20 Things about My Husband

(on our 11th wedding anniversary)

1. He crawls into bed each night, pulls the covers up to the bridge of his nose, closes his eyes and lies there on his back in quiet solitude breathing deeply. Then he throws back the covers, turns on his bedside lamp and grabs his book. I call this his meditative moment – he prefers not to give it a label.

2. He is a man of ritual but he would never call himself that. He gets up at the same time, he does the same workout, he eats the same breakfast.

3. He is not a morning person. I know not to speak with him before breakfast. I’ve counseled myself that his morning mug – which carries a permanent scowl until 8AM – is not my doing and simply his natural state.my husband, rachel renovation

4. After the dog is walked, he is straight to his work. As a woodworker, various tools are whirling, digging, sawing, jabbing, sanding throughout the day. He moves between his workshop, his office and his second workshop, also known as the garage. If I encounter him during the day, he will be wearing his woodworking uniform, a denim blue stiff apron. You can see vision and restraint in his creations.

5. At times, he will have on his respirator mask when he works…which brings to mind an apocalyptic war. Except that it is pink.

6. In the evenings, he will play his guitar – he is learning – and sing softly along. He practices every day – a sign of his discipline. He may watch a woodworking video on YouTube. He updates our budget, calling me away from Rachel Maddow when an expense needs explanation. While he waits, I look at the expense, which has generally only been made the week before and I shift from foot to foot trying to recall who is Sunrise Industries and why I would have sent them two separate payments of $25.00 back to back. It will eventually come to me (in this case, my nieces’ school fundraiser) but while I dig into the recesses of my mind, he will sit, completely still, silent, waiting.

7. He is stoic but if I jab and jab at his underlaying sensitive skin – he will cry. Not openly with sound but the tears will water his eyes. This happens when he feels he has failed his family.

8. I had the dream of a beachfront vacation home and he had the dream of a mountain riverfront vacation home and he somehow supplanted his dream into my head and now we have property on a mountain river.

9. When we leave the city, we rediscover each other again.

10. He loves his family – his parents, the grandparents (now passed), the aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins. He would never let them down.

11. He is a man of honor, a man of his word. He does not flake out. He doesn’t understand it when I do.

12. If it is true that all men are babies when sick, he fits the bill. He could never give birth (both literally and figuratively).

13. He has no freckles on his face but thousands on his back.

14. He is skeptical of pleasure. He takes it but in small doses.

15. He is the household chef and baker. He is able to layer seasoning in a way that extends flavor just right. I cook twice a week and while I think it is unfair, the children prefer his meals.

16. When we first started dating, my children graduated from the waitlist to attend my work place’s pre-school and as I filled out the paperwork, it required I provide ten emergency contact names. This is quite a lot. I put him as number ten and how was I to know that the center would call him in a matter of days with an issue – who starts at the bottom of a list?

17. He makes big decisions thoughtfully. Whether which dog will join our family or what car we should purchase.  I value timeliness, he values doing it right the first time.

18. He tells a story about working for his grandfather, Big Pa, at his brick factory. He was required to scoop gravel from the back of a truck to the ground with a shovel. It took him all day and the next day he learned the truck could simply lift its bed and unload its contents. His grandfather’s lesson was…I don’t know what the hell it was. I think it has something to do with #17.

19. He agreed to take our kids out of school for a year to travel around the world to places like Cambodia and Bolivia. Need I say more?

20. He has crinkly blue eyes and a dimple in his chin. When we first met, I was a single widowed mom of two toddlers. His introduction to the twins was at Shilshole Beach and years later he produced two small rocks, which had been scooped up by the children during that trip and gifted to him. He still has those rocks today. Really that’s what I should have started this list with because, after that, what else do you need to know?

How to Crawl into Bed Each Night

If you listen to either your mother or Tim Ferris, you made your bed shortly after rising.

If you did not make your bed upon rising, do the following:

First, shake out the prior nights dreams (orachelrenovation, person in bedr nightmares) from the twisted sheets.

Second, make the bedding sleek and straight with sheet corners meeting comforter corners.

Third – this step is extremely satisfying – toss back the matching edges of one corner and prepare to crawl in.

Fourth, slip in between the cool sheets and get ready for your ritual.

You have a few options:

One is to pull the covers up to your chin and say “bed, bed, bed, bed” over and over. A chant of pure satisfaction and glee. The feeling of having earned the comfort of bed and a delicious sleep. This is what Jim did. Having learned it from him and being someone who delights in delight, this is what I do too.

Or, you could pull the covers up to the bridge of your nose, close your eyes and lay on your back in quiet solitude for just a few minutes breathing deeply. Meditation for someone who would never purposely meditate. At some point, you may sense your wife peeking over at you from behind her book. You will know that she is smiling because she is smitten with your ritual. It is difficult to meditate (but not really meditate) while being observed by someone who is either lying next to you chanting “bed, bed, bed, bed” or watching you slyly out of the corner of her eye.

Nevertheless, you will stubbornly observe your few minutes of meditation / not meditation and then eventually lower the covers to release your arms, turn on your bedside lamp and grab your book.

Last step…settle in.

Daddy

My twins look up at Kyle.

They have shy smiles and occasionally duck their heads, cast their eyes down and hunch their shoulders, as they flicker between pride and embarrassment. Julia reaches up and gives a gentle tug of Kyle’s dark blue silk tie. Sean shifts his weight from leg to leg. There is so much love in the room for every inch of their seven-year-old bodies.

Kyle, my second husband, is adopting my children and we are surrounded with family. His – a kind, gentle clan from Iowa. Mine – an eclectic mix of loud and soft with divorces that have added many branches to our tree.

