Tales From A Middle-Aged Marriage

I have a weak spot for sap and sloppy sentimentality, especially when it comes to music. I mean, truly. I get misty just thinking about Total Eclipse of the Heart.

So you can imagine how fraught with emotion my middle-aged self was last week when John Legend’s All of Me came up on my son’s Spotify playlist. It’s one of those songs you hear and think, Jesus, I want someone to write a song like that about me. One of those songs full of vocal yearning, embodying those feelings of early love when the sun rose and set with the person you were falling for. When you laid yourself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am and the other person said, I do.

All your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections. 

You know what you never hear songs about? People who have been married for seventeen years.

There are lots of songs and movies and stories about falling in love, about that first flush of passion. And then?

And then we sort of skip ahead to the sweet, almost platonic, romance of old age. We look on in wonder at elderly couples who have settled into some sort of understated love where you’ve almost fused together into one being, two turtles sharing a shell.

What you almost never hear about is the bridge between those two things. How you got from one to the other.

You never hear songs about the quiet ferocity of middle-aged love.

You never see movies about couples who have been together for a few decades, unless it’s about the problems they face or hurdles they’ve overcome.

I guess songs about sitting next to your spouse on the couch night after night on your respective laptops and separate vacations just aren’t catchy. Maybe it’s hard to find words to rhyme with mid-life crisis, menopausal, and middle-aged spread?

But there should be more songs and stories a movies about it, because the truth is, falling in love is easy.

Staying in love is hard.

We tend to completely gloss over couples who have been quietly and fiercely keeping the flames of love under their relationship burning. It’s not really sexy, is it, to think of the regular maintenance that goes into keeping a marriage going. Far easier to focus on the rush of fire you get when the kindling and newspaper goes whoosh-all smoke and bright flame. Or to feel the pang of emotion when the fire is slowly dying, nothing but embers in the grill.

No one wants to read about forty yeas of buying logs and wadding up newspapers and for Christ’s sake, I did it last time it’s your turn and oh, shit, it’s nearly gone out we need to do something fast.

But of course it’s more than that. I can’t tell you how  many times I look across the room and see my husband and catch my breath. Or when I listen to him tell a joke, or recount a story, and want to reach out and touch him. How safe I feel in my life, in my love, and even in my rage. I know that when I lose my way, he’s there. And I know that sometimes, when I need to find the way myself, he’s waiting at the end. Recently I’ve taken to calling him my thunder shirt, because  after 17 years of marriage I finally realized I sleep better when he is next to me. It’s like he keeps me weighted and tethered, even in my dreams.

Take that, young love.

After seventeen years of marriage, we still have things to talk about. Granted, sometimes we talk about how we can’t remember it was what we were just talking about, but still. And maybe I don’t dress up in lingerie, but hell, I shave my legs and sometimes, that’s enough.

The hard work of staying in love isn’t sexy. Not the stuff of songs. But I promise you, we are out here, us middle-aged couples, quietly and yet fiercely keeping the fires burning, more in love than ever.

I am full of curves and edges, and plenty of imperfections too. My husband is not writing love songs to me–not on paper. But he has written rock operas and librettos worth in his actions over the last seventeen years. I laid myself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am. And he did. And seventeen years ago today we said, “I do.”

Dear Reader, I stayed married to him.

Happy anniversary, my darling.

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In Night Sweats and Snores, ’til Death Do Us Part

Sixteen years ago today I stood in front of family and friends and hitched my wagon to my (soon to be) husband’s star. In truth, I can’t say it was holy matrimony but it was definitely legal.

Sixteen years on, I’ve learned a lot. If we had to stand in front of family and friends again today, I would heartily and truthfully say “I do!” even more enthusiastically. There are, however, a few things I’d add to those vows….

Me: I promise to love you through snoring, through man flu, and in World Cup years, ’til penalties do us part.

Him: I promise to love you through night sweats and hot flashes, through pork rage and red mist.

We promise not to offer each other unsolicited advice in the heat of the moment.

Me: I promise not to passive aggressively ask if you’re done with the coffee cup that’s on the counter, right near the dishwasher, and just put it in myself because it’s really no big deal. Really.

Him: I promise not to passive aggressively ask if you’re done with the straightening iron every single day and just graciously accept the fact that it is going to live on the floor by the bed.

We promise not to compare our marriage, sex lives, or financial state to anyone else’s.

Me: I promise to tell you what I’d like for Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and my birthday when you ask. I promise not to resent you if I tell you ‘oh, nothing’ and then you do ‘oh, nothing’.

Him: I promise to love you through muffin tops, fad diets, pregnancy hemorrhoids, and caffeine withdrawal.

We promise to accept that human beings change and evolve and grow, but then again, so does love.

Me: I promise I won’t expect you to read my mind, decode hidden meanings, or know what I want before I do.

Him: I promise never to ask if you have your period just because you’re angry.

However fierce a storm may rage, We promise to be patient enough to wait for the skies to clear.

Me: I promise not to say “It’s fine” if it’s not.

Him: I promise never to shush you

We promise never to anger-sleep in the spare room for more than one night.

Me: I promise never to undermine, correct, or contradict you when we’re at a dinner party and you’re telling a story.

Him: I promise not to make fun of you for crying during television commercials.

We promise to keep our mouths shut when the other is talking, not simply to wait for our turn, but to actively listen.

Me: I promise not to ask you six hundred questions in the morning because I know you don’t like early mornings.

Him: I promise not to stretch the concept of early morning past 10 am.

We promise not to air our grievances on social media.

Me: I promise not to hit you too hard in the middle of the night if you are snoring, or hogging the blankets, or stink like beer and meat after a night out with ‘the guys’.

