As the time gets closer until I see my husband in the flesh again, and too close to idealize, my thoughts go back to how it was in the beginning, when we were first falling in love. It wasn't easy. Sometimes I wonder where I found the faith, so early on, to believe that it would be worth it in the end.
At work, one of the house assignments is to wash the loads of green and red aprons that we wear to mark ourselves as "Care Managers." If you have ever washed a load of aprons, you will be familiar with the way they can come out of the drier or washer; as a huge knot of tangled apron strings.If I have any time at all, one of my favorite things to do is to untangle them and the more complicated and tighter the knot the better.
The trick is to gently loosen first one strap and then the next, without trying to force any one in particular. After a while, it will slowly start to fall apart until, all of a sudden, it breaks open and the strands can be easily separated.
This was how I had to love Keith, from beginning to end. When I met him, he was one huge knot of tightly wound pain and touching him anywhere too strongly caused an intense reaction. His pain caused him to push me away again and again, it was as though for every two steps forward in love and intimacy, he had to take one, huge step back in fear. It did not take me long to experience this.
The first time we said I love you was only days into meeting. We were in bed together, late at night, curled up in each other's arms in the dark.
"I care about you, Jenny," he whispered into my ear. "I care about you so much. Do you...how do you feel about me?"
I knew it was soon to be saying the words, perhaps perilously soon, but I already knew them to be true and the raw need in his voice drew them out of me.
"I love you," I whispered. There was a short pregnant pause; I could feel his fear and need equally in the close atmosphere.
"I love you, Jenny," he breathed, so soft and so low I wouldn't have caught it if he hadn't of been so close to me.
The next day he was cooler and more casual with me, and I knew immediately why. I felt the pain at his withdrawal. I felt the need to reaffirm that what he had said, so late at night, was also true in the light of day. But I knew that this would be disastrous.When I had said the words so soon, I knew that I would be taking a risk and I was prepared for the consequences. I did not ask for reaffirmation, I matched my mood to his and let him withdraw from me.
That evening he told me, straight up, that he thought it was way too soon to be saying "I love you."
"We hardly know each other," he said, matter of fact.
We were in the kitchen, getting a late night snack. I was always tired then, the demands of my job as department head had increased by sudden staffing drama, and I was driving more than an hour to and from work in order to spend my nights with Keith. Often, during that time, I sat myself up on the kitchen counter, too tired to stand and too in love with Keith to even want to be in a kitchen chair, only a few feet away from where he stood, preparing food or washing up.
I felt the sudden, expected stab of pain at his words, but I did not act out of it. "It's true," I affirmed, trying hard to keep my voice light. "We've only known each other a short time."
"You don't even know who I am," he continued, but he came over to me, his hands on my knees, looking directly into my eyes. Again the pain, but I put my hands on his shoulders.
"I fall in love quickly," I said simply, knowing it to be true.
"Yeah," he said, jumping on the statement, "too quickly. You could fall out of love just as easily; you leave people after six months."
I wanted to protest, I felt stung by his words, I felt as though he were labeling me as someone who could not keep a commitment. I wanted to burst out with a long diatribe about how, in the last four years of my life, I had learned some extremely valuable lessons about the power and the cost of commitment, how real it was and what it required from a person, and that I knew myself and I knew exactly what I was getting into when I had said that I loved him.
But I also felt that his fears were justified, after all, I did hardly know him and I had left relationships in the past, many of them. It would have taken me hours to explain to him the situations and the reasons for ending them, and finally, I knew that now was not the time for that discussion. He wouldn't have been able to hear what I was saying, his fear and pain would have blocked his ability to actually process what I would have said.
"It is frightening to fall in love so quickly," I replied instead, giving him again the validation he so needed.
He went on then to explain to me how he had fallen in love with his ex wife, a girl he had known since high school, for close to ten years; how she must have known who he was and yet had left him. He went over, point by point, things about himself that he said I must be able to come to terms with.
