Melissa Gould, WIDOWISH

Melissa Gould, WIDOWISH

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Melissa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am so excited to be talking to you.

Melissa Gould: I am so excited to be talking to you.

Zibby: As I think you know because I kept posting about it on social media and we were emailing and all the rest, I read your book at the most emotional moment, probably, in my adult life when I was literally flying down to Duke to say goodbye to my mother-in-law. I read it that whole two days down there which will be forever etched in my mind as just traumatic and awful. Except, I got escape into your book. I feel this special bond with you which you’re not even a part of. It’s me and your book, or your book and me, I should say. Thank you for providing me the solace that I needed during that time. I’m really grateful.

Melissa: I am so flattered that my story resonated for you. That it helped you at all just means so much to me. I am so sorry for your losses.

Zibby: I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing so beautifully about all of it. Why don’t you tell listeners what your memoir is about? It’s called Widowish. Give us more context and tell us how this became a book.

Melissa: I’ll tell you, I really believe that Widowish is a love story. It’s a modern love story that’s wrapped up in a grief story and a little bit more of a love story. It’s also about expectations. Let me just start by saying, my husband, Joel, died unexpectedly and suddenly of West Nile virus. It was something none of us saw coming. Joel was my person. He was my everything. We had been together, married for sixteen years, probably together for twenty. We had a thirteen-year-old daughter. She was thirteen at the time, Sophie. When he died, obviously my world was completely upended. Widowish, in some ways, it’s about the title. I was young. I was in my forties. I didn’t look like a widow. I didn’t act like a widow. Plot twist, I found love again, also completely unexpectedly and suddenly. I felt like a widow. I still feel like a widow. It’s been several years now. So much of my story is about how all of these feelings of feeling so bereft and so grief-stricken and so sad and so in love with my husband and yet the tingling sensations of a new love and the excitement that that brought into my life, all of these feelings were coexisting. People didn’t know that about me. I became the town widow. I live in Los Angeles. In our community, everybody knows each other. Our kids all go to the same school. They all go to the same doctors. They all have the same guitar teacher. We all knew each other. I felt very self-conscious. People would see me picking up Sophie from school or going to yoga or going to Trader Joe’s because life moved forward whether I wanted it to or not. Having a young daughter, she became my focus. Widowish is really about all of these things, these coexisting feelings, the sudden loss, only parenting. Our small little family trio became this dynamic duo of Sophie and I. Widowish really explores all of those things.

Zibby: Can you share the story of how Joel got West Nile or how you believe he got it? Just an abridged version if it’s not too painful to summarize that period of time, what exactly happened.

Melissa: It was so crazy. Joel had multiple sclerosis. He had MS. He was diagnosed when Sophie was around eight years old. Prior to that, Joel really was a mix of athleticism and music. He worked in the music business. Music was so important to us as a family. We went to concerts all the time. He would go out several nights a week to see bands and live music. He also was on a softball team. He was on a basketball team. He would go to the gym every day. He was an extremely athletic person, loved the Dodgers, I have to say. He came home from a basketball game one night like ten minutes after he had left. He just said, “Something is really wrong. I see the ball going down the court. I tell my body, go, but I can’t.” It was devastating. After a series of tests, he got the MS diagnosis. We thought, okay, we’re going to manage this. We knew about MS. Some family members, ironically, had it. It was something we knew about. Joel got on the right medication. It really worked for a number of years. He was living his life with MS. Certain things started to affect him years into the diagnosis because what we realized was a lot of these medications have a lifespan, and they stop working.

It was around the time of Sophie’s bat mitzvah. 2013 was really a seminal year for us in our family. Sophie was turning thirteen and having her bat mitzvah. Joel was turning fifty. Later that year, he died unexpectedly. We had these milestones. It’s so funny how life works. Because of the bat mitzvah, because of his fiftieth birthday, we saw everybody in our lives who was important to us and who mattered that year. I don’t know if that makes sense. There were people who were coming in and out of our lives throughout the year that wouldn’t necessarily have been there if not for the bat mitzvah, if not for his fiftieth birthday. Anyway, that year of all of these things, Joel really was suffering with the MS. We went from living with it and having a full life with a few modifications — he eventually had to stop playing basketball, but then he found yoga. Yoga was everything. He started riding his bike more. Again, he was a very athletic guy who liked to move. The new meds that he had started were just not kicking in. He really was starting to suffer. Protocol with MS is you would take steroids. The doctor would prescribe steroids that would sort of bridge the gap between the old medication and the new medication just to keep Joel moving forward every day. The steroids which he was getting — a nurse was coming to our house every day for week administering these steroids through an IV.

