When a young couple gets married, there are always adjustments. Ours was no different. Oh, we thought we knew each other pretty well, and I suppose we knew as much as any young married couple.
But it’s those little things that you never knew you didn’t know, if you know what I mean.
Still, our respective weaknesses were offset by our individual strengths. That’s what a successful marriage ought to be, I think.
I hated handling the finances, so she did it. She was much more fiscally responsible than I. Not that I threw money away, but sporting goods stores and drive-through crawfish stands were my weakness. So she put me on an allowance, and she bought my guns and hunting gear. She’d ask a seemingly innocent question in April like, “So, for the money, what’s the best shotgun for duck hunting?”
And I’d tear my attention away from whatever Outdoor Channel hunting show I was watching and say, “Well, everyone’s in love with Benelli automatics these days, but personally I’d rather have a pump shotgun. Simple to maintain, and they can take a lot of abuse. Every duck hunter ought to have a Remington 870.”
When Fall came, she’d present me with a new Remington 870 Express in 3 inch magnum and a case of steel shot. “Happy Birthday!” she’d announce. “Now go kill something. I’ve got Christmas shopping to do.”
Now I ask you, who couldn’t love a woman like that?
Left to my own devices, I’d have bought the damned gun the moment I saw one on sale, and then tried to smuggle it home and sneak it into the gun cabinet unnoticed. And I’d have bought a sling, a floating gun case, an extra turkey hunting barrel for it, and a new GPS to help me find my way in and out of those great new hunting spots I’d not yet discovered. And I’d have found a way to rationalize every purchase.
It took me a couple of years to figure that her way was better.
Because she was an inefficient housekeeper and marginal cook, I handled the housework and meals. The Missus had Housework ADHD. She’d pick up a ketchup bottle I had carelessly left sitting on the counter, grumble about how I never put anything away, and then open the refrigerator door…
…and suddenly be struck with the notion that the condiment shelf was hopelessly disorganized, the baking soda box needed replacing, and the freezer needed defrosting. Right then.
Ditto for clothes and closets, food and the pantry, and dishes in their respective cabinets.
Luckily, I learned this valuable piece of intel before we ever married, when I returned from a trip to discover that she had let herself into my apartment in my absence with the intention of surprising me with a clean apartment when I returned.
I walked through the door right when I was expected home, to find her in tears, still cleaning furiously. She’d been steadily working for twelve solid hours.
Mind you, this was the same apartment where I had to step outside to change my mind, and had to climb into bed from the foot, because there simply wasn’t enough room on the sides between the mattress and the bedroom wall.
This was an apartment I could take from hazmat zone to spotlessly clean in three hours, tops. Yet after twelve hours of her diligent labor, I still needed a bush guide with a machete to help me hack my way to the bathroom.
Yet if a guest had wanted to inspect my sock drawer or find AAA batteries in my utility room, he’d have found them immaculate and well-organized. And probably packed away in a clearly labeled Tupperware container.
Being half-Cajun, tasty cooking was encoded into The Missus’ DNA. I’d eaten enough of her mother’s meals to know that. But, like I learned way back in biology class, all the information in the genotype is not necessarily expressed in the phenotype, and thus owning an impressive collection of family recipes does not necessarily mean you’ve ever had the opportunity to actually cook anything.
So, knowing this, I told her before we married, “I’ll handle the cooking and cleaning. When you come home for work, there will be a meal and a hot bath waiting, I promise.”
Kept that promise, too. The sock drawer may not have been organized to her liking, and the AAA batteries were denied their own dedicated Tupperware container, but she rarely had to do anything resembling domestic chores when she got home.
Of course, there were the occasional hiccups:
Missus [yelling]: “What on Earth is an eggbeater blade doing under the couch???”
Me [absently]: “Huh?”
Missus [trudging to the kitchen, muttering under her breath]: “Now I know how the chocolate frosting got on my clean sweater!”[washes eggbeater blade and puts it away]
Missus [musing]: “Damn, this utensil drawer needs to be reorganized. I need a drawer organizer, liner paper…and where the hell is the other eggbeater blade?”[opens refrigerator]
Missus [horrified]: “Hey, what’s this lump of stuff on the paper plate with the green fuzz growing on it?”
