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Ultimate Gestures of Love

Byron and I are saying goodnight to Paco, giving him kisses and discussing the next day’s plans, when Byron rubs at his armpit.

“What’s going on in there, Champ?” I ask. “You got chiggers?”

His answer is better than chiggers.

“I have this weird knot in my armpit hair. I think it must’ve gotten clumped up when I was swimming this morning, so all day I’ve been feeling a lump of hair in there. It’s bugging me.”

While most brains would turn to scissors as a likely solution to the problem, mine is not most brains. Plus, I enjoy making Paco giggle, so I suggest, “Is this the time when I get to prove I’m as awesome as Betsey? Remember that time Cousin Kurt got a big iceball frozen into his beard, and Betsey had to chew it out? Byron, do I get to chew the knot out of your armpit hair? It would be the ultimate gesture of love, wouldn’t it? If I chewed the knot out of your armpit hair?”

Yes, of course, I am dinkin’ around, playfully offering to gnaw at my husband’s body hair.

There’s something to it, though, this business of what we’d do for love. In our household, Kurt and Betsey’s example is the pinnacle of “Now, that is love.” It occurred some years ago, when the two of them–naturalists whose jobs involved teaching environmental education to young people–led a group on a winter camping trip. Kurt remembers:

It was -50F for two nights in a row with the wind chill readings, literally, off the charts. We had eight high school students with us in the Sawmill Lake campground on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. On the way to the BWCAW, we listened to a reading of Jack London’s To Build a Fire, which was NOT an inspiring tale for what awaited us. During our days in the extreme cold, a colleague had a metal Sierra cup full of hot coffee freeze to his lips. The aforementioned chin-cube became painful to me, and in an act of true love, Betsey crushed it with her teeth. The liquids which formed that ice cube ranged from breathe moisture, beverages, meals, to drool.

With me and Byron, as we hit the sixteen-year mark of our marriage, the gestures of love are myriad. Yes, I would actually gnaw a knot of hair out of his armpit, if he needed me to. He doesn’t. Yet we see, all around us, woven through our days, evidence of love.

I see love when I walk into the kitchen, and the enormous heap of dirty dishes has been washed.

For years, I saw love whenever I went to bed at night. Retiring earlier than I, Byron would have brushed his teeth already. At the same time, he would take out my toothbrush and draw a stripe of toothpaste across its bristles. Even though he’d been asleep for hours, when I would brush my teeth, it felt like a bonus good-night kiss.

I see, feel, love when Byron leaves me a post-it note, detailing the route he is running, telling me where he is and when he’ll be back.

I feel love every day when Byron patiently listens to my daily download of achievements and slights.

I feel his love whenever the phone rings, and Byron checks the caller ID before whispering, “Do you want me to tell them you’re not home?”

It is not enough to be loved, though. Continuing love depends on awareness–that love manifests in all sorts of ways, big and small.

We got to talking about the toys we’d loved best as children. He told me his favorite was Gumby and then asked me which toy I remembered the most. I told him about the doll I had received the Christmas that I was four. The Lazy Dazy Doll that would fall asleep and topple over when you first set her up. He asked what happened to her, and I explained that she was lost during one of our last moves. We did a search on the internet so I could show him what she looked like, and we located a picture…on Ebay. Shawn decided that he would buy that doll for me. He spend $50 on a doll that only cost my parents $4 when I was a little girl. She arrived the day I was a having a surgery, so after we arrived back at his house, she was sitting on the bed waiting for me. A man has to love a woman quite a bit to pay so much for a childhood memory. Oh, and Gumby? I was able to locate Gumby and all his friends to present to Shawn a few weeks later. Lazy Dazy sits on a chair in my office, and Gumby sits on a shelf in Shawn’s office. 

I feel Byron’s love every single night, when he makes dinner. All the better when it’s Thai Curry.

I feel it when he lays his hand on my back while we sleep.

The gestures are everywhere, stacking up over the years.

There was the pilonidal cyst unpacking, during which I had to pull what felt like miles of gauze-string out of a pus-filled wound near Caleb’s butt, gagging at both the pus and the length of the packing. There’s also the fact that he endured a three-day road trip in a rented Lincoln Town Car, when we transported my mom, post-stroke, having to stop to pee VERY often, from Florida to Massachusetts, eating only at a succession of Paneras. There are the many times when Caleb is at my mom’s elbow, helping her down the hallway of a movie theater or a restaurant, and she has a “fart attack.” It sounds like grouchy ducks are talking, and usually lasts for a good 45 seconds. He doesn’t flinch. On top of that, there were the many nights when the boys were infants when, even though he had to get up and go to work in the morning, Caleb would insist that I sleep, feed both babies, and then walk around the house with each of them in a baby sling slung over opposite shoulders for the hour or so until they fell asleep. And, of course, there is every trip we ever took to Home Depot.

Byron feels my love when he walks into the bedroom, yawning, and sees a week’s worth of his laundry folded on the bed.

Nate has intervened with my parents a couple of times when he could easily have said “Hey, good luck dealing with your parents”: once when my dad was being a terrible, petulant patient at Mayo and Nate stepped in with an artfully delivered tune-up for which my dad was grateful when he was himself again. Then there was last Thanksgiving when he attempted to talk to my mom about her doctor phobia. That didn’t go so well. But he knew how hard either of those conversations would have been for me, so he had them instead. 

Byron and I feel each other’s love when one of us returns from a visit to Sam’s Club, and the back of the car is loaded down with toilet paper, vegetables, peanut butter, popcorn–all the bounties of The Club. As soon as one of us, whoever’s in the house, spots the shopper pulling up, that warm, dry person heads outside to help slog the groceries from the car, up the back stairs, into their new home.

Shane was in Peru doing geology field work, and I was working at a community center in Minneapolis. I was getting home really late, and I had a horrible headache. My train commute was an hour, and I was starving but also so tired I expected to just fall into bed without eating. I must have mentioned my crappy day to Shane because when I got home there was a delivery man with food waiting for me – food Shane had ordered online for me from his hotel room in some tiny town in Peru. 

I felt Byron’s love when I lay on the examination table next to an ultrasound machine, and we learned that, despite having spent hours in the Emergency Room days before, having tissue pulled out of my cervix, my pregnancy wasn’t over. It had been twins, and one remained. The splash of his tears warmed my arm.

When we moved into our current house back in 2000, it had been a huge stretch for us financially. Not much money left after getting into this much bigger home. The previous owners had taken the garage door opener controllers with them for some reason. So even though we had openers, when we returned home, we had to get out of the car, go into the garage, open the door from the controller in the garage. It was a very cold winter that year.  For Valentine’s Day, Mark got me a controller for my car. He didn’t have one for his car, and didn’t get one until quite some time later. But I was able to open my garage door from the warmth and comfort of my car every afternoon when I returned home from work. Twenty years after being married, the romance was there in the hand-held battery-operated garage door controller. I’ve told several friends it was the best Valentine’s Day gift ever. 

Also, as he’s gotten older, Mark has lost almost all of the hair on his head. It has apparently traveled down to his back. His back is now so “furry” that I have to use an electronic clippers to “shave” his back to a point below his collar line. It is disgusting.  I keep telling him that it is only due to true love that I do this for him.  I have no idea what other things will need to be done as we get older, but it is scary to imagine.

Byron feels my love whenever I pick up one of his ubiquitous crossword puzzles and fill in a word or two. In this way, we have a conversation without speaking.

The craziest thing I did for love was marrying my husband in the first place. We had known each other for six months, but had only dated for three weeks when he said one afternoon, “You know, I’d marry you.” Never one to turn down a dare, I, in turn, said, “I’d marry you too.” He said,” Alright, let’s go.” I said, “Alright then.” The next thing I knew, we were in Reno, in front of a Justice of the Peace.

My wedding took place in a Pepto-Bismol pink colored office, with paintings of Rome painted by someone who had obviously never been to Rome. 

Taking it all in, I said, “I think I’m going to be sick.” The Justice stopped the ceremony, picked up a wastebasket, and brought it over to me before resuming. I’m guessing I’m not the first to utter those words in his office. 

After, we celebrated with breakfast in a casino diner.

As we sat in the sticky, vinyl-covered booth and talked over bacon and coffee, he told me he was really into Deepka Chopra, and I thought, “Oh, no, what have I just done?” 

Later that day we flew home to San Francisco. My best friend, the one who had introduced us, was shocked when we showed up on her doorstep to announce our nuptials. She spoke to me in the tone one imagines must be used in dealing with the insane: soothing, monotone, “I love you, but you have lost your mind, and on Monday morning I am taking you to city hall to file an annulment. In the meantime, I might as well take your picture because, well, to document the day you lost your mind or something.”  

