Tuesday, March 5, 2024
Health & HappinessOpinion

On becoming a widow: A love story

What happens when your longterm partner dies just days before the Holidays? Here is my story.

1. 

We were supposed to grow old together. We won’t.

We were supposed to have more time. Time to hold each other, kiss each other, say anything we had forgotten to say or still wanted to say. She was supposed to finish the two paintings she had started for me. I was supposed to paint her nails with the teal polish I had bought for her and to finish another book and dedicate it to her. We were supposed to write new vows and get married again in front of friends and family, colleagues and the world.

Victoria Brownworth (L) and her wife Maddy Gold

We were supposed to be together forever, as we always said to each other. “Loving you forever,” she would say. “Loving you forever,” I would reply.

But at 4am on November 12, Madelaine Diana Gold—Maddy to everyone—my wife of 23 years, the love of my life, died suddenly in our home, in our bed, holding my hand. It sounds more peaceful—like a death most of us would want for ourselves—than it was. It was a death so sudden, for which we were so unprepared, that I keep replaying the few days and hours before her death, trying to make sense of what happened and why. 

I go to the funeral home website, to the obituary I wrote for her and leave messages for her. Like we used to do when we were in high school together: a note written on copy-book paper and stuck in a locker. I am writing to her wherever she is and hoping she is reading what I have to say, hoping she hears me.

On December 1, 2022 at 6:27 am I wrote:

Thinking of you, my darling Mad. I miss you so much it is often hard to catch my breath as grief threatens to swallow me up and pull me under. There are so many things in a day I want to share with you. I watched Christmas at Rockefeller Center without you. That was hard. On the weekend Martha is going to have to put the tree up without you. So no funny pics of the two of you, like usual. Everything is hard without you. Everything reminds me of your absence and how large it looms. I ache to pull you into my arms one more time. Loving you forever, sweetheart. Missing you madly. Always. — Victoria

December 3, 2022 at 9:01 am

Writing about you and to you this morning, my darling girl. I was up all night, unable to sleep, trying to fend off the most vicious wave of grief yet. Grief is a rogue wave that hits you when you turn your back, thinking it is done with you. There is so much I want to tell you. I love you. I miss you. So so so much.

“Once your girl, always your girl.” — Victoria

In The Good Apprentice, Iris Murdoch writes, “The dead have to be loved in a special way which has to be learnt.”

I am trying to learn how to talk to the woman I loved fiercely for a quarter of a century, when she is no longer here. It’s a language that I am unfamiliar with, that I am struggling to vocalize and comprehend.

2.

I want to write our story—our many stories—because we had many stories from the time we met at 14 till a few weeks ago when she died. Our love affair as teenagers is where it starts. Our passionate middle age is when cancer comes between us. 

In West Side Story, my favorite musical, Tony and Maria marry each other secretly, like Maddy and I did years before same-sex marriage was legal. Tony and Maria sing to each other in “One Hand, One Heart”: 

Make of our hands one hand,

Make of our hearts one heart,

Make of our vows one last vow:

Only death will part us now.

Make of our lives one life,

Day after day, one life.

Now it begins, now we start

One hand, one heart;

Even death won’t part us now.

But death did part us, even as I held Maddy’s hand when she took her last breath, even as I held her hand as they tried to bring her back to me, even as her hand formed itself around mine as she grew cold in the bed next to me while I waited for sundown to have her bathed when Shabbat ended and I said prayers of the tahara over her and my own Catholic prayers as well. 

It was so hard to let them take her away. I had them wrap her in our quilt, because she was always cold. I kissed her soft hand, I kissed her cheek. I told her I loved her. And then they took her, gently, away, 18 hours after she had died there, in bed beside me.

 3.

Maddy and I met on the 26 bus on the way to the Philadelphia High School for Girls—Girls’ High—where we were both students. Maddy had long straight glossy black hair that fell nearly to her waist and big green eyes with flecks in them and perfectly arched eyebrows. It was a running joke that she would say to me, later, every time, when we were lying together on the single bed in her room in her parents’ house, our arms around each other, her hair draped over us, jazz playing on the stereo in her room, “I washed my hair for you.”

Maddy was hip and cool, the daughter of artists. I was a nerdy intellectual who read five books a week, fresh from an oppressive Catholic school and living in a chaotic Socialist household with Civil Rights worker parents and little stability. I was pretty in a tall, Dresden doll kind of way and she fell in love with me then—fell in love with how different I was from anyone else she knew—a wild adolescent with a lot of demons. We were made for each other. I just didn’t know it yet. 

