A hot breeze wafts around me as I watch a herd of cows wander down the dirt road, children laughing just beyond them as they play on the soccer field in the town plaza. Cuadrado trees provide a bit of shade at the edges of my bar, but the best break from the heat is served cold and bubbly - Costa Rican beers, like Pilsen and Imperial, available for just 1,000 colones. That’s an affordable price here in the “forgotten” pueblo of El Llano, about 25 minutes from the popular tourist town of Tamarindo.

My bar. My pueblo. Costa Rica.

It still boggles my mind. I wonder how this is the life I’m living because, in many ways, it shouldn’t be. Just a year and a half ago, everything was different. I was teaching Exercise and Sport Science at a university in Texas, freelance writing fitness articles to make extra money, and having discussions with my husband of almost 15 years about the prospect of starting a family. We were finally feeling settled in our daily lives after years of job-switching and cross-country moving.

Then the walls came tumbling down.

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Laura's bar, El Llano, Costa Rica

Credit: Laura Williams

On May 31st, 2018, I went with my husband to a doctor’s appointment after a series of odd, but seemingly benign symptoms had cropped up in the previous six weeks. After being sent for more tests, we were called back to the doctor’s office. Walking down the hallway to the exam room, I could feel the eyes of the nurses and technicians following us. In that moment, I knew. I knew. I knew this short walk down the sterile and rigid hall of a doctor’s office would separate our previous life from whatever came next.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said as tears welled up in his own eyes, “There’s no easy way to tell you this Lance, but you have kidney cancer. It’s advanced and your situation is dire. We’ve alerted the emergency room across the street. You can take the time you need to call family and friends here, then you need to go straight there. They’re waiting for you, but they’re not prepared to take your case. You’ll need to be transported by ambulance to another hospital.”

The air felt like it got sucked from the room. I wanted to be strong. I didn’t want to cry. But I knew as soon as I connected eyes with Lance that I needed to give myself this one moment to break down in front of him, because whatever came next I needed to be strong enough for both of us.

What developed over the following days and weeks was what nightmares are made of. Lance was sent from one doctor to the next. Within four days he was admitted to the MD Anderson cancer hospital for emergency treatment. His body crumbled in front of my eyes. The man who played college baseball, who never smoked and rarely drank, and who lifted weights five times a week, walked into the hospital on his own, but left in a wheelchair he never made it out of.

On August 7, 2018, just 69 days after his diagnosis, Lance died in my arms. I held him as he took his last breath, whispering in his ear: “I don’t know how I’ll be okay, but I promise you, I’ll figure it out. It’s okay to leave. It’s okay to leave. I’ll love you forever.”

And just like that, I became a widow at 36 years old.

There’s not a good way to fully describe what that’s like. There’s the funeral to plan. There’s the paperwork. The death certificates to order. The life insurance to sign for… which feels like the worst kind of betrayal. There’s the empty home. The realisation that absolutely everything has changed forever. Every habit, every experience, every plan, every hope, every dream… they’re all ripped away with the final exhalation.

And then there are the memories. The happy memories, of course, but also the heart-wrenching memories of cries of pain in the middle of the night, of treatments that only brought new, terrible symptoms. The lingering fear that I’d wake up to find him dead in bed. The heavy knowledge that he didn’t want to die. That he had regrets. That he wished he had done some things differently, but would never get the chance.

The life I lived before Lance’s diagnosis had shattered. Even the relationships I had with family and friends changed, largely because I had changed. I wasn’t the person I was before. I didn’t know what life might bring apart from the life I shared with my husband, but I knew I couldn’t keep pursuing the same goals I had pursued with him. As much as I had changed internally, I needed my life to change externally, too.

And I had made a promise to my husband to be okay again, so I threw myself into “grabbing grief by the balls”, as I tried to dig through the muck and mire of mourning. I started therapy, I got a memorial tattoo, I took up CrossFit, I jumped out of a plane, and I went back to work, trying to allow myself to laugh and cry and yell and hurt, and feel every feeling as it came.

I also knew I couldn’t sit around a table full of family for Thanksgiving, an empty seat beside me, trying to force down food while everyone looked at me with sad eyes and uncertain words of support. So I skipped the holiday. I booked a ticket for Costa Rica -- a place my husband and I always said we would visit, but never did.

With that singular decision, everything changed.

