Will this event reduce us to ashes, or will we burn brighter than ever before?
Today is the first day of June, which means that Billy, baby, and I have been living in Atlanta for two months.
Our house now feels like a home, a place that’s familiar, comforting, and ours. Billy and I have settled into a routine—switching off working days and parenting days, and enjoying the quiet evenings we have together. We’ve hung art, curtains, and string lights. We’ve gotten to know neighbors and had a handful of people over. We’ve made meals, worked through disagreements, and found time to focus on our individual passions. And we’ve witnessed our daughter reach milestone after milestone: Eating solid foods, learning to crawl, meeting new people, and making babbles that sound an awful lot like mama.
The past two months haven’t been total bliss—there was a stretch of sleepless weeks that were especially stressful and difficult for us—but, overall, things have been really good. Moving to a new place has given us the freedom of a fresh start, an opportunity to create a home together and figure out new routines as a family. We have more confidence as a couple and as parents, and we both feel a lot lighter and freer to be ourselves.
I love my little family. I love being a mom and watching our daughter grow. I love being Billy’s partner and watching our relationship transform. I’m happy, and I’m immensely grateful for it.
And here’s the rub: None of this would exist if Jamie hadn’t died.
In a different reality, one where Jamie’s fibromuscular dysplasia was detected in time, I would be counting my blessings with him. We’d be married for 12 years now and would be parents to a toddler. We would have mourned our sweet dog’s death together and, perhaps by this point, adopted a new pup. We’d still be bickering about small things, laughing about the best things, and figuring out together what it means to get older. We’d be blissfully unaware of just how fragile life really is.
But that’s not what happened. My life today looks entirely different from that version of reality.
Sometimes, reconciling all of this makes my head spin. I look at my daughter and consider the fact that she wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Jamie’s death and the random series of events that happened after. I start to tell Billy that he’s my soulmate and catch myself. Doesn’t Jamie hold that title? Can one person have two soulmates? I worry about getting it right—loving Jamie and loving Billy, mourning the life I lost and appreciating the life I have.
Most of the time, though, remembering how I got here keeps me grounded. It keeps me rooted in gratitude, remembering how ephemeral and precious everything truly is.
When terrible things happen to us—the big, awful things, like losing a loved one, getting a serious diagnosis, or experiencing something traumatic—we eventually hit a crossroads. After giving ourselves time to heal and process everything, for which there is no timeline, we are faced with a major decision: Will this event reduce us to ashes, or will it be the spark that allows us to burn brighter than ever before?
For months after Jamie died, I thought my grief would burn me up. I didn’t want to live in a world where Jamie was dead at 32. I didn’t know how to live. My sadness was heavy and all-consuming. I felt isolated from everyone. I couldn’t see a path forward.
Eventually, though, the sadness became a little lighter to bear. With time, I learned to feel both grief and hope. I started to think about the future. I discovered more and more reasons to live.
The path I took eventually led me to Billy, which, of course, led to our wonderful little girl. But the path I chose brought me more than just love. It led me to writing, and believing in myself enough to take a risk on a freelance career. It led me to being kinder to myself. It led me to accepting sadness and grief as things I will always live with, things that make me a better person. It led me to traveling alone and hiking mountains and seeing my surroundings in a brand new light.
Since that time, I’ve met many people who have been at their own crossroads, including the inimitable Nora McInerny. In 2014, she had a miscarraige and lost her father and husband all in the span of a few weeks. In the midst of her grief, she started a podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and wrote a book called It’s Okay to Laugh—both of which were recommended to me not long after Jamie died. Since that time, I’ve followed Nora’s journey with interest, including her marriage to someone new—a man she fondly refers to as her “current husband.”
In 2019, the same year I was lucky enough to meet Nora, she released another book, No Happy Endings, which is about finding happiness while also holding space for the unhappy experiences that have shaped us. I was especially comforted by the way she wrote about being a widow and finding new love.
Even if they're often heavy and unwieldy, our past lives are not baggage. They are not defects; they are features. Our past experiences—especially the hard ones—help us navigate the world around us and ahead of us.
Aaron died at age thirty-five, and that will always be tragic and it will always make me sad. But our love and his death are not a burden to me, and will not be a burden to the person who loves me next. Aaron's love and Aaron's death are my foundation. They're my standard for love and marriage and strength and bravery. They are not a hurdle to overcome, they are the stable place I get to build from. This is what I know, what I've learned from life. I wish I could tell my teenage self that loving once makes you better at loving, and better at being loved. That whatever happens with each love, you can carry it at all proudly.
I carry the love I have for Jamie with me everywhere I go. It filled the house I moved out of, just as it fills my new home. Photos of me and Jamie are displayed alongside photos of me and Billy. Both loves exist at the same time. Jamie isn’t alive, but my love for him is; it strengthens and guides the love I have for my new family.
Not long after Billy, baby, and I moved into our new place, I posted a photo of my home office on an Instagram Story. The image, which showed my desk and a sliver of a window, included this caption: “It’s not much to look at yet, but today I’m writing from my own office—with a door and everything!—and it feels so good.”
Nora replied to that photo. “A DOOR AND A WIDOW KATIE!!!!” she wrote.
The typo made me laugh. “A widow *and* a window!” I replied.
We commiserated over the fact that our phones often autocorrect “window” to “widow.” It says a lot about our conversation topics of choice.
Sometimes, when I’m sitting in my office, like I am right now, I think about that funny moment. It’s true, though. This room does have a door and a widow! It luckily has a window, too. This house, which is home to three people who love each other very much, is also home to a divorced dad and a widowed mom and a baby who has no idea yet how much hard-earned wisdom her parents have to share.
I would not be here if it weren’t for the fact that Jamie died. That sobering fact reminds me how special this moment is. How lucky I am to be living it. How quickly it could disappear. It keeps me grateful and grounded, and makes me want to hug Billy and baby even tighter than I already do.
But I know that I can’t hold onto them or this moment forever. I have to let life happen—the good stuff, the bad stuff, and everything in between. Like Nora would say, there are no happy endings, but there are always new beginnings.
p.s. When were you at a major crossroads in life? Where did that moment lead you, and what did you learn? I want to hear about your pivotal moments! Reply to this email, leave a comment, or send me a message. I’ll feature the best replies in Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter.
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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, whose crossroads came when she decided to seek medical help for depression and anxiety. Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash.
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