As the second anniversary of our relationship approached, Bob and I decided to marry. For a couple of days, I walked around telling myself, “I’m engaged,” waiting to feel the giddy rush of a bride-to-be. When it failed to ignite, I figured my lack of flutter was the result of the decision Bob and I had made to keep the news between us. At the time my daughter, Becky, was a senior in high school; I felt strongly that our final year under the same roof should be neither disturbed by Bob’s moving in nor upstaged by a wedding. Bob, the father of two grown children, readily agreed.
Another year passed; another anniversary approached. Becky was now off at college, and Bob had moved into my house. Finally, the time seemed right for us to marry. Even so, we didn’t rush to inform our family and friends. When one of us did mention it (“Oh, by the way...”), the news would elicit a delighted “Congratulations!” and a crushing hug. Yet Bob and I felt unmoved by the excitement. While we both wanted to be married, neither of us was eager to get married. What was with us?
Over the next few months, we dived into that question. At the simplest level, we knew we both suffered from a certain amount of been-there-done-that. For Bob’s first wedding, he’d wanted an intimate gathering in Central Park; instead, his in-laws had dealt him an extravaganza with more than 200 guests. If he hadn’t liked feeling on display at 22, he liked it even less
at 63. As for me, while my first wedding had been a lovely affair, memories of rehearsal-dinner melodrama and my impatience with planning made me wary. So for this wedding, I bought a (blue) dress in the first store I visited. When a saleswoman asked what sort of event I was shopping for, I said, “A wedding,” then, barely audibly, “Mine.” As the other saleswomen swarmed around me, gushing, I felt, well, a bit ridiculous to be cast as a glowing bride at 57.
Deeper down, there was the fact that while the wedding would affirm our love, it would also serve as a reminder of what had brought us together: the deaths of our cherished spouses. When we’d met online nine months after Bob lost his wife of 37 years to lung cancer and seven months after I lost my husband of 24 years to leukemia, what had helped us forge so swift and powerful a connection was how well we understood each other’s grief. Both of us accepted that it was possible to be happy and sad at the same time. Neither of us felt threatened by the obvious: Bob would always love Leslie; I would always love Joe.
There was also our concern over how this change in our relationship status would sit with our three children. From the get-go, it had been critical to both of us that my daughter, Becky, not feel Bob was vying to replace her dad and that his kids, Bex and Adam, not feel I was trying to replace their mom. At the same time, we wanted them to witness our vows; our marriage, after all, would affect them, too.
In the end, our three children made it easy on us. Becky agreed to be my maid of honor. Adam agreed to be Bob’s best man. Bex, ordained by the online Universal Life Church, would officiate. Come the appointed hour, the five of us would stand at the altar. That all-important detail secured, everything fell quickly into place. We picked a spot, invited only immediate family, held planning to a minimum. We were ready for a wedding.
As the day approached, friends kept asking, “Are you excited?” “Are you nervous?” People wanted to know about my dress. My shoes. What I planned to do with my hair. I made what I thought was a convincing effort to mirror their enthusiasm. But my oldest and dearest friend wasn’t fooled. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. “You know you can call it off, right?” Her question was like a bracing slap. If my confidante of 40 years could so misinterpret my lack of excitement, I had to wonder what Bob was thinking.
Two days before the wedding weekend, I faced him across the kitchen counter and said, “I’m not feeling excited about this wedding. Are you?”
“No,” he said, his tone matter-of-fact. “I’m not at all excited.”
I felt my tension evaporate. “People don’t understand how bittersweet this is for us,” I said. “I’ve been thinking that my lack of excitement has something to do with the fact that when you and I say ‘I do’ to each other, we’re essentially saying another good-bye to Joe and Leslie.”
Bob nodded. “Yes, that makes sense.”
On a chilly January day, our 16 guests assembled at dusk in a cozy spot in my father’s neighborhood. Becky and I arrived last, our friends having insisted that a bride needs to make an entrance. As Becky and I approached, hand in hand, I felt tears begin to well. “You have to stop thinking about Daddy,” Becky said. I smiled my agreement, though I couldn’t have said what I was thinking or feeling at that moment.
At the makeshift altar, I handed Becky my bouquet, turned to face Bob—and burst into tears. “Would you like a moment?” Bex asked. “Yes,” I said hoarsely, swiping at my face. Reaching for Bob’s hands, I felt myself steady. Bex, who opened with a few witty observations, soon had me laughing. “You didn’t even want to call this a wedding,” she said. “And so: Welcome to your ceremony, which will bind you legally in the eyes of the law, even though we all know that you’ve been in love for years.” As she segued into the remarks I’d written, Bob’s eyes filled with tears.
“What you both wanted for your ceremony was to stand here with the three people who hold your hearts in their hands: Becky, Adam and me,” Bex said. “You each feel that you have not arrived unescorted at this altar. Over here, Dad feels Mom hovering by his side, beaming her incredible smile over the proceedings. Over here, Jill feels Joe hovering by her side, offering a wink of approval. Both of you know, as does everyone in this room, that the two of you would not be here today were it not for the loss of your respective mates, who for decades blessed your life, your home and your children with their vitality and joy...And it is precisely because of that vitality and joy that you are here today. Experience convinced each of you that life is sweeter when shared.”
As Bex prepared to ask the age-old questions that, she noted, each of us approached “not giddily, not naively, but with hard-earned wisdom and depth of experience,” I squeezed Bob’s fingers. Did Bob take Jill? Did Jill take Bob? We did. And when we kissed? I felt only the joy of my love for my new husband.
In the days to come, as people referred to us as the newlyweds, I gained a new understanding of my tears—and Bob’s, too, I suspect. To intimates and strangers alike, I was no longer Joe’s widow. Bob was no longer Leslie’s widower. We were now husband and wife. But for Bob and me, it will never be that simple. Leslie and Joe are a part of who we are, both individually and as a couple. We will continue to love, honor and cherish them, long after death did us part.
JILL SMOLOWE’s new book, Four Funerals and a Wedding, looks at resilience in a time of grief.
Next: The Ex Files
Want MORE great stories like this? Sign up for our free weekly newsletter!
Try MORE on your iPad - FREE. Find out how here!