Me: “Beats me, baby! Looked that way when I cooked it! Sure was tasty though, wasn’t it?”
Missus: “It just called me Zoul!”
Me [absently]: “Huh?”
All of this, of course, is to say that I thought I knew the major obstacles to a happy marriage and had a plan for dealing with them. But, we fell into all of the traps that newlyweds fall prey to, the first of which can be summed up as:
“Hey we’ve got twice the income, so we can spend twice as much!”
We learned the hard way that, invariably, expenses grow to match your income. Money was always tight, so we worked all the time. As a registered nurse, she made a lot more money than I did, so I supplemented my paramedic income with teaching and consulting gigs on the side.
And saw damned little of my wife as a result.
To spend more time together, she started helping me with classes, tagging along on teaching trips and the like. I put her through one of my EMT classes, then put her through my paramedic class. She got certified as an instructor in all the alphabet soup medical courses. We became a pretty formidable teaching team.
And if you’re wondering where all the love and affection is among all this work, work, work, you’re not the only ones. We saw it too.
In that first year, we moved from my crackerbox apartment into a charmingly delapidated old colonial house and proceeded to renovate it, deducting the expenses from our rent. It didn’t take me long to realize that The Missus was powerfully turned on by three things: sweat, snoring and paint thinner.
There I’d be, sweaty and reeking of paint thinner, and collapsed in an exhausted heap in front of the television. No sooner would I doze off than she she’d cuddle next to me on the couch and purr, “Smooooochie Poootie…”
…bow chicka wow wow!
You know that old saying about the jellybean jar and the first year of marriage? The one where you put a jellybean into the jar every time you have se
x that first year, and thereafter take one bean from the jar every time you have sex?
Folks, we put a lot of jellybeans into that jar before our first anniversary. After the first year, though…well, let’s just say that we’d always have a jar full of jellybeans in case the nieces and nephews came to visit.
By the second anniversary, though, bills began to pile up. So I taught more classes, worked extra shifts, and drug her along for the ride.
And we both had a blast. We were newlyweds, after all. We loved each other, and we still spent quality time together, even if that quality time happened to be in a Day’s Inn outside of Tallulah, Louisiana.
Or El Dorado, Arkansas.
Or Minden, Louisiana.
Or Natchez, Mississippi.
Or Greenwood, Louisiana.
Or Bridge City, Texas.
Or Columbia, Louisiana.
Or New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport or Alexandria.
Jesus H. Christ, I spent more time on the road than I did at home! And if she wanted to spend some time with her husband, she had to go with me. What a selfish ass I was.
Before too long, she came to me with a proposition. “We’re never going to be financially stable with you just working as a paramedic,” she told me. “I think you should go back to school. You should quit work, quit teaching, go back to college, and try to get into medical school. If we tighten our belts, I think I can cover our bills with my nursing income.”
“Even if I make it into medical school,” I warned, “we’ll still be poor as church mice for another twelve years.”
“So what?” she grinned. “It’s not as if we’re not used to being broke now. Besides, I’ve always wanted to sleep with a doctor, and this looks like the only way I can make it happen now,” she winked and stuck out her tongue at me.
And so I went back to school. I studied hard, and when I got home, I started dinner and did the housework. When she came home from work, she had a hot bath waiting and dinner ready. And after dinner, she’d lie on the couch with her feet in my lap and I’d massage her feet while I studied a book propped across her legs.
And then we’d go to bed and make love and lie there with each other afterwards and whisper our dreams to one another, and make our plans for the future.
I’d be an ER doc one day. We’d find a remote town somewhere that would hire me and pay off my med school loans in return for a five year commitment to practice there. And I’d modernize their ER and become the medical director for their EMS system, and she’d go back to school to become a nurse practitioner and start a little clinic in that town, and we’d get to know the locals and build a little house on forty wooded acres, somewhere we could sit on our front porch in the evenings and watch the sun set behind the mountains.
And we’d grow old together in that town, and one day I’d be taking care of the kids of some of the kids I delivered in that little mythical hospital somewhere on the edge of nowhere. We’d both die happy, because all we really needed was each other.
And I couldn’t even imagine the man I was before I met her. I wasn’t that guy any more. I didn’t even know who that guy was. He was just some empty shell that had merely existed for twenty seven years, but had never really lived.
