In my mind’s eye, I stroll off into a blazing auburn sunset with Cheryl. Why auburn? That was the color of Cheryl’s striking hair — even at age 54 — and her favorite feature.
Our story of young love began on the volleyball court at the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh. I was an associate attorney who put in long hours at a small commercial law firm downtown. Cheryl had just relocated to the Steel City after leaving her first full-time job in Allentown.
I observed a mutual friend Debbie at the Jewish singles volleyball one evening. Debbie and Cheryl were talking. Fatefully, Debbie served as a matchmaker with an introduction that led to our dating, falling in love, courtship and marriage not that long after.
Young love resounded with a series of firsts, ranging from finding our first apartment in the Shadyside area of Pittsburgh to our first move, as we relocated to Alexandria. I joined the federal government in Washington as a labor relations attorney and Cheryl quickly was employed as a social worker in a nursing home in Northern Virginia. In the evenings, we often biked along the scenic Mount Vernon trail taking in Potomac River views and then headed home famished enough to eat quick microwavable meals.
We were also brought closer together by our first tragedy. Cheryl carried a child to full term, but the baby was delivered stillborn. After the shock of the loss, our relationship grew stronger. During this quiet period, we eventually accepted the denial of the life of our son and indeed never had another son.
As the years breezed by, we watched our two daughters thrive and grow in our first and only house in Germantown. Cheryl became a stay-at-home mom for the girls’ early years and then worked as a special education teaching assistant in the Montgomery County school system.
Our suburban lifestyle focused on transporting two daughters to Montgomery soccer, tennis lessons and dance recitals in an unreliable Chevy minivan. Beach vacations in the breathtakingly beautiful Sea Pines community within Hilton Head, South Carolina highlighted most summers, and we often invited extended family to join us in the villa.
Suddenly, we were in our 50s. Cheryl’s first colonoscopy turned out to be the only one she ever had. She battled valiantly for 15 months, but her colon cancer did not successfully respond to numerous rounds of chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.
At hospice, Cheryl’s unbearable pain was eradicated. Unfortunately, the medication altered her level of consciousness, and I was never able to say goodbye to her.
For me, I had dreamed a dream of walking hand-in-hand with Cheryl into the autumn of our lives, enjoying a well-deserved retirement. Cancer ended that dream.
Unexpectedly single, I came home after work to a quiet suburban house in a neighborhood full of families, not single adults. Sugar, my cat, provided me with companionship, but not much conversation. There was an empty chair at the kitchen table where Cheryl had joined me at countless dinners.
As a social being, I reached out to family and friends for support, to express my grief and to share the good feelings that come with simply being with another individual, even for mundane day-to-day activities. I refused to be the reclusive widower. I was simply too young to be content alone, and I wanted to continue a rich personal life.
Sadness passed, the period of shock and trauma ended. I envisioned a future with another woman. I felt ready to date again, even though family and friends questioned whether enough time had gone by for me to do so.
I cannot forget Cheryl, but I needed to move on with my personal life. At work and during my daily five mile runs, my stride is back.
In the digital age, the meet-up group offers the way to find and get together with individuals with common interests in person. Online, I discovered the meet-up group called Young Widow/ Widowers of the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia). “We talk, laugh, cry and support each other as we navigate our new lives,” the website said. Most of the widow-widower groups I had discovered focused on people of my parents’ age, but this group seemed more in tune with my stage in midlife.
This meet-up group gets together monthly either in a home or local restaurant. Sessions were facilitated by one of the widows or widowers, with a topic chosen for each month. One month we talked about when to date again after the loss of a spouse. Another month the conversation focused on music and books that helped us get through the grieving process. We ate and chatted informally for several hours per session.
At most events, each widow or widower shared the story of their spousal loss. Their stories were often difficult for the speaker to get through and were strongly moving to hear.
Although this was not a dating group, this is where I began the romantic relationship that led me to my current love. I met Fern at two of these sessions. What we talked about encouraged me to ask her out on our first date. And certainly physical attraction had something to do with it; I thought she was beautiful.
We found out that we have many life experiences in common. I felt that these shared attributes could be the basis for a long-term, meaningful relationship and perhaps more. In these initial discussions, we learned that we each had two daughters. We both worked for the federal government as first-line supervisors. We both had a sister in Southern California. We grew up in Pennsylvania. And we like to run and exercise regularly, even to the point of an obsession. Then I discovered to my surprise that Fern was Jewish like me. What put me over the edge was that we each had a cat for a companion.
Our first dates were both terrifying and fascinating at the same time. We quickly found a comfortable level in conversations, as we learned more about the cancer care-giving experiences we had each gone through. From there we progressed to learning about our respective families, careers, likes and dislikes. We shared stores.
From lunch and dinner dates we progressed to doing activities together that we both enjoyed – going to musical theatre, hiking in parks, and even running. I found Fern to be funny, smart and warm. Our first run together was pretty emotional as we joined stride-for-stride up a surprisingly difficult hill near Shenandoah National Park. Fern joked that I had picked the route as a type of test.
After a series of dates, I started to think about Fern rather than my past, and I knew I had moved on. We enjoyed romantic intimate times together more and more frequently.
It is wonderful to find love again after the death of a spouse. For me, this new love meant wanting to hold Fern’s hand when walking together, reaching for each other during the night, the joy of her smile when I smiled first and her laughing at my jokes, no matter how lame.
We found new identities as a couple. It was especially enjoyable to socialize at a Reform congregation that we joined together where no one knew me as part of the Cheryl and Saul couple. As a result, our new friends did not feel uncomfortable or awkward seeing me with a new significant other.
I was determined to be happy again. In Fern, I have found a real partner who complements my lifestyle and completes me. I am not the same man who had found young love with Cheryl. As a result, finding new love does not mean replicating my past love. This is love on its own terms.
Memories of young love still bring me joy. I’ll never forget Cheryl and how we raised our children through our 20s, 30s and 40s. We stood by each other through losses, especially mourning the death of her beloved parents. We shared extraordinary joy in watching our careers develop and our social lives expand.
What life taught me is that I am thrilled to have found a new love. We share mutual accomplishments of the day at the dinner table. There now is someone to kvetch to who actually cares to hear my gripes. I look forward to sharing my life experiences with Fern in our 50s and beyond.
Perhaps it was bashert that we both attended the same meet-up group on the same day. Perhaps it was destined by a higher authority. Fern and I were engaged in Hawaii in April. Now I can’t wait to see what transpires for us in a new Act Three that we are about to write together.
The writer is a Washington attorney.