My mom will be furious that I am publicizing this, but I rarely get sick (enter all manner of mutterings against the evil eye here). If I do, whatever nasty bug it is usually smacks me sideways for half a day before succumbing to my determination NOT to be sick and quietly slinking off. I’ve always suspected this heightened immunity developed during my years of teaching swimming to small, dirty children who secreted any number of fluids on or around me until I became a veritable fortress. Even moving across the world did little to chink my armor.
And then last week I got the flu from hell. No, seriously. Through the haze of my fever I think I actually glimpsed Virgil himself as I descended down through the circles of this infernal virus. Of course these things only happen when my husband is away. These things ALWAYS happen when my husband is away. As he was spinning around in the Arctic vortex formerly called New York, I put on flannels and hid from my children and shivered uncontrollably under my down blanket despite the oppressive heat blasting from the vents.
This flu laid me flat and humbled me, and when my husband stepped through the door I sat down and cried because I didn’t have to be alone anymore. It wasn’t the kind of homecoming he was dreaming of and when he bundled me into the car and drove me to the emergency clinic still in the same clothes he’d worn during the 12 hour flight he had just been on, I knew: this man loves me. Not that I didn’t know it before. I think I knew it before he did. But it still surprises me and blows my mind every day anew.
Until I met my husband I was a chameleon girl-friend, shape-shifting myself beyond all recognition to make myself what I thought the other person was looking for. What did I need? Only to be wanted. The neediness of a daughter rejected by her father and the suspicion that I would never be beautiful or smart or successful or even kind made me a timid and clingy aphid, killing the vines of every tender love with my sharp teeth. I was never myself.
When I met my husband I was in a dark place, just crawling out of a terrible relationship and trying to heal myself by becoming observant. I was emaciated by sadness and self-doubt, stumbling around with shadows beneath my eyes and beneath my ribs. He was completely unavailable; a Rabbi’s son with a matchmaking shopping list, a good family, a good name, a good job. He was good, so I knew he would never want me. That certainty gave me permission to be myself for the first time. The hopeless freedom of knowing I was not good enough for him liberated me to express and share and laugh. We were instant friends. We became best friends. I wanted him to marry me.
At first this man represented all of the things I had longed for: stability, security, comfort. Soon I realized he also had all of the traits I longed for in myself but did not yet possess: generosity, unlimited kindness, humor, warmth. He made me laugh. He made me happy. Those shadows beneath my eyes and ribs filled with light. I got chubby for the first time in my life. When he proposed a year after we met I felt like everything was finally falling in to place, and I was right.
Of course nothing is that easy, especially not when the woman in the relationship has baggage and brains, but no matter how many times I try to sink the ship, my husband has kept us afloat. He is still my best friend, and through him I have learned to become more generous, kind and lighthearted. My darkness lingers, but it hides in the corners away from the general goodness of the life this man has built with me. Though it creeps out sometimes, reminding me to be grateful and humble, those shadows no longer stain me.
No marriage is all halcyon dreams and cuddly firesides. My husband is a slob. His socks lay where they may and he never notices that his shoes are muddy until I point out the footprints. He’s equally married to his work and she’s a fickle mistress. He snores like Mount Etna on a bad day. He truly believes that Jolly Ranchers and purple drink are a balanced breakfast for three children. He has a lot less hair and a little more belly than when we met. He always picks up the tab, even when things are too tight. But he loves me.
He loves me enough to listen to me rambling on about the ethics of organ donation for, well, years. He loves me enough to tell me I’m beautiful even when I haven’t shaved in far too long and am hibernating in the same sweatpants I have slept in (eek!) two nights in a row, and mean it. He loves me enough to ignore my sarcasm, passive aggression and general ire. He sings Kenny Rogers to me off-key while we slow dance in the kitchen. He has supported me through degrees, deep losses, motherhood and the perpetual confusion that is my family life. He loves me.
When he walked through the door last week my heart skipped a beat despite the murmur of fever. I love him. As our children clamored around him, tearing open his luggage in pursuit of Amazing Savings booty, he smiled indulgently. I love him. He bundled me up and took me to the emergency clinic, and let me sweat and shiver and cry on his shoulder. I love him. This is what makes it work: he gives without question, without calculation. He loves with an innocence that tempers my jaded suspicion. I love him.
As Jews we do not celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, which like most days in the Gregorian calendar marks the massacre of some members of our tribe somewhere in Europe at some point, but we are six months from the Jewish day of love and in the darkest days of winter. Not that I need an excuse, but this one is as good as any: I love my husband on February 14th, and every day. And he loves me. That is cause for celebration and maybe even chocolate hearts.