I’ve mentioned before the concept of us, that union of two people so profound that the boundaries between you become so blurred that you can’t define yourself without the other person as part of the terms.
I wasn’t AD any more, I was The Missus’ Husband. I was her lover, confidante, helpmate, partner and best friend. And everything else I was, or wanted to be, was secondary to that.
I figured that was the way marriage is supposed to be. Still do, I suppose. No matter how much you squint your eyes, there are no gaps in a wedding band. It’s a perfect circle, enclosing all of you within it.
My family could see the change in me, too. The Missus was the first, and only, woman I’ve ever dated who I allowed to meet my parents. They liked her so much, they proclaimed that, in the unlikely event of a divorce, I was the one who’d be booted from the family. The Missus would stay. They got along fiendishly well.
Twenty minutes after she met my mother, Mom was instructing The Missus in proper blowjob technique, using a popsicle as a prop.
The Missus blushed like a tomato through the entire demonstration, and afterwards I explained that if Mom had inherited a decorum gene from Grandma, it was probably recessive.
The Missus replied that apparently, Dad hadn’t contributed another recessive decorum gene either, because it certainly hadn’t expressed itself in me.
But she married me anyway.
She taught me to reconnect with my family, reconcile with my parents, and put to rest all the hurts of my childhood. To put it as simply as I can, and cribbing a line from Jerry Maguire, she completed me. She made me whole. She was the piece of me I never knew was missing.
It’s hard to put to words the effect that had on me.
It’s even harder to put to words the feeling I had upon realizing that I had let it die on the vine.
I didn’t stay in school. As always, life’s responsibilities intruded. The first time money got tight and I caught her crying at 2:00 AM while she tried to decide which bills to put off and which ones to pay, I got a part time job. She protested, but I did it anyway. I stayed in school full time, and manned an ambulance on the weekends.
Soon, it was the job that was full time, and college was a part time gig.
Soon, there was nothing but the job. We told ourselves that I’d go back as soon as we were in better financial shape.
That day never came.
We moved back to north Louisiana, away from her roots and closer to mine. She made new friends, got a new job at a new ER. I was asked to come back to The Little Ambulance Service That Could, as its Education Director. It was good money at the time, so I accepted their offer.
We moved into another charming old 1890′s farmhouse and set about renovating it. We were building a life together. From across the room, we were a perfect couple.
Only there were cracks. I was just too blind to see them until it was too late.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but we weren’t having sex. Ever. The Missus had changed contraceptives, and for a solid year, the changes in her hormone levels had proven to be a more effective libido killer than even wedding cake.
So I tried to be supportive, and understanding, and deal with it. And I did. I was her husband, after all, and what I got from our marriage was far more than just a steady sexual partner.
So with the help of Danni Ashe and a high-speed internet connection, I soldiered on.
After a year of this, we decided to stop birth control altogether and try to have a baby. I was developing repetitive motion injury in my elbow and wrist and she could hear her biological clock ticking, and we both decided that if we waited until we could afford to have a child, we’d be childless forever, so we might as well stop waiting.
Don’t think that we conceived KatyBeth as some misguided attempt to revive a shaky relationship, however. That wasn’t it at all. I still believe that, at the time, we still were very much in love with one another, and there was far more good than bad in our marriage.
So the contraceptives went into the trash, certain internet bookmarks got deleted, and we got down to business. I’d dab a little paint thinner behind my ears, we’d cuddle on the couch and…
cka wow wow!
It was just like our newlywed year. We were in serious danger of emptying that jellybean jar. And even though it took us a couple of years to conceive, I never wavered. I never got discouraged. I was diligent. If at first I didn’t succeed, I’d try and try again.
And perhaps even again, unless my hips got tired or she decided to order a pizza.
I’m a giver that way. It’s just who I am.
And eventually, I hit her with the golden BB, a little Michael Phelps sperm swimming far ahead of his competitors, straining to touch the ovum in a flash of fertilization glory…
…and thus KatyBeth was conceived.
I remember the night we found out, just like it was yesterday. We were eating dinner with friends after a long day of teaching paramedic class. We were clustered around a table at the local Ptomaine Palace, eating boiled crawfish and disturbing the other diners, and The Missus remarked that she had been tired a lot lately.