We were told, similar to, in a way, what we’re dealing with now with COVID, is that because of his suppressed immune system, the steroids might make him susceptible to a cold or something that he wouldn’t be able to fight off so easily. We were on lockdown for a week. Sophie was still going to school. We weren’t having friends over. We weren’t going out to dinner. Joel was taking these steroids. He would hang out in our backyard, which was his happy place. He loved to garden. He loved to cut some flowers, pick the lemons from our lemon tree. He was an outdoor guy. We never thought that that would be dangerous. What I mean by that is — about two months after the steroid treatment, the MS was not getting any better. Actually, I’m a little off on the timeline, Zibby, but you got the idea. He was having these different treatments. Then at some point, he got very sick with symptoms that did not seem like MS. He had an extremely high fever. He would take Tylenol, and the fever would go down. He became very fatigued. We thought he had the flu. We were sort of on high alert with his MS doctors because new medication can go either way. We weren’t sure, is this a reaction to the new meds? Is this the flu? After a few days, we were like, this is crazy.

Joel and I made the decision together to take him to the hospital, to go to the hospital. He walked himself in. Yes, we were dealing with MS, but we were not hospital people. I didn’t know protocol. We went to the emergency room. They eventually moved him into a room. Me, thinking he had the flu, couldn’t wait to get home and wash everything and disinfect everything. I didn’t want to catch it. I didn’t want Sophie to. I never thought that this was dire. He very quickly, in the hospital, fell into a coma. I had to move him from one hospital which, to me, was the go-to hospital. People go there for cancer treatments and to have their babies and whatever. We moved him from that hospital to the hospital where his MS doctors were, another fantastic facility. At that point, we were like, this could be a deathly reaction to the MS meds, but it never really presented like a reaction to the meds. There was medical confusion for two and a half, three weeks. Joel was in a coma this whole time. The doctors were telling me, “Your husband is critically ill.” In my mind, I kept thinking, well, make him better. That’s what you did. None of this occurred to me, that he would die.

That’s when I really learned about viruses. A series of tests were done from the very first hospital to the second hospital. Results kept coming back negative, but they kept circling the idea that this was a virus. One of the very first infectious disease doctors was examining Joel from head to toe when we first admitted him and kept asking me, “Are you sure he wasn’t bit by something? Was he bit by a mosquito? Did he have a –” I was like, “I have no idea.” Turns out, he was bitten by a mosquito. That’s how he contracted West Nile virus. Really, that is the cause of his death. There are a few things listed on his death certificate, but West Nile virus is number one. Complications from MS is another one. It was horrifying and completely unexpected. The doctors, every day, were coming to me with something new. “We think he has brain damage. He seems to be paralyzed from the waist down.” Even though they were telling me these things, again, I kept thinking, okay, once we know what it is, you’ll give him the meds and he’ll be better. Viruses don’t work that way. West Nile virus did its job. Meaning, all of the things that a virus can do to a person, cause brain damage, cause paralysis, that’s what happened to Joel. These viruses just have to run their course. Because of the MS, he was susceptible to a lethal mosquito bite.

Zibby: I am so sorry. I can’t believe that happened. I can’t believe that a mosquito, in today’s day and age, can actually be the cause of this. I’m just so sorry. It’s awful.

Melissa: Thank you. It’s shocking even when I tell the story, Zibby. That’s what I mean. Really, a lot of that is in the book. My life became so surreal and continues to be in so many ways.

Zibby: It’s the shock of it. When you kept saying, “I just kept thinking, okay, fine, he’s critically ill. Make it better. That’s good. Onto the next. Let’s keep going,” it’s the shock. It’s the shock that doctors don’t have the answers to all these things. You can be in the best hospital. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. Then you can’t go back. You can’t be like, oh, we should’ve done this. Let’s do this next time. You can’t. That’s it. It’s the last straw.

