Artis Henderson didn’t expect to fall in love with a conservative, church-going soldier training for war in Iraq. As she writes in her elegant and poetic memoir Un-Remarried Widow, “there was danger lurking in the sweetest days.”
Artis’s husband Miles died in a helicopter crash only a few months after their marriage. At twenty-six, she lost her life partner and the future they planned, but her memoir is as much a story of love and hope as it is of grief. With rich sensory descriptions, we enjoy tender courtship and gentle love. We cheer for Artis’s resiliency and courage as she faces lessons in mortality at a young age. We empathize and fall in love with her.
These lessons and passages stayed with me after I had finished this stellar book.
Loss of a life partner feels catastrophic and impersonal, too much for one individual heart to hold. “I remember the news as the underwater well pumped oil into the Gulf and how it seemed arterial, as if the earth itself should collapse from the loss,” Artis wrote. “But the well continued to gush with no sign of stopping. In the same way hurt pumped out of me, slick and black as oil…. I hurt and I hurt and I hurt and still there was more, a limitless tonnage. I knew I could bleed hurt forever.”
Grief can turn us toward compassionate spiritual practice similar to Buddhist tonglen practice taught by Pema Chodron. Artis remembered, “…somewhere—elsewhere—there were lovers and wives and children whose minds were thick with those men…as mine was thick with Miles. The memories of those men existed even though their bodies lay beneath the autumn fog, and it occurred to me that one day when the details have faded, when I can no longer recall…what shoes I wore or the color of my coat, Mile’s memory will still be in me, fresh and alive and fully formed. I thought of my mother, to whom I had imagined my father was forgotten, and I knew in a way I had never known that she must still carry his memory tucked inside her, just beneath the skin, beating with the rhythms of her own heart.”
The hurt doesn’t go away, yet life moves forward and we move with it, carrying our pain as we open to new possibility. “I raised the cologne bottle to my nose,” Artis writes. “…here was the indelible scent of Miles. I felt him in a way I had not since he deployed…. I cried quietly with my head bent to my chest as I realized for the first time that the hurt was never going to go away.” Knowing this, Artis turned toward life, the writing career she always wanted, new love, and a seasoned sense of self.
Healing involves both holding on and letting go. “Early after Mile’s death, I asked myself how I would know when I was healed. This is what I decided: when I would not trade everything in my current life to have Miles back. Every new moment, every new experience, every new love. But now I see this for the impossible bargain it was. …I could feel the life I had known slipping through my fingers. Even as I held tight, I let go.”
Artis Henderson is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Florida Weekly, and the online literary journal Common Ties. She has a graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Her book Un-Remarried Widow is available at her website and at Barnes and Noble and Amazon. You might also enjoy my review of Catherine Tidd’s Confessions of a Mediocre Widow.