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“Modern Love” Widower’s Book Taps into Collective Grief

In a New York Times column, the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal gave her husband Jason permission to love again. His new book is a thank-you letter to her.

Jason Rosenthal, author of My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me   Photo: Brooke Hummer

In 2017, just days before she passed away from ovarian cancer, Chicago writer and filmmaker Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote a piece titled “You May Want to Marry My Husband” for the New York Times’s Modern Love column. Her words were part love letter, part dating profile — a gift to her husband, Jason Rosenthal, that, at the very end, gave him permission to live life without her.

He wrote her back, first as a column for Modern Love called “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me” and now with a book by the same name, out April 21. The memoir gives readers an intimate look into the couple’s marriage and family, her death, and Rosenthal’s life without her. “I think it probably could be interpreted in many ways as my signal to her — as my gratitude and love and thanks,” Rosenthal says.

I spoke with Rosenthal about what it was like to write the book, how Amy’s death has changed his life, and why Chicago, where he still lives, means so much to him and his love story.

Amy’s column ended with a blank space, something you said gave you permission to make the most out of your remaining time on this planet. How have you done that? How has writing this book helped you do that?

She gave me such a tremendous gift in providing me that blank space. It really permitted me to be able to continue forward in a way that I don’t know if I could have otherwise.

So, what comes to mind is the pivot I made in my professional life. I really reflected on a lot of time away from the office while I was taking care of Amy and spent a lot of moments, quiet moments, thinking about what I was doing in my life and whether it was meaningful to me anymore. I worked six days a week for almost 30 years being a lawyer and in the real estate business, and that slowly became less important to me. So, I think that [the blank space] gave me permission to focus on things that were more meaningful.

Writing the book was very cathartic and it reminded me of all the responses that I got — not just to Amy’s piece, but to much of the work that I’ve put out in the universe since then. As I started to review those things, they reminded me why I was trying to convey a lot of the messages in this book. People experience loss; they just do. And those losses take different forms. But at the end of the day, we feel a deep sense of emotion and want to connect with each other.

Image: Emily Johnson / Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

Amy’s column was read by more than five million people. What do you hope will be the response to this book?

It’s shifted a bit. First of all, I hope that the book gets into as many people’s hands as possible, like any author does. And I could never have imagined that the book would be published in the face of this global pandemic that we’re experiencing now.

At first, I was a little bit devastated. All my events are canceled, and I’d looked forward to getting out there and meeting people and sharing stories face-to-face. But I quickly pivoted, and I really believe the messages in my book about love, grief and loss, and resilience, are all things that are much more meaningful than ever. Because I think in my heart, I believe that people need these messages as they are suffering, and a lot of people are really suffering right now.

In that sense, it’s very timely for the book to come out now. We’re all experiencing grief.

We all are. We’re missing our daily routines, we’re missing seeing our family, we’re missing what is important to us. To many of us, that means work, a paycheck, and, God forbid, someone who’s ill or gone forever. It’s definitely taken on new meaning.

Chicago serves as the backdrop for your relationship with Amy: It’s where you met and raised your family. When you had an opportunity to leave the city, you chose to stay. Why do you love Chicago?

Chicago just runs in every fiber of my soul, really. I think I wore a Cubs hat every single day from the time I was nine to 10 and never took it off. I remember being super young and, forgive me mom, but skipping school and going to opening day at Wrigley Field. I remember riding the CTA bus at an insanely early age — which we wouldn’t let our kids do now — with my friends and hanging out in Lincoln Park and at the lakefront.

In the book, you share that you made sure Amy left a physical mark in Lincoln Park: a public piece of art, a large yellow umbrella near the intersection of Stockton and Fullerton. Why was it important to memorialize her this way?

Amy’s legacy symbol became the yellow umbrella. It started with a community project she did called “The Beckoning of Lovely,” and there’s a reference in that to a yellow umbrella.

I really believe that Amy will go down as a Chicago icon and that she deserved that kind of recognition. I saw a public piece of art as an ideal spot to continue spreading her goal of community gathering and community involvement. My hope was that people would go there to read, tell stories, engage in group activities. There’s a school in the area, and maybe they would use it.

Finally, selfishly, I wanted a place to be able to take my kids and — hopefully, if I have them someday — grandkids to celebrate Amy. I want to sit and smile and cry and reflect and always remember what she meant to me, our family, and the city.

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