The first time I went to her house, her father, who always sat in a chair in the living room, reading, said to me, “So what exactly are your intentions toward my daughter?” She came downstairs to rescue me before I could answer.

Maddy fell in love with me and never fell out of love with me. She never stopped wanting to be my soul mate, my one-and-only. And, as she said later to anyone and everyone: “I finally got the girl.”

I was so lucky she fought for me. The love Maddy had for me was a wild thing—it was powerful and raw and oh-so-passionate. It was untamed and untamable and even over this past hell year when she was battling to stay alive, when her body was weak and frail and disfigured by the rare aggressive cancer that took over her body with a vicious and cruel fury, Maddy’s love for me was, as she used to tell me, “big as the sky.”   

4.

Early in my junior year of high school, a few months before my 16th birthday, I was expelled for being a lesbian. It was a traumatic event that shattered my young life and turned me into a lesbian activist. Girls’ High was a legacy in my family. My mother, grandmother and sister all graduated from the school. I was a scandal. In the principal’s office, my father had been told that as an open lesbian spreading “controversial” political views about gay liberation and “engaging other girls in reading obscene materials” (I had stolen some lesbian pulp novels from a family I babysat for and was passing them around) I was a “bad moral influence” on the other girls—the nearly 3,000 other girls at Girls’ High. There were lesbian teachers at the school, but not one stood up for me. On the way home in the car my father said, “I don’t understand. You’re pretty and boys like you.” 

Two weeks after I was expelled, I was placed in the adolescent unit of the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute for conversion therapy—a common occurrence in the 1970s. Several other girls from Girls’ High has been sent there. It was traumatic and terrifying and it nearly killed me.

When I was expelled from Girls’ High, the word went out about me to my friends’ parents. Maddy told me later that the mothers had all called each other to warn about the deceptively polite girl who was actually a dangerous lesbian, trying to recruit other girls into the nascent gay liberation movement.

I was not allowed to come back to the Gold household to see Maddy. I was not allowed near the Girls’ High campus. I was banned from having girls at my parents’ house. Homophobia brought Maddy’s and my high-school love affair to an abrupt and unwanted end.  

5.

We do not talk about grief in America. We do not talk about what happens when life-long love affairs like Maddy’s and mine come to an end, not through divorce nor falling out of love, but through the suddenness and finality of death. 

I want to talk about grief, about becoming a widow: a 15th century term that feels unfamiliar and weighted and conjures imagery of long black veils and ghosts. I want to talk about becoming a widow too soon, without ever having planned for it. I want to talk about how every night since Maddy left me due to some sudden arrhythmia that caused her to go into sudden cardiac arrest, I have cried so hard my body feels as if it might come apart at the seams, that I might shatter into bits, my heart bursting out of my chest. I have wailed and keened and begged her to come back to me with the ferocity of a feral animal caught in a trap.

I have stripped the bed next to me and filled the space where she lay for decades with books and papers, condolence cards and unpaid medical bills, my laptop and a framed photo of her. I kiss that photo last thing at night and first thing in the morning when I am reminded, yet again, that she is gone. At least one or 20 times a day I look at that photo and say “You shouldn’t have left me.” I play and replay voicemail messages she left me, in which she calls me her wife, the love of her life, sweetheart and sweetie pie and darling. 

I replay again and again the last hour of Maddy’s life, where she was having some kind of crisis that we couldn’t discern and which she was unable to explain because she couldn’t talk and was too agitated to write anything down. She’d been to see her oncology team earlier that day because she was having a bad week: trouble sleeping, weak, irritable, having difficulty with the tracheostomy she’d gotten in May to save her life when her windpipe nearly closed due to tumors in her neck.

But she’d been sent home from the hospital with careful instructions to tweak her medications. She was given a new medication to help her sleep. And so we just thought this was a rough patch—she’d had them before. Only Monday—this was Friday—we’d gotten good news about the most recent tests. No new spread. No malignancy in her lung after a thoracentesis. She was doing well. Her oncologist was talking about plans for next year’s treatment. People with stage four metastatic cancers like Maddy’s don’t get cured, but they can live for years with the right treatment. 

We thought we would be those people. We had no reason to believe we weren’t.   

6.