“That’s cause my boy done knocked you up!” Pardner drawled with his customary charm, one arm looped affectionately around my neck. “Ain’t you learned not to take it serious when he pokes a little fun atcha?”
“She’s tired because I wear her out,” I pronounced smugly. “I’m the Love Terminator. I don’t feel pity, or remorse. And I will not stop – ever! – until she’s barefooted and pregnant.”
“Little is the operative word,” she retorted to Pardner, holding up her forefinger and thumb to demonstrate. “And he’s actually the Wal Mart of Love: volume, volume, volume, because he’s not up to snuff in the size department.” She smiled winningly at me and winked.
I retaliated by hitting her in the face with a spitball. One does not falsely represent the size of her husband’s winkie and expect to get away with it.
The Missus wound up driving one of my medic students home after she’d had a few too many beers with her crawfish, and I wound up driving Pardner home. On the way back to Casa de Ambulance Driver, I noticed Cindy’s car parked in the hospital ER drive.
Curious, but not all that alarmed, I pulled into the ER to see what was the matter. Cindy wasn’t that drunk when we left the Ptomaine Palace, after all. Inside, I found ten female EMTs and ER nurses all cooing, hugging The Missus and giving me knowing looks. The Missus held up an EPT test and said two words, “Congratulations, Daddy.”
They heard my whoop down the hall at the nurse’s station.
There is nothing like the imminent arrival of a baby to put a sense of urgency into getting your house in order. And we did. We worked like fiends, finished the renovations, paid off our bills, shopped for baby clothes. At night we’d hold each other, and think of baby names.
“Michael Keith, if it’s a boy,” I mused.
“And Katherine Elizabeth if it’s a girl,” she countered. “Are you okay with having a little girl?”
“Little girls can hunt and fish with their daddies, too. I’ll be happy either way.”
“My little girl will not wear camouflage,” she vowed. “She will be dainty, and ladylike. We’re gonna dress her in frilly stuff.”
“Evidently we need to go to Cabela’s,” I grinned. “They have the cutest little Mossy Oak baby onesies. Trimmed in lace, even.”
We compromised. Sometimes I think we’re raising a tomboy adrenaline junkie with a Barbie fetish.
Those were heady days, planning for the arrival of our child. I was never more content, or excited about the future. Neither was she.
All of that changed in November. The Missus went in for a checkup and ultrasound the day before I was scheduled to fly to Pittsburgh for two weeks for my CCEMT-P course. The news was worrisome. Her blood pressure was too high, and KatyBeth wasn’t as active as she should have been. The Missus was put on total bed rest for two weeks, until she could be evaluated again.
I wanted to cancel my trip, but she insisted that I go. “I’ll be fine,” she assured me. “I’ll go to my mother’s and she’ll wait on me hand and foot. It’ll be fine.”
Only it wasn’t fine. The day after I got back, we went to the Ob/Gyn’s office for her followup visit. We were then ushered, shell-shocked, directly from the office to the perinatal ward at the major hospital across the street, and informed that The Missus would be hospitalized until KatyBeth was born.
And we’d be damned lucky if that didn’t happen before Christmas, let alone Valentine’s Day.
The Missus’ blood pressure was still too high, and her urine contained trace protein, both ominous foreshadowings of pre-eclampsia. Even more worrisome was the fact that KatyBeth still wasn’t very active, and far too small for her gestational age.
“Well under two pounds,” the doc informed us grimly, “about half what she should be.”
Consider that I was one of a pair of eight-pound twins, and that all my other siblings tipped the birth scales at over ten pounds. Ditto for The Missus. Both of us had brothers who weighed over thirteen pounds at birth.
A two-pound baby was totally outside our frame of reference. I’ve delivered six-pounders and thought them to be impossibly small. I couldn’t imagine a baby a third of that size.
I was scared shitless. So was The Missus.
And things spiraled downward from there. Her condition got progressively worse, finally reaching the point in three days that it became obvious that KatyBeth’s best chance at living was in a sterile incubator and not The Missus’ womb. We were going to get our Valentine’s baby before Thanksgiving.
And through all of that, I was strong for my wife. I held her and quieted her fears, and assured her that we’d get through this, and that God wouldn’t give us a gift so precious and then take it away before we even got the chance to know her.
