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witty widow

One Year Later

Tawny reflects on the first year of coping with comedy on the anniversary of her husband’s death.

One year ago today, I walked out of my office and into my kitchen to find my 29-year-old husband, the love of my life, dead on the floor. 

The images and sounds that followed were nothing short of horrifying as I called 911 and tried to resuscitate him with the assistance of the operator until the EMTs arrived. I won’t go into much detail about that part because I don’t want those graphic images in anyone else’s head unnecessarily. Nobody deserves that. 

After George was pronounced dead, I had every intention of ending my life and I had a surefire way to do it.  We had made a pact that if either of us ever died while our furbaby Babbs was still alive, the survivor would stick around to make sure she had a good life. But now that I was faced with the reality of the situation, my first instinct was to drop her off at his parents house and then be buried with my spouse. 

You see, George was more than just my husband or best friend. He was the first person who had shown me unconditional love, understood me, and accepted me completely. I didn’t have any other people in my life I was even remotely close to in comparison. Others mostly knew me from the personas I had taken on throughout the years. Personas like business owner, salesperson, podcaster, coach, and voice over actor.

I didn’t have a persona with George. I was just me, so flawed and so imperfect. Nothing I ever did scared him away- even when I shaved my head and adopted a dog without telling him. When I finally started getting help for a decades long eating disorder, he was there through all the hard and gross parts. When I cut ties with my abusers, he supported me and assured me I wouldn’t be alone.

But then on November 8, 2019 that’s exactly how I felt. Alone. 

I went from being adored and doted on nearly 24/7 by a man who looked like Zac Efron and had the brain of John Oliver, to having a handful of friendships that I had admittedly neglected when George’s health started taking a turn for the worse in 2017. In other words, there weren’t a lot of people around who would genuinely want to hug me without it being uncomfortable for at least one of us. 

So what stopped me from blowing out my brains?

One very dark-ass joke. 

As I was laying on the floor, sobbing on top of my husband’s body, a trauma specialist had been called to the scene. When she arrived, she approached me gingerly. She asked the right questions and said all the right things. As the minutes ticked by, she finally tried coaxing me up and out of the apartment so they could put George’s body in a large black bag.

But I wasn’t ready. 

I could have laid on that floor with him for hours. And I’m so glad I took the time that I did to be there with him, just us. He still looked like himself and wasn’t cold, hard, and caked with make-up while hundreds of people I’d never met touched his body that was on display for everyone. I can still hear the frightening screaming and weeping as strangers lined up for hours to hold my face in their hands while they asked me for comfort during this tremendous loss they were facing. And that’s just what I can tell you about what happened that day. 

Who knew a funeral could be so traumatizing? Ha. 

“I actually was kinda thinking I could just hang on to his body,” I told the specialist. “But I guess that just sets you up on the fast track for a Norman Bates situation and I should nip that in the bud.”

She burst into laughter and I started chuckling through the tears, grateful she understood the Psycho reference. 

Then I kept going. 

“Or I could try to pull off a Weekend at Bernie’s type thing and see how long it takes for people to notice.”

I couldn’t stop. I started making joke after joke and I eventually found the strength to stand. The specialist kept laughing and I felt those familiar waves of dopamine wash over me. 

By the time I had reached middle school, I had discovered that if people didn’t like me or love me, they could at least laugh at me… and that felt pretty good too. They were usually already laughing anyways. I was the weird, mean kid being raised in a bizarre and loud community that blended Christian Evangelicalism and far-right conservative values (ironically, I was the blacksheep and scapegoat in the cult too and spent the better part of two decades trying to figure out how to safely leave). 

But if I could make people laugh that meant that they would like me, even if it was just for a moment. It was my tried and true survival technique. Making jokes got me through abuse, heartbreak, isolation, and abandonment. Now jokes would get me through my grief. 

After George died, I started practicing and performing stand-up again, something I hadn’t done in the months he had been sick. It was truly a Mrs. Maisel moment as I sloppily told jokes in someone’s garage in North Park to a small audience of about 10 people.  I started sharing memes on Instagram and I talked about how I was coping with comedy on my podcast. I wanted to connect with other people who understood me and appreciated me… because it wasn’t happening with most of the folks I was surrounded by in San Diego.

And then came the backlash. 

After being told, “there’s no wrong way to grieve,” I was berated and cut-off from what little family I had left when I started sharing my comedy and coping mechanisms online. Then strangers on Reddit said I was “suspect,” as if I was responsible for my husband’s death because I was publicly grieving with my work. I received emails telling me I was being inconsiderate of his “real family” and needed to understand that while I could get another spouse, they couldn’t get another George. I needed to “think of others who actually knew him longer than just a few years.” I needed to “be strong for everyone who is actually grieving him.” I began to wish that I was a musician or a painter instead of a voice actor and podcaster. If I had composed an album or painted a series about what I was going through, it would have been acceptable. 

Fortunately, one year later, I’ve found 95% of the overall response to what I do has been overwhelmingly positive. Other young widows have reached out to tell me how they finally feel seen, understood, and heard. I’ve met other actors and comedians who use comedy to make jokes about their own traumas. I have shown my therapist everything and have asked her, terrified, if I’m a psychopath. She has assured me that I’m not and now I try out new material with her during our sessions. She’s a fan. 

After about three months, I was starting to be functional and more optimistic. 

