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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Don’t go breaking my heart

IMG_1333I was ten the first time I kissed a boy.  It was under his porch, down the street from my own house.  His name was Johnny** and sometimes he wore a denim jacket without a shirt and rode a dirt bike in the woods behind his house.  Yes, the very same woods that would burn down a few years later.  I scribbled our initials in chalk on the sidewalk in big, balloon hearts with loopy ‘forevers’ and bizarrely inappropriate acronyms like “Holland” (Hope-our-love-lasts-and-never-dies) and “China” (Come-here-I-need-action).  We made out in the summer twilight after rounds of kick the can, played coy games of spin-the-bottle, and, I kid you not, slow danced to REO Speedwagon in his driveway one time.  I still can’t hear that particular song without tales of that 4th grade summer surfacing.  My husband makes fun of me every time it comes on the radio.  But if I knew what the word swoon meant when I was ten, then surely I did so.

I’m sure he made some woman very happy.  (Actually, I still hear news of him now and again because that’s what small town life is like.  Not that long ago, I ran into his mom at the hairdressers while I was visiting).  I’m fairly sure he doesn’t remember the details, the song that was playing, the way he smelled of milk and boy sweat, the tumultuous tummy flutterings of first kisses.  I wasn’t even his first kiss.  But I’m a girl, I remember stuff like this.  It’s the heady stuff of pulpy novels and bad poetry.  The shaky foundation holding up  your ideas of romance and love and relationships.

I was lucky I had such a memorable and gentle introduction.

I think our grade school romance simply fizzled, faded into 5th grade perhaps.  I don’t remember any big break up or tears.  I remember being introduced to algebra that year.  I remember reading The Westing Game and The Girl Who Owned a City, I remember my 5th grade teacher and coveting a pair of Jordache jeans, but I don’t remember the end of our romance.  Later we would rekindle our make-out sessions in middle school for a while, to the detriment of another lovely boy whose heart I broke along the way, (his song for me was Madonna’s Crazy for You–another swoon).  Matt** took me to a fancy dance at a different school where I felt awkward and out-of-place, under dressed and ugly-duckling-esque.  And he bent over backward in his 80s shiny suit and pointy shoes to make me feel comfortable.  And then I went and broke his heart.

All these memories welled up the other day after a friend recounted her son’s first real break up.  As she told us the story, you could IMG_1330almost hear the sound of his sixteen year old heart breaking in her words.  She teared up, everyone listening teared up.  We’d all been there, searching blindly for a dustpan and brush to sweep up the crumbs that are left from a shattered heart.  But when it’s your child and you can do nothing but hold out your arms to catch the broken pieces–and hope that they trust you enough not to drop them again–well that just doesn’t bear thinking about.  But I was only slightly older than my son is now, Johnny a little older than that, when we started coupling off at school dances and sneaking smooches behind the shed.

Lately I’ve noticed the girls in my son’s class looking at him under their lashes a bit more.  One or two have admitted to me that they think he’s cute.  I have told them that they have good taste.  But he is essentially clueless, happy to play ball games with his friends after school, to goof off and pull funny faces.  He is still of an age where nothing more than an impromptu ice cream cone makes him happy.

post-it-note-break-upGirls don’t seem to write boys initials on their sidewalks anymore.  I don’t know how it’s done now.  Sex And the City introduced the break up by Post-It-Note, I assume nowadays it’s done by text or e-mail, or a sudden, vicious change of relationship status on FaceBook.  It really doesn’t matter how it’s done, you still experience that split second of a flat lining heart, the painful burst where it begins to beat once again, the catch of breath in your chest that feels like it is trying to claw its way out.  That’s always the same.  That doesn’t change, no matter the technology or the age at which you experience that first real heartbreak.

Whether you are 10 or 16 or 40.

I only hope I can keep buying my son ice cream cones to make him happy for a little while longer.  And that he can look back at a particular song in 30 years time with fondness.