I’m not sure I really believed it, though. And after I signed the consent papers and they prepped The Missus for an emergency C-section, I snuck downstairs into the hospital chapel, and I laid myself bare before God like I have not done before or since.
I wept, and I prayed, and I offered futile bargains, knowing all the while that God didn’t bargain his blessings.
And somehow, I felt assured that, no matter how things turned out, my daughter would be okay. It was an overwhelming feeling of peace.
Take from that what you will. I’ll not preach to you here, and I believe that every man’s relationship with God is personal.
But it was with utter certainty in a good outcome that I watched the doctor pull KatyBeth from my wife’s womb, a wrinkled little Smurf scarcely larger than a 20 oz Coke bottle. I held The Missus’ hand and gave her a play-by-play narrative as they whisked her over to the warming table and the nurses – some of whom I had trained – feverishly worked on her.
And soon she turned a gorgeous pink, and let out an angry wail.
“Was that her crying?” The Missus asked in disbelief, clutching my hand even harder.
“Yep,” I choked. “She’s a little pissed, it sounds like.”
“She’s not supposed to be able to cry, or even breathe,” she whispered reverently. “She’s too young. Her lungs…”
“Apparently they forgot to tell our daughter that,” I grinned. The nurses paused long enough to let us plant a small kiss on her forehead before they rushed her to the NICU, and left us to ponder the miracle we had wrought.
And that was the happiest day of my life, comparable only to that day I knelt on wet knees at the jewelry counter at Dillard’s and she said “yes.”
Not that there weren’t bad times ahead. We got bad news, and worse
news, and when they started using words like seizures and cerebral palsy and profound mental retardation, The Missus broke down.
I held her and comforted her, and cried along with her. And then I took her by the shoulders, and lifted her chin until she could look me in the eyes. “These are the last tears we’re going to shed about this,” I told her. “This is the last time we’re going to give in to despair. We have a child to raise. We don’t have time for grief.”
“But what if she’s handicapped?” she sobbed brokenly. “You heard what they said…”
Yeah, and I heard what God said, too, I thought to myself. And the child I see is not the one they’re describing. We won’t let her be.
“Will you love her any less if she’s in a wheelchair?” I asked gently, and The Missus shook her head. “I won’t either,” I assured her, “and I want us to make a promise to one another. From now on, can’t is a word we won’t speak. If our daughter has limitations, they’re going to be defined by what is physically possible, not fear, or money, or lack of effort. Okay?”
And we made that promise to one another, and we set about raising our daughter to do everything it was possible for her to do. I firmly believe that God gave us KatyBeth as a challenge, a way to learn and grow. Any other child, and we’d have simply been any other set of parents.
We got KatyBeth to show us the parents we could be, and I think we’ve met that challenge.
What we forgot to be was Husband and Wife.
Somewhere in all the worry, and work, and endless therapy sessions, and astronomical medical bills, we lost sight of us.
I developed a medical condition, a peripheral neuropathy that had me in constant 24/7 pain. Nothing worked to alleviate it. Even wearing pants was painful.
Making love to my wife was torture. While I discovered that gritting your teeth in agony throughout the entire act does wonders for your sexual stamina, it does very little to enhance the mood for your wife, nor does it make you relish the prospect of Round Two in a couple of hours.
So we stopped making love.
And KatyBeth’s therapy regimen necessitated changes in our work schedules, so we got to see each other only in passing, when she was coming home from work or when I was leaving. I’d come home exhausted, mentally and physically drained, and stare blankly at the television while she slept.
Then we stopped talking.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. There weren’t any fights. No hurt feelings, no arguments. No bitterness or rancor. Just everything about us dying a slow and quiet death due to lack of nourishment.
I have a major character flaw. In times of extreme stress, I withdraw. At the times of my life when I needed my friends and family the most, I instead turned away and shunned all help. When I become overwhelmed, I focus on one goal, one task, to the exclusion of everything else. That goal is my beacon, my psychic lifeline back to the land of the living. Only once I’ve reached it can I pause to look at what has happened around me. In my case, that goal was raising a special needs child. I pursued it to the exclusion of everything else in my life, including my wife. I was totally oblivious to her pain, utterly blind to her loneliness.
