Jason Rosenthal: Blank Space
Jason B. Rosenthal is an author, foundation Board Chair, public speaker and lawyer. He is also the subject of an essay written by his wife, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, called You May Want to Marry My Husband that went viral and was read by millions of readers worldwide. Amy died of ovarian cancer 10 days after her article appeared in the New York Times. Jason has written a book in collaboration with his daughter Paris called Dear Boy, which has debuted on the New York Times Bestseller list at #1. His response to Amy’s piece titled, My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me was published in 2018.
Discussion Questions for this conversation are available, here.
Watch Jason’s Tedtalk here.
You can buy Jason’s books My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me: A Memoir here and Dear Boy: A Celebration of Cool, Clever, and Compassionate You! here.
Jason’s late wife Amy wrote a New York Times Modern Love essay just before she died called You Might Want to Marry My Husband. About a year later, Jason wrote a response to the essay and named it My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me. Read the essay by Amy here, and find Jason’s response here.
Read about the grieving widower in Minneapolis who makes birdhouses here.
You can celebrate the legacy of Amy and find more information about the Amy Krouse Rosenthal Foundation and its work for Ovarian Cancer research and childhood literacy on the foundation’s website.
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always getting the pandemic body of our dreams. I used to have my own delusion, a living, my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom, Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago. And I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s okay that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
K.B.: Today’s episode is both a love story and a story about love. It’s a story about love that reaches beyond loss. Love that leads to joy and love that leads to grief. It’s the story about a love that cracks us open to the beautiful and tragic, the before and afters. Love that walks us to the very edge and charts a way forward. Even when forward seems impossible to imagine. Jason Rosenthal is an author and lawyer. He became a public person in a very sideways way after his wife wrote a beautiful article in The New York Times about loving him. And it went viral. But we’ll get to that later. Jason speaks and writes about finding hope and joy amongst the pain in his memoir, My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me. Jason. I’m so grateful to be able to speak with you today.
Jason Rosenthal: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me.
K.B.: Your love story began many years ago. You were a law student, very career driven, not really concerned about building a family. But then you met Amy. What first struck you about her?
J.R.: We were I mean, I was studying for the Illinois bar exam and I got a call from a family friend who said, there’s this wonderful woman moving back from a great advertising job in San Francisco to Chicago, and you should give her a call. So I did right away that very first blind date, my only blind date, by the way. You know, I was just struck immediately by her infectious spirit, her lust for most most things in life. You know, that was very apparent right away. And it was easy conversation and we had a great time. But like you said, I was not it was not on my radar that I was going to dip into this long term relationship at that point.
K.B.: But she loved you immediately?
J.R.: Well, she famously says that she’s and she knew she wanted to marry me after the first meal. So it took me a year, which isn’t that long.
K.B.: Just eye contact. That was it?
J.R.: Yeah, I guess so.
K.B.: She was a notorious list maker.
K.B.: And that had a really profound effect on your relationship. You both, as you loved each other, wrote a lot of lists. I was so struck by the list of goals that you had for your marriage. Can you give me an example about what was on that list like that?
J.R.: Yeah. You know, I got my first taste of living with a writer when on our honeymoon, we wrote a document which is called the Amy and Jason Rosenthal’s Marriage Goals and Ideals.
K.B.: I love that.
J.R.: And there were a bunch of things on there, including turning off the TV during dinner. Music is great, but let’s let’s be present in the moment.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah.
J.R.: Making time for each other. You know, always remembering that we came first and celebrating each other and things like that that were the sort of model for what our relationship became over those many years without us really having to refer back to the document frequently.
K.B.: Yeah. You made a template. That’s lovely. Yeah. It’s lovely to hear about the years you spent together, you and Amy were just very good at loving each other. You’re married for 26 years. Is that right?
K.B.: You raised three kids. You launched them. You’re about to head up out to the second half of your life. And then you got the news that no one should ever get. If you don’t mind telling me what happened, then.
J.R.: Amy was away on a business trip, just a short one, which was typical. And she called me from there and said, you know, I’ve got some really weird feeling in my stomach, and I called my family doctor and she said that you should probably, you know, when you pick me up from the airport, go directly to the emergency room to get it checked out. You know, this is from a woman who very rarely I can can’t even remember her ever complaining about anything physical in all those years we were together. So this was this was definitely unusual. And I thought, well, great, you know, it’s something in her stomach. I don’t know. I never anticipated what it ultimately was. But we did go directly to the emergency room and that that poor young doctor had to come out and tell us with the scan showed. Turned out as we got it further examined that it was late stage ovarian cancer. And it was at a moment, as you said, when literally, literally we were about to when she returned home and she cracked open that door. We were walking into the empty nest that we were looking forward to for so many years. Our daughter had just gone off to college.
