A Modern Union
By: Alicia McDaniels
Image: Edel Blake
“When you’re married, you grow accustomed to that person. It feels terrible to have to start over. You’re lucky, it will be easier for you.”
These words stung my ears, as I was sitting in a grief support group listening to a recent widow. The three other people in the group had lost either a husband or a wife. I thought that I would find solace in joining the group; but after a few sessions, it had become relevant that I somehow did not fit.
Joe and I had lived together for 4 years, shared expenses, and did nearly everything together. In my mind, Joe and I were married. He had a terminal illness for a large portion of our relationship, so the idea of an actual marriage was put on hold. We also were not a very mainstream couple, so we would have most likely lived together for a long time without the legal, definitive label.
I was hoping that by reaching out to recent widows, it would help me learn to deal with the loss I had just experienced. Instead, I felt I had to consistently prove the depth of my relationship with Joe since he was only my boyfriend. I had found that every time I dropped the word boyfriend, it did not resonate well with the widowed community. It sounded too collegiate and less grounded than the word “husband”.
Instead of finding the right tools to cope and transition after this major impact on my life, I was left justifying my relationship to those around me. Whether it was my young age, the years we were together, or the fact that he was only my boyfriend- I was now trudging back into the dark caves of grief completely alone.
I was told that a boyfriend was more replaceable. Apparently, I would be able to move on quicker and easier without the legal ties to our relationship. I was actually beginning to find that without these legal ties, it became much harder to manage. Not only did our relationship seem less profound to the outside world, but I was also dealing with the fact that all of our shared possessions were technically not mine. I could not sign any documents or make any decisions on my own- even though I was his caretaker, domestic partner, and girlfriend.
How could I move through the grief that had impelled itself into my life when I was expected to prove to people that we were more than a boyfriend and girlfriend? My stepmother had even called me once and said, “I’ve been telling everyone that Joe was my son-in-law. That’s what he was to me, and that’s what I have lost.”
During Joe’s last hospital stay, I had feigned a proposal. He stepped on the terrace of our apartment to smoke a cigarette, just hours before. I scolded him often for this, but he would usually respond with, “I can’t give my cancer more cancer!” About 5 minutes after he went out for this smoke, I heard the sound of a collapsing chair, followed by him screaming my name. I rushed out to the terrace, and he was on the ground. He said he couldn’t feel his legs anymore, so I had to pick him up and drag him into our apartment.
“I’m calling your doctor,” I said in a panicked tone.
“I can still feel my feet,” Joe said as I was on the phone with his doctor. The doctor wanted him to go to Beth Israel Hospital, right away.
“This is what we’re going to do,” he said in response to everything. “Go to the Downtown Pharmacy and buy a wheelchair with the cash in my wallet. Come back here, hoist me in it, and call a cab. We’ll get to Beth Israel. Ok?”
At the time, I didn’t realize how deranged this plan sounded. He said it in such a matter- of-fact way that I just went with it. I was eventually standing in the local Pharmacy, shopping for wheelchairs. It then dawned on me.
I picked up the phone and called him. “Umm, Joe… I think this is when we’re supposed to call 911.”
“Oh, it is?” he said back in somewhat of a surprise.
“Yeah, I mean… they have an ER team, an ambulance, and devices to help us. This is pretty much the emergency situation that we use that number for.”
He sighed, “Well, you’re coming with me.”
Joe later made me text his friends photos of him in the paramedic’s truck, the entire way to the Emergency Room.
“You’re the best girlfriend in the world,” he said once we finally made it to the hospital.
“Really? Because I want to marry you,” I said back.
“Oh. That’s supposed to be my question.”</br>
Unfortunately, Joe never had a chance to ask that question. We were never married. There wasn’t a ceremony, reception, ring, or certificate of marriage involved in our relationship. We had a bond and love that was, to me, more tangible than a government approved union.
I eventually stopped justifying the relationship I had, because that was not something I should have been doing at all. I may not have found comfort in the widowed community after this loss, but I slowly began to find comfort in the fact that the relationship I had with Joe was profound.
On lookers may not see through the boyfriend label, but I can. Joe was my boyfriend. I had loved him, and I had lost him.