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.