Tree of Life

 

Last night after dinner, my husband and I rose from the table at the same time, and while still discussing the minutia that dominates most of the conversations of a long marriage, started clearing the table. He scraped the dishes, and loaded the dishwasher while I wrapped up leftovers. Suddenly, I noticed the way in which we moved together. We were doing different tasks, but working towards the same goal. No movement was wasted, we did not bump into each other, or reach for the ketchup bottle at the same time. The work was done quickly and easily, and when I pointed out what I noticed, we joked about working like a “well-oiled machine.” This is one of the many pleasures of being with someone for a long time. You know their strengths and their weaknesses, sometimes even better than you know your own.

We’ve had a hard year, the two of us. This is the first year in a very long marriage that we’ve ever questioned if we would spend the next one together. We have been together since I was a teen, and I never doubted that we would  grow old as a couple. I guess it’s a miracle in itself that we made it this far without questioning our relationship. Not that it has been easy. We have survived poverty; not the kind where we were starving, but the kind where our electricity was shut off and we were too proud to ask our parents for money, so we told our young children that we were “camping” for the week (they loved it), and the kind where we couldn’t afford toothpaste sometimes, so we had to use baking soda. We survived the death of both of his parents, one by suicide, alcoholism, jail, a diagnosis of bipolar, with its 20% mortality rate, and both of us attended college with small children, while working.

Through all this, we laughed our way through many a hardship. It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. There were many tears, fights, threats and even throwing of wedding rings on two dramatic occasions. But in all those years, neither one of us, even while the words, “that’s it! I’m done” were hurled at each, ever thought for one minute that we would ever actually be done. Not for nothing, did my then six-year-old niece proclaim, “you guys are always either fighting, or kissing!”

No, the real threat came quietly. Years of his bad boy behavior, and my long-suffering martyr act caught up with us. We finally outgrew the roles that we’ve played for decades. Roles that we fell into naturally and actually must have enjoyed.  There is something so satisfying about being the “good one,” in the relationship. I do believe that I actually relished the martyr role. It felt pretty good to be the forgiver; benevolent, strong and merciful. I would shower him with forgiveness, and snatch it back at the first signs of a disagreement, enslaving him to a lifetime of being the naughty child to my scolding mom.

For some reason this year, we both grew tired of our roles. I was weary of the burden, and after a summer of no sleep and a restless spirit, I abruptly shucked it off like an old coat. I decided that I did not want to be responsible for his happiness or lack thereof, something he never asked me to do in the first place. I don’t know why, but I also had no desire to hold our family together with an iron will and a clenched fist anymore. I let it go. I had no idea what would happen, but I was too tired of carrying our responsibilities, our happiness, and our salvation on my back like a figurative beast of burden, to care anymore. I thought that if I let go, everything would topple like a house of cards. I thought that I was so strong, that if I gave up control, he would go down too. It turns out that I’m not that strong, I never was. I was weak, because I thought I needed to hold on so tightly. God is strong, and he does not tire, nor does he hold on so tightly, he chokes the life out of someone.

Matthew 11:28 

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

 

So, I did it,  I told God I was tired of carrying all of this baggage and I asked him to take it from me. Then, of course, like a control freak, I plucked it back from him a few times, but ultimately I experienced the freedom that comes with letting go. I decided that whatever happened, and whatever became of us, it would be better than what we had been doing and the weariness that I’d been feeling for years.

So, what happened to my bad boy? Did he spiral out of control? Did he fall apart without me to hold him together? Nope, he stepped up. It seems that maybe my mother-role wasn’t saving him all along. I actually was standing in his way. By stepping back, and letting go, I gave him room to take his place. By not feeling responsible for his happiness and behavior, he became responsible for it himself. He is more content, and I feel unburdened.

What this means for two people who share a lifetime of memories and laughter, is that we are free to choose each other, every day. No longer entangled in a vicious cycle of dependent/co-dependent behavior, we are able to oblige each other, because we are happy to do it, not because we feel the other person will give up, or fall apart if we don’t.  It seems impossible to believe that after 28 years together, we are happier than we have ever been. We laugh, as we always have done. After all, having fun has always been the glue that has held us together, sometimes one of the few things. Now, enjoying each other’s company is more like fruit on our tree of marriage. A strong tree with roots of trust and commitment, a trunk of love and devotion, and branches of respect, loyalty and friendship, The fruits have developed over the years and have ripened for such a time as this. They are children, grandchildren, joy, fun and companionship. I don’t have to support this tree, like I always thought, I only have to water it daily and enjoy it for the beauty, shelter and comfort it provides.