K.B.: Yeah. A moment like that where you feel like you had like a horizon. Like it just like it was stretching out. And that’s, I don’t know, it’s always such a big feeling. And then you only know when you just feel that insane shrinking. Like when the world gets very small.
J.R.: Yes. And laser focus. You know, that was just, that became our full time job.
K.B.: Yeah. I imagine she was very good at that. Like as in, like clocking into the like what that required.
J.R.: Oh yeah. There were a few lists. No doubt about it. (laughter)
K.B.: I love that. Yeah. People ask me a lot about like what to say to kids when you’ve got terrible news. And I had a little baby and so I didn’t really ever have to answer that question. But you had adult kids. And I imagine that, like, it’s still the feeling is kind of the same. Like we accept that it’s part of our job to shield our kids, however old from pain. But that news like this has to be held and shared regardless of our wishes. Like, how did you approach an impossible task like that?
J.R.: Truly impossible. We scheduled a conference call because the kids were sort of all over the country at the time. So that was shocking to begin with. For them to receive that piece of information like what’s going on. But, you know, all all you can do really all we were able to do is, like you said, you know, tell the truth, explain the information. They were at an age where they were able to understand a lot. And so we didn’t hold anything back, really. And the amazing thing is that from the initial moment that we told them the news. They were so incredible, so in tune with what their mom needed, and that was just to be there for her.
J.R.: Anything that they could do, they offered to do, of course. And they sure did. And they stepped up.
K.B.: Yeah. And you just, like, formed that tight circle around the person like that first ring.
K.B.: Ovarian cancer is no joke. I know Amy had to go through some really brutal treatments, and then you opted to bring her home for at home hospice. I was so struck by what a conscious effort you made to ensure that her environment was really beautiful. So what did you do to make your home really special during that time?
J.R.: You know, you get the information from your from your doctor and it’s either let’s go to the hospital and do this or let’s let’s go home. And I it was a very easy decision for us that we wanted Amy to be comfortable in her own space, in her physical environment. We’re so fortunate and are so fortunate to be able to have created a home here in Chicago and made all those decisions together and built this house together. There was love and the love was there. I didn’t have to question that. In fact, that only just grew stronger and stronger. But I just wanted her to be comfortable and surrounded, like you said, by beauty. And so there’s no specific guidebook. And for us, I wanted to be surrounded by beauty. And so I infused the whole house with candles. In fact, I started to make my own candles for some reason, you know. We brought in music because music was such a huge part of our life together. So I had musicians come and play for us and for Amy. We organized these groups of visitors, her family, our good friends. And it was just an incredibly difficult as it is, tt was just so beautiful at the same time.
K.B.: Yeah, people talk about like liminality, like thin spaces, you know, and like there’s a weird, beautiful tenderness to a time like that that feels like. In Christian world, we’d be like that feels weirdly sacred. But everything feels really intimate. Do you know what I mean?
J.R.: Yes. Yes. It’s really true.
K.B.: There’s a role you had that’s that’s different than the one I understand where like I’m usually the patient that you, you were the caregiver. That’s a very costly role that people don’t always have a lot of language for. You describe this like jumpiness. You know, like you’re toggling between these very super practical stuff, like nurses and schedules and visitors, meals and pain meds and then toggling to like, well, what’s next? Like the future, uncertainty, what’s it gonna be like? Like that must have been really exhausting to move back and forth all the time.
J.R.: Yeah, there’s a there’s a lot of practical tasks at hand.
J.R.: Including the administration of some pretty powerful medication and also eventually observing what is that literal transition, you know, from from life to death and all of that emotional space is taken up then that’s true. I had children. I had things to think about. I had questions for Amy.
J.R.: It was an extraordinarily intimate time for us to have those those those deep conversations. But you sort of do forget about yourself a little bit.
J.R.: I was sort of a physical mess and didn’t really realize that. I felt that I thought I was fine.
J.R.: I didn’t really realize that until after Amy died.
K.B.: Yeah. That like a part of you gets absorbed into this other thing. I imagine it’s hard to justify thinking of yourself when there’s like so much need.
J.R.: Exactly. That’s so true.
K.B.: I can always tell in like the like, if I give a talk in the Q&A, I can always tell who the who the patient is and who the caregiver is because the caregiver has this like this way of hovering like they want to, like, curl around the person, you know, it’s so it’s like they they orbit around each other in a way that’s like it’s just it’s so physical.
J.R.: Well, I’m so glad you have that perspective.
K.B.: Like, I feel like I’d never have something to say to the caregiver because, like, their needs are so real and so legitimate. They’re tired. They’re usually lonely. It’s harder for men. I’m sure you get men talking to you all the time about how very strange it is to be like in grief and in loss without maybe the all the language that women get handed to them.
J.R.: I really try to encourage guys in particular to express their feelings and their emotions about things that women, of course, think about but just instinctively talk to each other about.
