hotel but he cited international laws against shipping pharmaceuticals. Did I know of a pharmacy? Martin stood close, as though ready to run wherever told. “It’s night here,” I said. “They’re closed.”
I’d read Internet accounts of anti-depressant withdrawal: the gist was, never, never go cold turkey. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“It’s a clean drug,” the nurse said of my pharmaceutical of choice, sounding like he was in sales rather than family medicine. “There shouldn’t be a problem. Avoid stress, get plenty of rest. Enjoy France.”
I was already tempted to find the green neon cross that identifies a pharmacy in France and beat on a locked glass door to beg for a French equivalent. Meanwhile Martin had been waiting for half an hour – and the month since he’d returned from Japan, to present me with a surprise honeymoon present of hand strung pearls. “Close your eyes,” he whispered, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
It was his first honeymoon. He deserved better than what was beside him for the next seven days. He got a dizzy, sweating, short-tempered, labile, peri-menopausal bride who kept honing descriptions for the electric shocks inside her head. “It’s like a bug zapper. Or the sound in your ears when you’re swimming under water.”
One night I was so drenched in sweat I left a silhouette on the sheets. Nightmares passed through me like a string of summer thunderstorms. I had harmed a child. I was responsible for a mistaken identity. I couldn’t rescue a cat. I dropped a knife that severed someone’s finger. In my dreams I couldn’t stop sobbing but when I woke the only part of my body that was dry was my eyes.
In hindsight I should have risked embarrassment and mixed French and desperation at a pharmacy. But a short-sighted part of me thought: vacation, what a great time to go off Lexapro. I always meant to do this before I died. By the 4th day the ping was the delayed drop of a coin into the metal box when you buy a newspaper on the street. I cried if Martin so much as looked at me quizzically. Perhaps the only redeeming thing in withdrawal was that I moved toward Martin in the night as though he were safety, with intimacy a necessity for survival.
On the long ago honeymoon I glimpsed one future while Jim burned with fever in the hotel, but I had survived. I had raised an independent daughter and married a man with amazing knife skills and seemingly infinite capacity to love me. My own symptoms were the opposite of organ failure. Perhaps they were the beginning of an organ rebirth, my mind and body ready to chart a future course without the little white pills — that would indeed be found resting against the fireplace grate like a puck that didn’t quite clear the goal post.
The first honeymoon was the beginning of an end, this one a true beginning of a future beyond my scope twenty years earlier. As we stepped up to re-enter the United States the female customs agent looked at our strangely separate paperwork and asked, “Are you married?”
There was one last long electric shock that seemed deafening and then stillness. I looked to Martin’s blue eyes and the waiting agent. “Yes,” I said, as though capable for the first time of a response. “I am. We are. I do.”
Peggy Sturdivant is a freelance writer in Seattle. She writes a weekly column for the Ballard News-Tribune (At Large in Ballard), SeattlePI.com and contributes essays to the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. She is also co-author of Out of Nowhere a non-fiction account of a tragedy involving a young woman in the Northwest that led to a safety law called “Maria’s Law.”