On the nights she cried herself to sleep, I was a total stranger, lost in my own private Hell in the next room.
It’s not that I didn’t love her. I did, as strongly as I ever had. I just assumed that she knew, and that she realized that my focus was for us, our whole family. And if she had just let me know how she was feeling, I could have fixed it.
But you see, The Missus had her own major flaws. She didn’t communicate. In her times of extreme stress, she’d suffer in silence. In our infrequent arguments, I’d always confront the situation in typical guy fashion; define the problem, approach it rationally, hash it out until we got it solved. Don’t go to bed mad. As soon as the argument was over, for me it was forgotten.
She, on the other hand, would pretend it was over, then spend the next two days stewing over it in her mind. And when she could think about it rationally, she’d bring it up again. By then I had usually forgotten what the argument was about.
For her, avoiding a confrontation was preferable to facing it, and she’d let it fester until it became a much bigger problem, one she couldn’t ignore any longer.
And then she’d blow up.
We laid down ground rules for arguing shortly after we got married. I like to discuss things, and I prefer give-and-take. You say your piece, and then I’ll say mine. I hated being interrupted when talking, to the point that I’d raise my voice to talk over her, or even say “shut up” so that I could finish what I was saying.
I soon discovered that nothing made her head spin around more than being told to shut up. She hated it. And so she’d respond with “fuck you!”
And there is nothing I hate more than trying to calmly, rationally debate a point with someone and being told to fuck off.
So we reached an agreement: I’d stop saying shut up, and she’d strike fuck you from her vocabulary. It worked, after a fashion. We’d occasionally argue, and her rebuttal to my point was often, “Fine! Whatever.”
“That’s cheating!” I’d squeal in frustration. “There’s a little cartoon balloon over your head that says fuck you!”
Even so, we learned to settle our disputes like two people who love one another should.
But after KatyBeth was born, we grew so far apart that we even forgot how to argue.
There was a conversation shortly before we left, one that she reminded me of long afterwards, that was the impetus for her leaving. We were washing dishes together, and she was unusually quiet.
“Are you happy?” she asked mildly. I didn’t spot it for the loaded question it was.
“Of course I’m happy,” I assured her, stooping to kiss her on the forehead.
Silly me. I didn’t realize my marriage hinged on a trick question. I wasn’t happy with our present situation. I hated the fact that we didn’t see each other enough. I hated the fact that we worked ridiculous hours. I hated the uncertainty of not knowing how my daughter’s life would turn out. I hated the fact that I couldn’t even make love to my wife.
But I figured all of our problems were just an obstacle to overcome, something that we had to buckle down and get through so that we could realize all the dreams we’d whispered to one another in the wee hours of the mornings.
But I thought she was asking me if I was happy with her. And I was. I’ve never regretted marrying her.
But she was really asking, “Are you happy living like this?”
And my answer convinced her that it was time to leave. True to her nature, she avoided a confrontation. She didn’t argue, she didn’t ask for marriage counseling, she didn’t tell me she was suffering. She just waited until I left for a trip, had a friend haul a trailer to the house, and moved out. She left behind my favorite pieces of furniture, my guns and clothes, and a note explaining why she left.
The only thing worse than coming home to find your marriage is over is reading the note and seeing the truth in her words. I was a stranger in my own home. I was a ghost that barely acknowledged her. I had sat staring hollowly at the television while she cried herself to sleep in the other room. We had become more like roommates than lovers and friends.
And it took her leaving to make me see it.
Oh, she’s not entirely blameless. It wasn’t long after she left that I discovered she had a boyfriend, a guy I tutored through his EMT class.
She swore they had only started as friends, and didn’t become intimate until after she left me. She just needed someone to talk to, and he was there. It grew from there.
I didn’t believe her. The timeline didn’t matter then, and it matters even less now. She shared the things that she wouldn’t share with her husband, with a stranger. Whether or not they slept together, that was the ultimate act of betrayal.
And I’m here to tell you, it put me in a murderous rage. When I wasn’t busy trying to crawl into a bottle, I was plotting his grisly demise.
Let’s just say I developed an inordinate fascination with secondhand wood chippers and rifled shotgun barrels that fired saboted slugs, and that I had meticulously mapped all viable routes of ingress and egress from a certain mobile home parked in a certain wooded lot in a certain town in north Louisiana.