Melissa: I’m sure this is similar to what you guys were going through also. It is shocking because of what you just said also. You think these doctors, they’re miracle workers. Okay, do something. That’s what you’re here for. This is your language, not mine. You must know what’s going on.

Zibby: First of all, when did you decide to make your experience into a book? How did that end up happening?

Melissa: That’s kind of crazy also. I’ve been a writer my whole life. I was a screenwriter and made my living as a TV writer. I was very content working in television. When Joel died, of course, as I’ve said, my life was turned upside down. I really was living a life of grief but acting as if everything was okay because I wanted to keep Sophie on track. I was really suffering in my grief. A very close friend of mine invited me to join her writing group. It was really just a baby step of me getting back to a part of myself that I had sort of let go, which was writing. I joined this group. I was the only professional writer in there. All my worst qualities came out. I just was going with it. It’s almost like somebody pointed me in the direction and said, go, and I went. The direction this time was, join a writing group. I joined this writing group. After five minutes, I loved it. I just thought, oh, my god, this is it. This is going to save me. I started writing a novel. I loved it. I loved the characters and the world I was creating. It was such an escape for me. For those few hours once a week, I’d go to my writing group. I was so happy. My friend who had invited me into the group — we were leaving one night. I think I said, “I just signed up for the next six-week session.” I had started seeing this guy who became my boyfriend. I was telling her about him. She looked at me.

She’s like, “You know, I love the novel. I love it. I love what you’re writing. But Joel just died. You’re raising Sophie on your own. You’re now seeing Marcos. You’re not writing about any of it. I really think you should.” I was stunned. I was actually very angry. How dare she? How dare anybody tell me what to write? It felt so personal. Because I was a screenwriter and had done that my whole life, the thought of writing about myself or writing anything that personal, I could not wrap my head around. I was like, why in the world would I write something so personal? I was so angry at my friend. I was so incensed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I kept thinking, what would I write about? What would I say? I had so much to say. I had so much to say about being widowed in my forties, about becoming an only parent, about falling in love again while I was deeply grieving my husband. The whole week leading up to the next class I just kept having these thoughts. When I got to class the following week, I decided, I’m just going to do it. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. I have not stopped writing about myself since. How Widowish came about was — first of all, that was most healing thing for myself. I don’t know that I would’ve come to that. Maybe eventually I would’ve realized, oh, maybe I should write about this. It was a close friend who knew me so well putting that suggestion in my mind. Changed my life, really.

I started writing these essays. Then I started publishing the essays. I couldn’t believe that people were interested in my story. I kept hearing from people. A lot of them were widows. A lot of them weren’t. What I was writing really resonated for them. Then I got my essays in the — I got one in the LA Times and The Washington Post and then The New York Times. I had a column on the Huffington Post. I just kept going. It’s funny. When I got my first TV writing job, I was so thrilled to be at the table. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it. I really felt the same. I feel the same way now. I know as a young kid, I always wanted to be an author, and I ended up being a screenwriter. That’s just also so surreal. I now have this book out. I am now a bona fide author, but it’s because my husband died. That’s the other thing, Zibby. That is the greatest gift in all of this. You and I are sitting here now. We’re having a conversation about Joel. That keeps him alive. That is everything. I didn’t see that coming. I think that’s the point with my essays, to keep going and writing Widowish, and finding an agent and then having a publisher. A friend and I, another writer, we call it the divine download. Writing this book, yes, it was difficult, of course. I’m writing about some difficult things. The process was very easy for me because it was right there. It was just under the surface. I feel like it all just needed to come out. It did. That’s Widowish.

Zibby: That’s such an amazing story. It’s amazing, also, just the power of connection and how — I was thinking as you were talking earlier. You were like, I’m in this neighborhood in LA. I was thinking to myself, I wonder where she is. Maybe we can meet up sometime in LA. Then I was just thinking, this is so crazy. If I met you on the street, we wouldn’t be able to have this in-depth conversation immediately. I know this is a podcast about your book and everything. You put yourself out there so much. Then you open yourself up to other people being like, let’s continue this conversation. I want to hear more. It’s just amazing. It’s so nice that you keep him alive that way.

Melissa: Thank you so much.