When I was in eighth grade, my best friend’s mother died suddenly. Dropped dead in the family kitchen of a heart attack at only 37. Our small Catholic school class of 13 girls went to the viewing and the funeral. At the gravesite, my friend’s grandmother—an Italian immigrant—was wailing loudly and tried to throw herself into the grave. It was so shocking to me at the time that I can still picture it vividly, all these years later.

My Scandinavian family didn’t show emotions. My mother had slapped me for crying outside the church at my grandfather’s funeral and forbidden me to sit with the family if I was going to “carry on in public.” 

Grief is shameful in America. We view people who cry in front of others as weak or looking for attention. We distance ourselves from the dying and the dead. Over a million Americans died of Covid-19 in the pandemic and we never even talk about it.

People are grieving these losses and we turn our heads and look away. We are embarrassed and shamed by grief and we also fear it: Grief is a component of illness and death and we ignore those, too. Maddy and I buried both my parents and her father during our life together. We buried several close friends. We had to euthanize our most beloved cats. 

We knew grief and grieving, yet throughout her illness I was a cheerleader for Maddy surviving. We never ever talked about her dying—it was not a plan we had. I gave her pep talks about how well the chemotherapy was working, reminded her of how much worse things had been, how extreme her pain had been, how brave she was. How there was no trace of cancer in her lungs, her liver, her brain. I told her it was her body and she could make whatever choices she wanted, but that I hoped she would keep fighting. On the worst days she told me she couldn’t do it without me. On the worst days, I promised I would protect her and not let anything bad happen to her. When she died, I blamed myself. 

7. 

Two million Americans will have been diagnosed with cancer by year’s end. Some will be the common cancers: lung, breast, prostate, colon. But others will be cancers like Maddy’s—cancers for which there are no tests and sometimes not even a warning until they are in the later stages. According to the National Cancer Institute, 1 in 2 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime—39.5% of Americans. Over 150 million people. The older you are, the more likely you are to get cancer. 

Women and Black people are more likely to get cancer and to die from it. Lesbians and bisexual women are at even higher risk—something I wrote about in my Lambda Award-winning book Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic. I’ve had cancer. Two previous lesbian partners of mine died of cancer in their 40s. Why do so many people still get cancer—from babies to elders? Why aren’t we doing any better at stopping it and curing it? Why did my wife get cancer—and such a terrible, vicious, cruel cancer that took her voice, her strength, her body, her life?

Maddy in 2015 | Photo: Judith Redding
8.

I want to talk about Maddy, about who she was to me, to others, to this world. I want to talk about how fortunate we were to have a second chance at love years after our high school affair when a high school friend brought us together and Maddy told me she had never stopped loving me.

It is, I am finding, the role of the widow to preserve the legacy of the fallen spouse. Maddy’s and my generation watched this as children, the black-garbed widows of assassinated leaders: Coretta Scott King, Jacqueline and Ethel Kennedy.   

As 20-something adults we bore witness to the AIDS crisis and all the men whose relationships were obliterated by fear and homophobia. Even the two cases that brought us to marriage equality—Edie Windsor’s and Jim Obergefell’s—were spurred by dead and dying partners. 

Maddy’s legacy that I want to share and preserve is that she loved life and people, art and music, cats and cooking, friends and family and me with her whole generous spirit. Her legacy is that she was adored by hundreds of students over decades of teaching the complexities of drawing and design with wit and brilliance. She was an award-winning painter who won a Ford Foundation grant and whose work was exhibited in group and one-woman shows. She was hilariously funny with a flair for the perfect one-liner and was a raconteur par excellence. She was compassionate and humane and helped students in trouble. She rescued cats. She was a devoted friend, sister, aunt, daughter, wife.

I loved her with my whole heart. I wrote to her and for her. I was her lover, her partner, her helpmate, her friend, her wife, in sickness and in health, and she was mine. She stayed with me every night I was in ICU for three weeks when I nearly died of a pulmonary embolism. The last 10 months of her life were brutal, but she was a brave warrior. She was that patient in the movie about a terminally ill cancer patient who cheers up the nurses and other patients. She was extraordinary and I miss her more than I can possibly say.

9.  

I told the story of Maddy’s cancer journey on Twitter, where I am blessed with a large following. For the dozen years I’ve been on Twitter I referred to Maddy as “The Wife,” to protect her, as a college professor and high school art teacher from any blowback from my often controversial journalism. When I announced her death on Twitter a few days after she died, more than 30,000 people responded. Senator-elect John Fetterman, Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and President Biden sent me condolences. Biden posted on the funeral home website, saying “I want to extend my sympathies to you for the loss of your beautiful wife. Jill and I will be praying for you.”

