Finding fulfillment as a single mom after loss
I need something. The need is so great that it drives me through my days. I need to know I am whole. I suppose we all do, right?
Once, a long time ago, I found what I thought was wholeness with my husband. It was not perfect by any stretch. We were young; we were fiery; we thought we were right about everything and that other people just needed to be convinced of what we knew to be true. We were politically righteous, we saw the world in all of its injustice, and, collectively, we spoke our truth to anyone and everyone.
We were a unit
Inside, I wondered about myself. I felt broken, unresolved, tied to a past that did not necessarily support my new, radical future. I was a white, middle-class dentist’s daughter, taken up with a black man from the South Bronx. It didn’t matter that my own father had grown up in nearly the same neighborhood a generation earlier. My dad ultimately escaped the poverty of his youth, and the evolution of tribes that flowed through that community all but erased the Jewish presence from those streets, replacing it with the African American and Puerto Rican families who would take the fall with the institutionalized sabotage of block after block.
By the time I met my husband, gone was Izzy’s soda shop and the local dry cleaner of his childhood. They’d been gutted by neglect and taken over by crack dens, hookers, and other obstacles to family unity, which, by the way, persisted in pockets despite the forces that conspired to destroy it. My husband and all his siblings went on to attend top universities and colleges, pursued successful careers, built their own families, and worked their way out of “the ghetto.”
Strong support system
It’s extraordinary what one can do, and the sense of self one can maintain, with a strong vision and the support of loved ones.
I have always known that I would survive whatever came my way. I have cried and worried and often shaken with fear, but I have always had the will to keep going, keep creating, and keep finding my way through the confusion that resides inside. Most often, this has entailed tying my destiny to another’s. I have always looked to be completed.
Committing oneself to marriage is a heady thing. The hype around “till death do us part” is powerful, talk of betrayal is enough to keep a good girl in line. As someone who grew up with a very fuzzy sense of boundaries, I often felt like I was floating in space. Tethering myself to a man with a chronic illness was a way of sharply defining my role in the world. I was a wife, caregiver, and partner in advocacy, helping to educate the world about the nuanced challenges of life with sickle cell disease. I had doctors, nurses, and pharmacists to navigate, engage, and negotiate with; my husband always needed something, and I was most often his front line of acquisition or defense.
What about my own family? you might ask. Well, divorce had fractured our little clan during my adolescence, and along with that, any solid sense of self I derived from the concept of being a daughter. Sisterhood, while it would sustain me into adulthood, was also rife with unmet needs we directed toward one another when our parents were overwhelmed by their own collapsing safety net and unable to provide the stability of mirroring back to us a sense of wholeness in ourselves. My two sisters and I, while loving one another fiercely, struggled to fill in the empty places left by Mom and Dad. To this day, I am often frightened by their concern for me—it reaches into a chasm of emptiness that reminds me that no one else is really in charge of taking care of me.
Having had a marriage that was parted by death, I am in no rush to tether my future so completely to another person’s again. The ache of loss still marks my days, has me wondering who I am. Yes, I’m a mother; yes, I’m a widow; yes, I’m a sister; and though, as the eldest sister, I am now the matriarch of my immediate family, I do remember that I was once also daughter and granddaughter. And yet somehow, none of those words sufficiently describes the present version of me.
I think about what I do in the world. I’m a writer. I’m a musician. Sometimes I’m a lover. Always I’m a mom. But the me that is inside all of that—she is sometimes elusive. She craves the kind of merging you get when you let all boundaries slip away and lose yourself in the space you create with another. The need can be overwhelming sometimes—as though my heart is exploding with a bottomless ache.
Perhaps it is in the giving that I’ll find myself. Giving the love that I seek. Giving the guidance I need. Sharing the wisdom I have earned through my ups and downs, and continuing to offer my resources to support others in my life.
I have no easy answers. What I do know is that resiliency is something that sneaks up on you quietly while you are busy going through your days, working to maintain your balance through the inevitable challenges. Although I still desire the kind of steady companionship I once had, I know better than to think that would be the source of my internal stability. Even if some days fulfillment seems elusive, fulfilling that need is something only I can do for myself.
Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer and editor who collaborates with other writers, artists, and creative entrepreneurs to develop and promote their projects. She is currently working on a collection of stories and poems about grief, parenting, and sexuality, which, as it turns out, are not always mutually exclusive.
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