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Post’s Leslie Gray Streeter on ‘rebuilding my life’ after becoming widow

When my husband died, I discovered how many people were there to comfort me and share their stories of starting over.

“I’m a widow, like in the books and the movies. You don’t think that that happens, but it does.”

I pause the DVR, let out the ocean-deep breath I’ve only just now realized I was holding, and rewind to hear the words again. My finger punches at the remote, and I mentally repeat the words back to myself, along with “Grey’s Anatomy”’s Dr. Meredith Grey, and then speak them just above a tentative whisper.

“I’m a widow.”

I can feel each syllable like a sharp, thudding tap to my chest – there are four of them, stumbling off my tongue, past my lips and out of my mouth, where they escape into the oxygen so heavy and real I can almost see them. But I can’t scoop them up and stuff them back in where I can pretend I never said them and therefore they’re a lie. Because they’re not. They’re true.

Damn it.

I’m a widow.

Just like fictional Dr. Grey’s husband, McDreamy, my husband died. This is a thing that I’ve been practicing typing out without instantly deleting it. He was my best friend, my lover, my soulmate, my boyfriend, my partner in raising a little person who’s come to live with us.

He was the co-author of my grocery list, my activities director, my road trip DJ, the co-habitant of the couch for our weekly Saturday Morning Leftovers tradition, snarfing hours-old pasta over last night’s “Blue Bloods” episode.

Scott Zervitz was, truly, my world. And trying to figure out how to reconstruct that world, that life that was taken from me in about 90 frantic seconds without my notice, permission or approval, has taken every drop of my sanity, faith, will and muscle memory. People ask me all the time how I’m doing, sometimes because they’re being polite but mostly because they really want to know, and I usually say “I’m getting there.”

Where is this “there” I’m trying to get to? Not sure. I guess, eventually, it’ll be a place where random songs, people and even smells don’t send me scurrying to a closed bathroom stall to escape, or to my cubicle to cry quietly with my headphones on so no one can hear me. Or, after hours, to the bed I shared with my husband, with the lights off and nothing but the rhythmic whir of the air conditioner, to feel the pillow next to me and stop my brain from imagining that Scott’s cute bald head is going to be there beneath my fingers.

Damn it. Or, as famous TV widow Florida Evans exclaimed when husband James was killed off on “Good Times,” “Damn, damn, damn!”

I guess I figure that as long as those escapes are brief and private, that those moments of panic and bottom-dwelling grief don’t land me permanently in my pajamas with a rotating carousel of Jack Daniels and assorted cheeses, I’m OK. And I am OK, or as OK as I can be in this situation.

Did I mention that the life I loved, this good life with this good man and our plans and dreams, just got blotted out like a typesetting mistake, on an ordinary morning where some catastrophic and cruelly permanent something happened suddenly in front of me? (The official cause is cardiac arrest, but the more I describe it to medical professionals the more they think it’s a stroke. I don’t really care. It killed my husband. The “why” doesn’t matter if it can’t change that fact. And I can’t.)

Damn it.

I am much too new on this ride I never bought a ticket for to expect that I’ve processed it in any real way, other than that I’ve done enough to be able to sidestep that Jack Daniels carousel and keep moving like a sad shark. But I’ll tell you the things that have kept me going:

My personal village, that one they say it takes to raise a child but also is required to keep one sane and viable, is titanium. It’s legion. From my twin sister, who was sitting in my living room about six hours after getting that awful call in Maryland, and my mother, who materialized from Arkansas two hours after that, to my various lifelong friends, college roommates, godsisters, cousins, aunties and uncles, we kept several local airports in business for a few weeks.

Then there were the locals, from my Post family to community colleagues and old friends I haven’t seen in years. There was a prominent local restaurant family, and the Colony Hotel staff who hosted our family for our wedding five years ago and then tearfully and graciously welcomed those same people for his funeral, to the pastry staff of the Four Seasons, a former “Top Chef” contestant and even the couple who runs the daycare our little one goes to.

People showed up. For days. They cleaned my house, organized my refrigerator, did my recycling and walked the kid to daycare. (Lindsay Autry, the “Top Chef” contestant, even figured out that my fridge wasn’t working because it was unplugged. Then she plugged it back in and threw some stuff away.)

And there is my other village, the people I’ve never met but who feel they know me because I’ve told them so much about me – my Palm Beach Post readers, who sent bags-full of cards, a server’s worth of emails, countless Facebook messages and Tweets. They’ve stopped me on the street to hug me, to tell me their own stories of widowhood both expected and sudden, and to just tell me that I am not alone.

These people have followed my story from singlehood to my courtship with Scott, a high school classmate with whom I Forrest Gumped my way into a fairytale, and this news has rocked them, too. I feel their hurt and their love, and their cheering from afar for me to survive, like they’re clapping for Tinkerbell.

And just know that Tink’s slow to get up, but she’s moving her wings around and practicing the leap because there’s the stone-cold fact that I don’t have a choice. I mean, I guess I do, in a way, because people do fall apart in these instances, take a month off and Margaritaville it on some lost island just to get the hell out. But I am not that person.

I have always been the strong one, a role somebody else probably cast me in in childhood but one whose costume fits just fine. I am the person who broke down in my editor’s office the first week I came back, and then apologized to him. And that’s kinda dumb, because I have the right to be a big old basket case, to a point. But that point ends where my required functionality begins, where I’m responsible to the little one who relies on me, to my mom, who has come to help us, to my friends and family and my bosses who kind of need me to do the work they’re paying me for.

So here I am, three months into this thing, typing this with Scott’s gold wedding band on my thumb hovering over the keyboard. I am sentient and conscious and still capable of laughter and smiling, even flashes of joy.

I still miss my buddy, my best friend, the love of my life, and will crave his smile and wonder why I’ve been deprived of it, for the rest of this life and into the next one. Even if the cast of “Magic Mike,” several Miami Heat players and the heads of a million lucrative tech startups wandered into my living room and demanded I choose a new partner between them, it would never be the life I thought I’d signed up for. It would be awesome. But it would not be that life.

The tough thing is, though, the thing I can’t escape, is that my old life is gone. Poof. Bye now. So I have no choice but to build this new one, that bears some similarity to the old one with one giant difference.

And I have no choice but to make it the best life that I can, with joy and hugs and laughter and also sometimes sobbing, because those emotions all live on the same precarious highwire. The most I can do is not fall off, to find solid footing, look down and survey the evidence of the good life Scott and I made, the template for the one I hope I’m going to have some day.

It’s not the life I planned. But it’s the one I’ve got.

No expletives necessary.

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