We’ve been married for almost 18 years now. We’ve moved cross-country to the East Coast and now discuss things like insurance and voting records. We have a 10 year-old boy and a 16 year-old girl who thinks our story is romantic. I tell her it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, which hurts my husband’s feelings, but it’s the truth. He could have been a serial killer, physically violent toward me, any number of things that three weeks of dating wouldn’t have revealed. He often says that he’s grateful we married before I had a chance to meet his mother. As it turns out, meeting her would have been a deal breaker.  

I want to impress upon my children that marrying someone after three weeks is generally a very bad, very crazy idea, even if it worked out pretty great for their parents. 

I felt Byron’s love the night before we moved into a new house, when he went in, tore up the orange shag carpet that coated the main floor, and spent hours pulling staples out of the hardwood with a pliers. The next morning, I not only walked into a new house, I walked into a house transformed.

We were five years into our relationship, he and I, a complicated long-distance thing with a ton of excess baggage. Six more-or-less adult kids from three marriages and  an ocean between us–and that wasn’t the half of it. Resentment was building on the part of two of those kids, both of them mine, as it began to dawn on them that their mother was serious about going to live–at least part of the time–on the other side of the Atlantic. Things got sticky. It was hard to convince them that the love I felt for them was in no way diminished by the love I felt for him. 

He wanted so much for us to be one big, blended family despite the cultural, emotional and geographical distance. He was 99% sure this was possible, if only we could all be together now and then. The kids knew him as a decent person. But they couldn’t get over the fact that he had taken the place of their father in my affections.

In Canada, the tension was building. In France, the frustration was palpable. I related the emotional discussions; he counselled and sympathized and then said, “There’s only one way to address this: I have to be there with them, and you. I want to tell them first-hand how much you mean to me, and by association, how important they are too.”    

He came for three days, all the time he could spare from some heavy responsibilities. We went out for dinner, to a too-noisy restaurant. Faced with my three offspring, one of whom was very clearly not on his side, he explained how he would never let me down and how that promise also extended to them. And most importantly, that he accepted their place in my heart and would do all he could to keep us united. 

The youngest was silent, but his expression said he wasn’t giving an inch. When his patience gave out, he fixed a hard look across the table and said, “But do you get how much pain you’ve caused us?”

My lover held my son’s gaze and said, “I think I do. And I am sorry. Not for loving your mother, but yes, I am sorry for what you have lost. I am responsible for that.”  

My boy reared up out of his seat, his hand outstretched. “That’s what I wanted to hear,” he said. “Now I know that you know. Thank you.”        

It took a while longer for us all to settle in, but that evening, that spontaneous decision to jump on a plane and face the music, was our turning point.

Byron feels my love when he comments, “I sure do like cookies,” and later he hears me rustling around, extracting the baking sheets from their cupboard.

On my second Mother’s Day, my husband surprised me with a gift certificate to and bra fitting at Nordstrom. My tits had wizened considerably because of pregnancy and breastfeeding, and he knew I was feeling low, in every sense of the word. So he apparently consulted all the ladies in his office (okay then, thanks) about where to lift a woman’s spirits and breasts, and then whisked me off to Nordstrom, where I was measured and gently groped and trussed up in fancy lace, while he entertained our toddler. After the fitting and purchase, I ran up to him in the men’s section, screaming, “Oh my God! My boobs are in the right place again!” That gift actually made me cry. I mean, a bra fitting of all things. But still, he just knew it was what I needed to feel better.

Byron feels my love whenever the drain in the bathroom sink gets gunked up, and I, swallowing bile, pull the thing out and wipe off the accumulated throat gack of an entire family.

There was the time he stood in line for an hour at Graceland, listening to my mother talk non-stop about Elvis. I had bailed and made a long trip to the bathroom and gift shop, so I missed this quote: “What your generation doesn’t understand about Elvis is…” Even more remarkable: the old man didn’t even reproach me for bailing and leaving him alone in line with her.

Byron and I feel our love every time we lock eyes across a room, and one of us mouths to the other, “Thuper thpicy thaltha,” appropos of nothing.

I once killed my cat for Becki. I found him as a kitten while working in South Dakota a few years before we met. He was wet and shivering and although I never liked cats, my friend Mike said they make good companions and “Someday he’ll help you find a wife.” A few years later, I met and married Becki. The cat never liked her. He peed on her clothes. He peed on her pillows. He peed in her house plants. After several years of bickering about the cat, it was the night that he ate tinsel off the Christmas tree and vomited the whole mess on the bed, while I was out of town and she was home alone, that really sealed his fate. I tried like crazy to find a home for him, but no shelter or friend would take him in. A visit to the vet was her Christmas present that year, and although I cried like the devil that day, we have been happily married for 15 years after saying goodbye to our LAST cat.

I feel Byron’s love when he lolls on the back-porch couch, chuckling. “You’re just so funny,” he tells me. “I know,” I reply, his words warming me from scalp to toenail. I’m just so glad we both know.

My husband’s family all achieved their nineties and then very gracefully passed away with little fuss or bother. Good thing, because while they were wonderful people, they did not have the caretaker gene. I, on the other hand, come from a long line of hands-on helpers. When my father moved to our city due to age and infirmity, things went well until he began to need more and more help. It took me awhile to figure out there was a huge learning curve for my spouse. My experience was “all hands on deck” while his was more “run away, run away!” As my dad’s health crumbled, and my own physical and mental health was suffering, my husband became “hands on.” If my dad had intestinal distress that resulted in a “code brown,” my spouse would bring the carpet cleaner and take care of it. When my rope was totally frayed, and my dad needed someone to stay overnight, my spouse slept on the floor. I still have an adolescent longing for romantic gestures, but after 38 years of marriage I am starting to grow up and appreciate true acts of love. 

I felt Byron’s love during the semesters I taught early morning classes, every time he greeted me at the bottom of the stairs holding a hot mocha.

Keri and I had spent about an hour putting up new snake-guard fencing on our back gate area. It was our first snake-guard fencing project together, but we had developed a pretty good system already. Keri was on the inside of the gate, and I was outside, securing the fencing with zip-strips. Each of us was clad in only our bathing suits, because, well, that’s how we were rolling that day. I was being very careful not to bump into the various cacti that were growing nearby, but there was a stretch of gate that had a large prickly pear cactus within about 12″. The prickly pear cactus looks quite innocuous–big, paddle-shaped pads with soft little yellow clumps of fuzzies. As we worked on securing the fence, I felt the back of my knees, thighs, and bum brush back and forth repeatedly on the prickly pear. No pokes, no pain, no problem. Let’s get the job done and move on! We finished the fencing project, put away our tools, and while Keri headed into the house, I went to sit down on the patio chair just outside the back door. That’s when I felt it. Seven thousand and some odd little, tiny, teeny, weeny, razor-sharp, yet super-fine prickers, all up and down the backs of my legs, thighs, and yes, ASS. In my skin! My tender, Minnesota, once-Lutheran, lily-white thin skin! 

I went into the house and got me some tweezers and began the arduous task of plucking, one by one, the kajillion prickers that I could not see, on the BACK of my body. After much discussion, we decided the most efficient method of pricker removal would be to apply sticky tape to all affected skin surfaces and then rip it off, strip by strip, in theory pulling out all the little prickers in the process. That’s where a roll of packing tape came into play. I assumed “the position,” and my loving wife carefully applied strip after strip of Scotch-Brand packing tape from the top of my ass to the bottom of my calves, merrily joking all the while about the events unfolding before our very eyes. Once every skin surface was covered in Rescue Tape, Keri thought to snap a photo on her phone, you know, for posterity. And laughs when we are old. She thoughtfully positioned the roll of tape itself on the very peak of my bum, like the star on a Christmas tree. The photo itself looks exactly like one of those wooden cut out garden decorations of the fat little woman bent over in her produce patch. 

Once the giggling and the posing and the positioning and the bahahahaha-ing had ceased, she ripped each and every tape strip off with speed and precision that would shock and awe a Brazilian waxing expert. There was screeching. There was laughter. There was sacrifice. There was half-success. In the end, scrubbing the affected area with a green scrubby proved to be the most successful (but less fun) method of pricker removal. We’ve been together three magical years; I can only hope she’ll still tape my ass in thirty. She could tape sheet rock with the best of them…Same method, just larger cracks. Thank God she didn’t mud me!

