**Spoiler Alert** If you're planning to read or watch Nights in Rodanthe, you probably don't want to read this post.
I've been trying to slog my way through this book for a few weeks now, and it's not been going well. It's a fascinating topic, but the writing is so dense and so heavy on 50-cent words that one needs a machete to get through it. I'm not averse to a challenging non-fiction book, but when a book is good, you can't bear to put it down. This one, I can't bear to pick it up.
I tend to buy and read a lot of non-fiction, so when I went to my "unread book" shelf (okay, shelves,) to find something a little easier, a little lighter, something I could breeze through, there wasn't much. And then I found Nights in Rodanthe, a book given to me by a friend who had developed an allergy and was divesting herself of all her paper books. It's probably been in my possession for several years now, maybe even pre-widowhood. All I knew about the book was that it was a romance novel, and that they'd made a movie of it.
A few pages into it, and I already knew it was typical romantic schmaltz that is a lot like potato chips: no nutritional value, but you can't stop eating them. It wasn't much further, though, when it became clear that the daughter of the main female character, Adrienne, had been recently widowed and, after 8 months, was "still" a wreck, and not adequately taking care of her kids, by the lights of the rest of the family. So mother invites the daughter over for a come-to-Jesus meeting, opens a bottle of wine, and tells her daughter of a weekend romance she had once upon a time with an older man, Paul, with whom she found the true love she always dreamed of and never thought she'd have. He feels the same, of course, but has some unfinished business with his son in Ecuador that he has to deal with, and he vows that he will return to her in a year.
I was seated in my recliner in the library last night, reading and planning to finish the book before bedtime. The Christmas tree was lit, the pine-scented candle, too, and I had Christmas tunes playing. I had a lapful of dogs; all three of them were snuggled in as I read, keeping me warm. It all struck me as perfect, and I stopped to take it all in and appreciate it. I was, in that moment, really and truly content, and counting my blessings. I marveled that I felt that way; I remain amazed that those moments are even possible for me. I cannot quantify the amount of healing that has taken place to allow me to have them, but I know it's staggering, because I remember how desperate and empty I felt. How did I get from there to here? I couldn't tell you, honestly. I meet such moments with grateful surprise.
I can't say exactly when I knew this romance novel would have an unhappy ending. Maybe around p.180 it occurred to me that there weren't enough pages in this relatively slim volume to have one, and the clues had started to add up. As I got closer and closer to the end, it became clearer and clearer that Paul was not going to make it back after a year, and that, in fact, he wasn't going to make it back at all.
My perfect moment of contentedness kind of fell apart when he died, heroically (natch). Against my will and intent, I could feel my face start to crumple in that tearless pre-crying stage, until the page blurred in front of my eyes. An older man. An unexpected, whirlwind romance that packed so much feeling into a short time. A connection like none other. And a widowhood she went through silently, because she couldn't share it with anyone.
Let's just say, I could relate.
It didn't really wreck my night; it just made me pensive, at least once I dried my eyes and blew my nose. I am no longer surprised or much derailed by my tears; they come easily and go quickly now; I may have reached professional cryer status. But I had to laugh, chagrined that my efforts to find something light, fun, and entertaining on my bookshelf were not only completely thwarted, but thwarted by unexpected widows. I read their story, but I feel my own. Even when you think you're avoiding the tiger pit of grief, even when you think you're being careful, you can misjudge.
I am put in mind of the archetypal little old Sicilian widows who wear black for the rest of their lives. I suppose until just now, I always imagined them with pity as professional widows, defined by their loss, souls buried with their husbands though their bodies continue with the business of living. But perhaps their apparel is there as a visual reminder to everyone else that they are, and will remain, different. Losing a great love changes you on a fundamental level, and I think it may be in the unprecedented empathy (for better and worse) you can access now that you've been ripped open, flayed alive, and put back together slowly and painfully by your own cold, fumbling hands. When you lose a partner and live, eat, and breathe with Death at your side for an extended period, you gain a knowing of the kind ascribed to mystics who understand things on a totally different level. I could never explain what I mean to someone who has not been there. And I would never have to explain to those who have. I cannot count the number of times I have wished that I was oblivious, that I didn't know what I'm talking about, that crappy romance novels couldn't reach into my history, grab my heart, and wring it out.