If you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, you’ve seen plenty of references to my partner. I first wrote about him in October 2018, and have discussed our relationship many times since then—though, admittedly, not in great detail, for reasons I’ll dive into shortly.
If you’re a longtime reader, there’s also a good chance that you might be tired of the phrase “my partner.” (It’s ok; I’m tired of writing it!) That’s because I haven’t yet shared his name with My Sweet Dumb Brain readers.
I’m finally ready to change that.
Readers, this is Billy, and I think he’s really great. He’s a musician, a steadfast friend, and a wonderfully creative person. He’s got a stubborn streak and a soft side, and I love how goofy he can be. He’s kind and clever, and remarkably good at talking about grief, which is a major plus in my book. Billy and I have been together for almost two years, and—despite all my fears about planning for the future—we talk a lot about what’s ahead and how to continue building our lives together.
Billy’s full name is Billy Mays III. If that sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the son and namesake of the late, great pitchman Billy Mays, best known for his ubiquitous OxiClean commercials and signature line, “But wait, there’s more!” Yes, that Billy Mays.
I’ve thought about the fact that, if I were to ever write a memoir, “But Wait, There’s More!” would be a good title for the chapter where I introduced my relationship with Billy. For a long time, I couldn’t imagine loving anyone in the same way that I loved my late husband, Jamie. I couldn’t imagine anyone being accepted by my friends and family in the same way that Jamie was. I couldn’t imagine finding happiness again. I couldn’t imagine feeling strong or hopeful or brave enough to want to plan a future with anyone else.
I’d often express these fears to the people closest to me; they’d listen with an empathetic ear and, usually, try to convince me that things would turn around with time. I didn’t believe them. The universe had taken Jamie’s life away and ruined mine. Why should I trust in something good happening? But wait, they would patiently tell me, reminding me that if I stayed open despite all my pain, there’s more ahead.
On our first date, Billy and I decided to meet for coffee and go for a walk. That turned into a nine-mile trek, during which we enjoyed hours and hours of talking. The main topic we discussed was grief—how we each deal with it, why it can be hard to talk about, and what we wished people understood about it. We commiserated about how we miss our fathers, traded our favorite songs about death, and talked about the plans we’d made to honor our late loved ones.
I know this sounds like an especially somber date, but it wasn’t. The energy was electric, and it felt so incredibly liberating to discuss a topic that I constantly thought about but usually refrained from discussing. Being able to share stories about my dead dad and late husband without fear of scaring someone away was, honestly, a dream scenario for me.
Of course, our relationship is about so much more than grief. As time goes on, Billy and I talk less about the past and more about the future. We challenge each other, support each other, and get better and better at working together as a team. We’ve made up countless nicknames and inside jokes, and shared plenty of stories from our pasts. Maybe best of all, we’ve maintained the individual independence we each worked hard to find, while also learning how and when to lean on each other.
It hasn’t been easy. Dating while grieving your dead husband, as you can imagine, is an emotionally complicated thing to do. Billy is divorced, which means he’s also grieving a relationship that didn’t turn out like he expected it would. And while we’ve gotten to know and love each other’s families, that’s been bittersweet, too. Sharing stories about our dads isn’t the same as getting to meet them.
Jamie and I had a sweet and straightforward love story: We met in college, became best friends, finally kissed, and knew then and there that we would get married. Less than a year after that first kiss, we were engaged. By 23, we were married. Eight years later, we were ready to start a family—something that people close to us were thrilled about. Our relationship followed a steady and prescribed path, up until its untimely end.
I’ve had to accept that my love story with Billy will never be as neat and tidy as the one I shared with Jamie. We don’t call each other things like, “my one and only,” or make promises of forever. Sometimes, I worry that we’re missing out on opportunities to be romantic—to say that we’ve never felt love like this before. Then I remember that we are actively choosing to open our hearts to each other, despite knowing that we are simultaneously opening ourselves to the possibility of loss all over again. Even with the pain we’ve experienced, we’re still opting to love again and to put in the work to build a strong relationship. I can’t think of anything much more romantic than that.
When I first wrote about our relationship in this newsletter, I shared that, “Writing about this is scary because our relationship is still new. It’s scary because people have lots of opinions about dating after the death of a spouse. It’s scary because, while I choose to share many of my emotions and experiences publicly, I want to protect our budding relationship with privacy.”
That reasoning made sense at the time; any relationship is fragile at the start. But as months went on, I came up with other reasons not to introduce Billy. I considered the fact that there’s a big difference in writing about someone who is dead versus someone who, thankfully, is alive. I thought about the possibility that sharing about our relationship may put unnecessary pressure on us. I worried about the chance that I might open up just in time for it all to fall apart.
Another fear I’ve faced is that sharing more openly about my current relationship might inadvertently hurt people facing their own love struggles. I know what it’s like to feel alone and resentful of others who are seemingly happy in life; I didn’t want my happiness to be the source of those feelings for anyone else. Ultimately, I had to accept that I can’t control those reactions. I can always strive to be sensitive and empathetic, and I can do that without limiting my own happiness.
After Jamie died, I was struck by the fact that love is one of the bravest things we do. We open up our hearts to each other, knowing that our lives and love will always change and never last forever. Writing this essay reminded me of that. Love is bravery. That’s why I’m no longer willing to let all of my worries guide how I approach our relationship. Complicated love stories deserve to be told, too.
Our love story may not be neat and tidy, but it’s ours, and I’m proud of it. And, let’s face it—it also feels really nice to not have to keep writing “my partner,” over and over again.
p.s. Whew. I feel relieved having written about this! But now I want to hear from you: Do you have a less-than-tidy love story? What’s helped you get over the fear of opening your heart to a romantic partner? What relationship advice has stuck with you most? Respond to this email with your replies, and I’ll share some of my favorites in Thursday’s subscriber-only post.
But wait, there actually is more!
I started this week’s essay addressing the folks who have been following this newsletter for a while. I know there are lots of new readers here, too! No matter when you joined this sweet dumb journey, I’m glad you’re here. If you want to catch up on what you’ve missed, there’s an archive of past issues to choose from.
Every Tuesday, I send out an essay like this one. On Thursdays, I send a follow-up email with resources, feedback and advice from readers, and a related exercise. The Thursday issues have been especially great, and I’m not the only one who thinks so! The last one prompted a friend to text me, “Today’s newsletter is sooo good. I am going to save it and return to it many times.”
If you’d like to receive Thursday issues—and I hope you do!—all you have to do is become a paying subscriber.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who especially appreciates Billy’s nerdy interests and fondness for astrology.