I first knew I was done when I turned 48, 23 years into marriage with an adored husband, which included coming through a distant, mostly asexual period. Instead of divorcing, we’d reinvented. Everything glistened: vibrant, intensified, renewed. That week, we’d had sex three times, each time different emotionally and physically.
Those three times were our last.
Nov. 30, 2000. Unseasonably warm, bright. Breakfast. Ned kissed me goodbye, left for work.
I next saw him never.
That afternoon, on his thrice-weekly bicycle ride, he collided with a Chevy pickup. Bicycled into eternity.
Two months after Ned’s death, my therapist said, “You keep saying, ‘I’m never going to have another relationship.’ Is this something you believe?”
Beloved, irreplaceable Ned. The only man I’d had sex with for decades. I was almost 50. Unmarried friends chorused: “The good guys are married or gay.” Catcalls, which I hated when I was young, had stopped awhile back, indicating I was sexually invisible, past desirability.
I said to my therapist, “Yeah, I believe it.”
“Because Ned and I had 23 years of something most people don’t get for 15 minutes! Who am I to expect that twice?”
My therapist said, “Who better? You cocreated that for 23 years.”
Four months after Ned’s death, I began skimming online dating sites, alone in the quiet house. Well, they’re not all losers, I thought that first night.
It was strangely calming … all those men, searching. It wasn’t, “He looks interesting.” It was imagine … some other life, entirely different from the one you had, might be possible.
Friends asked: “Aren’t you afraid of online dating?”
Seriously? After standing in the ER next to Ned’s broken body, nurses still mopping up blood? Going out for coffee with someone is going to scare me?
And, “Won’t you be afraid to take off your clothes?”
Please. Go through something tough enough, you receive a get-out-of-jail-free card. And nakedness was on that card.
My first coffee with a guy I met online: pleasant, chemistry-less. When we got up to go, he said, “Listen, I don’t know you well, but I’m guessing one day you’ll write about this.”
I shrugged maybe.
“Do me a favor, darling,” he said. “Remember me as the appetizer.”
I had many entrées after that appetizer. Did I feel disloyal? Yes, the first time I hugged another man. And by the time we took our clothes off, I felt only pent-up, desperate desire. All that recently awakened desire had nowhere to go. The first time I masturbated after Ned’s death, six weeks later, I burst into tears. Was this what I’d been reduced to? Self-gratification, to me, is more utilitarian than gratifying; great sex was always relational. This was one experience no grief literature mentioned.
It’s now been 16 years since Ned’s death. My sex life has been varied, mostly plentiful. I’ve learned about the care and feeding of the older lover, and his penis. Discovered G-spot orgasms, thanks to my first post-Ned boyfriend. Learned female ejaculation is no myth. (I had loyalty issues about that. How could I have this capacity that Ned and I hadn’t experienced?)
But I consciously worked to put aside grief. To allow desire. I felt my hunger complimented Ned: Being with him was so rich I still wanted a relationship. (Having loved and been loved well also made me discriminating; I knew what good love was like. I was selective.)
I also put aside self-consciousness. I learned to wear lingerie, strangely, with a confidence I’d lacked in youth. I relaxed, appreciated my aging, responsive, so-far-healthy body, with its belly, sags and wrinkles … none of which seemed to bother my lovers (most of whom resided in their own aging bodies, bodies I appreciated).
Now, for some of this post-Ned time, my sex life wasn’t varied and plentiful. For several initially happy years, I lived with someone who’d been in recovery from depression when we met. His devastating disease returned, he slowly became unable to love: sex, me, life. This story ends badly: David took his life. He hadn’t been fully present for years. “I miss you,” I’d said to him, maybe 18 months before his death. “I miss me too, “ he’d said.
See, sex when you’re older has so many layers. Experience, history, mortality are in bed with you (even when that bed’s in a nursing home, maybe the next frontier for sexual freedom and choice.)
In later life, you know one of you almost certainly dies first. This intensifies every caress and climax.
Later-life sex is often described as companionable. Sure, if that’s what you want. But it can be incendiary. Hot, erotic, sweaty, interesting, charged. Physicians’ll tell you that staying sexual is healthy. Cosmetic companies market it. (The best-selling high-end blush in the world? Nars’ Orgasm.)
But the larger truth is, having sex when you’re older is a death-defying act.
How? You have to want it enough to override the gravity-and-reality-defying insistence that “sexy” equals “young,” the skin-deep images. Your sexuality, if you own it, is deeper. It’s identity.
The man in my life these last two years is my age. He told me recently, “I love your lips.”
I said, “Oh, I wish you’d seen them when I was younger. My lower lip was so plump and full.”
He said, “A certain part of me was plump and full.”
I said, “I love that part of you.”
He said, “And I love your lips.”
Sexuality is ageless. Time, as Shakespeare said of Cleopatra, cannot stale, nor custom wither, its infinite variety.
Yes, mortality wins. But until then, death, go f--- yourself.
Crescent Dragonwagon, published author of over fifty books in six genres, is the creator of Fearless Writing™ and Conversations with Crescent, a series of free/freeing life-hacks, conversations, and experiences for fearless living, She divides her time between Vermont, Arkansas, and New York. Find and connect with her at dragonwagon.com.