 

Sometimes “Good Guys” Wear Black

When my kids were small, there was a lot of talk about “good guys” and “bad guys,” especially when my son was little. He, like many children, liked the idea of defeating the bad guys. After all, the good guys should always win, and they do, at least in movies and books. Luckily, they are easy to identify.  The “bad guys” are dressed in black and are usually ugly with snarls on their faces. They are mean and rude. They don’t say “thank you” or “please” and I’m sure they never pick flowers for their wives. Actually, they probably don’t have wives, because they are bad, and no one wants to even kiss one, let alone marry one.

The “good guys” are handsome of course. They are often dressed in white and have impeccable manners. They are excellent swordsman and probably call their mothers every Sunday, and they always get the girl in the end. It’s black and white, there is no gray. The bad guys do not become good guys and the good guys are good 100% of the time. They do not do good things 90% of the time and then occasionally slip up, due to a lack of judgement, or lapse in sanity.

So, when we grow up and meet “Mr. Right,” we expect that they will be good guys, and they are, for the most part. Certainly no girl sets out to marry a bad guy. No one wants to look at a snarl-face at the dinner table or buy the same black outfit for him whenever he needs new clothes. We have already started to become disillusioned somewhere between the happy endings of childhood and the harsh realities of adult life, and realize that there is more to life than good and bad, black and white. We know that there are many gray areas and we accept that these gray areas apply to our own lives as well as in others. But still, we search for a good guy, and after we are with one for a while, we start to appreciate the little things, like the things my good guy does for me.

A good guy picks wildflowers for you because he knows that your practical heart dies a little inside when you see expensive roses fold their haughty heads after only one day of extravagant splendor.

A good guy gives you his fortune cookie at the Chinese restaurant, not because he doesn’t like them, but because “you love them more.”

A good guy poses for selfies with you every time you pull out your phone even though he says, “I don’t know how to fake smile” and, “why do we bother, we always have the same faces?”

A good guy walks on the outside of the sidewalk, even if the sidewalk is slightly slanted and it makes him appear shorter than you, just to keep you safe.

A good guy will go shopping with you if you ask, even though crowds make him panicky, and he puts the groceries into the trunk, while you sit in the car because it’s cold/raining outside.

A good guy has sampled lasagna all over Rome, but thinks yours is better, and tells you that.

A good guy comes upstairs when you text him from the warmth of your bed to ask him to turn on the fan, even though you are 8 feet away from it, because you don’t feel like getting up.

A good guy tells you that you are beautiful and that you that you smell good even though you often forget to compliment him.

A good guy sometimes leaves love notes in your lunch box and doesn’t mind if you show your friends at work.

A good guy empties the dishwasher, because he knows that you inexplicably hate this task.

A good guy rubs your back, even though you rarely rub his.

A good guy makes you a grilled cheese sandwich, when you text saying you are craving one, while you are on your way home after a long day at work.

A good guy makes a headboard from a pallet, after you saw it on Pinterest and then strings christmas lights on it and turns them on every night, so that you will see it when you go upstairs to change after work.

A good guy makes you a huge walk-in closet, big enough to fit three dressers, and floor to ceiling shoe racks, and bars to hang an exorbitant amount of clothes, while he makes do with one bureau.

A good guy asks if you have “stencils” for your fingernails and offers to paint them for you.

A good guy washes your car for you, notices when you need air in your tires, and your oil changed, and does it for you.

A good guy repaints a whole room, without a complaint, after you come home from work and exclaim, “ohhhh, I didn’t know that color would look so bright!  Ummmm, I don’t like it…”

A good guy knows that a long marriage is like hiking a mountain. It requires endurance, strength and perseverance. Sometimes, you don’t feel like climbing anymore and you want to go back, but if you push through when you think you have nothing left, the view is so beautiful, all the struggles leading to it are forgotten.

A good guy calls you his best friend and makes you laugh.

A good guy is strong, loyal, protective and sweet. He stirs emotions in you like no one else. He can make you go from love to hate and back again in one afternoon. He is the only person that can make you so mad, you never want to see him again, then five minutes later, make you laugh. He might snarl at you at the dinner table, but kiss you goodnight. A good guy always has your back, even when he is mad at you.

A good guy does all this, but he also f*$#’s up occasionally. Sometimes he drinks too much or too often. He stays out too late with his buddies.  He can be irritable, especially in crowds and can be irrationally jealous. He throws his jacket on the kitchen chair instead of hanging it up and his boots always track in mud. He loses things all the time and absent-mindedly drives off with cellphones and Ipads on top of his vehicle. A good guy also admits when he is wrong, apologizes, and tries to do better.

My good guy, like so many others, wears black sometimes. He is not always good, but neither am I. Many times in our adult lives, we find ourselves in gray areas. Sometimes we wonder if the good outweighs the bad. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. The longer I am married, the more I realize that if my guy always wore white, I probably would tell him that he is boring, and anemic, and that I need a little more color in my life. Sometimes, my good guy wears black, but in the end, he still will always get this girl.