Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living

Nancy Sharp (2012)
Books & Books Press, February 2014.

Prologue   NOVEMBER 2004. I sat among a small group of strangers at Rodeph Sholom Synagogue on the Upper West Side. I wasn't praying. I was grieving. Everyone noticed that I was the youngest person by decades in this bereavement group. I was aware of them seeing me, a young woman, wondering, Why is she here? Sad as they appeared over their own losses, they looked at me with pity. No one asked my age, not at first. As my eyes searched the room, landing upon one gray-flecked head after another, I felt the oddity of being in this situation: young and old at the same time. I didn't want their pity. I didn't want anyone's pity. I only wanted to feel better. I listened to their stories-tales of long love, children, grandchildren, memories of museum outings, bike vacations, and retirement dreams cut short. The room was a sea of bereft voices. What was I doing here? I began to tap my heel on the carpet, thinking about the toast my son threw this morning while his twin sister banged the back of her head against the floor. They were three and a half years old. We were working on potty training. I was fixed on these thoughts, restless to return home, when Ben, who sat across from me, snapped me out of it. A few times he opened his mouth to speak, then shut it, unable to find the words. He was in awful pain, crying with his eyes closed and gently pressing the tips of his long fingers together for comfort. His thin, white hair was askew.
 Ben was ninety-seven years old, mourning his wife of more than sixty years. I was thirty-eight years old, mourning my husband, Brett, who had died a few months shy of his fortieth birthday. Ben's griefs were tangled together like fishing line; he mourned his wife, and his own end, which he expected soon. He still lived at home. Alone. Every strained feature of his face suggested that he'd given up on living. What was the point? What kind of future could he really welcome? Some days I feared Ben might will himself to die in the room. If he did, at least he would be with people who understood. Did any of us really understand? I began to feel closer to Ben. Frail as he was, his spirit obviously needed healing. Why else would he be here? It was true that he mourned everything at once. And the question of mortality, which every surviving spouse, young and aged, contemplates, was real for Ben in a way it wasn't for me. Life can end at any point, there are no guarantees, but a man nearing a hundred can have few illusions. This much was true: I would not have a future with my sweet husband; those dreams had died. But probably I would have a future. Even though I couldn't see it then, and was not yet able to grasp at anything concrete. Wait a year goes the common wisdom. Like Ben, I was thrown by all that had happened, but I couldn't give up on life at thirty-eight. I wouldn't do that to myself, and I wouldn't do it to my young children. Ben shuffled his feet just like my grandfather. I felt protective of him, wanting to steady him with my arm since he used no cane. The trip here exhausted him, and each time he spoke, he cried. We became friends, and once I took him to a Shabbat service with my twins. It surprised me that being around him comforted me: his old age both separated us and drew me to him. Despite our differences, we felt a shared sense of brokenness. Besides, his name was my son's middle name-Ben, in memory of Brett's grandfather. One day Ben brought all the women silver chains that his wife had made. He needed to share this offering, this relic of their lives; he knew, even in these fresh moments of grief, the chains would hold up against time. The one he gave me had rows of identical circles and was the length of half a belt. I wrapped it around my wrist and wore it as a bracelet. All these years later, it remains a favorite possession. I pictured Ben sitting on a floral couch next to his wife, a protective arm around her. She knew precisely where to lean her head against his chest; the soft spot, hers alone. Ben gave me hope for a long life. It's the path I always saw for Brett and me-a long and certain life together. We married in our twenties, and because we had grown up in neighboring towns with parents still together and mutual friends of all ages, we shared an unspoken assumption about the way things would be. The forward path. The contained life. There will never be an acceptable answer to the question of why it happened. Before Brett was diagnosed with this freakish pediatric brain tumor-running on the treadmill at the gym one day, falling against the walls in our apartment months later-I was one of those people who believed that "things happen for a reason." Now I know the truth: this just isn't so. There was no rationale for why a healthy young man slipped behind the veil of life. It happened. But why everything at once? Newborn twins and a death sentence all on the same day? The question of why is like an underexposed negative. The image is so dark that the gray scale is hidden. I studied photography when Brett was very ill and my world lacked definition. What I discovered in the darkroom is that time and light are elemental to exposing the crisp details and sharp tones, to filling the frame and transcending it. Seeing takes time. We have to be patient to draw clarity from the fog. It's only now that I begin to understand the fluid line existing between past and present, remembrance and breathing, the scent of yesterday and the air of today. Brett has been gone nine years and still I see him in the light of day. It took all that time to reach this place of quiet dwelling, where the surety of the Rocky Mountains, and a new husband and family, meet my gaze each morning and steady me. A husband who lost a wife, boys who lost a mother but who want badly, in their own ways, to feel a family again. Both Sides Now is my exploration of holding life and death in the same moment, when overnight you acquire the same life experience as a grandparent but you are still young enough to have children in diapers and the chance for a different future. The question of why ultimately becomes what next because in order to live and love again you must determine where to place yourself in this altered world. In the words of Joni Mitchell, Well something's lost but something's gained.                   But first, the story.    

Both Sides Now Copyright ©2014 by Nancy Sharp. All rights reserved. Printed in Canada. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. Published by Books & Books Press