Byron feels my love when he notes that the sheets on our bed need changing. Hearing this, I sigh dramatically, for I am the much-put-upon sheet-changer-of-the-house, but he says, “No, I’ll do it.” As the day carries on, and he is here and there, doing this and that for him and her, I strip the bed, freshening the stale. Later, when he notices, he thanks me. Sighing dramatically once again, the much-put-upon sheet-changer-of-the-house jokes, “I figured someone in this marriage needs to be a Doer.”

Having Annika’s two sisters and mother come visit from Europe for up to three months a year is a sacrifice only true love could offer, especially when at least one of them would be appropriately nicknamed “Ungrateful Bitch.”

I feel Byron’s love every time he compliments me on my new boots when I know full well he thinks shoes are a scourge.

I cannot stand pus. I can deal with blood in small doses. But…not pus. Because I am just lucky, I found out that I had breast cancer in February of 2015. I got through chemotherapy with a fair amount of puking, and everyone told me that radiation would be a snap compared to that. It was, at first. After 5 1/2 weeks of just a slight sunburned look to my skin, on my last day of radiation, my skin suddenly erupted. Frankly, I even scared my radiation oncologist. My chest went, in one day, from looking like I’d spent too much time in the sun to looking like it had been blow-torched.

“This is unusual,” my radiation oncologist stammered, “but not unheard of. Sometimes, fair people have delayed reactions.”

No shit. The entire left side of my chest began to ooze pus like nobody’s business. Panicking, I went to see my oncologist. He informed me that as long as the pus was not green or foul smelling, it was fine. “Your body’s way of healing.”

And making me physically ill. Every time I looked down at my oozing chest, I was nauseated. It hurt like hell, but I am good with pain. Tough. But…pus. I could hardly stand it when my daughter was a baby and had a cold. I would gag when I wiped her nose. And now, there was…this. ON MY BODY.

“Wear a lot of old shirts, because it will seep all over. And DO NOT cover it up. It needs air to heal. Try to walk around topless as much as possible,” the nurse told me helpfully. When I asked how long this would take to heal, she shook her head. “I think you’ll be okay by Thanksgiving,” she mused. THANKSGIVING!

My wife, my Bing, has since been my Florence Nightingale. I have to clean the wounds and then soak them with an astringent every 3 hours and apply a silver ointment twice a day. During the day, when she is at work, I somehow handle this on my own with lots of throwing up and/or gagging involved. But, before she leaves for work, she lays bare my chest and lovingly wipes up my pus (I almost wrote pussy…but that seems so wrong…) chest, applies a soaked paper towel to it and then comes back in 15 minutes and rubs silver cream on it. And when she comes home from work, she does the same and then again before we go to bed.

Yes, she wipes up my pus. Cheerfully. And more often than not, she kisses me afterwards. Tells me how it looks better every day. She also sleeps with me. I find this miraculous because as much as I adore my wife, I do not know that I could cheerfully clean up her pus. Daily. She shakes her head at me, says that OF COURSE, I could do it if the roles were reversed.

“When it’s someone you love, it’s no big deal,” she says. Right. I sincerely hope that I am never tested. 

Byron and I feel our love when he watches me gather gear for my nightly constitutional. “You’re about to head out with a flashlight?” he asks. Yes. A headlamp, actually. “I’m going to go out when you do, to cut kale from out front. You can shine your light on it while I cut.”

Once outside, I aim the headlamp at the garden as he applies kitchen scissors to collecting our dinner. Within minutes, though, we are pretending the headlamp is a laser, making “Pew! Pew!” sounds at each other while we battle as mock cyborgs.

A big transaction in our marriage was my going back to school to be a teacher. I had gotten so tangled in bureaucratic crap in my trip to Winona State the fall our youngest entered kindergarten, I threw up my hands and said, “I guess it’s just not going to happen.” Since 1975, colleges have become much better attuned to the non-traditional student, thankfully. The following year, Scott pushed me out the door to tackle the formalities one more time, and the rest is history. I am so grateful for his total and unwavering support in gaining this lifeline that has defined me in countless ways.

Also, I recall a moment in the chaos of 4 kids, the hobby-farming, school, etc, as I sat at the dining room table composing a skit for the saddle club Christmas party when Scott walked by, broom in hand and a heaped dustpan in the other, saying (without irony–in my mind): “You really have your priorities in order.” Thinking back, it may have not been so innocent, but what counts is how I read it at the time. It was my dear mother-in-law who would say as she visited our whirlwind: “No one will know how you kept your house in the future, but they’ll know how you fetched up your kids.” Who wouldn’t love a mother-in-law like that?

I feel Byron’s love when he cleans out the accumulated crap from our single-stall garage so that I can park my car in its shelter once the nine months of snow and ice hit.

The biggest thing I’ve done for love in my marriage was to go to a nude beach with Carl, after 22 years of marriage and at 50 years of age. It took a lot of gumption.

There also was the morning we got the 5:15 a.m. call that my dad’s leg had broken, and they were taking him to the hospital, and Carl went directly to their apartment to stay with my mom, who at 85 and with dementia and incontinence was not the easiest person to handle. He went so I could go to the ER and be with Dad, who was very hard of hearing. He didn’t hesitate.

Even more, there was this year when I ate, literally ALL of the kids’ Easter candy. Carl took the rap and has never ratted me out–even though the kids bring it up on every candy-based holiday:”Dad?! Remember that year when you ate ALL of our Easter candy?!” “It was a tough year, kids,” he’ll respond. “I was trying to save your teeth.”

I still can’t get him to take dance lessons with me. I have not, however, given up.

I felt Byron’s love when I was rolled out of the recovery room after a C-section, having spent too many hours there trying to wiggle my toes. Frantic to see, hold, nurse my baby, I wanted to shout at the hospital staff that my arms were working fine. When they finally rolled me down the long hall to the nursery, I lifted my head. There, cradling our boy to his chest, welcoming him to the world, his father’s arms sheltering the baby for the both of us, was Byron.

Seven or eight years into our relationship, I got home from work one day, and Karl told me that he’d had coffee with my grandma that day. I adored my grandma. Karl knew that. He also knew that my grandma adored him. So, he had been working in her neighborhood that day, had some spare time, so he stopped by to say hi. She invited him in for coffee. They chatted over caffeine and cookies. He probably made her day. He made mine, too. How many 20-something boyfriends stop and have coffee with their girlfriend’s grandma?

Later, we were into our 17th year and a mere 3 months of marriage. My grandma was in a nursing home. I visited her weekly, and each week she was a little worse, which was hard to watch. One day in March (it might have been on Karl’s birthday) I decided to visit my grandma. Karl asked if he could join me, so he did. I was shocked when we walked into her room. She was lying in bed, completely unresponsive, breathing rapidly. I panicked a little. She wasn’t asleep, so I told her we’d come back another time because it looked like she needed to rest. In reality, it freaked me out and I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t used to seeing her weak. She had always been independent and tough as rock and as sweet as can be. She was not herself that day, mostly because she was dying and I didn’t know what to do. But, Karl did. He pulled up a chair right next to her bed, took her hand in his, and just talked to her. It was so sweet. He saved the moment. I stood there, terrified, picking dead leaves off of her plants, and Karl soothed her. That’s one of my very favorite memories of him. By the way, she died within days. Good thing he was there.

Byron and I feel our love every time we play a few more rounds of our unending game of Boggle. Current scores: 680 to 666. He feels my love when, as he pulls ahead in the standings, I hiss, “You bastard.”

When Joe and I first started seriously dating, it was my first year of teaching, and he’d been over to my apartment one night after he had a very long day at work and school. He was exhausted and headed home after a couple of hours because he had a tedious, traffic crazy drive to his house. My apartment was in an old building, and after Joe left I commenced to cleaning. It seemed to never be clean even though I threw my best efforts at it. As I put away the cleaning supplies, a roach the size of a small kitten ran over my foot and stopped menacingly in a corner. I heaved a weighty dictionary at it and was relieved it squarely smashed it. However, when I picked up the dictionary, a mess so disgusting I gagged revealed itself. The colorful innards of that roach were spattered on the dictionary, the floor, and partway up the wall. I gagged more and then cried. I couldn’t bring myself to clean it up, but I also couldn’t go to sleep with it smeared in so many places. I called Joe, and he’d just gotten home. I sniffled my way through the story, more just for someone to tell it to than a solution. He patiently listened, and when I’d finished my snuffling, he said, “Don’t you worry. I’m coming right back over.” I protested, knowing it was a 30 minute drive back to my place, and he’d already had a 16 hour day. I was also embarrassed at having acted like a baby. He would have none of it, though, and I could hear the jingle of his keys as he was telling me goodbye. I’d already mentally prepared an apology when I heard his knock at the door. I opened it, and he pushed a dozen roses towards me as he smiled and walked in. Noticing my surprised look, he leaned in for a kiss and explained, “That florist on I-77 stays open late.” He whistled while he cleaned up the roach guts and even sanitized my beloved dictionary. And although he’d been telling me he loved me for a few weeks at that point, that night I was suddenly and completely sure I loved him, too.

