aka Bad Widow

My name is Alison Pena. My husband, David Beynon Pena, and I were together close to 25 years, almost half my life, and we missed our 20th anniversary by three weeks. On October 12th, 2015, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer – life expectancy, 6 weeks to 4 months. The news was ‘Prepare to die.’ So we got wills done. And then we made an unusual choice. We decided that this meant living full out every minute of the remaining time we had together. If only, in our whole marriage, we had appreciated each other the way we did at the end.

Doctors advised him to slow down, do less as David’s energy waned. Instead we reprioritized our activities to spend time with people and do EXACTLY what he loved: make art, be with family and friends, and play tennis. To survive these heartbreaking months, I needed to take exquisite care of myself, too. For many years, I wanted to speak about unlocking the affluence code work to audiences and sing solo on cabaret stages. So I did. I had to remind myself that I was still a woman, still an entrepreneur, still loved to sing, not just a caregiver, not just awash with grief to support him when I was also so scared. We learned to live fearlessly in the face of death itself. 

David and I talked about wanting to be alone together at the end, no nurses, no hospital, at home. Thursday, he finished his last watercolor commission. Saturday, September 10th, 2016 at 10:10 am, I held him in my arms and reassured him that I would take care of myself, his mom, his studio, his legacy of art. I told him, “In a body, you need breath and love. When you leave a body, you only need love. When you are ready, go out on the love.” He laid his head on my shoulder and, without pain or fear, took four breaths and left me.

No matter how you try, it’s impossible to prepare for such a loss. In the beginning, being a widow meant variable energy, memory gaps, and drowning in a seemingly endless landscape of grief and despair. I lost trust in my competence and confidence in myself. I did not know who I was without David. He left an incredible legacy of paintings to be curated (landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, still life and figures in oil, watercolor and charcoal) and a studio he worked in for 30 years to clear out. I brought them home and set up a David Beynon Pena online gallery. Barely able to care for myself, there was a lot to do.

With every challenge, I looked for and found solutions which I am eager to share with you. From realizing I had 2 minutes to remember to eat when I felt hungry before I forgot again, so I put baskets of food all over the apartment as a visual prompt. To scheduling appointments in my calendar immediately because my memory was unreliable. I had to expand the limitations of my variable energy so I took a job, 4 hours a day, 3 days a week, at a Halloween pop-up store. I knew I couldn’t work an 8-hour day, do precise and detailed tasks, or manage anyone. But I decided to take a small step to expand my capacity proactively. If I was ever going to get back to my real work consulting, tutoring, speaking and writing again, I had to be afraid and step back into the world anyway. In January 2017, I began writing Bad Widow and sharing my story from the raw place I was in.

I believe in the possibility of love throughout a lifetime, even if one love is cut short by death, disease or divorce. I know it takes an enormous amount of courage to try again. I promise it’s worth it. After David died in my arms at home, I was terrified to feel that depth and intensity of pain again. I felt like I was betraying him by wanting intimacy again (even though he was gone). I was unsure whether anyone would still find me attractive or desirable. I wondered if I even still knew the rules of the dating game (since my last date was with David Beynon Pena in June of 1992).

I was unwilling to live the rest of my life without love so I set up a profile on Bumble and began to press my boundaries to intimacy. It was really tough, tearful and required a level of patience and honest, loving communication which gives us a solid foundation today. Wayne, my boyfriend, created the collage above of my two epic love affairs, David Beynon Pena and me (6/1992-9/2016), and Wayne and me (12/2018 onward).

Bad Widow is about all of it, from agony to ecstasy, peppered with hilarity, comfort and community.  I’ll go first. If this resonates with you, you are welcome to come along too.