Nearly five miles into a Smoky Mountain hike, with family vacation nearing a close, we discussed the next time we would see each other. As we did, a rain-fed stream cascaded beneath the short, wooden footbridge on which we paused to admire butterflies swirling, dancing and darting in a half-dozen hues.
One year after my wife moved 800 miles east for a great opportunity with her long-time employer, we planned our next moments together. The butterflies' delightful interaction drew some of our attention amidst the majestic mountain terrain and our discussion. Still, even with this distraction, we maintained focus on what really matters.
"I think we've spent more real time together in the past year than we had in many years," Cathy proffered as we walked and planned. "Before, there was always tomorrow."
During 27 years of marriage, we had long passed the point of taking each other for granted. It didn't help that we worked opposite schedules for so many years -- becoming almost alternating parents. Her nights and weekends in retail often came during the limited hours I wasn't working or traveling for work. In the unusual hours when we were both together and electronically disconnected from any real or perceived work crisis, we focused on quality time with our children rather than with each other.
In the past year, we've made a conscious effort to change that focus. Every three to four weeks, we find somewhere to enjoy time together. Even when those gatherings include our adult children or others, we focus on each other in a way we seem to have missed for many years.
A hand to hold is more important when you know it won't be there tomorrow. A hug is easier to treasure when the next one is three weeks away.
Looking back, it's easy to see we didn't put enough effort into our relationship. It's also easy to find excuses. Workaholic behavior. Exhaustion from my untreated sleep apnea. Disagreements allowed to remain in roiling boil rather than confronted and settled directly. Treating compromise as lose-lose rather than win-win.
Those excuses don't matter now.
Time matters. Connection matters. Love matters.
During our first year of living apart, we've managed to strengthen our marriage; an outcome I wasn't sure would happen when the year started. Increased flexibility and adaptability aided our strengthening.
A year ago, I would have laughed if you had predicted my wife would join me on a strenuous five-mile mountain hike, but she did just that in the Smokies. She would have also bet that at least one piece of the Ikea furniture I voluntarily spent three days assembling for her New York apartment would have collapsed by now. I'm no longer annoyed at losing time to her passion for judging figure skating, in part because she only does it on weekends I'm not around. She's no longer annoyed to come home after a long day at work to find the house in greater disorder than when she left. When she comes home from work, her apartment is exactly as she left it.
It doesn't mean it's always easy to be apart. When three weeks stretches into four or more, I sometimes struggle to remain upbeat. On these occasions, I remind myself that at least some studies show "absence makes the heart grow fonder" to be more than a platitude. As our next time together approaches, marking one year apart, I can feel the validity in that phrase.
Butterflies kick in -- swirling, dancing and darting in the range of hues I felt when we first met. One year apart but, perhaps, closer than ever.