I feel Byron’s love whenever we’re in the yard, playing frisbee with Paco, and I back waaaaaaay up, announcing, “Protect yourself, Byron; I’m going to huck one of my legendary Hammer throws right atcha,” and he hunches up and throws his hands over his face, pretending that I can actually do a Hammer throw and move a frisbee more than 15 wobbly feet.

The best example of our love is how he knows that when I need to eat, I need to eat. He will pay $10 to a man in a trench coat in a dark alley for a Twinkie if it means saving me from low blood sugar. On our wedding night, after a day of out of town relatives and photo shoots and the world’s longest reception line, we hurried to our hotel room. Tired, ready to leave at 5 AM the next day for Mexico, we had a few hours together as newly wedded husband and wife. But I had been too euphoric for an appetite all day and missed dinner, so when we finally got to the hotel, I needed to eat. And it had to be spaghetti. “I need spaghetti,” I said. “I’ll be right back” he said. And Mark went out, in feet aching from rented plastic shoes and his white-on-black tuxedo. An hour later, he returned, a white plastic bag with a styrofoam container spilling out with red sauce and noodles. 11 PM on a Sunday night, and he found spaghetti. 

Byron and I feel our love when we ride our bikes for a night out together, eating burritos, drinking beer, playing Quiddler. On the ride home, all is dark, and it’s as though we two own the world. Then his voice calls back to me, “Careful. Bump ahead.”

I had major surgery. Major. And day 4 in the hospital, I was sticky, smelled bad, was covered in various and sundry fluids and my hair was matted. I’d sweat through so many sets of sheets that the housekeeping people were starting to get upset with me. One day, I just cried with being so tired, sore and gross. My husband crawled into that tiny hospital bed with me and spooned my stinkiness back to sleep. The nurses came in to tell me I could finally take a shower, and they would assist. My husband, knowing me as he does, knew I wouldn’t want strangers bathing me. He asked if he could do it, instead. He washed me, washed my hair and then spent over an hour gently brushing out the matted mess, all the while knowing I was helpless to do it for myself. That’s some love. 

I feel Byron’s love when he offers to attend a parent meeting for the ski team so that I can go to yoga. And also: so I can not go to the parent meeting for ski team.

I used to come home from work and honk my bicycle honky-horn, and he’d stride out to the porch and give me a fifteen-second blast on a bugle. Shook the neighborhood. Or how he changes the batteries on the smoke detectors every Valentine’s Day because he knows those fuckers going off make me homicidal. Seriously, the dude hates shopping for gifts because he thinks he’s bad at it (and hates that), but he’s thinking of me all the time. I haven’t run out of half and half for my coffee in 40 years. The toilet paper never runs out. This stuff is important. Oh! He took me out to the back porch to teach me how to lip fart. For a half hour. The neighbors didn’t venture out for weeks.

Byron felt my love the night he had a four-hour emergency surgery after a vasectomy gone bad. He’d come home from the out-patient procedure, and within an hour, his Kavu pants were stained with blood. The sutures in the arteries on both sides hadn’t held. After a frenzied call to a neighbor–“I need you to take the kids!”–we drove back to the clinic. There, the doctor attempted to lance the hematoma; when that yielded no results, he called the ER and sent us on our way. After Byron was checked in, he managed to get into a gown, but his “eggplant scrotum” was too unwieldy to allow him to get his shoes off. He had to know I loved him when I scrambled around on all fours, head below eggplant, removing the shoes from his feet.

We’ve been married 3 years, but dated ten years before we were married. We waited until his youngest child became an adult and went to college. He had his 60th birthday a few weeks ago. I tend to be a perfectionist when it comes to clothes, hair, and make-up–although not when we’re at the cabin. My husband is an outdoorsman who enjoys hunting and fishing and loves to be away from civilization as often as possible. So I asked him how he wanted to spend his 60th birthday. He wanted to sit in his “favorite” deer stand all day. So, at the end of the day, I went into the woods, climbed the metal ladder, brought a bottle of wine, and we spent a few hours together, quietly sitting on a wooden platform.

I feel Byron’s love every time I crave a quick illustration for an online class or need help editing a photograph, and he scrapes five minutes from the whisking of the stir fry to come to my aid.

Before we were married (and just newly engaged), my fiancé and I lived in a top-floor bedsit in Leeds, England. I was working in a temporary job for minimum wage (front desk for the Benefits Agency–and that’s another story entirely), and he was working in retail. We didn’t have much money, didn’t really care, and were just thrilled to be together–visas and overseas travel meant I knew I was going to have to leave soon, to return to the States and apply for a fiancée visa so that we could get married, and our time together was bittersweet and romantic as hell.

I remember brushing off his questions about Thanksgiving dinner, saying it didn’t really matter to me, it was okay not to do anything this year–an unnecessary expense, and it was a Thursday after all and not a day that the UK would celebrate. It was raining, and cold, and dark, and I hated my job, but I got to go home to this wonderful man and that was really enough.

After work I returned to our shared house, climbed the musty steps to the small room we lived in, and discovered that he hadn’t listened to me after all–he had decided that I WAS going to have a Thanksgiving dinner whether I wanted to or not, and despite not being entirely sure what should be in it, he had constructed a meal for me, his wife-to-be. He insisted that it was my holiday, and so it was his now as well, and there was no way we weren’t having something special.

I don’t remember exactly what he cooked–there was turkey, of a sort, and mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, and wine. And he apologised for it not being extravagant or perfect but of course it was, because he knew me better than I knew myself, and yes I wanted Thanksgiving dinner, with my love, and just because we couldn’t afford a roast with all the trimmings didn’t mean it wasn’t just exactly as it should be.

I did have to leave for a while, and then I came back, and we got married, and every year since we have cooked Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a hybrid now of both our favourite foods, dishes we have picked up over the years, extra vegetarian options for special guests and several variations of potato. We book time off work and invite our closest friends and joke about how it’s a warm-up for Christmas, and I make my guests watch the Charlie Brown special. It was my holiday, but we’ve made it ours, all because he wouldn’t let me off the hook all those years ago.

I feel Byron’s love every time I twirl and curtsy on my way into the bathroom–I do like to enter with a flourish–and he takes a quick second to call out “That was very nice!

There was a mortifying moment after my daughter was born. It was a horrible and physically traumatizing birth, and they ripped me end to end to yank baby Gabi out in a last minute emergency decision. The doctor spent a LONG time stitching my bits back together. Two days after coming home something “down there” didn’t seem right. Something seemed horribly wrong. I couldn’t look down there, I was emotional and crying. Bill offered to look for me. I had a gajillion fears of having him watch me give birth, so how could I let him see what I couldn’t even look at? Eventually I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and let look. He did. The stitches had come undone. He looked at that mangled mass of flesh. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t leave the room screaming, he didn’t decide then and there to never touch it again. He didn’t say one word that would make me feel bad at all. He quietly told me to get dressed and let the doctor know we were on our way. He then took care of baby and mommy and brought me to the doctor. We were pregnant again within six months.

Byron feels my love whenever we’re watching Project Runway, or Catastrophe, or Master of None, and his eyelids start to droop. My ice cube of a hand snakes under his hoodie; his eyes fly open, his posture straightens, and I rub his back until we make it through to the end.

It’s hard for me to separate our marriage from our family; though we have happily survived the empty nest transition to discover we both still enjoy each other’s company. Our union has been tested by a litany of stressors over the years and made it through sickness, family deaths, job loss and living apart for work by keeping our focus on our family and never fully forgetting the puppy love of our teen years.

Our biggest, scariest trial was when Kinsey, the youngest of our four children, was battling anorexia. She had been doing well away at school when she relapsed and realized she needed to come home; she texted me in the middle of the night. When I woke about 5:30 a.m. and saw the messages on my phone, I shook my husband, who’d returned to San Diego from Salt Lake City late the night before, awake. “Hey, wake up. You need to get in the shower now. Kinsey messaged—you have to drive to Flagstaff and bring her home. Now, you have to do it now.” David didn’t respond with words. He simply got out of bed and into the shower. When I called our daughter back, I was able to say, “Dad is on the way.” By 2 a.m. that night she was home, the dorm room emptied, and she was sleeping in her own bed.

