Nobody Tells You How Long a Marriage Is
I used to want to leave you.
I loved you. But I couldn’t stay.
I wanted to live in a city, with access to hiking trails, and coffee shops and bookstores that I could walk to. Not our Florida suburb full of palm trees and shopping plazas, a place I had never wanted, but settled in because you were already there, establishing roots. If I left, it would have freed you to live the suburban family life that belonged there, the one I assumed you wanted, the one I could never give you.
We went to Seattle for a wedding, and spent a day climbing the hills and touring the gardens in and around the city. “I love it here,” I said. “This is what I want.”
But it was 2009, and our house in Florida was worth $150,000 less than what you had paid for it. We were stuck.
My legs went numb. I saw a doctor, an acupuncturist, a therapist. The doctor said nothing was wrong. The acupuncturist listened to me cry during our pre-treatment consultation, and the therapist asked me if I felt stuck.
“I don’t feel stuck,” I said. “I feel trapped.”
The numbness was worse when we walked our little neighborhood together, and I tried to get you to discuss the prospect of leaving. All my pain and anxiety would pour into my legs until I couldn’t feel them. I was walking on stumps. I couldn’t believe that you wanted this life. You were baffled by my need to leave.
Our friends who married in Seattle had a baby. We got the notice and cried together on the bathroom floor. I was surprised by your grief, but not by mine. I carried mine with me, grieving for something I wanted but could not have. And because I couldn’t have it, I wanted a do-over. And I wanted to give you one too.
But I knew you would stay exactly where you were. And eventually find and fall in love with someone else. And have a child or two. And I would see you somewhere, years down the road, with a pair of beautiful toddlers on your hips. And you would be happy. But there would be a part of you that would want to stay with me, and a part of me that would want to stay with you, and we would leave the encounter devastated. I would go to my small, expensive apartment and cry, missing you and the life you were living.
I traveled by myself, going to writers’ conferences in California, where I’d try to imagine a life without you. Instead, I imagined the menu items that you might order if you were there, the conversations we’d have and the things you’d point out to me. I sat in Golden Gate Park, in the shade of old-growth eucalyptus, and watched the pollen swirl in the filtered light. I imagined taking our children there after school each day, and walking home just in time to greet you after work.
We went to Germany and Switzerland and Holland. With each place, a new dream. We could live in Freiburg and go hiking every day. We could live in Amsterdam and run a little shop out of the ground floor of our home. Always, we would fly back to Florida, back to our lives, and I would feel that sadness touching down.
I was trapped inside myself. Each day I would go to a job that I hated and come back to a house that didn’t feel like mine and I would drink too much, climbing into a small, dark hole made for one.
I asked if it was O.K. with you if I quit my job and went to Arizona for a few months, just so I could spend some time alone, to write and think and find my foundation, the bedrock that had been surgically cut and irradiated out of me.
“No,” you said. “It’s not O.K. We’re married. We’re here. I need you to stay.”
I didn’t know it then, but I needed to stay too. I thought I wanted to be alone but what I really wanted was for you to be free of me. I wanted you to be able to move on and to have what I couldn’t give you.
But I know now that you never saw it that way. When my cancer was diagnosed, you never once stopped to think about how your life might be affected by the loss of my fertility. You only thought about me, and what I needed. So you slept beside me each night in the hospital, and went home each morning to shower and walk the dog. You worked all day, went back home to the dog, and then to Whole Foods so I wouldn’t have to eat hospital food, and then came back to the hospital, and slept beside me once more. I was drugged and swollen. I didn’t realize how long the days were, or what it must have taken you to keep going. This is why you now say “we went through cancer.” Not “she,” not “Lauren,” but us, together.
Last year we were in Japan, hiking the Kumano Kodo, when it got dark. I was angry with you for causing us to miss the bus that took us to the trailhead, for causing us to spend four additional hours hiking the ancient pilgrimage route under the weight of our heavy packs. My knees, hips and shoulders were in excruciating pain. I decided I couldn’t take another step. I started to cry. I was desperate and exhausted. “Leave me here,” I said through tears.
“Wait,” you said, and shifted your pack onto your chest, and took my pack and lifted it onto your back. Together, we descended the slippery rocks, hand-in-hand. I pointed my flashlight at our feet, and you used yours to illuminate the path ahead.
It’s been 10 years since the cancer. And those sad years that followed feel almost like another sickness I went through, a fever or drug interaction. I still have no idea why you stayed. Why you tolerated me. But I’m glad you did.
Nobody tells you how long marriage is. When you fall in love, when you have fun with somebody, when you enjoy the way they see the world, nobody ever says, “This person will change. And so you will be married to two, three, four, five or 10 people throughout the course of your life, as you live out your vows.” Nobody warns you. But you, my dear. There is something deep and hard and lasting inside of you. And I wish I had known, when I was searching again for my bedrock, that all I had to do was reach out my hand.