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An Adventurous Widow Finds a New Traveling Companion

Two years after her husband's death, Margaret Mandell has found a new man to travel with. Is it too soon for this trip to Prague? Or too late?

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow,” Mahatma Gandhi said. “Learn as if you were to live forever.” I am 67 years old and traveling with my 75-year-old boyfriend John, the first traveling companion I have had since my husband Herb died two years ago. I am learning who I am alongside a brand-new other.

The overnight plane to Dublin has not yet reached cruising altitude, and John is already nodding off, chin dropping into the Velcro wrapped “Turtl” neck pillow he bought for this trip. My ears are popping on the ascent, and I can’t get comfortable. I swivel my butt in the airplane seat, hitting the armrests on either side, knees touching the tray table in front. John, six inches taller than I, is completely wedged in, hips and knees splayed open. I can feel the heat of his body next to mine. An involuntary quiver rises in me at the thought of us in a hotel room for five consecutive nights in an exotic foreign country.

An involuntary quiver rises in me at the thought of us in a hotel room for five consecutive nights in an exotic foreign country.

Twenty-three hours in transit and I will not sleep a wink—never could, sitting up in an airplane. Through the haze of weary wakefulness and dimmed cabin lights I marvel at my own chutzpah for agreeing to this trip. It is now 3 am in Philly. I am out of place, out of time, somewhere over the Atlantic in this pressurized metal tube and I am sure I smell gravy and mashed potatoes. Trays of dinner appear out of nowhere. Two hours later I smell coffee as sunlight pours in around the edges of the window shades and more trays arrive with breakfast. Please, no more food. John blinks awake and stows his “Turtl” while I peek through the window to behold the shimmering coast of Ireland below, like the green of a child’s acrylic paint set. It’s just too soon for sunrise.

Or am I entirely too late? For all of this. To be a professor’s trailing girlfriend?

Read More: Healing from Grief Under the Volcanoes in Guatemala

Which Side of the Bed?

Still holding our luggage, travel-weary John and I stand together at the foot of the small double bed at the boutique Hotel Opera in Prague, a pink and white five story edifice that takes up an entire city block.

I step into my new life with a bachelor who snores just like my husband.

“Which side of the bed do you want?” he asks, tentatively. With Herb I always slept on the right. I point woodenly to the left because that’s the side I’m on, and he puts his glasses, phone, keys, day timer and portable C-Pap machine on the right bedside table.

I go to pee in the tiny bathroom and see John’s vast array of toiletries already spread around the sink—lotions and potions and gadgets and pills, with no room for my toothbrush.

This is how it’s going to be, I think, and step into my new life on the left side of the bed with a bachelor who snores just like Herb.

I love hearing him snore.

A Small Triumph

John took off early this morning for his conference, as he will for the next two days. In my yoga pants and sneakers, I am on my own to explore this ancient fairytale city, studying the guidebooks John gave me to scope out places for us to visit together later. “Find us some concert tickets!” he calls over his shoulder on his way out the door. Is he barking at me?

Is he barking at me?

I set out towards the river, memorizing landmarks—a warehouse, a pub, a billboard—as I get further from the pink hotel so I can find my way back. I follow the Vltava River in search of the iconic Charles Bridge. The spring morning is cool, and I quicken my pace, the bridge coming into view—ancient statues silhouetted against the dappled sky. Spires, turrets and crenelations everywhere. I climb up the embankment into the old city, lured down narrow passageways, afraid to take my eye off the river lest I get turned around.

Rounding a corner, I spy a poster on a crumbling stone wall announcing a concert Saturday night at the Mirror Chapel where Mozart played the organ. Score! I snag two tickets inside the church and jog home, confident now, along the river. There’s my warehouse, pub, and billboard. The pink hotel greets me as I glide past the concierge, nodding nonchalantly, as if I’d just had my daily constitutional around Prague. I take the stairs triumphant, two at a time, home to our tiny room to wait for John.

“Song to the Moon”

traveling as a widow

The author and her new travel partner in front of Prague’s cathedral.

Saturday night. We climb to the tiny balcony, mirrors refracting the light around us. A young soprano in a purple gown with spaghetti straps sashays forward into the spotlight singing Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon.” I hear a sudden change in John’s breathing, a catch in his throat as she crescendos. I look over. His eyes are welling up, glistening. His right hand lands softly in my lap. I lean into his body.

Suddenly I know in my heart I am meant to be in Prague right now: a new city, a new man, a new song: from this moment forward John anoints “Song to the Moon” as our forever theme song. Who is this tenderhearted professor who fills me with hope of a new life with so much still to learn? Will he love me back to life?

Leaving Grief Behind

Later, when we board our flights back to the U.S., this time through Heathrow, Prague will follow us home like our very own foundation story. Something indelible had changed there for both of us lonely-hearts as we excavated layers of history through cathedrals and synagogues, layers of ourselves. We will go backwards in time, following the sun on its westward arc, the giant yellow orb seeming not to be moving across the sky. It will just hang, staying with us. Or we with it.

Trustfully I will lean into John’s sturdy body while he sleeps and realize I’ve left my grief behind in Prague.

I will not want this plane to land.

Read More: How to Travel with a Husband: A Love Lesson from Japan

By Margaret Mandell


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