If I cry, the road ahead blurs and I may cause harm to myself and others. The twisted ribbon of Route 25A winds along the Long Island Gold Coast and my life was once golden. I’m going out to lunch with my bereavement group at a central location that’s still outside my driving comfort zone. Despite the lousy weather, I’ve traversed the Roslyn Viaduct, passing a car dealership where our young son once lobbied us to purchase a secondhand BMW with memory seats. I have taken too much for granted and wish I remembered more, even if those visions are painful. I am afraid that I have forgotten or will forget everything. New challenges demand too much of me as I constantly must learn how to get through the day. On this bleak afternoon, my mission requires that I arrive in Huntington by 1PM, park the car, find the restaurant, make conversation with the members of my bereavement group, and return safely home again.

I’m wearing a summer dress and sandals that do not stop me from pressing swiftly upon accelerator or brake. Sunscreen, eyeliner, lipstick, and mascara have been dutifully applied. Self-presentation is such a struggle—I want to look pretty and be comfortable. There’s anticipation, akin to Carly Simon’s old song, and part of me hopes the widower I’m finally meeting in person will be someone special. My late husband, who passed in November 2020 from pancreatic cancer, wanted me to be happy and told me so during his final days. Perhaps finding a new companion easily could make the nightmares abate?

Despite the dreary and damp forecast, I didn’t bring an umbrella from the huge household collection congregated in the front hall closet. There’s a zebra one, a gift from my husband, a tall striped golf one inherited from his mother, dull black impulse purchases from Manhattan street corners, the green PTA model harkening back to my PTA days, a season of life that has, like my marriage, concluded. Hanging in the closet, the newish aquamarine rain jacket whose hood does not fit me properly and the old belted London Fog bought in the company of my husband during the early days of pregnancy. My husband wanted to me to have a proper raincoat and I wore that coat for almost 20 years. It was beige like his with a zip-in/out lining and I loved that our coats matched. Bringing it along never crossed my mind. I wasn’t thinking about getting wet. From London Fog to Widow Brain Fog, 34 years of companionship shattered by insatiable cancer, and I’m driving in the rain sensing this lunch will be a disappointment.

Anticipating another bout of rain, our hostess at the Shed guided us to an indoor table. My fellow Zoom widows are lovely. The widower is kind and pleasant. Alas, a screaming lime green polo shirt signaled that he is not meant to be my new companion. Our “Gang of Five” tried to ignore the noise and lack of social distancing. We made small talk about things I know (politics) and things I don’t (grandchildren). At 57, I’m the “baby” of our bereavement group. My “forever young” counter-cultural husband, still handsome (plenty of hair and no paunch) at age 75, would have fit in perfectly. While my fellow mourners expressed tentative hope for a post-Trump America, I stared at my greasy plate of chicken and waffles, having ordered the wrong thing out of some perverse curiosity. This was not the time to be trying new foods! My colleagues in grief feasted upon sensible, healthy salads of tuna and avocado, even the widower who usually eats too many hot dogs. To think I had contemplated warning him about nitrate consumption while I dripped maple syrup upon my buttery waffles and fried chicken! Unfortunately, the drizzled haberno honey aggravated my acid reflux and I cursed myself for the desire to engage in culinary experimentation. But ordering a $39 non-Cape Cod lobster roll was verboten (my frugal husband’s exhortations from beyond the grave could not be ignored) and there was plenty of salad waiting at home. Given the scarcity of such social outings due to COVID, it was infuriating to have ordered the wrong dish. Such menu mistakes made me terribly grumpy during ordinary times. When this happened (fortunately not often) my husband would say:

“I’m so sorry.”

The poor selection wasn’t his fault, it was mine, but I was always grateful that he cared about my “First World” misfortune. Now I am the only person who cares about such things. I will not bother my newly divorced son with such a trivial matter. His sadness and vulnerability demand that I drive through the rain with extra care. Having lost his wonderful father, my son must not become an orphan. At 29, he’s returned to his childhood home, working remotely as a tech recruiter while struggling to board what my old Marxist professor described as “the moving train of capitalism.” He’s earning minimum wage with a master’s degree, the big money to be gained from commissions. My son tells me that successful people working in his field “eat what they kill,” but so far I’ve cooked more for us during this pandemic than I ever did while married. Given this year of trauma, the food and cell phone bills, as well as New Jersey Turnpike tolls generated by my son, have been my responsibility. However, I’m growing weary of subsidizing the entrepreneurial boss in all his capitalist glory. Something has to change…my son and I need to change, and I hear David Bowie singing of facing strange changes during a workout with our shared personal trainer (my son’s idea), a twice weekly routine instilling hope that I might be rebuilt as a strong middle-aged woman, a “Bionic Widow” primed to engage the world with competence, passion, and grace. A woman who would thrive, not merely survive.

The widower has decided that I’m neither warm nor welcoming, noting that I do not use a smartphone and lack any flirtatious inclinations. A pretty face and good body still count in male cisgender eyes, and I certainly can’t hold a candle to the photograph he shared of a lovely granddaughter in her stunning red prom gown. Belatedly, I realized that it was misguided to imagine the widower as anything more than a potential friend. Why did I allow loneliness to dominate my consciousness? Why didn’t I avoid this ridiculous and fantastical path? Shouldn’t I just focus on reciting Kaddish for my husband every morning, listening for birdsong, and watching furry backyard squirrels leap like trapeze artists between the overhanging branches?

Two hours later, farewell hugs are prudently exchanged. We have agreed to skip our Monday evening meeting and catch up on Zoom next week. There will be no shortage of sorrows to share.

The blackened slippery curves tracing Long Island Sound no longer frighten me. My only concerns are exhaustion, distraction, hydroplaning, drunk or willful drivers who might pass me in an unsafe manner, cops lurking with radar, seeking entrapment if I’m going 60in a 50-mile per hour zone. During the return trip, I don’t play my husband’s Dylan or Diana Krall CDs; all I want is to feel the groove of the road, understand myself as someone who could be embracing freedom in a holiday car commercial, unwrapping a shiny luxury vehicle adorned with a large red bow. My husband and I used to laugh about these commercials, but now I wonder: what might it be like to receive presents from a lover in this strange season of life? What might it be like to experience joy?

Two of the widows in my bereavement group believe that we are “entitled to happiness.” Their phrase reminds me of the Republican attacks on so-called “entitlement programs,” those government initiatives which provide a safety net, seeking to improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable among us. I would like to feel important and protected, to be entitled to happiness. However, as my parents constantly reminded me, particularly when it came to matters of employment, nobody was irreplaceable. In this life, I have only been indispensable to very few people and most of them are deceased. I was everything to my husband and that state of erotic belonging has ended. Who could ever feel that way about me? Who could I ever feel that way about? Am I entitled to anything other than watching re-runs of Hogan’s Heroes weeknights at 10PM?

Returning home, I discovered an email from my attorney, stating that my husband’s will completed probate. I’ll be alone with the money saved by my fiscally conservative public sector Prince Charming, there’s income to protect me into old age, ensuring that I won’t have to marry anyone. If I remain healthy, the years ahead may be a perpetual “Greta Garbo Vacation,” an odd sweet solitude blended with bitterness. It’s all bizarre, unfair, and heartbreaking. Tears overwhelm, anger overwhelms…for a moment, famous lyrics about rain fuse together—a hardening rain has been seen, needs to be stopped, it’s falling on my head—and the dangerous drive through widowhood has just begun.