But in the end, I pulled back. I quit drinking myself to sleep and tried to pull out of my funk. I realized that I’m a lousy drunk, and an even less inspired murderer. I was still a wreck, but a sober one.
I sat down with a physician friend – one who had attended our wedding – a couple of months after she left, and over beers I asked him, “If you had a patient who told you he worked all the time, and slept nineteen hours a day on his days off, and barely got out of bed until it was time to go back to work, had no appetite and felt tired all the time, what would you say was wrong with him?”
“I’d tell that patient that he was clinically depressed,” he answered soberly, “and tell him he needed to get help, right the fuck now.”
“Shit,” I sighed. “I had a feeling that’s what you were going to say.”
The antidepressants he prescribed didn’t do much for me. Maybe they work for most people, but for me it became obvious that the only thing that was going to rescue me from despair was me.
So I pulled up my big boy Underoos, sucked it up, and got about the business of living again.
I worked. I tried to socialize. I did everything I could to maintain some sense of normalcy for KatyBeth. On those slow night shifts, sitting in the passenger seat of an ambulance, parked on a street corner at 3:00 am, I’d write on my laptop to keep my mind occupied.
I’d write about various calls I’d worked in my career, and one story would remind me of another, and another, and pretty soon I had a book.
My career took off as well. I got invitations to lecture at EMS conferences around the country. Landed a consulting gig or two. Learned the value of true friends, brothers from another mother like TOTWTYTR and JB On the Rocks who always had my back, even though they were thousands of miles away. I learned that I had friends I could indeed rely on, if I’d only reach out and ask.
Of course, the temptation was there to be bitter; a nagging voice in my head that kept saying, “See? I told you that you couldn’t trust people.The moment you do, you’ll get hurt.” And I came very close to reverting back to the guy that I used to be, the closet misanthrope who smiled and joked with everyone to mask his scorn and distrust.
But I still wanted my wife back, and I figured the way to do that was to go back to being the man she had fallen in love with. The man she thought I could be.
So I tried to be that man. And since The Missus wasn’t having any reconciliation, I tried to be that man with anyone who’d show me affection. Lots of failed relationships that first year, believe me. I was unconsciously searching for everything I had lost, looking for my wife in every new girl I met.
Pretty much all of them told me the same thing: “You’re a great guy, AD…but you’re still in love with your wife.”
And so that first September 23rd passed with me slowly healing, but still harboring a faint hope that I could somehow reclaim my wife, if I could only be…whatever it was that she wanted me to be. I was still learning how to be by myself. It’s like having a great big hole in your mind, and even though you can perceive that it’s there, you know that you can no longer think through it, only around it.
There were days that were almost normal. Days when I barely even gave her a thought. Yet all it took was the mention of her name, or that of my rival, and it felt like a knife in the guts. And as September 23rd approached, the knife twisted.
The next year saw a lot of growing up on both sides. I had finally begun to accept that we weren’t going to reconcile, and she tried to reach out several times. I resisted at first. It took me almost the whole year to come to the conclusion that a bad act does not make a bad person, and that despite every hurtful thing that had passed between us, she was still very important to me.
She tried to include me in things, invited me to family gatherings, Easter services at church so I could see KatyBeth in her Easter dress…but since I knew my rival would be there, I stayed away.
That second September 23rd was the Year of Separate Birthday Parties.
The third year was the Year of Divorce Haggling.
No, not two lawyers duking it out over who gets to keep the dining room set and what weekends KatyBeth spent where, but two separated people reminding each other periodically, “Hey, we haven’t cohabitated or touched each other in two years. Don’t you think it’s time we made our split official?”
But every time I was ready, she wasn’t. Every time she had the money to hire a lawyer, I was broke. She had moved back to Podunk to be closer to her family, and I still lived in north Louisiana. We lived three hours apart, and our schedules were still impossibly hectic. The schedule we had worked out for my visitation with KatyBeth and her therapy regimen virtually assured that neither of us was ever off work at the same time.
And quite frankly, we were just beginning to become friends again, and we both feared that divorce proceedings would ruin that.
On that third September 23rd, she called me and asked, “Say, would you happen to know any paramedics down here who might be interested in working in a rural hospital ER? They’d get comparable income and benefits, and a much easier working environment. I know that you know medics all over the state, and I’m hurting for help down here.”