Him: I promise I won’t hold your sleep talking against you, even after that one time you woke up insisting the baby wasn’t breathing and it took me an hour and a half to get back to sleep.

We promise not to freak out if we don’t have a mid-life couple’s hobby.

Me: I promise to leave you love notes when you least expect it.

Him: I promise to bring you flowers for no reason.

Me: I promise not to write about our marriage…too much.

Him: I promise to believe you…mostly.

Happy sweet sixteen, darlin’, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, even if I would need reading glasses to read my vows.

(Me: I promise not to try to get the last word in…)

15 to Life

02ce163afe978916dd6118dfeae68b65What does 15 years of marriage look like?

15…is.

It is. 15 is like breathing. I don’t know any differently, only the space your body leaves for me to roll into. 15 years is fewer sharp edges to cut or slice. 15 is soft enough to absorb and blunt.

15 years is difficulty telling where I stop and you begin. It is mixing up histories. It is forgetting you weren’t there for part of my life and putting you there anyway; a cardboard cut-out photo-shopped in the back of my memory.

15 years is a sentence. More than a stint, less than a forever, fifteen to life. It is stranded between the rounded bookends of 10 and 20, a stepping stone on the way to 25. There are no poems that rely on 15 lines, no mysticism. But you can’t ignore it.

15 is too substantial to ignore, its bulk is too present.

15 is past settling, it is roots below the surface. It is sometimes forgetting to look because you think you remember what is in front of you, like your own reflection.

15 is elastic enough to stretch individual tastes and trust your history will snap you back together. 15 is separate vacations because 15 is knowing you don’t have to enjoy the same things to stay in love.

15 is occasional flowers, a snippet of love song, a note scribbled on the back of a napkin and left on a pillow. It is realizing random champagne is just as good as momentous occasions. It is annoyance and exasperation at the loudness of someone’s chewing, the way they say a certain word, the way they leave their things scattered about.

15 is grateful for the moments that still make you catch your breath.

15 is feeling your heart in your throat when you tell the story of how you met and realizing how very many things could have gone wrong.

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15 is truly meaning you are the love of my life because no matter what cards fate has up her tricky sleeve, you have been the love that has been there throughout year ones and twos and sixes and sevens. Through the deaths and the blue times that seemed to spilled over and stain everything else. Through the nines and tens and nights on the couch. Through the laughs and the sing-a-longs and sleepless nights of babies. The fours and fives of longing, eights and tens of whirling around each other in a tornado twisting with change. Through the elevenses and twelves of  clickety-clacking to the top of the hill and thirteens of screaming down, stomachs dropping. Through the calm of fourteens.

15 in no longer planning for a future together but being smack dab in the middle of it.

15 is understanding the possibility that someday one will exist without the other.

15 is promising to make the minutes and days and months, all the in between thens and nows, count for something.

This is 15.

 

 

 

 

An Otherwise Ordinary Day

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Mourning Cloak Butterfly

My father died in the early hours of an otherwise ordinary, August day.

As his body lay still, no longer hostage to late summer stickiness or mosquito whine, I was three states and a thousand thoughts and moments away. As the last thread binding him to me, to us, to this place and time finally tore free, I was stumbling to my son’s bedroom. My ten-month old was standing at attention, awake. Alert. I must have comforted him, laid him down and smoothed his hair, damp with the sweet sweat of baby dreams. Surely I shushed him, stroking my finger down the length of his nose before falling back into the expanse of my own bed, the expanse of my own oblivion. The truth is, I don’t remember. I remember only that he woke. I remember because it was unusual.

An expected death, a waited for death, a death which comes uninvited but not wholly unwelcome, drags behind it a range of emotions demanding admission. There are the tight contractions of your heart still beating like a traitor inside your ribcage. There is the leaden realization that nothing, not one single thing, will be the same. There is a sense of relief and a deluge of guilt and, if you are lucky, a quiet, enveloping numbness. There is a small pocket of air in which to breathe again.

Two weeks before that otherwise ordinary day, I said good-bye. My father knew he was loved; that his laughter, his stubbornness, his simply being would be missed. I needed him to know I was happy. A happy that went beyond the sickness, beyond the grief. A happy that waited, patient and quiet, to be reclaimed.

In our family, happiness is not a given. It is not a trait passed down like blue eyes and long legs, like heart disease or depression. There are several boughs of our family tree crumbling with rot. There is a real danger of breaking your neck on the way down. I wanted my father to know I had found my footing, my counterbalance: despite rotten branches and a dying parent, I had found a place of happiness.

My father was wasted away from the cancer. He had tumors you could see and touch pressing through his skin. Yet he understood. He was still, in every capacity, my father; slightly watered down, but my father nonetheless. He understood. For that small mercy, I am grateful. It is the only thing that allowed me to breathe when I got into my car to travel home. Those breaths did not come easily, but they came.

My father died in the early hours of an otherwise ordinary, August day. It was as peaceful as dying can be, the fleeting moment of time and breath that takes you from the living to the dead. The lights had flickered dim, then bright, my mother said. There were no storms, no faulty fuses, no electrical surges, simply a flicker. Dim, then bright. A small, wayward movement in the universe, a butterfly flutter between two worlds.

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Dim, then bright. The same time that my son had woken the night before.

That summer, I learned to look for the unexpected. What I found was my father: in the sweet night sweat of my son’s dreams, in the corners of a room that went dim, then bright, in the shiny copper of a forgotten penny. I found him in my own happiness. Though my foot sometimes slips on a rotted branch, he is always there to guide my way, his hand at my back.

First published on August 1, 2014 as the winner of Paste’s That Summer writing contest.

As August 2nd marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, I conintue to honor his memory by sharing this memory here.