Earlier this year, Caitlin wrote one of the bravest wedding graduate posts we’ve ever had on APW. She wrote about getting married the same week that her husband’s mother died suddenly of cancer. It’s been a year now since their wedding, and she’s back, writing about how impossibly hard their first year of marriage has been, what she learned, and how they pulled through it together. It’s a post that makes you realize why you go through the wedding, and what marriage is about at its core.
Mike’s mom passed away last August, we were married a week later, and as soon as we landed home from Mexico a text came in from his sister about selling their mom’s house and next steps—the honeymoon, quite literally, was over. Mike started teaching a few days later—his first time in front of a classroom as a student teacher—and was responsible for three freshman global history classes. The pressure was overwhelming, the expectations the supervising teachers had for him were unrealistic, and no one seemed to care that he was a student, not getting paid to teach, and outside of work was being forced to handle one of the hardest things life would ever throw at him. And so the months after the wedding were an intense emotional roller coaster. Actually, not a roller coaster but more like that free fall ride where you plummet down a few stories with your stomach in your throat and your knuckles white from gripping the safety bar so tightly. That’s a bit more fitting.
I took all of this on with him and it showed. I started cooking only comfort food and baking cookies on random weeknights, pretending that I would bring in the leftovers to work, but then there never were any leftovers. I made excuses for us to not have to go to the gym and instead did everything I could to wrap Mike up in safety and goodness, even if it meant that we became the stagnant, heaviest versions of ourselves. With our hair turning grayer by the day (not an exaggeration) and our eating habits completely broken, we let ourselves go.
We had always had a very romantic relationship, but in the months that followed Bernadette’s death, we turned into roommates. Loving, affectionate roommates, but more like cuddly buddies than the passionate couple we had been before. When we got home from long, stressful days at our jobs, we arrived to long, stressful nights of dealing with his mom’s creditors and home selling and lesson plan writing. We collapsed into bed each night and held each other, comforted each other, but that was it. I was foolishly embarrassed about this and decided not to mention it to friends, fearing they would think it was a symptom of a poor marriage, and since I knew that our relationship was strong, we just pushed through on our own.
We felt lonely in every aspect of our lives. Mike’s mom passed away just a week before the anniversary of his dad’s passing three years earlier and not having any parents, not being anyone’s child, left him feeling abandoned and, well, like an orphan. We stopped hearing from friends and family, partly because we were so busy that we were bad at keeping in touch, but partly because I think people just forgot to keep us in their circle of communication. Mike had always been very close to his extended family but for months after his mom’s passing, we didn’t hear from them. Christmas approached and with no contact from his family, I felt tasked with the responsibility of holding him together. He slumped into a deep depression for the month of December that was tied not only to missing his parents, but also missing the fact that he would never wake up in his childhood home with his parents and younger sisters on Christmas morning ever again. It was his first year not doing this, and some may think that at 32 he should have already had this experience, but since he hadn’t, and since family was such a huge part of his life before, the absence of that was devastating to him. We wished for the month to be over and then slogged our way through winter.
I’m going to be honest here, and I won’t make any friends by saying this, but your partner in mourning can feel like a setback. I know, awful, selfish, you’re wondering how can I say such a thing. But there was an afternoon in March when we heard that a cousin was pregnant and I just felt done with it. I broke down sobbing and let myself smoosh sloppy tears into Mike’s t-shirt. Of course I was happy for her, but I felt overwhelmed with wanting more than what we had. We had thought about trying to get pregnant the year after our wedding but decided that we needed to rest our weary selves for a while before starting that next chapter. And even though I understood why we were putting this on hold, and wholeheartedly agreed to it, I still felt the timeline clicking away above me and I lost it. We were still in the thick of sadness, Mike was student teaching for a man who criticized him daily, and we had no idea when he would find a teaching job or when the $40,000 we just took out for graduate school would seem worth it. The pity party lasted about a half hour and then I felt embarrassed for breaking down, ashamed for not being as thankful as I should be that I have Mike to share my life with, for not realizing that there was no rush. But I knew that my outburst was just an outpouring of months of pain and exhaustion and it kind of felt good, felt needed. Mike held me, kissed me, told me that it was going to be ok, and I believed him, let him comfort me even though I had felt for months that it was me who needed to comfort him. I didn’t realize until that day how much I needed someone to hold me together, someone to tell me that things were going to get better.
It’s been a year now and I’d like to say that we’re fully back to our old selves, that there are days when it is as if the last twelve months haven’t happened, but then there are days when we wake up and she is the first thing we think of. And on days like those we’re sitting at dinner and the tears start before I even know they are coming. The overwhelming feeling of just missing her, of being struck by how unbelievably strange it is that she is not here. Thankfully we’re good at changing the mood and the last time that happened, after a minute of clearing away tears from my face, I laughed and said everyone at the restaurant was going to think Mike was dumping me. And he laughed, and grabbed my hand, and we finished dinner talking about other things. But she is always there. At any given moment just underneath the veneer of “everything is fine.” I asked Mike if he thought it will always be this way. He said in a way he hoped so, in a way he hoped her memory would never be further than just beneath our everyday life of moving forward. And so it gets easier. It does. It will.
So many of the comments in our wedding graduate post talked about how strong we were, how other people would not have been able to have a wedding the week after losing a parent. But I need you to know you could. I hope you never have to, but you could. Mike loved his mom just as much as any other person I’ve ever known and he did it. In the past I had moments when I was overwhelmed with panic over the thought of losing my parents. And even though I know that when it inevitably happens I will be devastated, I now know from watching Mike that you go on, that you are stronger than you know. The world doesn’t stop and let you fail. It forces you up and out into it, to keep on spinning right along with it even when you think that movement is the most foreign thing.
I said in my wedding graduate post that I was so thankful we had a wedding even when life was hard. And I’ll say now that I am so thankful we are married, we are partners, we have this love, now that life is harder. I know that there will be more sad times to come, but I now know that we will make it through them, maybe just a little grayer than we were at the start.