The photo of the woman holding the newborn baby on the red couch is disturbing. I have an almost physical aversion to her forced smile and tired eyes. There is no light in her expression. She is joyless.
She is ugly and painful to look at.
She is also me, one month after my 40-year-old husband’s funeral.
I remember the moment after my sister-in-law took the photo of me holding her newborn, the baby who was named after an uncle he would never meet. She looked down at the screen and declared, “Oh, it’s a great picture.” On instinct, I reached for the phone to see for myself. I looked at the screen and hated the woman, the young widow, staring back at me.
I hated the slope of my forehead and the missing curves in my cheek. I hated the dullness in my complexion and the flatness of my expression. Grief had ravaged my face, taken the youth and light and softness.
Vanity has me blaming the angles for the flat look in my eyes, blaming the gray winter for my pale skin. Maybe, in grief, my vanity has swelled to fill in the spaces that were left broken and empty when my young husband died of a disease that stole him first in mind, then body, then spirit. But no amount of airbrushing (because yes, I tried) could help me recognize myself in that photo or make me less repelled by my own image. That awful revulsion continued to follow me beyond the camera, into every mirror, every glimpse of reflection I caught in windows and storefronts.
The truth that I didn’t know during his 20-month battle with Glioblastoma, a vicious brain cancer that often had me missing him even as he slept beside me, while I listened to his rattling breaths in hospice, was that loss isn’t a singular noun. With his death, I wouldn’t simply lose my husband. I would lose my best friend and co-parent and funny meme exchanger. I’d lose my financial security and my understanding of how I fit into this life. I’d lose my future travel partner, future empty-nester companion, and future.
And, maybe most surprisingly, maybe most absurdly, I’d lose my self-esteem.
For so long, my husband had seen me as someone beautiful and smart and funny. For so long, I believed those things about myself because I was looking at myself as reflected in his eyes. When he died, that reflection faded and I could see myself only through my eyes, which were blurred by tears and tinged with grief and darkened by the knowledge that hope isn’t always enough.
I bought new makeup and dyed my hair. I started Invisalign and invested in buckets of collagen powder. But still, the mirror’s reflection was not as kind as his eyes had been. The camera lens was more vicious than I had ever imagined. I began avoiding mirrors, and after that photo with my nephew, the baby my husband would never meet, I avoided cameras with the same steadfast determination I had applied to believing he would beat an almost unbeatable disease. But it didn’t help.
Because I didn’t just despise what I saw in the mirror, I questioned my intelligence and my sense of humor. Without my husband to laugh at my jokes, to ask for my opinion because he valued my thoughts, I doubted my own voice.
The truth was that the loss of self-esteem transcended the physical plane.
But physical was, in theory, easiest to name, to attempt to fix. Despite my efforts, nothing worked. Because sometimes when things are lost, they can’t be found. Regardless of what I did, the supplements I took and the makeup I bought, I could not re-create the reflection I saw in my husband’s eyes.
He died, and the way he saw me died, too. And I was left only with my reflection, only with my own unforgiving camera angles. Only with myself. The self who was not as beautiful or smart or funny as she had been before.
But the same self that had summoned up the courage to drive into the heart of the city to help her sister-in-law with a new baby. The same self that hadn’t believed she could live the life she’d built with her husband without him, but was living that life every day. The same self who was searching for validation in all the wrong places, but who was choosing to search rather than surrender.
As days turned into weeks, which slowly crawled into months, as I continued finding the courage to drive into the city and live the life that was too hard to live and search rather than surrender, I found myself peeking out from the background of photographs and sometimes accidentally catching my reflection in the mirror without cringing. And maybe I wasn’t as beautiful or smart or funny as I had been before, but I could almost begin to believe that I was something else, something worth capturing in the backgrounds of photos and noting in a passing glance of a reflection.
Two years later, I wish I could say I look at that picture now and see someone beautiful. I’m not there yet. Two years later, I wish I could say I have learned to see the person my husband saw when he looked at me or that I eagerly jump into photos without fear of seeing that disturbing woman looking back at me. I can’t. As a young widow, I’ve learned that not every story has a happy ending.
But two years later, I’ve learned to find compassion for the woman in that photo, the one who was holding herself together by tattered threads, the one who by will and grit and sheer determination managed to keep breathing. Two years later, I’ve begun to look at myself in pictures and see something almost like light returning to my eyes.
Two years later, I’ve stopped being afraid of my reflection in the mirror.
And maybe that’s enough.
For now, maybe that’s everything.