I feel Byron’s love whenever we’re in a group out in public, on the move–shopping with family, friends, what have you–and my attention is drawn by something pretty. A brightly colored textile, perhaps. When I stop to pet the pretty thing, the entire group’s momentum stalls BECAUSE WE CAN’T LEAVE A MEMBER BEHIND. Intervening on my behalf, Byron shepherds the crowd together and shoves them forward, explaining, “Nothing makes Jocelyn happier than being left behind. When she’s ready, she’ll find us. She always finds us.”

I returned the next day precisely when the charge nurse told me Erik would return from surgery. I was an hour late. The surgery started early, went well, without complication: four titanium plates held together the fractures across facial bones. His high Nordic cheekbones would become even more pronounced, like God was saying, “Sorry for the accident. I’ll make it up to you.” Erik’s mother met me at the door to his room, shoulders wide like a lineman and eyes locked. “Erik’s sleeping now and needs to rest. He was too agitated from anesthesia after surgery for the post-op X-rays.” “Okay,” I said slipping past her, “I’ll be sure to keep others out.” 

The day before, I had met Erik’s mother for the first time in his hospital room. She talked breathlessly, telling me what the surgeon planned to do. Distracted, I held his hand while she talked. Her voice trailed off as she realized I wasn’t just a friend, but that boyfriend Erik had been dating for a year. Erik knew she would have trouble meeting any boyfriend he would ever have, so he kept me hidden away. I had never pressed the issue, never tried to insinuate myself into his family events or her trips to town. But it was a shadow in the corner beginning to grow. Was I just a distraction to be put aside when life got messy? Didn’t we have something? Maybe I wasn’t the one.

The orderly arrived to take Erik back to X-ray. “OK, Erik. We need to take an X-ray of your face to make sure everything is in the right place. You can have one person come with you. Who do you want?” Erik had not moved or opened his eyes since I entered the room. He turned to the orderly, opened his eyes halfway. It was unclear if Erik understood the question. He looked at his mother, then through her, and said, “John.”

Byron feels my love when he shimmies into a wet suit and goes for a swim in Lake Superior. Overseeing his safety, I follow him in the kayak, keeping an eye on the ease of his strokes, the rhythmic bobbing of the orange buoy he pulls behind him. We both know full well that if one of those legendary freshwater sharks attacks him, I will paddle that sucker in the snout until he releases my boy’s leg and issues a heartfelt apology.

My nugget is not cute or funny and not one moment. And I’m not sure how to describe it, but it happened again tonight: when I am so worn down from trying to be not only patient but loving and insightful and wise and open to a kid who struggles–on so many levels–with needs that I can’t fulfill. It’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with him; it’s just us finding our way together.

And on those days when I’ve been screamed at and sobbed and tried to prevent the threat of running away from becoming a reality, and I text “please come home,” Anne comes as fast as she can after conferences and just listens even though her day has been long and full as well. And I know, though I don’t have any energy left or love or even sometimes kindness to give her, that she will wrap me in a hug, and somewhere below all the tears and fears of “Oh, my God, can we still do this? Are we the right ones to do this, and what are we doing?” there is still a “we.” When we get to the bottom, we are both still there. 

Although they carry heavy freight, the words “I love you” are inefficient at communicating love. It’s everything outside of those words–actions, comfort, running interference against the world–that constitutes bone-deep love. Those who feel most loved are those best able to see that the commonly vaunted gestures, from declarations to cards to flowers to chocolates, are hollow when compared to the effort and commitment it takes, day after day, to spot and fill in each other’s cracks.

As my friend Esther noted:

Thinking of the things over the years that my husband has done that showed his “true love” in non-traditionally romantic ways has made me realize how good I have it, and how he does truly love me in his way. He is not the hugging, hand-holding, telling me “I Love You” kind of guy. He’s the put-gas-in-my-car, handle-the-mousetraps, shovel-the-snow, buy-my-favorite-coffee-beans-even-though-it-is-an-extra-stop-after-buying-the-groceries kind of guy. 

With Byron, we have clean dishes, toothpaste, post-it notes, patience, caller ID, dinner, hands on the back, laundry, groceries, tears, crosswords, hardwood floors, cookies, clean bathroom drains, lisping, laughs, mochas, clean sheets, lovely boots, playing in the yard, well-parked cars, loving the babies, Boggle, frisbee, riding bikes, attending parent meetings, removing the shoes, pausing the stir fry, compliments, cold hands, time alone in a crowd, and apologetic sharks.

All of this, all of these moments, are gestures of love.

Put another way:

Byron, it was my pleasure to scrub the smears of dried blood off the bathroom floor at 1 a.m. when I finally returned from the hospital the night you had that four-hour post-vasectomy surgery. It was a privilege to pick up the heap of bloody towels that you had clamped against your groin and start a load of laundry at 2 a.m.

Cleaning up your bloody mess was a welcome distraction on that grisly night, when I finally returned home, exhausted, so glad the kids were sleeping over at the neighbor’s. Just as I had crawled around earlier, taking off your shoes at the hospital, I crawled around the bathroom floor eight hours later, wiping, mopping, stripping away the evidence of your trauma.

The chore was an honor. To be part of your story is the joy of my lifetime.

Putting it yet another way, casting it into that cliché of inefficient words, distilling all the colorful, multi-dimensional, energetic, meaningful gestures into a string of flat, black font, there is also this:

I love you.

You bastard.

Pew! Pew!

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anniversaries anniversary Groom

Nine Volts

Chirp.

My brain is asleep. So is my body. The noise doesn’t fully register.

After a quick blip of “Huh?” I drop back into the blackness of sleep.

Chirp.

Hell and damn it. My brain pushes to consciousness like it’s swimming up from the bottom of a murky lake, half panicked, gasping for air. As it surfaces and draws in a shuddering breath of wakefulness, the only thing to pierce my confusion is this: there’s a chirping in the hallway. I lie there in the dark, discombobulated, trying to figure out what day it is, what time it is, what my name is, who’s the president, why Kanye’s a genius, why creme brulee isn’t the new kale, and how in the glottis my husband can still be snoring when there’s a robin or a katydid or a Kristin Chenoweth periodically pipping mere feet from his head.

I spend a few minutes engaged in magical thinking, during which I dreamily muse that the noises might simply have been the house settling, or something toppling off a shelf in the closet, or the sound of a ghost sharpening knives, lulling myself with assurances that the chirps won’t necessarily contin–

Chirp.

This time, I’m awake enough to understand: it’s the smoke detector remonstrating us for letting Daylight Savings pass without changing its batteries.

As I sort out what’s happening, I rue the law of batteries that decrees they must die when it sucks the most. Commiseratively, my husband, Byron, exhales a steady zzzzzzz. This takes me back to the early years of our marriage; he slept, while I felt around in the dimness for babies and boobies. Sometimes, with the first kid, he’d wake up, too, and we’d turn on a bedside lamp and spend precious Hallmark-sponsored moments together staring at our daughter’s soft, tiny fingernails while she nursed.

A few weeks into that, we realized that middle-of-the-night communal marveling resulted in a completely non-functional household the next day. If we hoped to eat good food and pay bills on time, then at least one of us should get some sleep. During the next handful of years, as my breasts and I continued to work the black hours, Byron applied himself wholeheartedly to the task of getting reasonable sleep, The result of this was a household wherein Daddy made delicious homemade pesto that Mommy loved to eat–that is, once she lifted her head off the steering wheel, wiped the tears off her cheeks, and trudged into the house for dinner.

In the intervening years, the zzzzzzzzzs have continued, but nowadays I sleep (or read or fret) rather than nurse. Instead of tag teaming our days, as we did when the kids were new, Byron and I now share a common purpose at night: resetting for the next day.

Unfortunately, that smoke detector is putting a serious crimp in my reset.

Shivering in anticipation of the cold air, I try to convince myself to throw open the covers and stand up. I try to make myself be the adult in the room. I try to fool my brain and body into thinking the chirp is actually a hungry baby.

Brain and Body are no patsies. They know I’m messing with them. In desperation, Brain argues that the definition of “adult” is actually, simply, clearly “the tallest person.” Then Brain points out that Byron fits that definition. Because Brain is emphatic about making her case, she also notes that the smoke detector is high on the wall, near the ceiling, a place that’s easier for taller people to reach.

The notion of thumping downstairs to get a stepladder convinces me: I’m going to shove the snoring guy and make the chirp his problem.

