“I can’t live without you,” was a common phrase in my lexicon of young love. It was a declaration of devotion and a plea to the universe to keep my husband, Eli, safe and healthy — as if security was something we could control. But if recent history has proved anything, it’s that nothing, not even the power of love, guarantees personal safety in today’s world.
Eli died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 25. One of my first thoughts in the moments after receiving the news was that I, too, would now die. The grief would eat me alive and leave a carcass of my pain and promise. I waited. But my existence persisted, albeit with new heart palpitations that echoed in my chest, sorrow that weighed down my every step, and a rawness that made my muscles ache.
As each day passed, I realized that my love for Eli wouldn’t kill me but would, in fact, keep me alive.
When I could stomach proper food for the first time nearly two weeks after Eli died, it was a bowl of his lentil soup — which he had cooked weeks earlier and left in our freezer — that I defrosted and gingerly nursed. Despite his physical absence, Eli’s cooking continued to be an act of loving care as he fed me my first grief meal. Then my second. And my third.
When I traveled halfway around the world to lie where Eli had last been, it was his voice playfully calling “Yalla!” — Let’s go! — in my head that dared my legs to resist the gravitational pull drawing me deeper into the earth. Instead of surrendering, I stood up, responding to the imaginary call.
When I ran out of tears one night in the shower, it was Eli’s favorite playlist that I turned on for a moment of carelessly moving my hips and limbs. We had spent countless nights dancing to the same tunes in our Queens apartment as we did the dishes. As I sang along in the shower, I remembered his clumsy dance moves and my unsuccessful attempts to teach him some basic salsa steps in our stained aprons and soapy hands. I remembered our tearful laughter. I felt a warmth spreading in my core — was it joy? My face, sore from sobbing, found its way back to a smile.
When I had to go through all the tedious administrative tasks death requires, it was one of Eli’s notes from the past that held my hand through court dates and meetings with accountants. It wasn’t a message he had written to me, but a note he had sent to himself; I discovered it in his inbox as I was retrieving old tax returns. The e-mail was dated from the night of our first kiss — the culmination of years of friendship. The subject line read: “Prediction.” The body: “Marry Madeline.” Discovering his words months after I’d last spoken to him was like hearing Eli whisper, “I love you,” when I thought I would never hear him speak again.
When I hopelessly reckoned with the truth that nearly all love inevitably ends in some form of loss, I nestled my body deeper into my duvet, imagining the profound comfort and peace of Eli’s embrace — a gesture that offered instant relief at the end of every long day, bout of bickering, and personal challenge. While I dreamed of seven decades of those hugs, I am still grateful for the seven years of them that I got.
Eli is gone, but I still manage to love him more each day for the past he gave me — a past that offers survival in the present and hope for the future.
What I wish I could say to Eli, and what I hope to one day say to a future partner, is: “I love you so much that I could and would live without you. I have faith you’d do the same.”
Madeline de Figueiredo is a writer living in Greece. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.