The group was apparently started by a few 9/11 widows and it grew quite a bit- I think there's about 30 women who get emailed, but about 10-15 come to the dinner every other week at a Greek restaurant that's pretty empty on a Tuesday night and now knows them.
Some of the women had emailed me when I responded to the group email saying I was new and would be attending. They told me it was a healing place and that I'd even have fun. I had high expectations for the group...to be around other young women who knew the feeling. It felt like I was on my way to take a deep sigh and feel some kind of relief...a break from the incredible isolation that is grief.
I also felt that anxiousness I always feel before I have to tell the story of your death to new people as I drove there.
The women arrived one by one and greeted each other casually with hugs and kisses. I felt I was in a movie about female bonding/sisterhood- Steel Magnolias came to mind. Each woman seemed a character and I could even see the camera angles as the camera rested on each of them as they spoke- unsteady, raw angles. If I knew anything about creating a movie, I would make this group of women into art...because that is how they appear to me.
The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol but each woman arrives with a bottle of wine to share. The conversation is natural- weaving in and out between the whole group and smaller conversations between two or three. "Wait were you the birds?" someone says at some point. "I'm butterflies," answers another. I find myself excitedly saying, "I'm butterflies too!" There's no need to explain what we're talking about here. I enjoy that moment, even though maybe it makes us all seem on the same crazy page and could it diminish the specialness of our "signs" if we find out multiple people experience them? It could...it could also augment the truth in them. Everyone is at slightly different places- some almost ten years out- like the 9/11 widow sitting next to me who is already preparing for the ten year anniversary this coming September. It seems a couple of them are dating. One lost her husband to illness about a week after you died Dan. I look around to see who is still wearing their wedding ring- a couple, but not many.
My mutual friend- who I also met for the first time, introduced me to everyone as they came. "This is Julia." "Hi Julia. Glad you came." When I was telling my "story" to a few women, she also suggested everyone hear it at once...so I told the story...the horrid story to the circle of women listening empathetically.
I tell them how I am struggling with a lot of guilt because our last year together had been filled with so much tension- you traveling, me at home with a new baby- strained finances, etc.
What happened next made my first meeting "worth it" for me, even if I originally had doubts because I was the youngest women there- and most were talking about their seventeen-year-old children. The women seemed to all chime in, with great love, to tell me that they all had the same feelings, but that this didn't define my relationship. One placed her hand firmly on my back. Another said that no real relationship would be void of guilt if one person died. A few shared their own stories of the last moments they had with their spouses. One said she gave a nicer goodbye to her dog than her husband when he dropped her off at the bus for work. She'd also yelled at him earlier when he asked if she wanted ketchup or mustard on her sandwich. "When have I ever had ketchup on a sandwich?" Another ironically said something like, "I could do this on my own," while preparing something.
These are the marks of any real relationship- the mundane details of living life together. We just didn't know that they would hold such an elevated status in our relationship- being the last time we ever saw our spouse. If you, and they, hadn't died, who would remember snapping over ketchup or mustard? Who would remember a random comment about doing it on my own- it would have no double meaning as it does now. And would I remember when you asked me the day before you left if I would always stand by you...that you needed to know this-after a dispute about driving- and I said, we'd resolve it when you get back. Would we remember?
I never will know. That alternate life of how it's "supposed to be" runs parallel still beside me in some other dimension...but not here...you are dead here.
Sitting at the round table, pushing around my a salad of Feta and Greek Olives- I was also overcome by the amount of pain sitting at that table- and as cliche as it sounds- by the strength, by the honesty. That the fact that each of these women was continuing the journey...
"What you had with him was a closed book- no one can change it or touch it..." says one woman to me..."but that book is closed."
I take comfort in what she says about no one touching it, but choose to believe in a hope that as my former boss wrote me in the early days- "Dan is not just a part of your past, he's a part of your future." I don't speak of faith because all of the women have their own perspectives on this. My friend of a friend, however, does. She chimes in at some point, "If this is all there is, then what has happened to us is truly tragic and nothing more...but light of eternity, this is just a minute." The women look at her with searching eyes, some nodding their heads.
One women gives out a date for an "activity." They're going to go dancing at a dance studio in a nearby town. The women all take out their planners or Blackberries.
About two hours later, we're all getting our things together and saying goodbye. I'm anxious get back to my parents' home to put Audrey to bed.
It's cold out- I run to the car, get in, and start driving home.
Then, without consideration, I find myself crying and screaming. "I don't want this. I don't want to be in this group or have these friends. I just want you back!!! Please come back! I don't want this life!"
I can barely see through my tear-filled eyes as I go up the steep hill towards my parent's house.
I pull in the driveway, wipe my eyes and survey my reddened nose in the rearview mirror. Then I head inside to make up bedtime stories and sing my little girl to sleep.