Rationalization is a glorious thing, for it throws itself across descriptors like “lazy” and “selfish” and muffles their mealy yelps. I mean: obviously, I have to wake Byron because he is taller. Possibly, irrationally, I have to wake Byron because he never nursed babies.

We’d have to ask Brain to be sure on that one, and she’s currently refusing callers.

With Byron’s next wall-rattling inhale, I slip my knees behind his, trying to pry him to consciousness with a hearty spooning.

He doesn’t stir. Spooning feels too much like clean, direct love, and this endeavor is about hoggish, miserly love. This is about a love that entails him getting up and taking care of things so that I can stay in the bed and be warmly supportive from the island of mattress.

I whack my foot into the back of his calf. Twice. Firm-like.

He rears up, bleary and confused. Poor thing’s a full four minutes behind me that way. Since he’s the one who’s discombobulated, and since he doesn’t know yet that he’s about to get up and handle my problem, he deserves kindness. Softly, I start to talk. In truth, I could just say “Eep, opp, ork, ah-ha” for the first few words, as I’m only moving my mouth because the act will get him to remove his earplug. Once the earplug comes out, I shift into genuine content: “So there’s a noise in the hall…”–

as though it had been scripted, a chirp echoes loudly.

“Wait. What?” he asks, his brain pushing up from the bottom of the same lake that had recently been drowning my consciousness.

“There’s a chirping noise out in the hall from the smoke detector. It’s been bleating every few minutes.” Then I trot out our household’s most terrifying currency: “I’m worried it’s going to wake the kids.”

Although Byron is less scared of wakeful children in the night than I am, he snaps to and gets that this is a pressing matter if we want to avoid a kitchen full of cranky whiners in the morning. Marshaling his forces, he thinks through the situation. “There are actually three smoke detectors on this floor of the house–one in each bedroom–and also a carbon monoxide detector in the hall. It could be any of them. Have you noticed where the chirp is coming from exactly?”

Every single day, my husband teaches me. Abstractly, I knew some nice men had come a few years ago to remodel our kitchen, and while they were here, they also updated the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house. Once they took down all the hanging sheets of plastic and drove away in their trucks, though, I got distracted by the new cabinets and forgot to look up and see what they’d done elsewhere. In my defense, if I look toward the ceilings, I see all these cobwebby things that someone should deal with. It’s better to keep my gaze aimed forward, really.

Helpfully, I answer Byron while sweeping an arm wide. “I know the noise is coming exactly from out there. Not in here.”

We decide to listen for the next chirp with an ear to specific location. As I listen, I realize both my pillow and my husband’s back are very soft.

We wait. And wait. Some more.

Because we are wide awake and ready to figure this thing out, there is nothing but silence.

After a few minutes, Byron throws open the covers and wanders into the bathroom to relieve himself, at which point a chirp from Could Have Been Anywhere resounds loudly.

How frustrating. But as long as he’s up…

Coming back into the bedroom, Byron grabs his headlamp. He straps the thing to his head and goes out into the hallway, ready to narrow down the possibilities.

With the stoic patience of a Scandinavian type in his forties, he stands there quietly, leaning against the banister. In his underwear. Wearing a headlamp.

Minutes pass. Silence.

More minutes. Still nothing.

He just stands, quietly, his eyes clapped on a six-inch space high on the wall. Waiting.

Eventually, I hear him yawn, and even though there’s nothing I can do, I can’t take it. I hoist myself from the bed’s warmth and join him in the hallway. I ask if he’s able to reach the detector, should he need to, or if he’d like me to run downstairs and get the step ladder. Thankfully, his legs are step ladders all on their own, so I am safe from the threat of exertion.

There, by the banister, we stand together and stare at the plaster. Come on, you damn thing: chirp so that we know it’s you. If it’s not you, then it’s time to bust this process into the kids’ rooms.

Silence. Obviously, our focused attention has made the thing shy. Trying to fool it, I begin to look around. The only thing worth looking at is Byron, all tall and leaning, shirtless, in his underwear, the headlamp an unexpected accessory to his ensemble. He wraps his arms across his chest, warding off a shiver.

Cripes. He is the cutest.

He stands there in his headlamp and underwear, the perfect foil to an unpredictable, ridiculous thing, and somehow it’s a metaphor for our marriage. All my own unpredictable ridiculousness ever needs is him, standing there unwaveringly, ready to deal with things–all the better if he’s in his underwear and a headlamp as he does it.

After a few minutes, freezing, I return to bed. As I lie there, willing the detector to chirp, the shadowy image of Byron, still leaning against the banister, makes me smile. When we got married, I thought I knew him. Our years together–fifteen!–have schooled me, though. There was no way for me to know that the 28-year-old anthropology-major-turned-naturalist that I married would

teach our sixth grader how to play cribbage so that the kid could feel confident when his new elective class in that game started;

attend cross-country banquets with our ninth grader, willingly spending hours making small talk (which he hates) in the presence of a pasta buffet (which he hates) because he delights in the community she’s found;

become a literacy volunteer at an elementary school for a minuscule monthly stipend because the work matters;

take up blackwork embroidery at age 43 as he continues to explore the various permutations of being an artist;

train our kids’ palates with his excellent cooking, to the point that they’d rather have a dinner of groundnut stew or Thai curry than spaghetti;

tell me every few days, “I like you so much”;

hear my point more than my fumbling words so that I always feel innately understood;

stand in the hallway in his underwear and a headlamp at 4 a.m., hoping to catch a wayward chirp.

Eventually, after silence reigns for a few more minutes, Byron surrenders and returns to bed, but not before checking the supply of batteries. We’re short on the nine-volt version, which he’ll need the next day when he changes out the batteries in all the warning systems. Then he snuggles under the covers, and we chuckle, knowing the offending detector, wherever it is, will be issuing a tweet any second.

It doesn’t, though.

As the minutes pass, the house is quiet. Dark. Still.

It sighs a little, as do I, when Byron drops back into sleep and emits a gentle zzzzzzzz.

I lie there for a long time–like a nursing mother listening for her baby’s cry–expecting another chirp. It never comes.

There is only Byron,

the soft skin on his back,

his steady breathing

the perfect noise.

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anniversaries anniversary

Cherish

As the Catholic priest with multiple boyfriends can tell you:

monogamy isn’t necessarily natural.

However, despite evidence that the romantic ideal of meeting The One and living happily ever after is a crock, we are trained from birth to believe in it. Perhaps we’d do better to widen the scope of our relationship discourse, to make room for the legitimacy of bisexuality; fluid, changing sexuality; polyamory; extra-relationship affairs as a means of strengthening the relationship; asexuality. Perhaps we’d do better if we stopped trying to shape everyone with the same cutter.

I also think we would do well to put less weight on that ideal of “one relationship, for life, equals happiness.” Rather, Dan Savage‘s notion of relationships seems more pragmatic; quite simply, he asserts that “every relationship you are in will fail, until one doesn’t.” Somehow, that way of phrasing it eases the pressure to Arrive At One’s Destiny.

Even further, I appreciate thinking that redefines “successful” when it comes to relationships. “Successful” doesn’t mean sticking to each other until you’re dropped into a pit six-feet deep. “Successful” is a word that can be ascribed to any relationship, so long as you take something away from it when it’s over. Every failed relationship can be a success. For me, I dated a gay guy in high school, not that I knew he was gay until much later, and although I wished for so much more in terms of feeling desirable, I also gained great things from that relationship: I gained confidence, openness, the ability to look someone in the face and not crack when receiving bad news; I learned the power that comes from being stronger than expected. Just as importantly, I learned how to keep dancing all the way to the end of the extended six-minute remix of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Later in life, I had a taxing and joyful relationship with a troubled man; being with him taught me negotiation, self-protection, and how to appreciate my own zest and ease with regards to change and adventure. A bit after we broke up, I entered a relationship with someone who kept me in constant doubt–yet I also learned endurance and how to package my strengths and how necessary it is to listen to instincts. Beyond that break-up, I dated a quiet man, and from that relationship I became aware of my spark and convinced that zingy is as valuable as steady; as well, I got lessons in living without resentment and an ability to recognize how un-needy I actually am.

Each of those relationships, save for the last, played itself out. They failed. Ultimately, in terms of getting me to who and where I am today, they were extremely successful.

The last relationship, the one with the quiet man, continues not to fail. All predictors point towards us confounding everything I’ve just typed, in fact, as we continue to feel complete and satisfied within the confines of a monogamous commitment. A big part of why we’re so happy together is our agreement that what works for us needn’t work for everybody. Another big part of our mutual satisfaction is that we like each other better than anything.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s a good cook, and I’m a good eater.

