"Al, I need ice."
With a white Styrofoam cup in hand, he bends over and carefully spoons ice chips into her mouth, her lips parched and quivering. A few pieces drop off the plastic utensil onto her bare collarbone, exposed where the hospital gown has slipped off a bony shoulder.
"You're not very good at this," she says weakly. Her breathing is labored and shallow. The leukemia makes her short of breath and the effort of reaching for the ice and talking at the same time is too much. She lays her head back on the pillow, exhausted.
"Well, whatcha gonna do?" He replies good-naturedly. "I am all you've got."
Quiet for a few moments, eyes closed and very still, she appears to have fallen asleep. But then, my mother-in-law's eyes open and she answers irritably, "I'm getting somebody else. You're fired."
But, it's the cancer talking. And the chemo and the side effects and the reactions and infections that have devastated her body and threatened to defeat her spirit.
As my husband's father gently wipes away the melted ice, he smiles and croons, "Oh, I'm fired, am I? Okay, babe. But I get to interview my replacement."
For 50 years they've faced life side by side. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. Strong when the other is weak, optimistic when the other is sad, calm when the other is upset. She is devoted to him and he adores her. Two souls intertwined; theirs is the ultimate love story.
Young lovers can't begin to imagine what awaits them; that the family born out of their passion will test their resolve and challenge their allegiance, forcing them to redefine love as they know it.
Years ago, when we were young, I married my best friend. It's a cliché sung about in love songs and easily dismissed, at least until it applies to you. However prosaic it may sound, my husband is my partner. In all things. He is my co-parent. He is my intellectual equal. He is my companion and comforter and confidante; the love of my life. He is my home.
Nonetheless, navigating the constant demands of family life takes a heroic commitment and requires a willingness to place another's needs above one's own at times, trusting that it will balance out. Never static, the relationship is fluid, the dynamics ever-changing, and it's precisely this ebb and flow through seasons of abundance and seasons of bleakness that secures the longevity of a marriage.
With children ages 31, 29, 16 and 12, Steven and I have been doing this parenting gig for a long time, and the truth is we're tired. Sometimes we take it out on each other. It's a known fact that parenting children with special needs can contribute to higher divorce rates, and we've got two. Sydney, a high school sophomore, was born with Down syndrome. Haley, in 7th grade, has a diagnosis of ADHD. Interestingly one study found that in families who had children with Down syndrome, the divorce rate was actually lower than in families with other birth defects or no identified disability. Predictors of divorce among parents of kids with ADHD, however, showed the divorce rate was nearly twice that of the general population before the child's age of eight. Statistically speaking, Haley's special needs add more marital stress than Sydney's. I would concur. Haley brings an energy to our family that is amazing and astounding, but also overwhelming.
Frequently I spiral into a panic just driving from point A to point B, mentally calculating the never-ending list of domestic chores, 'When will this get done? How? And by whom!?' My mind chants this mantra relentlessly until I'm convinced that if anything is to get done, I'm the one that must do it. And that's when resentment, poisonous and corrosive seeps in.
"You okay?" Steven asks. "You seem crabby."
"I'm fine," I mutter, annoyed that he called me crabby and wondering why he can't see how completely overwhelmed I am.
Stress and anxiety are no strangers to my husband, either. When his mounting frustration reaches the tipping point, it has nowhere to go but outward. When his patience is depleted, he is not pleasant to be around. "Leave Daddy alone," I tell the girls, giving him a wide berth.
Inevitably in marriage, storms hit. Some hard. Rain falls heavy and saturating until we can no longer buoy the other up. A drowning person cannot save another drowning person. Misunderstandings, unspoken expectations and harsh words flood and we are in danger of being swept apart by the current.
But gratitude is the ballast that holds fast, and forgiveness the rope that leads us safely back to each other, hand over hand.
At the end of long days I reach for my tall husband as he walks into the kitchen and wrap my arms around his waist. It takes only ten seconds to feel the bands around my chest begin to loosen. He rubs my back. I close my eyes and breathe.
Then, I feel Haley dive between us, using her body as a wedge to leverage us apart, making a parent sandwich of herself.
"Group hug!" she yells, her voice ringing through the kitchen.
And . . . the moment is over.
Yet within this chaos of everyday life, our love solidifies into an unbreakable, brilliant diamond; under pressure, the mundane is transformed into the extraordinary. Much of the time I'm too busy to notice, but there are moments when I know good and well the value of what I have.
The moments when I watch him from across the room while enjoying the company of our friends, when he stands with one foot on the low rung of a stool, his legs long in slim jeans, wearing a graphic tee and trendy glasses, holding a craft beer in one hand and gesturing with the other as he converses. The expressions I know so intimately -- the way his lips curve up at the corners, showing his gums when he smiles, his eyebrows, animated when he talks, and the dimples that mesmerized me when we first met, still flash when he laughs. He might not be as young now, but our life is written on his face and it's beautiful to me. I fall in love all over again, but deeper.
I see not only an attractive man, but one who fixes my computer, and makes me laugh, and runs through the mud with me in a Viking helmet. I see a father who camps in the backyard with his girls, and teaches them about fish and birds and nature, who strokes their cheeks tenderly with the back of his hand when he puts them to bed. A father who endures long hours, sacrificing his own leisure to afford insurance premiums, mortgages and college tuition, who generously provides the good things in life for his family, who gives and gives and gives.
I hear not only his voice, but the clang of a lug wrench on concrete as he replaces the brakes on my car, the rhythm of the washing machine as he does 52 loads of laundry, carefully separating my Lululemon to hang-dry. I hear the soft click of the bedroom door as he tiptoes away on a Sunday morning, letting me sleep.
He feels my gaze on him and turns. "I've got you," I say without speaking when our eyes meet. "I've got you" he says, the answer in his smile.
Ours is an ultimate love story in the making; over 20 years, tested and true, and continuously redefined. It's the give and take of day to day. It's celebrating when the sun shines and riding it out when the tempest rages. It's in facing life -- and death -- together.
For my parents-in-law, it's spoken in very few words, rather love is sleeping on a roll-away bed in a hospital room, an arm's length from his wife, never leaving her side. Love is fighting the battle of a lifetime with unending courage so she can stay with her husband as long as possible.
"I was supposed to have more time," she sighs.
"You're not dying," he answers, patting her hand reassuringly. "Not today."