My husband and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary at the end of June, which gave me a chance to really reflect on the challenges we’ve faced and the great life we’ve made together. The strength of our love for each other has weathered some serious setbacks over the last few years but I think it has been made stronger by these hardships. We've found a way to value the memories we have and laugh about the absurdities of life.
Maybe you know my husband. Maybe you don’t. If you do know him in person, you may not know the full story. My husband is goofy, hilarious, sharp-witted, a gifted artist and maker of things. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of animals. He is an athlete as much as he is a nerd and has spent a good portion of his life playing D&D.
He is also the sole breadwinner in our family and has had to assume the role of caregiver as well, and he has done so without complaint. I think the key to marriage is to marry someone who is a better person than you and who in turn makes you a better person. Also, find someone who is as much of a weirdo as you are. I lucked out.
I met him in high school when we had a mutual friend who my husband would draw comics with. When we had art class together senior year, I thought he was one of the most obnoxious human beings I had ever encountered (but pretty cute). He was so effortlessly happy all the time, laughing and finger-painting with his friends. I was an angry person with some serious unresolved issues then and suffering through 8 A.M. art class didn’t help my demeanor.
We had another mutual friend who helped us connect during our first year in college. When we started meeting at a coffee shop to do homework together, I saw that his happy-go-lucky attitude had been tinged with some cynicism and I had started resolving my anger to be a little more at peace with the world. We met somewhere near the middle. We started dating and my husband moved in with me and my parents within a few months. We knew it was life-long from the get go.
We’ve had a few bumpy patches from the beginning, and my health has never been great, but we saw our lives stretched out in endless possibilities. One of our favorite pastimes was to talk about our dreams and goals, make 5 year and 10 year plans. We were broke but we were happy. We spent our 20s hiking, playing video games, spending a lot of time with our family and friends, trash-talking each other during board games. I look back on this time with fondness.
We've had so many great memories along the way. He took on the role of a roadie as I was performing often and he would carry my equipment wherever I played. We would drive to the foothills on a whim and pay his grandma a surprise visit. We would visit his aunts in southern California and play games and go to the LA zoo. I never realized families were not all dysfunctional until I met his family. They are some of my favorite people.
My parents took us to Hawai'i twice years ago and snorkeling, boogie boarding, swimming in the ocean together, sitting on the beach with my family are probably some of my favorite memories still.
We literally climbed mountains together and have put in a lot of miles hiking Yosemite. Halfway through most hikes, I would be struggling and he would offer words of encouragement. Suffering and cursing my body, we’d eventually reach the top together and it always felt like a miracle. The climb down together was the easy part. This continues to be a metaphor for our lives together. Every day is a miracle.
I was in college almost all of the time we’ve been together and working at least one job, nose to the grindstone always. He worked jobs that allowed him time for his hobbies, making sure every day was filled with “good times.” As my friends and I in grad school often lamented that our lives were spent working for nothing 7 days a week, he jokingly would say “life choices.” I didn’t realize he chose the smarter path until I left grad school for good.
He always supported my long-suffering, financially precarious academic habit and even agreed to leave his home and friends and move to Nevada with me so I could do the absolute absurd: try to get a PhD in literature. He was in a motorcycle accident within a few weeks of moving there. His beloved scooter was toast and now he now has a bionic arm from the ordeal, although he suggested to the EMTs in the ambulance that he wanted a hook if he had lost his arm. We often joke that Reno tried to kill us both.
We made a good life for ourselves in Nevada, became liberal gun owners (as one does in Nevada) and would go target shooting in the desert, we watched wild horses roaming in the desert, did some hiking, and saw ourselves potentially staying there for good.
But I guess plans, especially ones that are carefully orchestrated and plotted, are made to be undone.
After I got ill in 2011, all the plans we had made were in question, and I wanted to go home and try to reclaim some sense of normalcy. Once again, he agreed to move back to California despite how much he loved living in Nevada. Our lives since then have been filled with ups and downs, including years where I am working and contributing and years where I’m not.
Every time our plans come crashing down, we gather the pieces and put them back together—creating something new, adjusting to a transformed reality and carving out a way to thrive in it. I would say we have been successful—at least successful on our own terms. We have become professionals at adapting and adjusting on the fly.
I’ve been watching all of The West Wing and am intrigued by the storyline of President Bartlet’s Multiple Sclerosis. In one episode, his MS left him paralyzed and as the First Lady helps him get into in his pants, he looks at her and says, “I guess this is what vows are for.” Indeed. Through sickness and health. Through thick and thin.
We have adjusted. We are adjusting. Although we aren’t able to do many of the things we used to do together, we haven’t lost everything—not by any means. We still have sci fi shows, video games, board games, Led Zeppelin, making art, philosophical debates, and the occasional excursion into nature. We're making new memories with our families, our crazy nephews, our friends who are more like family. We're still a bunch of nerds.
I often read other's stories who have lost so much because of illness, including the dissolution of what they thought were unbreakable vows. I think we are aware that things could be much worse and I wake up and go to bed every day with a conscious, determined sense of gratitude. As often as I come across stories of dissolution, I find stories of people who found a way to use catastrophe to build stronger bonds. The material realities that we believe determine so much of our lives, our identities, our relationships—I have learned—ultimately mean very little. If nothing else, this is one of the most invaluable lessons illness can provide.
Every time we hit a setback, I am often panicking, worrying, filled with fear. My husband just accepts the setback and figures out a way forward. He is brilliant at finding solutions and fixing things that seem irrevocably broken. My ringtone when he calls is the MacGyver theme song. I may have the degrees but he is the real brains behind the show. While I’m pondering the abstract, he is coordinating the particulars. Somehow we find a way to reach the top of the mountain together.
Most people don’t have to manage these obstacles at this age. Most don’t expect to have to be a caregiver for a spouse in your 30s. And this hasn’t been our only challenge faced too soon. We had to place my mother in a convalescent home earlier this year, far earlier than expected for her age. It often feels like we have lived a lifetime in the span of a few years, but we have weathered these setbacks with our love for each other and with the support of our family and friends. For our tenth anniversary next year, I am hoping we can have a party to celebrate with all of them. We need cake, good food, and great music.
We try to laugh about the absurdity of our lives often. Finding the absurdity in any situation is one our strengths. I told him once "I guess I'm now your trophy wife." He replied, "No. You're my trophy wheels."
Every relationship will face some kind of test at some point, and every time you get to other side of it together, the narrative of the bond you share widens and deepens. The story of your entwined destinies motions to new hope, new challenges, new utterances of strength. Ultimately, you choose to face what remains still unwritten together, and that, more than anything, is the bravery of love.