J.R.: And, you know, we we just don’t do that. We grow up on the athletic field where it’s all kind of macho and it’s sort of ingrained in that male that male society that we’ve grown up in.
J.R.: But we have it, we have all the same emotions.
K.B.: They’re, there I swear to you.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah. I read a story about a man in Minneapolis who lost his wife and he was just as you are when you’re in grief, was just up so much in the night. And so he went out to the garage and he like roughed out a birdhouse. And then he was like, well, this isn’t that bad. And then he made another birdhouse. And then he made like hundreds of houses. He started selling them with as part of, like, the story of like when you lose things and how to remake yourself. And it does seem like for some people without language that like having something to do, especially with a story they can tell about it, like helps some people.
J.R.: That’s a beautiful story.
K.B.: I’m also really into birds now so.
K.B.: You received a flood of support from, like lifelong friends and you’ve got this gorgeous family. I know we just met, but I’d love to complain about people, if you don’t mind. But could we just complain about some of the well-meaning people who showed up and were less than useless?
J.R.: Yeah, what I found over the last few years is that, you know, people just don’t know what to say or how to say it. And it’s it’s extraordinarily awkward and difficult. You know, I was downtown one one day that I chose to go down to my office. And I see a gentleman that I’ve known tangentially. His wife was friends with Amy when they were younger and kids kind of knew each other. We weren’t like friends, friends, but we sure knew each other.
J.R.: And he just was crossing the street and looked directly at me and we kind of stopped. And he just sort of looked and put his head down and kept going because he just could not find the words. You know, you could see it.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah.
J.R.: For people, they ask me what what do I say? What what should I do? And as simple as it sounds. To be honest with you, it’s really just say anything. It’s very little that you can say that’s gonna be offensive or put that person in an awkward position. Something as simple as man, I know what’s going on, and I’m really so sorry. I’m thinking about you. That’s easy.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah. I love that too, because I love when it doesn’t ask for details. So nice. And I love what it’s just like the acknowledgment without the prying that feels really like safe but kind.
K.B.: There were some people who knew exactly how to give without being a burden. Tell me about Brian and the gift of yellow.
J.R.: Amy’s sort of legacy color has become yellow and it was important in one of her big projects that she did. So this was during hospice and he would bring over once a week, three yellow items, literally just these three random things that maybe one day would be a rubber ducky and a tube of mustard and yellow like plastic ball, you know. And he didn’t want anything in return. He didn’t normally didn’t see Amy.
J.R.: If I was lucky enough to be there, you know, available when he would knock on the door, I would give a big hug and that was it. He just left those things and and walked away. But what an incredible gesture of connectedness.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember someone gave me really dumb erasers one time. I was like, yeah, this is it. This is what I always wanted. It wasn’t trying to teach me anything. It was just like, here, here’s something here’s just delight, you know?
K.B.: Yeah. It’s weird. It’s weird to like how important it is to feel special when your body has been medicalized and proceduralized.
J.R.: Yeah. Yeah.
K.B.: Amy worked really hard to ensure that she had no unfinished business. Like she said, the things that need to be said. And she cooked meals with her nieces and nephews and she told people how much she loved them. 10 days before she died, she wrote a piece that was published in The New York Times Modern Love column. What did she say? I remember reading that and it just blew me away.
J.R.: Yeah. You know, she was determined to finish this one final piece, and I did not know what that was. But there I was posted up at the dining room table, which became my makeshift office, and she was across the room literally laboring physically through this one final piece of writing that she wanted to get done. And she would struggle, you know, to get through it by taking little naps in between because the strong medicine. And it became the the essay that you’re talking about. You May Want to Marry My Husband, which became just this viral sensation published in the Modern Love column ten days before she died. And the piece was definitely about our relationship. But of course, the focus was me written in the form of a creative play on a personal ad for me.
K.B.: Jason, would you mind reading me an excerpt?
J.R.: Oh, sure. This is this is from Amy’s piece. I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. But that is not going to happen. I probably only have a few days left being a person on this planet. So why am I doing this? I’m wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine nonvase oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason and another love story begins. I’ll leave this intentional empty space below as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve.
K.B.: Oh buddy. I remember reading her piece and thinking that is a man who is dearly loved.
J.R.: Yeah, but, you know, these selfless act of giving me this incredible gift guided me through in many ways, not just in terms of finding love and things like that, but the metaphor of that intentional empty space became something that I really used as a guidepost as I walked through those those dark days and on my way to some joy and happiness. And still to this day have used in my life.
K.B.: Yeah. You had a series of losses right in a row. You you lost Amy, and then, am I right you lost your dad? And then your dog and then Amy’s dad?
J.R.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. It was someone described it as like a pileup on the freeway. It was just. It was, take a couple steps forward and then and then one or two back.