Anyhow, I don’t entirely believe in the traditional romantic ideal, and yet I’m 100% living out the traditional romantic ideal–which grew out of thousands of years of patriarchy and out of the women’s movement of the 1970s. Men liked the idea of one man plus however many women he desired; women seeking equality then piped up and said, “We actually like the one man with one woman thing.” If nothing else, these frameworks help track parentage. For Byron and me, our traditional dynamic means we’re pretty sure both kids are his.

We had a particularly attractive milk delivery person about ten years ago, however. She was cute enough that Byron has just cause to suspect she may actually be the father.

Can I just say that any time I crack a stupid joke like that, I know Byron will enjoy it?

I also know he’ll enjoy my rants about people who refuse to be reflective.

Plus, he can’t stand a martyr, nor can I.

He’s down with a deep debriefing in the kitchen after social gatherings.

He notices small things, like how the bikes in one city in Turkey are different from the bikes in other areas.

When I’m stewing and tangled inside, he’ll stroll into the room with a glass of scotch and say, “Here. You need this.”

He takes Tae Kwon Do with self-conscious Paco. Because Byron is painfully uncoordinated when it comes to choreography, he does not want to take Tae Kwon Do. Because he sees self-conscious Paco is gifted at the sport, he takes it nevertheless, in a move of Papa Solidarity.

He explains to Allegra the choices a scientist can make when designing her experiment. He can support the rationale of including cranberries and sunflowers, if the scientist thinks those are necessary materials.

He loves logistics. He loves maps. These are felicitous counterbalances to a partner who prefers a plunge followed by a freefall.

He teaches cooking classes at the local Co-op. They are so wildly successful that I cannot bemoan the lack of leftovers.

When I tell him I’ve created a situation in one of my online classes where I could really use an image of a four-armed Cyclops (long story), but I don’t want to deal with the copyright issues attendant to finding the necessary image online, he takes ten minutes to draw me what I need.

We are married. We are monogamous (although, in the last year alone, when I’ve spoken to others about the self-awareness of couples who choose open marriages because that feeds the needs of the involved individuals, I’ve received in return gasps and questions of, “So…is…that…something…you…and…Byron…???” OH, please. Simply because a person accepts something doesn’t mean she lives it. JEEEEEEBUS, JOANIE. I also think all drugs should be legalized. Does that mean I’m on heroin right now?). We prove that a good match on paper doesn’t necessarily deliver a good match in real life. On paper, his love of chickpeas and my love of the Arby’s drive-thru would never predict an easy compatibility.

We also prove that most long-term relationships are a matter of luck more than anything. As the years tick by, and various life circumstances come ’round, I am able to see new beauties in Byron–things I wouldn’t have even known to vet for when we were courting. Everything I thought I wanted when I was looking for a beau? Well, not much of it had anything to do with getting through daily life or periods of crisis with that person. The questions in my mind were more “Does he want children?” than “Will he actively seek ways for me to be away from the children so that I can be happier when with them?”

Moreover, when we were dating, I might have thought, “I’d like to be with someone who will go to the party with me when a friend turns 40.” As it turns out, I got that. Not that it matters; I’m perfectly capable of going to a party by myself, if I want to go, and he doesn’t.

Look. A friend had a party. We went to it.

I would not have known, back when I was on the look-out for love, to include a criterion that read, “The person you choose does not need to be able to play the guitar. However, if you one day have a child together who wants to play an instrument, say, saxophone, and he’s feeling kind of nervous about putting it up to his lips for the first time, this person you’re looking for should know enough to wander into the room and pick up a guitar and talk out loud, randomly, while trying to strum it. With Daddy doing this casual sidebar music, the nerves of the over-thinking child will be distracted and defused, thus allowing him to relax and squeeze a huge BWWWHAP noise out of his saxophone.” Nope, I wasn’t looking for that one at all when I was dating.

BWHAAAP and strum, a synergy I couldn’t have known about until it happened.

When I was dating around, I knew I didn’t care if the potential partner could dance, but I did care that I could go out and dance when and how I wanted. I knew that much. What I didn’t know how to test for, during the dating period, was a partner who could handle this situation: “If you ever get together and then have a daughter who becomes a middle schooler and who knows she’s not a natural at dancing, and one night you take her to a dance and notice her looking longingly at the participants from the sidelines, try to get her to dance with you. When she refuses–GAWD, DAD–go ahead and open the door on the dancing by grabbing a friend and hurling your terrible-dancing self out onto the floor, so as to show the middle schooler that having fun takes precedence over looking perfect. All the better if the friend you’ve grabbed to make this point is a guy.”

GAWD, DAD and friend scare the hell out of the turkey in the straw.

When I was out trolling the world for love, I was used to traveling and getting myself from place to place. Hence, it wouldn’t have been on my radar to want a partner who would one day be in charge of the guide book, who would love to plan our movements, who would want to think through the time tables. Little did I know, if I hooked up with someone like that, I’d be free to stand around and chat and laugh instead of squinting my eyes down real tight-like and trying to figure out which direction is north.

Couldn’t tell you which way is East, either.

Without yet knowing everything about myself way back when, I couldn’t have known one day a Must Have for me would be this: when we go to a museum, and there’s a display of Roman jewelry, I’d like a partner who glances at it and says, “This stuff looks like you.” When, in response, I get all clappy and shout, “YES! I am nuts for every last thing in this case,” my best life partner should then take a few minutes to play the game called If There Were A Gift Shop Here That Had Replicas of Some of This Jewelry, Which Pieces Would Jocelyn Buy?

I had no idea how to look for that, back when I was dating, because I wasn’t yet aware I cared about Hellenistic fashion.

We both agree the jingly ones are always best.

Really, there was no way our younger selves could have predicted that discussions of oils and jams would one day be fascinating and that we could serve as support staff to each other when deciding which small container would best fit into a suitcase. All I knew, when we were courting, was that I liked his hair.

Isn’t much of marriage made up of, “Yea, get that one” moments?

When we head to the bowels of the earth,
when I’m feeling down, down, down,
he’s the one I want next to me.


It delights me that he closes his eyes when I suck his face off.

It delights me that his cheek is very soft, moreso when his eyes are closed.

It delights me that everything ends with a laugh.

It delights me that somehow, without planning it, I stumbled into a life with someone who’s as big a cheeseball as I.

It delights me that I was fortunate enough to clod-hop my way into this relationship that is the one that didn’t fail.

Thirteen years after we married each other, thinking we knew each other–yet how could we know anything at all when nothing had happened to us yet?–we can only thank luck, affection, and jollity for carrying us through.

A shared enthusiasm for dark beer hasn’t hindered our sustained devotion, either.

We plan to crack a few tonight on this, our anniversary,

and raise our glasses

to love

in all its many forms.

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Bestill

 

My dad was the person who taught me to be comfortable with silence. We could get in the car and drive for twenty minutes without a word being spoken. While his and my mother’s relationship ultimately cracked under the weight of that silence, for me, the daughter, his quiet felt benign, reassuring, a safe place to be.

Even more, when he did speak, his words carried weight. A handful of my favorite memories, in fact, center around moments when he engaged in verbal expression. One time, after I’d won a forensics tournament out of town, returning from the meet late at night, I left my trophy on the dining room table. By the time I woke up later that day, my dad had left me a note, telling me he was so proud, he was “busting his buttons.” Another time, after I’d behaved badly, he sat across from my hungover self and told me he was “deeply disappointed.” Many years later, during the night when a bat flew into my house, and I had a fairly apeshit “I’m all alone, and the bat is trying to kill me” meltdown for three hours in my bathroom, I managed to grab my phone (with the bat only gnawing off one of my fingers above the knuckle as I reached for the receiver) and call my parents, over a thousand miles away. When I sobbed and sobbed that a killer beast was out there, and all I had were tampons for friends and nail files for weapons, my dad, casting about, counseled, “What you need to do is try to reach way down inside yourself now and find something you don’t think you have. Dig deep, and you’ll find something you need.” He was right. We hung up, and I dug deep, finding inside myself the numbers 911, which I punched into the phone with great bravery.

Perhaps my fondest conversation with my dad occurred about a decade before his death. Chatting on the phone, we stumbled across the subject of my sister and me and our many differences. Trying to qualify the nature of the differences, my dad remarked that my sister took after his side of the family, where a certain dourness and pessimism sometimes manifested itself. “She reminds me of myself,” he noted, continuing, “and you don’t. You’re more, well, effervescent.”

