I was jealous that Karen had loved my husband for 17 years. She'd known him as a young man, when starting his own woodworking business was just a dream he whispered about under the covers. Karen had loved my husband before children, when, I imagined, sleeping late, romantic weekends at the coast, and long, uninterrupted conversations were routine. I hated learning that Gary had proposed to Karen on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Pausing to study their wedding photo in a corner of Gary's home office, I spied a young couple squinting and ecstatic in the sun outside the Chapel of Love in Las Vegas, grinning like they'd just pulled off a bank heist.
To commemorate Karen's death each April, Gary and the girls release balloons with messages they've written on paper hearts attached to the strings. On the second anniversary of her death, Gary and I had been engaged for four months. I knew I was officially part of the family when Tonya and Lizzie selected a red balloon for me to release, too. But I had trouble writing a message. I wasn't sure what Karen would want to hear from me, the woman who'd sneaked into her house, slept with her husband and presumed to know how to mother her two babies. I sat with a pencil poised over my blank paper heart. Finally I just scribbled "thank you" and quickly folded the paper twice so no one could glimpse what I'd written. It felt like such a silly, weak message, but what could I say? The truth and incredible irony is that Gary, Tonya and Lizzie's loss had been my gain.
I've had girlfriends, most of them sane and successful, who've made voodoo dolls out of their lover's ex-wives or past girlfriends. I can't do that to Karen: It's distasteful to speak ill of the dead, much less stick effigies of them with pins. I can't even complain about her to my girlfriends without feeling like a heel.
One summer, while Gary, the girls, and I were on the Oregon coast, we stopped at a favorite local restaurant following an afternoon spent building sand castles and splashing in the frigid Pacific. As we waited for our cheeseburgers and fries, I leaned over and brushed some sand from Tonya's eyebrows. Someone at the table, maybe Lizzie, began to hum, and soon the whole family was singing "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" and laughing about how none of us except Gary could remember the lyrics. We were still singing when Tonya looked at me and stopped short, her face stricken. She turned her gaze to the ocean tumbling outside the window, but the tears at the edges of her eyes told me what had happened: She'd lost herself in time and had turned toward me expecting to see Karen.