Things with my first husband, Aaron, ended the old-fashioned way. He died.
In 2011, Aaron was diagnosed with brain cancer, and three years later he died, leaving me a 31-year-old widowed mother to our toddler, Ralphie. It really was “til death do us part,” but the parting was unlike any other heartbreak I’d ever known, even the ones where I’d also prayed and begged for a different outcome than the one I got. There was no erasing Aaron—but really, I didn’t want to. It was the opposite, actually. I tattooed his doodles on my skin and spent nights pouring over his old notebooks trying to soak up everything I could from him.
Aaron was a collector. He left me boxes of stickers and buttons and, I’m not exaggerating, a stack of every business card he’d ever received. He left giant boxes of CDs and unopened action figures. He left bookcases filled with old comic books and dressers full of ironic thrift store t-shirts for tee-ball teams he’d never been on. I still wear the Nike slides he once used as house shoes, even though my feet slip out of them when I walk too quickly. In the winter, I slide my hands into his old gloves.
Aaron’s gone, and I know these things are not him, but I can’t let them go. I can’t let him go.
I remember, back in my 20s, I’d try to convince myself that none of the men I’d been with had ever truly mattered. I’d had two or three “serious” boyfriends (depending on your definition of serious), but the moment the relationship ended, I’d begin the process of wiping them from my life—not in the emotionally-healthy, boundary-setting sort of way where I’d wish them well and release them back into the wild to go find their “person.” Instead, I’d erase them from my memory entirely, like I was clearing my Internet cache. I deleted photos from Facebook and tossed cards into the trash. Doing that somehow seemed essential—as though any terminated relationship should immediately be stricken from the record. I’d tell myself that the breakup was no big deal. It was never that serious, I’d say. It was never going to work. And while some of these dalliances were nothing—or, at least, nothing much—some of those relationships were formative. They were my first orgasms; my first heartbreaks.
For whatever reason, romantic pain and the memories of romances past is just not something we make space for in our lives. We’re supposed to wash that man right out of our hair—or, for a more updated reference, let him know that everything he owns is in a box to the left. We’re supposed to become the emotional version of a tabula rasa everytime a romance ends, a blank canvas for our next relationship. And that strategy worked well enough for me for a while—until my marriage with Aaron ended.
About a year after Aaron died, I met Matthew through a mutual friend when she invited us both over on a cold November night to burn stuff—which is a very normal way to spend a Saturday night in Minnesota. Matthew came with two children and a brutal divorce. Since our courtship began alongside all of the traumatic anniversaries of Aaron’s death, I cried with him as often as I laughed with him. I loved him, but I often felt a resurgence of those instincts I’d felt in my twenties—that it was somehow wrong to hold onto my memories of Aaron. At the same time, I felt like my blossoming love with Matthew was a betrayal to Aaron. Was I replacing him? Was my love for Matthew at odds with my love for Aaron?
It took awhile for me to realize that the answer to both of those questions was simply: No. The loves I’ve experienced throughout my life are not at odds with one another. Matthew is not the love of my life. He is a love of my life, and I am a love of his. I’m reminded of this every day, when the children Matthew had with his former wife walk into the kitchen, sleepy-eyed and holding hands with the children who came out of my own body. I’m reminded by the giant portrait of Aaron, Ralphie and me hanging in the living room, where my family reads at night.
Since Aaron died, the people in my life have ended marriages, dissolved partnerships, and split custody of children and dogs. Some relationships ended more amicably than others, but what I tell all my brokenhearted friends is this: that their broken hearts matter; that just because a love ends, doesn’t mean it wasn’t real—and they’re not obligated to pretend otherwise, either.
I read somewhere that over the course of seven years, all of the cells in our body completely regenerate. If that’s true, it means that in just three more years, there will not be a cell left in my body that knew Aaron, or touched him. When we spread his ashes in the river months after he died, they bloomed into a grey cloud and hovered among the river rocks, refusing to be swept south. I watched this cloud as I ran my finger along the inside of the bag that had contained him. There will not be a cell of my body that forgets him. And there isn’t a cell in my body that needs to, either. I loved Aaron then, I love Matthew now; and it’s as simple and as complicated as that.
Nora McInerny is a writer based in Minnesota. She’s authored two books, and currently hosts the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking.
Originally Appeared on Glamour