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Children's football team, El Llano, Costa Rica

Credit: Laura Williams

Instead of allowing the gloom and chill of a Texas November to deepen my grief, I went ziplining, hiking and whitewater rafting. I read. I listened to podcasts. And on Tuesday, November 20th, I arrived at the beach town of Tamarindo. As I exited the van, the dry heat felt like a welcoming hug. The commotion of traffic and travellers carrying surfboards, the sounds of Latin music and Spanish language, all served to quiet my soul. It was as though the outer commotion finally matched the commotion inside of me. And the next night, November 21st, I sat on the balcony of a popular restaurant with a group of surf instructors, and truly felt like I could breathe for the first time since he had died.

I can’t quite explain what happened next. I felt a release. The ability to flirt a little. To be open to the idea of a new life in a new place, potentially someday with a new person. And it felt like my husband was giving me a gift. Like he was saying, “This is your home… enjoy it.”

That night I kissed a man on the beach under a blanket of cloud-obscured stars. We spent the next two days together.

The connection was hard, fast, and strong, and also completely inexplicable. Being wrapped in his arms felt like a kind of healing I didn’t know was possible. It was a distraction, but also a return of the physical connection I had lost with my husband.

I left, but he asked me to return the next weekend. It seemed crazy, but as a widow faced with the prospect of sitting alone in an empty home, or going to a rodeo in a foreign country, I made the only decision I knew how and hopped on a plane.

And found myself in El Llano, Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

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Locals enjoying a drink, El Llano, Costa Rica

Credit: Laura Williams

The first morning I woke up in a Tico-style home with cows mooing outside the window, the ghost-like sound of howler monkeys calling in the distance, and I felt a sense of peace. I rolled out of bed and walked outside to the aluminium-covered patio, dodging the laundry as it swayed on clotheslines in the breeze, dust kicking up on the road outside. I looked at the hills rising in the distance, a field dotted with horses and dogs in front of me. And just like that I turned to the wild-haired man standing beside me and said: “This is my favourite place in the world.”

I returned to the man and to El Llano several more times, and each time the people and community felt like a breath of life to my grief-battered soul. Somehow, in a pueblo where I didn’t speak the language or understand the culture, I was enveloped into the community. Something about having my life broken into a million pieces seemed to crack apart my reservations and self-consciousness, leaving me open to every new experience. I danced, I sang, I drank at the local cantinas, I rode horses, I watched soccer, I ate the food, I slept, I laughed, and I simply sat still, basking in the warmth of the weather and the heat of the Latin culture.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that Costa Rica was, in fact, my next chapter. The man who introduced me to El Llano wasn’t destined to be part of my long-term future, but he was the gift that connected me to the community that spoke to my soul. He brought me to his hometown often enough that I was given the chance to develop friendships and relationships apart from him. So when the opportunity arose to rent the bar in the town’s plaza -- a bar I visited on my very first trip to the pueblo, a bar that felt like part of my transformation -- I packed up my home and, with my three large dogs in tow, moved to El Llano.

Laughing in cartago

Cartago, Costa Rica

Credit: Laura Williams

The thing is, when you’ve looked death in the eye -- when you’ve seen the worst that can happen to a person and when you recognise how unfair and unforgiving the world can be in its raw humanity -- your priorities change. Choosing to leave the United States and surround myself with people whose lives may not be as financially comfortable as most of my family and friends, but who have a deep understanding of life’s hardships, was one of the best things I could do for myself. In El Llano, I felt like I didn’t have to explain myself. I could laugh and dance one minute, and sit silent or cry the next. Wild-eyed, grief-led decisions were met with nods and pats on the hand and plates piled with food, rather than the uncomfortable silence, judgement, and quick exits I experienced at home.

Of course, living in a foreign country, trying to speak a new language, and learning to fit into a completely different culture isn’t easy. I regularly experience miscommunication and I can’t escape grief or loneliness just because I left my old life behind. But just as two souls can have an inexplicable bond that even death can’t rip apart, I’ve discovered my soul is grounded and sharpened by the community I’ve found in El Llano -- it’s just a different kind of soul mate.

Travelling gave me this gift. Being open to new cultures gave me this gift. And even grief, in its confusing layers and depths of emotion, gave me this gift.

Today, I sit in my bar having conversations in broken Spanish and handing soccer balls out to kids who want to play across the street. I dole out beers to the locals -- painters, surf instructors, hard labourers, nannies, and farmers -- then sit and listen as they share their own joys and pains. I laugh with friends, I dance, and I sing. I allow myself to feel deep gratitude for this life I never planned, never wanted, but have chosen to embrace as I learn exactly what it means to leave everything behind in an effort to find myself again.

Grief, love and redemption in the pueblos of Costa Rica

By Laura Williams

Laura is a freelance writer who has written for Men's Journal, Thrillist, VeryWellFit and many more. She currently runs a small community bar in the El Llano pueblo in Costa Rica.

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