Zibby: I think one of the big misconceptions about loss is that people will be sad if you bring up the person who has died. Oh, I shouldn’t bring up the fact that her dad died, so I’m not going to say, how are you? I wouldn’t want to set her off. As if the person is not always thinking about that person who was lost.

Melissa: Yeah. I have to say, I feel like there is a healthy amount of self-consciousness about being, like I said, the town widow even now. It’s been several years since Joel died. I know that is the first thing people think of when they see me. I could be out with my boyfriend. If I’m out with Sophie, I feel it even more. I feel them thinking, oh, poor Melissa, poor Sophie. I can’t stand it. I wish I could tell you, here’s what you say to somebody who just lost — I don’t know. I think grief is so personal. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. I know so many people talk about the things you should say, things you shouldn’t say. I feel like I should know what you should and shouldn’t say, and I really don’t.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Melissa: I’m thinking of you, typically, for me, that’s enough, to have somebody say, I’m thinking of you. I’m so sorry. I don’t need to get into the whole, how are you?

Zibby: I get it. Wait, can we go to the falling in love with the guitar teacher part of the story?

Melissa: What do you want to know?

Zibby: I know you wrote about it and everything. Is that ongoing? Are you guys still together?

Melissa: Yes, we’re still together.

Zibby: Amazing.

Melissa: Again, Zibby, that’s also about when I talk about these expectations of — there was an expectation people had of me as the young widow. I had my own expectations about what grief should look like. My daughter has — all of her grandparents are still alive, which is such a gift, but her dad isn’t here. It’s crazy. This is a roundabout way of saying what happened with Marcos, who was Sophie’s guitar teacher, is that he really was one of the very few people who did not make me feel self-conscious about having lost my husband. If I just back up from that, I always thought he was attractive. Guitar lessons fell under Joel’s jurisdiction because he was the musician and the music guy, so he would take Sophie to her guitar lessons. I would hear about Marcos. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. Everybody whose kids took guitar took it from him. I knew who he was, but I had never met him. There was a time when Joel couldn’t take Sophie to guitar, so I ended up taking her. I remember the first time I saw him. I was like, nobody told me the guitar teacher was so hot. I said it to Joel. I was like, “Honey, come on.” I even called the friend who recommended him to us. She was like, “Oh, get in line. We all have a crush on Marcos,” which is the matter of fact. It was nothing. Then I ran into him shortly after Joel died. Like everybody at the time, he offered to help in any way he could. Like so many people, “Can I bring you some food? Do you need me to pick Sophie up?” whatever it is. I always appreciated it.

Joel had a ton of music equipment. He had guitars and amplifiers and all this stuff. Joel had been gone maybe six months. I started cleaning out the garage. I was kind of tiptoeing around the idea of getting rid of some things. The stuff that was in the garage, I was like, how important could it be? I forgot we even had it. When I ran into Marcos and he said to me, “If you need help with anything…” I was like, oh, my god, the stuff in the — he can help me. Slowly but surely, he came over. He helped me one day. He was very matter of fact. He talked about Joel very easily. I felt very much myself when I was with him even though our interactions were brief. He would come. He would look through the stuff. He would call me and say, “I gave so-and-so this guitar. I’m going to use this for my lessons.” Then one day, I had to go with him — there was one guitar that was actually worth something. I had to go with him to a consignment shop. I was so deep in my grief that I just — again, pointed me in the direction I would go. He was like, “You need to go with me to the guitar thing.” I was like, okay.

It was so different than I how I felt in my real life. I felt like I was on vacation when I was with him. I wasn’t thinking. I just was with him. Again, he talked easily about Joel. He didn’t look at me the way I felt every else was looking at me. I knew he wasn’t pitying me, poor Melissa. Then just one thing led to another. I thought, I’m going to continue to not think about this. I’m just going to go with it. I’m feeling attracted to him, which was also shocking. I also wanted to tell Joel. It’s such a bizarre — I told Joel everything. Why wouldn’t I tell him? Oh, my god, honey, I’m hooking up with the guitar teacher. Again, it was all of these feelings coexisting at the same time. I was trying to manage it. Then when it came to Marcos, I just thought, it’ll be a fling. It’ll be good for me. I’m just going to go with it. Here we are so many years later still very much together. We’re an odd pairing. We don’t make sense to everybody. I don’t mind.

