He’s not seventeen anymore. The Jeep he drove sits in a junkyard in the hills of North Carolina and the surfboard that he once strapped to the top was sold many summers ago. Lines are becoming etched around his eyes and his washboard abs have burrowed beneath layers of waffle-Wednesdays and pizza-Fridays. Running my hands through his hair my fingers find his hearing aid, and I catch his uneasiness in a crowd-both by products of his PTSD from a tour during Operation Enduring Freedom. I am not the same sixteen year old girl he met in high school either. Days can go by before I step into the shower or run a brush through my hair. I chase after tiny people in our tiny house in our tiny town. I write fewer love letters and pull away from Ben’s embrace instead of melting into it when I am tired or upset. Patience leaves me quickly and Ben is the first to feel the heat of my wrath. I can easily pick out what has changed since we met over ten years ago. It is the shifts I cannot see, the slow-moving icebergs cold and silent, that frighten me.
Every day I hope to God that Ben still loves me. I wait for the soft “I love you” to fall onto my ears as he gathers me into his arms. The rush of the good love, the kind that kicks me swiftly in the exposed space beneath my ribs so I choke ever so slightly. The kind of love that eats away at me, nibbling all of my rough edges and cracking chips. Smoothing me out, evening me up so I can be held close. The love that bridges leap years and leagues. To be infatuated with someone from now until I can no longer sustain the glow as the embers die out. I’ve learned emotions are fleeting, what if that soul that I have become bound too changes his mind? Do I willingly give myself to someone who could disappear before my eyes? I am handing him all of me, trusting him with the delicate pieces I have painstakingly put into place over the last 27 years. Everything we hold between the two of us could be ripped away, burnt up. But, I continue; I walk with my gaze forward focusing on the present. Today, he is with me. Right this minute his heart beats in time with mine, he exhales and his breath meets my own in the space between our bodies, wrapping us in our own element.
We are growing, sometimes together but often in our own way apart from the other. We have to sift through our own expansion before we can fully understand the impact each has on our marriage. I have found this especially true since the death of Beckett and Clementine. The choice to “give into” the disease that was ravaging our two children, to begin down the path of least resistance, took us three years to reach. Our affection for each other could not muddy that decision, we had to get there without the guidance of one another. It was a fine line, early on we felt like we were giving up so we fought; for our children and with each other. Once we reached for comfort in our home life, I thought the challenges were past us, at least the monumental ones. Beckett and Clementine died, and for a while the numbness was easy, we clung together in a vast emptiness only we truly understood.
Our bodies are in sync, when I am stumbling Ben helps me carry the wet blanket that my sadness has become, and vice versa. Our consciousness’ know when a storm is coming to reach out and catch the other, but the mundane days are difficult. The days when we aren’t overwhelmingly heartbroken, it is then I am not tiptoeing around Ben and words fly from my mouth with no regard for his suffering. The air is nonexistent, as though we have slipped beneath the surface, down to a depth that at times has no light, warmth or oxygen. The pressure is on every square inch of our marriage. I have put the oxygen mask on myself first, swimming to the surface on my own before I can extend any help to Ben. We push and pull against each other, trying to figure out how to move through this space that has been created around us.
We have spent hours upon hours together, tangled up and holding on when reality crushes us to the ground. Ben is absolutely my person, he fills in the cracks when I begin to separate. When two become one, there is extra: egos, thoughts, feelings. Ben and I are learning what to keep between us, and what to leave out with the garbage. We cannot hold onto all of each other, we have to build “us” with the pieces that work. Not all of the bits are beautiful or funny or sweet, sometimes the raw and hurting parts are what we need to be solid.
One day, I stirred. I rose early and didn’t look back. I am doing, I was always doing, but now I accomplish what is not basic for survival. I am wading into the current. Ben hasn’t followed me, his grief is a completely different experience. Not to mention, there is more falling onto his shoulders than just the loss of our children. He is quiet about our little ones, and I understand why. A day comes along and I don’t wake up with tears falling onto my pillow, or I can walk past their ashes atop our bookcase without feeling like I am on the verge of shattering. When that day happens I don’t want to kick up the dust, all of the fragments of what once was have settled giving us peace for brief stretches. Those days we do not disturb decaying memories, the fog clears and we remember to breathe in and out. We are reminded to press on. I reach for Ben’s hand, hoping soon he will reach out and walk along side me as we try to gather our bearings.
To look directly into death, or trauma, or just trying to figure who’s turn it is to empty the dishwasher…love brings us together and then we have to stay bound together during situations that seem so broken. Every day I chose Ben, for while this is not the easiest place to simmer, he is where my heart beats.