Then came March of 2020. 

As the U.S. descended into a more depressive and chaotic state than usual, I found myself increasingly isolated as friends understandably ran out of support for me. They needed to use most of, if not all, of their energy just to survive the day-to-day. Everyone suddenly had a ton on their plates and I needed to figure out how to be mostly alone and self-sufficient. 

Now that’s a pretty tall order for me because as far as being totally on my own goes, I can’t help but feel I’m kind of like a hobbit in battle (Get it? Tall order? Hobbit in battle? haha….)

There’s this scene from The Return of the King where the characters are preparing for this huge battle and Merry the hobbit is all decked out and ready. But the king, Theoden, goes, “Little hobbits aren’t cut out for war my dude, sorry buddy, you need to stay here.”

And then Merry says, so earnestly, “But I want to fight!”

The king tells him no and Merry gets super bummed. He has the spirit but simply not the stature. Super relatable. 

BUT! As everyone is on their horses riding off into battle and Merry is dejectedly watching the departure from the camp at Dunharrow Plateau, he’s picked up by Eowyn- a noblewoman and shieldmaiden who was also told to stay behind. 

Like literally, she rode over to him, reached down from her horse and picked him up like a puppy, plopping him down in front of her. She then whispered grimly into his ear, “Ride with me.” Merry’s eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “My lady!”

I haven’t seen this movie 27 times or anything….

This scene has probably stuck with me over the years because I so badly want to be a fighter. I want to be independent and I want to take care of myself. I hate asking for help and feel burdensome, shameful, and guilty when I do (thanks childhood trauma). I want to be tough, take names, and kick some ass. But I so often feel small, weak, and left behind. It’s during these times that I need to be picked up by someone who has felt that way too but is a little stronger than me right now.

My “Eowyn” ended up being the podcast community.

Photo by Tommy Lopez on Pexels.com

These are the people who keep checking on me, who send me so much love, who remember the dates, who send food, and who make sure I’m still breathing in the morning. These are the people who not only laugh at my jokes, but make some pretty damn hilarious ones themselves. 

These are the people who organized a huge event to help me with George’s medical bills and the financial strain of being suddenly on a single income in San Diego while battling multiple chronic health issues. These are the people who have truly embodied the meaning of family when the people who should have traditionally been there for me simply were not. If it wasn’t for Hannah, Josh, Lanie, and about a million others, there’s a large possibility I’d be homeless right now (there are zero social safety nets for civilian widow/ers in the U.S.). 

My podcasting community has given me more hope than anything else has. I now have hope that I won’t be alone for the rest of my life and that it’s possible to make connections with other people too and not just George. 

Many have told me I should be grateful that I not only had that connection with my husband, but grateful that I had that passionate love with him as well, because so many others never find it. For a long time I disagreed. The pain I felt over losing that love didn’t seem to be worth the actual love itself. In other words, I could have gone my whole life blissfully ignorant to the fact that something like what we had was an option.  

But I remembered what George often said about not thinking he would ever have a family because he was terminally ill. He thought that he would die when he was a teenager or that nobody would want to be with him long-term. Today, I’m grateful I could give him so much love for nearly ¼ of his short life. He loved being married and he loved domestic life. So now, when I start to ache for him and wonder if it was all worth it, I realize that it was. He was in immense pain for the majority of his time on this earth and he deserved any happiness he could find. He wanted a family and I was able to give him one (even if our baby is a Jim Henson creation masquerading as a dog). And I’m beyond honored I was the person he chose to share any time he had with.

George cuddling Babbs after our elopement

It means so much because George and I were both staunch atheists and skeptics who took science seriously. Neither of us actually ever believed in the likelihood of any kind of afterlife based on available scientific studies. So as far as life experiences go, this is it. This life is your one shot for happiness before you cease to exist. And he still chose me, out of everyone he could have shared his beautiful brain and heart with….he chose little old me. 

Despite being so secular, we still called each other “soulmate” because it was the best word we could think of to sum up how we felt about each other. That being said, we’d always try to put a little science behind the word too. We used to imagine that maybe we had been made out of the same “star-stuff” at the beginning of time and our hunger for each other had something to do with our atoms being attracted to each other. That’s what “soulmate” meant to us. 

And I think there’s maybe a little kernel of truth there.

I’m not a scientist and only have a high school diploma so take this with a grain of salt, but my understanding from what I’ve read is that all atoms in the universe were formed in the very first stars and are recycled in various ways. 

So technically, our entire body has already experienced billions of years due to each atom’s very own personal history. It’s even plausible that these atoms will eventually become a part of someone else in the future and will continue to exist in various forms – always transforming – until the end of time. 

And in that way, George and I are connected in eternity. That means that we have always been together, are together now, and will be together always, spread across the universe until the very last light fades. 

If you want to get really woo-woo with it, there’s even a chance that George and my patterns of DNA could form entirely by chance again to create something that is biologically us but without our memories, experiences, and history. So that means that maybe we were together in the past too. 

Did I just talk myself into a scientific explanation of reincarnation? 

The above might be more than just a little far-fetched… but the concept of being connected to everything in the universe, including the love of my life, gives me comfort. Because that means that maybe there are other little pieces of George out in the world that I can still find.

And if our atoms found each other once, maybe they’ll find each other again someday- in this life or the next. 

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