I had my plan. I’d brought my pen, my notebook. While my two young kids played at the park on an absurdly warm January day, while I sat alone on a bench, prepared to see all the young couples doting over their toddlers, the slightly older couples largely ignoring each other on their phones, the social couples chatting together and the newlywed couples wrapped in the bubble of their newly created own world, I was going to be productive. Touched by grief and defined by widowhood in a space crowded by happy families, at the very least, I would try to meet some deadlines. I wouldn’t waste my time, a few stolen moments of quiet, while the kids blew off the steam built up from too many cold days trapped at home.
The plan was to keep my mind busy the only way I knew how: by using written words and sentences to untangle the knot of emotions that had recently twisted together as I concluded a second holiday season without my husband, as I approached a month full of days drenched in memories that still have the power to break my heart, as I steeled myself for the second anniversary of the day my young husband lost his battle to a vicious brain cancer, and entered my third year as a widow and solo parent.
But the words didn’t come, the knot only tightening as I attempted to pull on threads to release some of the tension. Some days in this young widow life are simply like that—the grief refuses to be released, persists in hiding within the cracks that were created after devastating MRI results and late night emergency room visits to hospitals with nurses who know you all too well.
As I sat, unproductive, silenced by writer’s block and wasting time, I began to inadvertently eavesdrop on the couple sitting on the bench closest to me. A baby slept in the stroller beside them. A toddler weaved through the jungle gym directly in front of them.
They were bickering—over what exactly I couldn’t hear and didn’t try to. It didn’t matter. The bickering was the product of the stage in their life, a stage I remembered all too well, which is defined by the bone-deep exhaustion and incomparable stress that comes with having two little humans who are completely dependent on you. I remembered how sometimes that exhaustion and that stress were so overwhelming you took it out on the only other adult in the room, the only adult who has seen you at your very worst and decided they love you—not in spite of, but because of. I remembered the warm security in knowing that the only other adult in the room is wholly and completely on your team and will stay, even on those worst days, when you pick fights just because you need some way to release the bottled up stress of parenting, when you’re too tired to remember all the reasons you’re grateful for a warm January day on a bench in a park.
Then, the young mother said to her toddler who had come to climb on her lap, “Go play. I’m not wasting my time sitting on this bench if you’re not playing.”
The sentence struck me. The phrase “wasting my time,” which I had so recently thought in relation to myself, made my breath catch. When I looked at that young mother, I didn’t see someone wasting her time. I saw someone living a life that I would give anything to live again.
Once upon a time, I sat on a park bench with a baby in a stroller and a toddler on my lap and a husband who wanted to give me the world, and I didn’t know that time on a park bench on a sunny day surrounded by love couldn’t be wasted. I didn’t know that time, the most finite of resources, stands still on quiet afternoons when the laundry is waiting at home and the clutter has taken over half the living room. I didn’t know to be protective of those moments that would one day be the brightest threads in a tapestry of memories.
A part of me wanted to tell this young mother—breathe in this moment, enjoy the way those baby’s eyelashes graze her cheek as her eyes flutter in her sleep, memorize the feel of those little toddler hands locking around your neck, pay attention to the way your husband is looking at you, even though dark circles are lining your eyes and strands of gray are peeking from your roots and you haven’t had a moment alone in weeks. I wanted to tell her it could all be ripped away tomorrow. I wanted to tell her all the things I’d learned in loss and grief and widowhood.
But I didn’t. Because I didn’t know this young mother’s story. Because maybe she already knows all the things I didn’t know when I was in her shoes, and her story has taught her even more than I think I know. Because though I wish I could go back to a time of innocence when I believed time on a park bench could be wasted, and though I wish I didn’t know that the moments that split your life into before and after blindside you when you’re most unprepared, it’s not my place to steal that innocence from another. And because in my young widowhood, I know that there’s so much going on behind tired eyes and forced smiles, so much that a stranger on a park bench can’t see, and what we all need is simply a little grace, a gentle smile, a nod, a look that says I know you’re doing the best we can because we all are.
There is no gift in grief, no silver lining or lesson in loss. But sometimes, there’s a shift—in perspective, in priorities, in hopes and dreams—while navigating the deepest waves of grieving. Sometimes it’s easier to acknowledge the invisible individual battles we’re all fighting after you’ve fought—and lost—your own. Sometimes you realize that time is the most finite resource and any time spent finding grace and compassion for yourself and for others is never wasted