Matt asked me to marry him on December 23, 2011, exactly 13 months after our first date. No one was surprised, least of all me. I was happy. He was happy. We were excited and even, for a moment, blissful. Then the questions started. Friends and family immediately wanted to know: Where’s the wedding? Who’s in your wedding party? Did you book a photographer yet?
We only knew two things: we wanted to get married in New York City, and getting married in New York City would be expensive. So, we procrastinated. We started cooking at home to save money. We toured overpriced, over-designed venues. We fantasized about sneaking to City Hall on a Tuesday morning and not telling anyone. We went back to procrastinating, but the questions kept coming. When’s the wedding? Where are you registered? Where’s the honeymoon?
Our bliss nearly melted from the heat of too many to-do lists, outside expectations and mysterious traditions. So we tried to embrace the not-knowing and enjoy our present relationship, even as we fretted over its future. We made up “engaged” games that reminded us to laugh at the absurdity of it all. We’d point at one another across the dinner table and proclaim, in our best Jean-Luc Picard voice, “Engage!”
We bought Wedding Planning for Dummies and plugged the book’s milestones into our calendars. As we counted down the months until the wedding, we also played a counting-up game, looking for and reminding each other of “firsts.” First Valentine’s Day while engaged! First road trip while engaged! First double date while engaged! The firsts grew sillier and more obscure as each month passed. First time on Staten Island while engaged! First time back at this restaurant while engaged! First time getting food poisoning together while engaged!
Matt died on January 24, 2013, exactly 13 months and one day after he proposed. Now I count down the firsts by myself. My first Valentine’s Day without Matt. My first birthday. First time getting sick. First Fourth of July. First grocery-shopping trip. I’m told life will get a little bit easier as more firsts pass; that I’ll feel stronger and steadier for having survived each on my own.
Last month I survived a weekend of enormous firsts: a dear friend’s wedding, in Florida. For months I doubted my ability to endure my first plane trip since Matt died, my first wedding, my first night away from our dog. I could think of nothing more terrifying, but at the same time I wanted to go—to show my friend love and support, and also to show myself I could do it. To, hopefully, gain strength for other terrifying firsts on the horizon: Matt’s birthday, our wedding date, our anniversary, the holidays. I had no idea how, exactly, I was supposed to survive the weekend, but I headed to the airport armed with klonopin, crossword puzzles and my astoundingly supportive sister.
It turns out you survive things like this the same way you survive anything else: You show up, then you plod through. You get to the airport extra early in an attempt to quell your first-ever bout of travel anxiety. You eat an overpriced salad and cry in the food court because it’s haunted with happy memories. You head to the gate and run into an old friend who’s going to the same wedding, and distract yourself by catching up on his life. You board, you wait, you take off; you remember you loved flying years before you met the aviation geek who would change your life forever. You drink too much before the wedding even starts and think you’ve held yourself together for the ceremony, until your sister squeezes your hand and you realize it’s because the front of your dress is soaked with tears. You head upstairs to your room, clean yourself up, go back downstairs to try again. You smile and hug your beautiful friend, because you truly are happy for her. You meet a couple at your table and ask them about their jobs, their lives; you make sure you ask so many questions they never get a chance to ask you any. You hold it together until the bride and groom’s first dance, then you run out of the room (you hope discreetly but you have no idea). You sob and choke in your sister’s arms outside the hotel, then ask her for a cigarette so you can feel like there’s one small thing in this world you can control. You clean yourself up again, you go back to the wedding again, you smile. Hell, you even dance.
Looking back, you’re surprised how late into the wedding you stayed. You arrive in New York exhausted—and then, devastated when you remember that avgeek isn’t waiting to pick you up. But during the taxi ride home you realize you survived, and allow yourself to feel proud. You’re not sure, but you think you’re starting to feel just a tiny bit stronger.