They Sit Together on the Porch

There I am, crying. In front of a crowd. On video. And I tear up when I watch it now because it’s still true. My vows at our wedding seven years ago today.

“From the very moment we met, you’ve been a challenge,” I said. “Though it took months to get our first official date, I knew what I wanted the first time you called me. When you couldn’t get out of your garage because the power went out in a storm and you couldn’t leave, and you tried swinging from the emergency release on the garage door opener. That’s when I realized that I wanted to be the one you depended on.”

I don’t remember what exactly I said. I don’t remember what she said. Though I should, I can’t recall what the argument was about, but it was our first and the way I handled it was awful. I drove away. I left.

This was in the parking lot of the riverwalk in Macon where we would meet in the mornings to run. Originally it was supposed to be a morning stroll — a chance to chat and get to know each other — but Heather tricked me right from the jump. I stuck with it. I would go to bed in what passed for workout clothes and get out of bed at a quarter to 7 am, right before I was supposed to meet her. I would cough the whole time, choking down the fresh air and fighting the nausea that occurs when you’re a smoker with a two-pack-a-day habit. That first semester of her first tenure-track job, this was the only way I knew I’d get to see her, so I would run in silent suffering rather than not see her at all.

Like everybody else, I’d heard that dribble about “you’ll know” when you find “the one” — and for a while, I believed it. I held to it through enough false positives that by the time I met Heather, I no longer trusted it. Yet, even as I questioned the idea of a soul mate, I couldn’t stop thinking I was running alongside mine each of those mornings in Macon.

So, I anguished as I drove away that day, certain I would never see her again, or at least that I had screwed up too badly for her to ever see me the same way again. She wouldn’t trust me again. I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have left. I screwed up. I shouldn’t have left. I turned around. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, stunned. I begged. I confessed. I knew I’d made a mistake when I left. I will never make that mistake again.

On my birthday the year that we met, she went with me to the Golden Corral because it’s what I wanted. It wasn’t the weirdest non-date date we went on either. When we were just friends, which was how we spent much of our time together in the beginning, I took her to Smiley’s Flea Market. That’s the kind of place where they post signs prohibiting alcohol, guns and live snakes on the premises.

After lunch, I was going to drive to Ft. Myers Beach, FL to visit my old roommate Thomas and his psychic bride Rainbow. We’d talked on the phone about Heather, who had a grandma in Sarasota and was tagging along for the ride, and Rainbow sensed something good but she wouldn’t say what. I would have believed anything that reinforced what I wanted to be true, that she liked me too, that this was right. Part me of made that trip to ask Rainbow more.

Thing is, I can’t stand driving places with other people. A ride to lunch is one thing, but this was a long haul. Plus, I was still smoking on the regular. There was little I liked more than riding with the window down and a Camel Light between my lips, a gas station coffee at the ready and practice karaoke on the radio. Not Heather, not with cigarette smoke. So, consider all that and then realize this was a 10-hour road trip. Non-stop conversation. Zero cigarettes.

I started to light one during a pit stop along the way, and thought better of it. Not only would I stink, but that’d be five minutes I could have been spending with her. Besides, I just wasn’t craving one.

That’s when it made sense. That’s when I knew.

The more I got to know Heather, the more I understood that her strength was hard-earned. She’s faced down challenges that are the kind of things you say you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But how would you ever know that? Look at her. Bright-eyed, smiling and kind. How could this person have ever had to overcome a thing?

I never try to quote Khalil Gibran if I can help it, but I think he’s right about this: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

We all have that sorrow. We all have these carved out spaces. Heather has shown what to do with it all. She’s learned how to protect herself without walling herself off from people. She can make you feel like the sun shines just for you.

Sometimes, Heather asks me who I think I might have been if we hadn’t gotten married. I understand why she thinks about this more often than I do. Her options are wider. Her choose-your-own-adventure novel is vast. Mine is a picture book. I shudder inside when I give it any serious thought. What happens to all that space carved out by sorrow when you don’t know how else to fill it?

Before Heather, I filled that sorrowed space with smoke, but being with her has changed the way I see the obstacles.

The drive back from Florida was different. For eight or nine hours, it was just as fantastic as the ride down. We had spent that weekend hanging out together and it was a blast. Instead of splitting up, we stayed together to split time with Thomas and Rainbow, and then with her grandmother.

But as we neared Macon, reentering the atmosphere where we were only friends and nothing more, the more it felt like we had two choices. That’s how I felt. After that weekend, I wouldn’t be able to tolerate pretending I had no feelings for her outside of the platonic. Either we need to be a thing or I have to stop hanging out with you. It was as unfair an ultimatum as it was dumb. She was not ready. I’d made my bed and I had to lie in it. I was leaving her again.

That last stretch of road before dropping her off at her house was wrenching. I wanted to pull a u-turn the way I had when I bailed out of our first argument, I wanted to come back and apologize and start over. But I couldn’t. She couldn’t. We had to go our separate ways.

You could call it a challenge, the backdrop to our engagement and wedding. My father, whose kidneys had failed and put him out of work permanently, suffered a disabling stroke about three months before our big day. We went from trying to figure out how to get him to the ceremony to hoping he’d live long enough to tell him about it later. He was confined to a bed on the same floor as the maternity wing where and when Madeline was born. Four months later, I was by his side in the same hospital when he died. About a year and a half after that, we moved to Akron.

I was never alone through this — not only thanks to Heather but also my incredible sister, brother, uncle, aunt and friends — and I certainly didn’t bear the worst of it, but our storybook romance began in turmoil.

She was stunning. My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t speak. Maybe it was what she was wearing, but in retrospect, I think it was because I was seeing her anew. For the first time, she was my date.

This followed the two long, difficult weeks between the trip to Florida and Otis Redding’s birthday. My favorite of Macon, Georgia’s famous sons, Otis Redding’s family throws a party every September to honor his birth and raise money for the Big O Foundation, which sponsors music camps and such. I had two tickets. Did she want to go with me? We’d talked about it before my ultimatum and so my question was ostensibly a courteous follow-up. That’s what got us talking again.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking…

In hindsight, this can all seem fated, that we would have wound up together regardless, but I know 100 ways it could have gone wrong. Like if she’d looked in a mirror while we were standing next to one another, or if she’d ever asked for a resume.

On this, our seventh anniversary, I keep thinking about this idea that a spouse is there to prop you up or be your shoulder to lean/cry on — behind every good man, etc. — and that’s true often enough to be valid. But I think there’s more. You craft a shared vision for your partner’s life to make it a collective effort for the individual independent of you. That’s what marks your love.

Oh yeah, you’re there to try to lift each other’s spirits and have a good time, but sometimes that lift comes from a swift kick in the ass. Not because of what it means to you as a couple but what you know it means to this person you love, regardless of any other benefit to you.

This is how I see my wife: Selfless. She isn’t brave for its own sake but for mine and our daughter’s, for her family and her friends.

How else could you explain what Heather has done for me? When I balked, she pushed me to quit my day job and surrender my steady income even though I was doing it to start a print magazine without any financial backing and no network of support in a city where we’d only lived for a little more than a year. No. Actually, because that’s what I was doing. She didn’t do that because it was good for our household, not in any traditional sense, and she certainly couldn’t have thought it would make her life easier. She did it for me.

In my vows, I promised to work hard to become the man she sees when she looks at me. Only recently have I understood exactly how much she’s done to get me there herself.

Thank you, love. Happy anniversary.

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