Our story had touched so many people.

10.

There aren’t templates for us as LGBTQ people for how to be widows and widowers. Homophobia and transphobia have never been more blatant—the Republican party is targeting queer and trans people every day. In this volatile atmosphere, just expressing our grief can put us at risk.

Grief is an undertow. You swim parallel to the shoreline of normalcy, but fear exhaustion will overtake you. Grief is an undertow that makes it hard to keep from drowning in the pain of loss. Maddy and I were each other’s whole hearts for 23 years. We had a happy marriage, we were a team and right up until the moment of Maddy’s death, we were deeply and passionately in love. 

I’m trying to write through the trauma. I’m trying to open a door for other grieving widows and widowers to share that grief openly. I’m trying to find my way as a widow. Memorializing Maddy’s and my still-transgressive lesbian marriage is part of that. 

We thought we would have more time.

We won’t. But we have a history. And that will never die. 

Victoria A. Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Society of Professional Journalists Award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.

Victoria A. Brownworth has 42 posts and counting. See all posts by Victoria A. Brownworth

5 thoughts on “On becoming a widow: A love story

  • Thank you for sharing this. My husband of 25 years passed on July 10, 2021 at 4:10 pm as I held his hand and a single tear fell from his right eye. The evening before, he was able to write with his finger, on the palm of my hand, “I love you”. We met at a birthday party June 1, 1996. He was about to become 50 and I was just 34. Dan and I were so lucky to have each other, to love each other, and to be so proud of each other and our marriage. We were so fortunate to have the love and support of both our families. We loved our home, our friends, our dogs, and our wonderful cruises (15 in all!). I guess – on some level – we always thought we’d pass away together. Perhaps most married couples do – never expecting to be left alone, lost, turned upside-down, inside-out, and totally frightened while in a perpetual tail-spin. What helps me through it all – is gratitude. Some days easier to grasp than others, but it’s a work in progress. We had what so many will never know. So I try not to be selfish, try to be thankful for the quarter-century we shared. The pain is also the love. Grateful for this pain?…yes.

    Reply
  • I am so grateful for all the hundreds of people who have already shared this story on Twitter and written to me about how much this piece meant to them. There is so much more I wanted to write–it’s hard to encapsulate decades into an essay. But what I know is that this story resonated with people who had lost their own partners and those who were addressing a partner with cancer as well as those who just love a love story. In my decades as an LGBTQ activist, what I know for sure is that when we tell our stories, we open the door for others to tell theirs and that makes all our lives fuller and richer and more emotionally resonant. So I hope this prompts you to share your stories and both your joy and heartbreak. –Victoria Brownworth

    Reply
  • A beautifully rendered expression of what it is to grieve someone who is lost to cancer. It’s a terrible, tricky disease that can sometimes cruelly give you hope. But how wonderful that you are able to continue sharing about Maddy and your love and life together. These memories keep her alive and vibrant. In your writing I can still hear her laugh. Thank you for sharing your grief process, for continuing to educate and inform even through this.

    Reply
  • Victoria, I was so moved by this memoir. So beautifully expressed. I was horrified at your experience by the school and the conversion therapy place. How cruel but oh to experience a love like yours and Maddy’s.

    Reply
  • Thank you Victoria for your strength in writing this beautiful love story of Maddy and you. I knew Maddy from her days living above my South Street gourmet store with my life partner Mare Yorke. It was 1974 thru 1976 and Maddy would often call me an enigma. I loved Maddy’s beautiful, high energy spirt and her totally natural, unique beauty. I wanted Maddy for myself, but she resisted me. I lost touch with Maddy sometime after 1985. Tonight while reading the PGN, I came across your article and was shocked that Maddy had passed away. I was happy to read that you and Maddy shared such a wonderful and loving life together. As for the love of my life, Mare Yorke, we also had a wonderful and loving 30 plus years together. We married in Boston as soon as gay marriage was legalized. My wife Mare Yorke began to suffer from Alzheimer’s in 2015 and she now lives in a memory care facility. I know what you mean when you express your sad feelings about missing Maddy. I too miss the love of my life who no longer knows me and no longer remembers our wonderful life. Things change and people change and all we can do to help others and ourselves is to continue moving forward. Please accept my sincere condolences for your tremendous loss.

    Warmly,
    Colleen MacLachlin

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.