There it was: one of those moments we hope for with our parents, those moments when they give us a word, an adjective, a feeling of being seen, and it signifies everything. It signifies that our parents see us as separate, as differentiated beings, that they have thought about us, that they have taken stock of us, that we are far enough away from them that the space has cleared everyone’s vision. Because such words, such adjectives, are born from the lifelong process of symbiosis to independence, they have power. Plus, anytime someone describes me to myself, I believe him.

It wasn’t even so much that I wanted to think of myself as “effervescent”—-although it was a welcome label—-but rather, it was more that I wanted to think of my dad thinking of me that way. Sometimes, from then on, I effervesced just for him.

It surprised me, then, to learn—-repeatedly–that a pipping personality didn’t reap greater rewards, in the larger scope of the world. Certainly, I didn’t expect to be voted into office on the Effervescence Platform, nor did I expect the medical field to approach me, asking me to donate to the Effervescence Transfusion Bank. But I did think being smiley and liking sunshine might have snagged me a boyfriend.

Fer damn crap smeared on a thrice-read Jane Austen novel.

Oh, all right.

I did date a guy through my 20’s, and then I truly, madly, deeply dated another guy—-one who left my two liters of effervescence out on the counter with the cap off and made all the bubbles go flat. He de-carbonated me in a way that no one ever had before, not even the boys on the high school bus who moo-ed at my sister and me.

He made my sizzle fizzle.

And then my grandma died, and the doc found a lump in my breast.

I was thirty-one.

Thirty-one wasn’t my favorite year.

Fortunately, I still had girlfriends who called, just when I was pacing the circle of my small kitchen for the 123rd time in an hour, gnawing on my cuticles, and they opened with, “Oh, honey. I just heard. Talk to me.” Even when I would have to set down the phone to grab another handful of Kleenex, they would stay on the line, shouting things like, “From the amount of snot you’re emitting, you do seem well-hydrated. And that’s something, right?” Also, I had family who knew how to circle ‘round gently and never look me straight in my teary eyes. Instead, they gave me food and invited me to participate in the yearly post-hunting butchering of the deer, and they talked at and around me.

Eventually, the molasses movement of seconds turned into minutes finally adding up into hours and days, and then months went by. My grandma was buried; the lump was benign; the former boyfriend had a new girl.

Just after the new year, one of my hunting cousins sent me an email, asking if I’d like to drive North to come visit them and, by the way, if I would be at all interested in letting him serve as my “agent in the field,” romantically.

Flattened, completely without zest or hope, my response was worthy of my father’s side of the family: “Go ahead, if you want to, but I won’t expect anything from it.”

Turns out my cousin already had someone in mind, a 28-year-old guy he worked with in a very small town of about 300. One day, sitting in the office, looking across at this 28-year-old, my cousin started musing, “How’s Guy ever going to find someone in this bohunk town?” A moment later, he thought back to Thanksgiving and the deer butchering and the conversations we’d had, which resulted in, “For that matter, how’s Jocelyn ever going to find someone in the bohunk town she’s living in?”

His head swiveled back and forth, and his thoughts rammed into each other. He approached Guy, who agreed, “Sure, you can be my agent in the field. But this cousin of yours, since she lives more than five hours away, she’d have to really knock my socks off for me to start seeing her.” Fair enough. Next, my cousin approached me.

It was agreed: I’d drive the five hours North and, while visiting my cousin’s family, meet Guy. In the past, imbued with effervescence, I’d greeted any opportunity to meet a potential partner with gusto and a knee-jerk, involuntary planning of our lives together. This time, I didn’t think much of the whole thing.

So we’d see.

That February, over Presidents’ Day weekend, I visited. I got to hold my cousin’s baby a lot and watch his 4-year-old ice skate. One afternoon, we swung through the campus where Cousin worked. As we drove away, he said, casually, “Oh, that man back there who was leaning down, talking to people through their car window? The one in the red hat? That was Guy.”

Cousin, perhaps, didn’t understand that such information would have been welcome, say, two minutes earlier. Cousin is a man.

That night, the guy in the red hat strolled into Cousin’s house, there for The Meeting, there for dinner. He carried a six-pack of homebrew.

I liked him already.

In short order, I learned that Guy not only wore a red hat and was quite tall. I also learned he really liked making bread, reading the Atlantic Monthly, and running on trails. I learned that he was an anthropology major who’d minored in environmental science. I learned that his Desert Island food would be cheese (dropped from a helicopter once a month, to supplement the fish and coconuts he would be living on otherwise); his Desert Island album would be Van Morrison’s Moondance; his Desert Island book would be some sort of reference book, all the better if it contained maps.

I learned that, while the idea of him hadn’t infused me with bubbles, the reality of him was creating a few tiny pops.

Dinner lasted five hours. As soon as he left, my previously-cool cousin and his wife, who had discreetly retired to the kitchen 8 feet away after dessert, were all nerves. They gave me all of thirty seconds after the door closed behind Guy before yelling, “SO? SO?????”

My response was positive, but guarded. He seemed nice. I would see more of him. If he wanted to.

But all the little broken pieces inside of me weren’t quite realigned yet. I wasn’t going to put myself forward this time. I couldn’t take another dashing.

Fortunately, a few days later, Guy asked my cousin for my email address. It had been mutual. Apparently, his strongest first impression of me was that I had a lot of hair. He thought he “could get lost in it.”


What ensued was a modern epistolary courtship. For three weeks, we sent messages back and forth, discovering that writing is an excellent way to get to know someone: the small talk is non-existent; the conversations get to meaty matters right away; there is no body language to read or misread, no annoying laugh to cringe from.

After three weeks, Guy announced he was ready to “jump off the comfortable dock” and into the potentially-frigid waters of face-to-face. Thus, during my Spring Break in March, I headed North again, for our first real date.

As we sat in a dingy bar, having burgers and beers, conversation flowed. Snow fell.

Like 14″ of it.

When it came time to take Guy to his house before driving back to my cousin’s place, my car got stuck. In the snow. At Guy’s house. He didn’t seem to mind. His roommates were friendly. I stayed over.

I had no choice.

What I learned in those days of my Spring Break was that Guy liked to listen to me read aloud–and if that’s not an activity of the infatuated, I don’t know what is. He also proved that he’s very good at necking.

And, about three days in, after he’d had a bath one night, Guy came back into his bedroom, where I lounged. “Brrrrrr,” he exclaimed. “My feet are cold!”

“Why are they so cold? You just got out of the bath tub,” I noted.

“They’re freezing because. you. knocked. my. socks. off” was the answer.

Suddenly, right then, right there: there it was. The effervescence was back, the flatness banished.

It was all going to be all right.

Not too long afterward, as I stared very hard at the ceiling, I admitted I had fallen in love. He had the right answer.

By the end of my Spring Break week, five days after our first date, we had talked about what kind of wedding we wanted.

Four months later, one July morning, as I slept on a futon on the floor, he crawled in with a plate of pancakes and a Betsy Bowen woodcut entitled “Fox on a Journey.”

And he asked me to marry him.


In quick order, we planned a wedding for the following May.

In even quicker order, like, the night we got engaged, I got pregnant. Three months after that, I had a miscarriage. Four days after that, we found out I’d been carrying twins, and one was still hanging on.

We moved the wedding to that November 13th, not nine months after we first played the Desert Island game over dinner. Guy became Groom right there at the environmental learning center where I’d first not-quite-spotted-him in his red hat. The bleeding from the miscarriage had stopped three days earlier. I sobbed through the vows.

Four months later, Jocelyn and Groom became Jocelyn and Groom and Girl.

All of that wonder unfolded in 1999. Not given to dreaming about the future before then, I have since been granted beauties I couldn’t possibly have imagined.

He likes to touch me. He likes me to touch him.
He cooks dinner every night.
He has been our stay-at-home parent since Girl was born.
At promptly 8:00 every night, he brings me a drink.
He is unfazed by my random bursts of tears.
He is whimsical. He is dry. He is perceptive.
He sees that my ability to talk to people is as valuable as his ability to do everything else.
He likes to play cribbage.
He knows how to give me directions that make sense, like “go straight until you see the big rock shaped like Richard Nixon’s head.”
He takes my ideas and makes them happen.
He just brewed a new batch of beer.

And, like my father, he is gentle. Like my father, he has a thousand-watt smile.

Like my father, he is given to quiet, most comfortable in stillness.

Thus, ten years in to the marriage, we often sit and watch the world flit by

holding hands in companionable silence.

——————————————–

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