Zibby: Did I tell you in our emails that my husband now used to be my tennis teacher? Did I mention that?

Melissa: I did know that, yeah.

Zibby: I’m very familiar with the — I had moms coming up to me and being like, “Oh, Zibby, I get it.” It was so cute. It was so funny. Anyway, we’re super happy. It’s been five years or something crazy. It can happen.

Melissa: It is funny, though.

Zibby: It’s the people who cut through all the stuff. They don’t need the pretense, not to generalize. I don’t know if these guys are even remotely similar. I found myself relating when you said how he saw you and you could just be you. That’s the greatest thing in any relationship, is taking all the stuff down, taking down all the scaffolding and just getting underneath and seeing what’s under there.

Melissa: I have to tell you a few things. I feel so lucky in love. I had Joel who completely got me. We met when I was a teenager, I think. We didn’t get together until years after that. I knew Joel my whole adult life. I felt so loved and adored. I have to say, I feel the same but different with Marcos. He totally gets me. I’m a hundred percent myself. I feel those are gifts of love. I’m so happy to be the recipient of that. It sounds a little obnoxious, but it is meaningful to me. I also feel like Marcos continues to accept that Joel is my husband. I’m still to married to Joel. That’s how I feel. I am still married to Joel. He’s still my person, and now there’s Marcos as well. It is weird.

Zibby: No one said that grief makes sense.

Melissa: No, it doesn’t.

Zibby: No one said that life makes any sense. I think your attitude, though, is — not that I’m in any position to judge. No one should judge. It seems very empowering and inspiring. You’re just like, you know what, whatever. If it doesn’t make sense, this is what I’m doing. This makes me happy. If there’s anything that you are owed, it’s some happiness after having your husband just cruelly snatched away from you. Anyone who begrudges you happiness in any way, shape, or form, just forget it.

Melissa: I agree. I’ll tell you something else that really helped me. This is in the book. All of this is in the book. A friend of mine said to me early on, “Everything you do should be easy.” It’s such simple advice. I don’t even think she realized she was giving me advice. When she said that, it really was transformative because I thought, everything is so hard. She said something like this. She’s like, “Your husband just died, and you’re surviving. There is nothing harder than that. Everything you do, choose easy.” I kind of did that with Marcos. I wasn’t in this headspace of, oh, my god, we live on different sides of the boulevard. He’s the guitar teacher. All of those things, I did not have the capacity to analyze it the way I would have if things were not so surreal. That advice of, just make things easy, I decided with him, whatever happens, happens. He was not saving me from my grief. He coexisted with my grief. That’s the point I wanted to make too. I think I spell this out pretty clearly in the book. It’s not like because I have a boyfriend and a man in my life, I’m better. Oh, Melissa’s fine, she’s got a boyfriend. No, it’s what I just said a minute ago. The grief coexists with the love which coexists with this new life. It’s complicated. I think happy is my baseline. I’m happy to be back at happy, but still grieving. That’s why I say the book is really a love story. Again, it’s not like Marcos came in and saved me. I didn’t need saving. I’m not better because I have love in my life again, but it is a nice — life just moves forward whether I wanted it to or not. Here we are.

Zibby: Amazing. I love that. Having written the book, do you have advice to aspiring authors?

Melissa: My advice is to keep writing. I really believe that everybody has a story to tell. I don’t necessarily mean memoir. We all have life experiences. We’ve all been witness to things. Things have happened to us. If somebody is inspired to write, just write. Really believe in yourself. Believe in what you’re saying. There are so many voices that, oh, that’s terrible. That’s such a bad idea. Don’t do that. There’s a lot of no starting with ourselves. Just be kind to yourself. Keep writing. You could be writing a journal. That’s plenty. I just encourage people to tell whatever story they feel compelled to tell.

Zibby: Love it. Melissa, thank you. I hope we can continue offline in some form because I’d love to stay in touch. I’m so rooting for you and so invested in your story and all the rest. That sounds creepy or something. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and sharing your grief and your happiness and the tangled mess that it really all is all together.

Melissa: I know. Thank you so much, Zibby. This was really fantastic to talk with you.

Zibby: You too. I’ll talk to you soon. Buh-bye.

Melissa: Bye.

Melissa Gould, WIDOWISH