**all names have been changed to protect the innocent

Tiger tiger, burning bright

2012-12-01 09.00.13A few weeks ago, my eldest son went to a school dance.  With 50 Kroner in his pocket and a spot quiz of my mobile number, he went off to shake his 8 year old groove, Gangnam Style.  He had a grand old time, but confessed that he was a bit confused about the girls who were chasing him around, to the extent that at one point, he had to hide under a chair.  Upon explaining to him that sometimes boys and girls do this to each other when they like someone, he shot us a look of such incredulity that my husband and I had to go into the other room to laugh. Of course, this is just the beginning.  We often wish such swift growth upon our children to get through the daily grind, the monotony of the day to day chores and car-pools and activities and play-dates and bedtimes that we sometimes wish their childhood away.  Soon my son will be old enough to understand what those girls (or boys) are doing.  Then he will be old enough to chase them back.  Soon after he will be old enough to swallow his pride and muster his courage and ask someone out.   He will experience the butterflies of his first kiss, the heady perfume of first love.  He will sling an arm over someone’s shoulder or put a casual hand in a back pocket and saunter down the street wrapped in the warm cocoon of young coupledom.2012-10-25 11.25.08

And then, almost inevitably, someone will break his heart.

He will survive, we all do.  But the real question is, will I?

I have had to fight back tears when I have seen one of my children standing alone at the edge of a playground.  I have gone soft and misty hearing about other people’s children getting excluded at school.  How will I survive my son’s first heartbreak?  I am going to have to sit on my hands to stop from wringing the neck of the person that breaks my son’s heart.  I may have to strait jacket myself to stop myself going all Texas Cheerleader Mom on their ass.  How dare someone not love my son.  Who in the world do they think they are?  Were they raised by wolves?

In 2011, thanks to Amy Chua, ‘tiger Mom‘ entered  the urban lexicon stage right.  But to me, a tiger mom shouldn’t be the violin-toting, math tutoring, college prepping your kindergartener that it has come to be associated with.  To me a tiger mom is a mom that defends her young with a ferociousness that borders on feral.  I can remember the shattering of my heart, the feeling of not being able to breathe for a time, of almost literally drowning in sorrow.  When I think of my son experiencing that for the first time, the claws come out.  Tiger mom indeed.

If you’ve ever watched a show like  “A Birth Story”  or “A Baby Story” you’ll see women with placenta still dripping from their hospital beds gush about the instantaneous bond they felt with their child.  Women who swear that every day during the 72 months of pregnancy they felt that bond growing stronger. I’m sure it happens like that for some people, but not for everyone.  Sometimes it takes a few hours, a few days, weeks, even a few months.  But barring extraneous circumstances, it almost always does happen.

When my first son was born, there were unexpected complications and he had to spend a few weeks in the neo-natal intensive care unit. When you take your birthing classes you learn how to breath and how to ask for an epidural in 17 languages.  You take a tour of the hospital and take a sneak peek at the newborns in their little incubators.  But no one ever teaches you what to do when you go home, but your baby doesn’t.  So in the post-hormonal exhaustion of just having birthed a live human being and watching as doctors whisked him off, I didn’t feel very bonded.  The next 2 days were spent waiting for test results and visiting and trying to hold and nurse while not disturbing tubes and iv lines.  Not too much bonding then either, more just stunned somnolence.  It wasn’t until about a week later, as I lay sobbing in my bed because I’d forgotten my breast pump tubes at the hospital, that I realized I would do just about anything for my son.  The idea of someone hurting him was so abhorrent, I realized that I would happily go to prison just to inflict punishment upon the person who made him cry.   I tried to think of something I wouldn’t do to save him–and I couldn’t come up with a single thing.  Would I lay down my life?  In a heartbeat.  Would I harm another that was harming him?  In the blink of an eye.  Would I exact revenge Old Testament style and bring down a plague of locusts upon the house of his enemy?  It sure felt like it at the time.  So it didn’t happen immediately, but my tiger instinct was aroused.  In our house we have always referred to it as the emergence of Mama Lion, but the idea is the same.  The ferocious defense of your young.

That burning intensity has of course been tamed.  There’s no need to get Kill Bill in the face of the four year-old in the sand box.  I don’t need to practice ninja mom moves when my kid doesn’t get picked for the playground soccer.   Without a doubt I would still defend my children with my life, but I’ll save it for the big stuff.

Like that first heartbreak.

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