12/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
THERE WERE TIMES, THAT SUMMER of 1990, when Sally Friedman feared the chilling water would be her undoing. A competitive swimmer since childhood, she had set her heart on swimming the English Channel that August, but the 58°F Adirondack lakes where she trained were making her think twice. "I assumed the more I swam, the easier it would be, but I always would get so cold," Friedman says. Her husband, Paul Carter, kept her going. "He said to me that maybe I would never get used to it, maybe it would never feel comfortable," she says, "but that I could do whatever it would take to stay in."
As it turned out, she wouldn't get the chance. On the morning of Aug. 8, as she was packing for her flight to London that night, Friedman opened her apartment door in Manhattan to two policemen. "How are you related to Paul Carter?" they asked. Her 33-year-old husband, she learned, had been struck by a truck on his way to work; he died the next day without regaining consciousness. "It's everyone's worst nightmare," says Friedman, her eyes filling. "You say 'Goodbye, I love you' to the person you love, and the next thing you know they're on life support."
Overwhelmed by sorrow, Friedman abandoned her Channel plans ("I couldn't do it without Paul," she says) and began the longest, coldest journey of her life. Her new memoir, Swimming the Channel: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Healing, is the story of her experience with grief. "As a child, I wanted to do two things: swim the English Channel and write a book," says Friedman, 41, a scenic artist for movies and TV "I decided that writing about what I went through after Paul died might help others who were going through it."
Until she met Carter, in 1985, Friedman never expected to find the kind of love it would be agony to lose. A loner as a child, she felt "strong and graceful," she remembers, only in water, and she spent hours at the country-club pool near her Churchill, Pa., home. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, she began distance swimming, circling Manhattan in a women's record-setting 7:01:02 in 1983. Her father, a lawyer, and her mother, a dentist, were not entirely delighted. "I think my dad thought, 'Who is she going to meet in the pool?' " says Friedman. "I wanted to find the perfect person, but being married and all the wedding stuff never appealed to me."
Carter, an assistant technical director whom she met while working on an opera production at Lincoln Center, changed her mind. "It was attraction at first sight," Friedman says. Though not much of a swimmer, Carter appreciated her passion. "With most people, when you say you swam around Manhattan, they say it sounds disgusting," says Friedman. Paul, whom she wed in 1988, encouraged her to go for the Channel.
"He was so supportive," Friedman recalls. When she put in her daily training swims at Jones Beach on New York's Long Island, he would walk the shore to give her a focus point. When she braved the frigid lakes near her Paradox, N.Y., vacation home, he paddled along in a boat, offering cocoa and encouragement. "I would think, 'I can't believe I can love someone this much,' " Friedman says. "And because you can't believe how happy you are, you have this fear something will happen."
When something did, she withdrew from the world. "I have a friend who says tragedy makes people more intensely what they are," she says. "I'm solitary, and Paul's death made me more so. No matter what people said, it was wrong." At first, only writing in a journal helped.
In time, Friedman's grief eased enough to allow her to enjoy her work again—she worked on sets for the hit movie Ransom—and she turned her journal into a book. "I would start with a base coat and build up," she says of her writing style. "Scenic artists like that process. Now when I think of Paul, it's not usually with sadness."
Friedman splits her time today between the Manhattan apartment she and Paul shared and their rustic Adirondack retreat. There is a new man in her life, widower Mark Hnatov, the owner of an electronics company. "If you've ever really loved someone, then you want to find that again," she says. "Not a day has gone by that I don't think of Paul, but I've accepted the fact that he is gone. There's always the feeling that he wouldn't want me to suffer and that he is looking out for me."
TOM DUFFY in Paradox