“I might know one,” I allowed. “Hypothetically, what would a 15-year medic with critical care training and every alphabet soup certification there is be likely to make at this rural hospital ER?”
“Hypothetically,” she answered, reading my mind, “that paramedic could pretty much name his price, especially if he helped his ex-wife write ER protocols and a policy and procedure manual.”
And thus I moved to Podunk and came to work at PGHNSTRACH, and that September 23rd marked the Year of Reconciliation.
I dated a couple of very nice girls, one of whom couldn’t get over the fact that I still hadn’t filed for divorce. She left be
cause she was convinced, wrongly, that I was unwilling to commit to our relationship.
Babs knew better, and the reasons we split up have nothing to do with me and my Ex Missus.
And during that year, I also came to accept my rival. The Missus and I had grown to be friends once again, and I dare say that she’s one of the few people I can truly count on. And in picking up KatyBeth from her mother’s, I came to know my rival’s children, the ones the Ex Missus was raising as her own.
His wife abandoned them all when the oldest was barely four, the youngest still in diapers. He raised three kids for ten years, by himself. And they’re pretty good kids, I must admit.
I firmly believe that good kids don’t develop in a vacuum. They’re raised to be that way, and the fact that he did it successfully bought him my grudging respect. We’re never going to be buddies, but I have to admit that the man treats my daughter well, and it’s obvious he loves the Ex Missus.
I can live with that.
We get along fairly well. We went squirrel hunting together a couple weeks ago, and I didn’t even have the urge to stage a tragic hunting accident.
When they were looking for a paramedic instructor at Angola State Penitentiary, he recommended me for the job. His boss made a few phone calls, and told him, “Your boy checks out. Everyone I’ve talked to said he’s the best. So how do you know him?”
Ray blushed and said, “Well, he’s my girlfriend’s husband. Actually, I’m the guy she left him for.”
“And you’d actually take a paramedic class from this guy?” the colonel asked incredulously.
“He used to hate my guts, and he might still,” Ray answered, “but he’d leave that at the classroom door. He got me through my EMT class, and there’s nobody I’d rather have as a paramedic instructor.”
When he got through laughing, the colonel immediately dubbed me “The Husband In Law.”
I kinda like it, actually. It fits us both.
Not that there haven’t been rough spots this past year. I had been pressing the Ex Missus pretty hard to get the ball rolling on our divorce. I found a lawyer that did collaborative divorces, the kind where both parties use the same lawyer to mediate a settlement. I even offered to pay for it myself.
For some reason she kept dragging her feet.
Finally, I drug it out of her. She was pregnant, with the Husband In Law’s child. She had known for months, and was afraid to tell me. Worse yet, we couldn’t even start divorce proceedings until after the baby was born.
“Why, for God’s sake?” I exploded. “Didn’t you think I’d find out sooner or later?”
And she broke down and cried, “Because I’ve already hurt you so much, and I didn’t want to hurt you again.”
As I stood there, dumbfounded, I realized with some degree of wonder that I wasn’t hurt by the news at all. On the contrary, all I really felt was pity for her. So much had passed between us, and here she was still repeating the mistakes of our past.
I took her in my arms and held her until she stopped crying, just like I used to. When she was done, I held her by the arms and asked her gently, “Tell me something. Has this ever worked for you? Have you ever avoided facing something and had it turn out for the better?”
“No,” she admitted.
“And do you pull this kind of thing with Ray?” I asked. “Do you keep secrets from him because you’re afraid of how he’ll react?”
“Sometimes,” she whispered as the tears began anew. “I tell myself I shouldn’t, but I hold back anyway.”
“Don’t,” I told her forcefully. “If you truly love him, trust him enough to talk to him. Don’t do to him what you did to me. Don’t ruin your second shot at happiness because you’re too scared to talk about your problems. You may not get a third shot.”
I think she listened.
If memory serves, I think I spent this anniversary bouncing her new baby on my lap while the Husband In Law heated up a bottle. Next week we have an appointment with the divorce lawyer.
September 23rd makes four years, and it was two weeks gone before I even registered the date.
That may be the first time that forgetting an anniversary is a good thing.