There are many wonderful memoirs lining the shelves of bookstores today, but how many of these true stories can be deemed so powerful as to move a reader to tears? Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is one that comes to mind, and, more recently, “Wave,” Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of immense loss in the 2004 tsunami. Artis Henderson’s stunning debut memoir, “Unremarried Widow,” is guaranteed to join the ranks of memoirs that will be talked about for years to come.
Henderson first attracted attention with her 2010 New York Times “Modern Love” essay, “In Grief, a Mother and Wife Bond.” She had been married less than a year to her husband, Miles, when he was killed in a helicopter crash while serving in Iraq in 2006. The first part of the memoir details their courtship and the challenges of Army base living, especially in Henderson’s position as girlfriend, not wife, which relegated her to a lesser status.
Henderson paints an honest portrait of her life with Miles without falling into the trap of glorifying the dead. She is painfully honest about her misgivings about Army life, her reservations about her compatibility with Miles, and the stark fact that she would be sacrificing many of her own dreams in order to play a supporting role in Miles’ career. Nevertheless, she follows her heart, as her mother did years ago with Henderson’s father, and she married Miles before he deployed to Iraq.
The second half of the memoir is about the “right of the boom,” a military term for what immediately follows a traumatic incident. Far too young, Henderson is thrown into a world of grief, and she feels herself become “porous and malleable, easily breached.” She is reclassified by the military as “URW” for “Unremarried Widow.” Along with the shock of her sudden loss she is expected to follow military protocol, which involves a detailed “death presentation” that outlined the findings about the crash, and her fellow widow’s continued challenge to the official report.
“There is no greater hurt than knowing you have been loved and the source of that love disappearing,” Henderson writes, in a sentence so plain and so true that it is impossible to continue reading without feeling your heart break just a little. It is this kind of lucid writing, intertwined with her story of love and loss, that makes this memoir truly unforgettable.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.