From the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion Page, Nov. 28, 2019
The time of year when we pray, plan, and prepare for what we hope will be a period of joyful celebration. That dream has not always been reality for me. But I have a good feeling about this holiday season.
Next month will mark 10 years since I got a phone call from an emergency-room physician informing me my husband, Ted, had died of a heart attack while I was out of state.
Graduations, weddings, babies, turkeys, and tinsel – that phone call impacted every big moment that followed, not just for me, but also for the four children we had blended into a family.
In the years that followed, friends and family helped to fill the void, as I grappled with the reality that I was half of what, for 20 years, was a whole.
The kids and I continued some traditions and added some new ones.
Family gathered for meals and raucous games of Catch Phrase.
Friends set extra plates at their tables so we could share turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving and shrimp and Champagne on Christmas Day.
I learned early in life that heartache was part of life’s promise. I was in grade school when I experienced the first of many losses through death and divorce, as well as unexpected and unwelcome moves out of and across the country.
I became a master at surviving challenges, but I rarely felt joy.
I leaned away from change, rather than into it, for nothing good ever seemed to come from it.
Until I threw caution to the wind and took a chance.
In the spring of 2016, I was perusing Facebook when a man’s name and face popped up as someone I might know. Though I didn’t know Chris Galler, we had a number of mutual connections.
More significantly, I learned, we had a shared experience. He too, was widowed.
I could see from his photos that Chris was active on the golf course and with his adult sons. Faced with the choice, it appeared he had chosen to be better, not bitter, in the aftermath of his loss.
I was intrigued.
With a click on my keyboard we became friends in cyberspace.
And then I took a deep breath and invited him to meet.
It was an unusually warm April morning when I had the best coffee date of my life. Sitting outside Caribou, Chris and I chatted with ease.
When he asked about my son, it became clear he’d Googled me, as I had him.
“I don’t know anything about autism,” he said. “Tell me about your son.”
Caring for our son with special needs is a responsibility I shared with his father, one that will last my lifetime.
But Chris had spent years as his spouse’s caregiver. Surely, he would rather golf with his sons than hang out with a woman who has ongoing responsibilities for her own.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In September of 2018, I married this remarkable man. We now share handfuls of adult children, in-laws, and grandchildren.
To my amazement, change has finally worked in my favor.
Chris and I have embraced life in a way neither of us did before. We know how quickly one phone call, one diagnosis, can change life as we know it.
We feel blessed to have found a partner who understands where the other has been and who dares to dream of a joy-filled life.
In the last year we have accumulated airline miles and memories as we have traveled around the country. With aching joints, we play tennis and golf and ride our bikes.
We do it because we can. We do it because we recognize that life is temporary.
As we move into the holiday season, Chris and I are threading a tiny needle.
With no roadmap, we are deciding how to honor past traditions and create new ones.
We are figuring out how to spend time with everyone we brought to our marriage.
We are pulling out old Christmas ornaments and buying new ones that remind us of places we’ve traveled together.
And we’re trying to decide what to give all those kids and grandkids for Christmas.
Our story is about two people who had low expectations of life after loss. Yet, we summoned courage and took a chance.
Separately, we made the choice to honor the past but not let it limit the future. Together, we are living the choice.
But everyone has a story.
Some will mark the holidays with an empty seat at the table.
Others might welcome someone new to the table.
This is the nature of life; it is ever-changing.
Though change can be stressful, it need not be met with fear or resistance.
Change can embolden us. It can help us to be our best selves.
The choice to flounder, survive, or thrive is ours to make.
As we enter the holiday season, I am filled with gratitude. I’m grateful for the people who embraced me during dark and difficult times. I’m grateful for the new family who welcomed me and my crew with open arms.
Most of all, I’m grateful for the man who took a chance on me and folded my kids into his life. With conscious effort and intention, I’m choosing to do more than just survive the one life I’m given. With a full heart, I am finally living the choice to thrive.
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