K.B.: Yeah. You are like stripped to the studs all of a sudden.
K.B.: After losing so much, it sounds like you really had to put yourself back together very intentionally. Like it wasn’t just going to magically happen. You and your friends embarked on something really special in the wake of all this loss. Tell me about the Heal Jason Tour.
J.R.: I was talking to my son Miles, who I was living with at the time, and I said, you know, I want to try and do something, get out and travel a little bit. And I was gonna go out to California to some sites where we’d been on our honeymoon just by myself and struggling with what to do exactly. And he said, well, why don’t you do something that you would never do with mom?
J.R.: And I thought that’s brilliant. Such an easy, simple idea. Like literally right then I looked up where a couple of my favorite bands were playing and one of the locations was at Red Rocks in Colorado, which was a venue that I always sort of wanted to experience. I’ve heard of the beauty. And so I threw out an invitation to some buddies to see if they wanted to meet me in Colorado for a couple days of incredible music and Colorado air. And, you know, much to my surprise, a bunch of them agreed. And we met up in Colorado and took in a couple nights of the Tedeschi Trucks band, at the Red Rocks Ampitheatre. And it was one of those times where I realized that it is possible to experience joy after loss. And then one of my one of my buddies called it later the Heal Jason Tour.
K.B.: I love that. But just to make newness, it’s such a weird because it feels like maybe sameness is what’s honoring to the life you have. But sometimes newness like breaks open something different.
J.R.: Sometimes it’s impossible to get out of the depths of grief. The question becomes, how? How am I ever going to get out of this this feeling, this fog? And, you do have to make a choice, you know. And I was lucky because I had that gift that Amy gave me.
K.B.: We have this really beautiful community here at the Everything Happens Project and a lot of people are like experiencers of like a really difficult thing. And then there are a lot of people who are their caregivers are in their vocations like their doctors, nurses, chaplains. They’re in a profession that asks them to care more then, you know then normal. Like they have got like they picked love that was costly. I think it’s it’s easy sometimes not easy, I think it’s natural to do the opposite of what you’re describing, like to make everything smaller because it was already so hard and like, no, now I know the cost. I should probably just, you know, like be a little more conservative.
K.B.: And I think you’re calling people to a bigness that’s like in keeping with the life that they already know they just love.
K.B.: You wrote a lovely companion piece to Amy’s In Modern Love. And I’d love it if you read a section.
J.R.: I am now aware in a way I wish I never had to learn, that loss is loss is loss. Whether it’s a divorce, losing a job or having a beloved pet die or enduring the death of a family member. In that respect, I am no different. But my wife gave me a gift at the end of her column when she left me that empty space, one I would like to offer you. A blank space to fill. The freedom and permission to write your own story. Here is your empty space.
K.B.: That’s so good.
J.R.: Thank you.
K.B.: It’s such a beautiful ah. It’s like, cause it’s all the particularities, right? In love and in loss. It’s all the details. And like, thank you for reminding us that that grief and loss is the language of love.
J.R.: So welcome.
K.B.: Thanks for sitting in a closet in a pandemic to talk about your stuff. It was so nice of you.
J.R.: I should have someone take a picture of me. It’s actually quite palpable.
K.B.: Yeah, like what’s in there? Like, what’s your life like? Now i’m curious.
K.B.: After Amy died, Jason was cleaning out her closet and he found a book. It was a children’s book with a single word on each page like a visual dictionary. Apple, bat, dog, go, find, carry. But Amy had written her own words in pen. She was adding love notes to her husband. The word was carry. So she added, I will carry you with me always and for – but she trailed off. Never finishing the word forever. Perhaps slipping into one of her morphine induced naps. We leave blank spaces all the time and those can be terrifying. Sometimes our bodies have gone as far as they can go. Or our relationships have run their course. A blank space can be a place of tremendous fear and uncertainty. And every now and then, like the one Amy gave Jason, an open space can be a gift. A new joy, a new life, a new decision. Everything behind you may be everything you loved and dear God, you would take it back. But if you’ve got a blank space and it feels for a second like a possibility, someone like Jason would tell you to write this down. It’s a permission slip to keep living and loving and cherishing your precious life. To tell yourself it’s worth it to keep trying and changing and losing and experiencing and regretting and singing bad songs you hear on the radio. Because even when it doesn’t feel like it. This this stupid wonderful life is a love story, and all of us who think you are absolutely lovable would say, go ahead, fill it in.
K.B.: This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. A huge thank you to my team, Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman, Dustin Benac, and J.J. Dickinson. OK, before I go, my team here at the Everything Happens Project would love to learn more about you. Would you be willing to answer a few questions through a quick online survey? If so, head over to Tinyurl.com/ehlistens. We’re so grateful for the gifts of this listening community and want to continue to bring you conversations and guests you’ll enjoy. Thanks so much. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.