Nights are the most brutal.
For most parents, it’s known as the witching hour, those endless minutes between dinner and bedtime when kids morph from moppets to monsters, mutating into miniature unhinged dictators. For me, the strain starts much earlier. At roughly 4 p.m. That’s when I start to plan the menu for supper, and trust me when I say that there’s nothing quite as disheartening as eating every meal alone. Sure, my son, now 6, will share the table because I believe in family meals, but it’s half-hearted at best. He’ll cram whatever kid delicacy he wants down his gullet and ask to be excused. And I concede, because asking him to keep me company feels too pathetic and selfish. So he scrams, and I wind up gazing at my plated duck confit, or broiled salmon with asparagus, and feeling my appetite dissipate as quickly as any of Donald Trump’s promises.
You see, I’m a widow. A young widow, by any measure, now five years in at 43. It’s a word I barely recognize, and I cringe at applying it to myself. But it’s true, and if the sweater fits… The term didn't stop Jackie Kennedy from epitomizing the definition of independence and fabulosity in public. It's what goes on behind closed doors that's tougher.
I went from having a gourmand for a husband, a culinary daredevil who read foodie blogs, devoured Eater and planned our meals, whether at home or out, in meticulous detail. Lidia Bastianich was his #WCW. The sea urchin spaghetti at Marea was his caloric downfall. If he cooked his favorite, penne alla vodka, it would be lovingly concocted from ingredients sourced at specific stores he staked out. The pasta? From Eataly, of course. The cheese? A tiny little establishment on a side street on the Upper East Side whose name I never knew but which sold the most obscure and delicious Italian creations. The sauce? Please, don’t even mention anything that came out of a jar. He’d cook, using every pan and pot in our kitchen. And we’d sit, after our infant was asleep, drink our Brunello and eat a meal that was always as Instagram-worthy as it was satisfying.
But then, Justin had to go and die on me.
He was diagnosed with a brain tumor immediately after our last truly enjoyable fancy meal, when I was eight months pregnant. While strolling past heaps of tourists in the Theater District, we grabbed lunch at my favorite haunt, an Austrian eatery that no longer exists. He felt dizzy and complained it was due to low blood sugar, so we ate spaetzle and schnitzel, and still, he felt rotten and shaky. He went to the doctor the next day and — boom, an MRI she ordered showed an enormous mass inside his brain. In photos from that feast, we both look so innocent, happy, and relaxed.
In fact, I remember calling Justin a “diva” and suggesting that, for once, given that I was going to pop at any second, maybe he could, I don't know, give the whole “getting the shakes from hunger" thing a break and put me first? If it was a competition, I hadn't known what I was up against: I had a baby growing inside me, as opposed to a lethal tumor like the one that would kill him in 15 months.
Until his death, food was pivotal in Justin’s life, even when he could barely chew or keep anything down. Nothing made him happier than a cheeseburger, especially one from Shake Shack or JG Melon, an institution he frequented so often during healthier times that the surly maitre d even recognized him. So when he died from a stage four glioblastoma in April 2012, it was mealtimes that became the most ravaging for me: the most visceral and hard-hitting moments when I felt truly alone.
The actual cuisine aside, I long to break bread with someone who isn’t a friend and there purely because I invited her or, more realistically, likely guilted her into coming over to keep me company. I want to spill details about my day, about the editor who insisted on a headline that didn’t make sense, about the dude on the subway who ate the most rancid sandwich I’d ever smelled, about the way my jeans busted and I had no idea until I felt a mysterious cool breeze. That's the stuff that cements relationships: the breezy back-and-forth that caps off a long day and binds you together. What you chew is almost secondary to who you’re doing it with. And dammit, I missed Justin. So much that, often, I didn’t bother to eat anything at all.
It didn’t help that my son is to picky eaters what Kylie Jenner is to lip kits. The master, the industry leader, the unstoppable force. You couldn’t make him eat anything he didn’t want, and he didn’t want much of anything. His diet, for years, consisted of plain pasta (a speck of basil would elicit shrieks of revulsion and outrage), protein bars, apples, and maybe — if I got lucky — a burger. There was also a short-lived but potent toddler yogurt phase, in which he only ate a specific brand from Iceland in a very particular flavor that was only, at that point, sold in a single fancy deli in my old neighborhood. As my husband was in hospice, my aunt, who was watching Alex, called me in desperation to see if I could find some place, any place, that carried the stuff — or else the kid would apparently starve. Otherwise preoccupied, I came up empty. He survived.
As you might imagine, in the wake of Justin's death, mealtimes went from languid and adventurous, to maddening and rocky and mundane. “Please, just try this pasta/chicken/duck/broccoli, just once,” I’d beg my child, and he’d glare at me.
So I’d give up. He’d consume whatever bland slop I could get him to eat. And then he’d go play while I slumped at the table and tried to somehow enjoy whatever scraps I’d pulled together for myself. I went from having vibrant dinner conversations about the mortgage crisis and whether we should have bailed out the big banks, or if we were hitting a housing bubble, or whether Hillary stood a chance of ever winning the presidency, to staring blankly at the walls.
Some of this was depression, sure, and I managed it with the help of medication and exercise. After all, the death of a spouse has the dubious honor of being the most tumultuous life event anyone can experience, according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. But a lot of it was adjusting to my new reality of the endless one-on-one loop with a toddler who had no interest in hanging out with me beyond a few sentences, because he was doing what he was supposed to do: shifting toward his own identity separate from mine. And I couldn’t blame him.
Some nights, I dreaded our alone time together, because there was so much of it. And I hated myself for feeling that way. But as with most things, it gets better. He’s older now, and he’s eager to tell me about passing his swim test at camp, and sharing fidget spinners with his friend Leo. But once he’s done recapping select parts of his day, it’s over and out, and I’m not going to force a thriving, happy kid to keep his mom company because she’s fed up with being alone. It’s sick and unfair on every level. So I soldier on. I cook a single duck breast for myself, maybe with a side of tomatoes. I look at photos of my husband, and think back to what could and should and might have been, and for five glorious years, was.
And to be fair, much of this is on me. I’m the one resistant to dating, who is petrified of “putting myself back out there,” as one friend repeatedly encourages me to do. And the longer I hide in my apartment, the more isolated I’ll become, especially when Alex starts leaving home for camp, school, and beyond. I try to drill down and figure out the root of my fear and resistance to meeting anyone new. Justin, for sure, wouldn’t have wanted me to spend the rest of my years with one place-setting in front of me. And the older I get, the more limited my options become; it's hard out there, if you haven't heard.
But maybe it’s time to explore new meals with new guys. Maybe.
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