"I'll never know when I'm coming home," he told me earnestly, still leaning up against me as I sat on the counter, his face close to mine in the dim light. "I could think I'm going in for an easy day and end up not getting home until nine; I just never know. When I come home, I'm going to spend a lot of time in the garage, I won't stay in the house all the time. I don't mind helping out with the cleaning," he continued, 'but I won't do it all, you have to do some of it too."
As I was listening to this, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of immature and needy girl his ex was, but I kept these thoughts to myself. I listened quietly until he had gotten off his chest everything he had to say.
"I can handle all that," I said simply. "I like time by myself, it won't bother me when you spend time in the garage, I won't expect you to spend every minute with me. Of course I don't expect you to clean the house, that's my job and if you want to help, I'll be grateful, but I won't expect it. And of course you won't know when you will be home; your job is more than a job, it's your life and I know that.
"I know," I went on, watching the amazement pass over his face, "that because this is true, a great deal of our life will be spent apart; I must be prepared to be constantly on the move and that it is possible you will die in action and I will be left to raise our children completely by myself. I know that you drink a great deal and that it is a risk that sometime in the future it could go from being controlled to an addiction. I also know that because you hate to see the doctor and chew tobacco, that if you don't die in action, it is highly likely that I will be at your side while you die a slow and agonizing death of stomach cancer, or of liver disease. I know all of this," I finished, "and I already came to terms with it."
Unexpectedly he grinned. "Wow, you're really prepared for me to die, aren't you?" he teased, his hands moving up to my hips, leaning in close, his eyes mischievous. "Do you think there's a chance I might actually live?"
"Of course," I said, smiling, my arms curling around his heavy shoulders, but not ready to let go of the seriousness of what I was saying. "But I had to come to terms with how much it might cost me to love you, and that is the worst that it would cost me."
He pulled me suddenly into his arms so I could not see his face. "I do love you, Jenny," he whispered. "I love you so much."
More times than I could count I had to listen and validate his fear, at times while silent tears filled his eyes and overflowed, leaving his cheeks glistening. He would wipe his cheeks unconsciously with the backs of his large, roughened hands and continue on, while my heart broke, hearing his raw pain and stifling the urge to cry out that I was not his ex wife, that I was different, that I would not leave him, that he could trust me.
Instead, each time I would say quietly instead, that yes, it was frightening, that yes, it had been horrible and that his pain and his fear were understandable under the circumstances. My reward for this was that, after he had run through everything he needed to say, he would come back to me, and more irrevocably and deeply than before. Once I understood this pattern, it became easier to bear the initial pain of it; in the process of untangling his pain, we were weaving ourselves closer and closer together.
"You're not a starter man," I told Keith more than once, with a grin.
He never understood what I meant, but he knew that I loved him, so he let it go. But I found that navigating the challenges in our relationship required me to draw from every bit of wisdom that the pain of past relationships had given me. There was not one betrayal, failure or mistake that did not lend me some perspective or strength that I needed when loving Keith and I found it to be one of the most redemptive experiences in my life.
I remember giving so generously of myself in past relationships and doing it almost defiantly, as though throwing down a gantlet. 'I dare you," I was saying to God, to fate, "I dare you to give me the consequences of this. Bring it on."
But it wasn't just a dare; all along, without knowing it, I was investing in the future. Everything I lost came back to me.
I'm scared often. I'm scared that he will die over there. I'm equally scared that who I fell in love with will die over there and someone else will return to me. When I look into the future, so hazy, I think of a thousand smaller, more domesticated tragedies that could occur after he does come home; that our love could die out in the daily wear and tear of managing money, raising children or simply because we are so incredibly different.
But I won't ever choose to act out of that fear. No matter what we weather, how we will argue or hurt one another or inevitably disappoint, I know for certain now that pain and loss are not dead ends. They are what the best of the future is built on, if I can find the courage to keep my heart open despite the initial cost.
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