I met Ralph when we were seventeen, in a church. At a word from my mother I shifted and looked back to see him at the head of the aisle; his head was turned. He had a long lean body and tousled red hair and thrillingly alternative sideburns and he was easily handsome. He had expressive hands; he was a drummer. It’s rather incredible I can remember this to the day, how I felt.
He had a girlfriend at the time and I’m sure I had a boyfriend – or two. That didn’t matter much to me. I wasn’t a very respectful person at seventeen. But in another seventeen – our seventeen years of marriage (on this day) – I am proud to say my behavior has considerably improved.
When we married and started having children, we’d celebrate our anniversaries and people would tell us, “Congratulations! What an accomplishment!” For many years, I didn’t think my marriage was an “accomplishment”, but today I do. It certainly is by now; after all, staying together a year or two or three or ten doesn’t take nearly as much focus and effort as staying together twenty. Our marriage is an accomplishment, dammit, and we both have worked very hard. We’ve suffered devastating illness, we’ve lost loved ones. We lost a baby; I remember the day, and I remember my heart breaking as I watched my toddler bobbing around at an ice cream parlour, my husband’s arm around my shoulder. We’ve grown careers, each helping the other; we’ve left one or two behind, too. We bought a home together. We’ve raised two amazing children. On balance, yes: it’s not possible to see our marriage in any light other than an impressive, wonderful achievement.
And when I think on my years with my husband it’s so hard for me to separate the part of me that loves him for who he is, and the part of me that loves him for who he’s shown himself to be. On the latter count I will never, ever stop feeling so much gratitude and pride that he was on board with me in raising our children differently than everybody else. (He even wrote a song about this, all these years ago!) I will never forget that when I quit my stressful and soul-sucking job, he supported me – he didn’t talk about the paycheck and he didn’t pressure me in the slightest. I will always respect him for working every day for women’s equality, and to dismantle white supremacy. I can’t make him do any of these things, but can you imagine how grateful I am that he put himself on these paths? Watching his commitment increases my esteem for him immeasurably. I haven’t met a man I thought was a better man.
But then there are those things about him that aren’t about what he’s done – the things about him that are just him. He is musical: always singing, playing songs in the house and in the car; he writes and sings his own works and seems to not know how extraordinary this is. He makes bread with his own hands. He looks directly at people and makes eye contact; the homeless man on the street who is not well, the friend whose life is falling apart. Like how he will come to bed and get sleepy next to me, and then get up and make himself one more snack before finally sleeping. The weight of his body next to mine in the bed. When something is so funny it overtakes him and he laughs and nods his head and closes his eyes – I live for that laugh! Like when he rides his bike without hands, even though I hate it and I picture a crash and a crash has never happened. The way he smells, and the sound of his heartbeat as I lay my head against his chest.The way he feels against my body at night. I hate myself because I know you cannot own a person and you shouldn’t try to, this is a sin. And yet there is this small part of me that wants no one else to own him in this way, ever. It is a small and selfish part but it has not been extinguished in all these years and she keeps me company and holds in her hands the restless rush of my own jealous, devastatingly limited heart.
We’ve been together now a little over half my life. At times my mind has frantically turned down a path, this way or that, and tried to think it through, to think through if I would want another person, if I made a mistake. I have never been able to get very far with that. I’ve been such a terrible partner in so many ways and at so many times that sometimes I despair for my lack of abilities and consistency. But even had I been a perfect wife – what of it? Because in the end something like this, any loved one who is with you and whose heartbeat you can feel, it is a gift anyway. None of us are so perfect we “deserve” or “earn” it; none of us so wretched we should be denied it. What is scarier is to simply accept the gift of our beloved with gratitude and prostate oneself to the reality that you’ve made yourself incredibly, dangerously, drunk-in-love vulnerable.