I smile as I survey the banquet room of Salty’s, swept up in bright love for my extended family. Kyle stands next to me – he is telling a story. He holds in each hand a small rock. He has carried these rocks for years, since the day I allowed him to meet my then toddlers, on a warm August afternoon at Shilshole Beach. Each child had lifted a stone and stretched out pudgy arms to give him these gifts.

“I think of Jim every day,” Kyle’s voice cracks, “because I now have the life he was meant to.”

Elliott Bay and the city of Seattle sparkle in front of us. In addition to our family, the Salty’s staff gathers in the doorway, curious to watch a video I have secretly prepared for Kyle. The video documents him with the kids from age two until now, following his journey into fatherhood.

At two they called him “Ky-ky.” At three they called him “Daddy Ky-ky.” By four, they simply called him “Daddy.”

In one of the final video clips, the then four year old twins sit at our home’s dining room table eating breakfast in their striped cotton pajamas. The sun is streaming in, and Julia, with her blonde curly morning hair proclaims, “Daddy, when I’m eight years old, I won’t eat waffles!”

We can hear but can’t see Kyle. “What will you eat instead?”

“Mashed bananas!” Julia giggles. “We ate that when we were babies. Mommy had to eat smooshy food and it went down to us. Yeah.”

“That was a long time ago.”

Julia counts “Four, three, two, one, zero!” while Sean says, “Daddy, part of it was when you were not in our city.”

“Yeah, I didn’t know you guys when you were eating mashed bananas.”

Sean is licking syrup from his fingers. “But did you knowed Mommy?”

“No, I didn’t know any of you.”

Julia is walking her sticky fingers across the table. “Daddy, do you know who was Mommy’s…” she pauses, “…who was our Daddy? ‘Cause it was Daddy Jim. He got cancer…so he died. So we found a new Daddy.”

“But Daddy? Know what?” Sean asks, as Julia lets out a big syrupy cough, interrupting him. “Daddy, since Julia coughed I don’t know what to say now.”

Julia scrambles onto her knees, eyes bright, smile wide, “I’ll try to keep my coughs in my belly!”

In the banquet room, laughter mixes with tears, and I hear my 87-year-old grandmother, who keeps forgetting that she’s already had her one glass of white wine so one has quickly become three, calling out over the din, “What? What is funny? I can’t hear anything. Turn it up!”

Kyle takes my hand. He knows me. He knows that I am the kind of person who will say I’m just headed to the bathroom but will then leave the party. He holds my hand tightly.

Envelope

Her mother is sobbing next to her. She is in shock, stoic. First in the elevator going down, and then at the curbside waiting for the hospital valet to bring around the station wagon, people come up to her mother to say they will pray for her. They assume it is her mother’s loss, not hers. She’s not sure why the loss feels proprietary to her — she isn’t the only one who loves him.

Her mother asks if she should drive but she wants to drive, she needs some semblance of control. It is a surreal trip home. She is driving away from him. She will never see him again.

The morning after in their Oak Park bungalow, she steps barefoot softly across the creaky wood floors, wanting to prolong the babies slumber. It is a gentle summer morning — sun shining but the air still crisp from the night before. The world seems to be moving in slow motion. Colors muted. Sounds unclear, hazy from a distance. Did it really happen?

She hears footsteps on the front porch, a pause as if someone is standing there deciding whether to knock. “Don’t knock” she silently pleads. Then the clank of the mail slot in the porch door as the metal flap swings back.

She waits — she’s not ready to be seen, not ready to be heard. She peeks out the front door, the enclosed porch an additional barrier between her and the outside world, keeping her hidden. A white envelope lays on the porch floor. The first condolence card. He has been dead eleven hours.

She slips out and picks up the envelope.

heavy, rich white
pure
purely heartbreaking
scrolling black ink
stark against the white frame
three names
not four

This gesture, a kindness from a neighbor states a fact she is not ready to accept. That in the space of a day, her family unit which had once been Jim, Rachel, Sean and Julia was now Rachel, Sean and Julia. He is gone. His name will no longer be written next to hers.

Even her bones feel tired. She thinks her forehead must now look Neanderthal for how heavy it feels, her throat constricted, still too shocked and wasted for tears.

This memory will come back to her many years later as her heart aches for an acquaintance who first lost his wife and now has lost one of his two sons. She thinks about how four becomes two. She thinks about how this man has had to endure seeing envelopes once addressed to four first reduced to three. And then only a few years later, reduced again from three to two. How his bones must feel tired, his forehead heavy, his throat constricted, too shocked and wasted for tears.

A simple act from the outside world to let you know they care but that forces a stark reality through ink and paper.

Rachel, Sean and Julia.

In Oak Park that June, more cards will arrive throughout the day and into the weeks and months that follow. Jim’s name will be within them but never on the outer envelope.

Her denial will long outlast the cards.

Author’s Note: I have kept every condolence card I received. They are beautiful and heartfelt and I appreciate every one. So what does a person do? Do you address the card to the full family…present and lost? We are all individuals and we won’t react the same. Speaking for myself, I would have liked the cards to include Jim. I would have liked them to say inside, “I hope it doesn’t offend you that I addressed this card to Jim too but I can’t believe he’s gone and I imagine you can’t believe he’s gone and I’m not ready to let him go. I hope that’s ok.”

When It Happened

What was Jim doing when it happened?

Was he sleeping? He ran every day…was it on a run? Playing guitar? He’d been sanding the ancient wood floors of our small Oak Park bungalow. Did it happen then? Was he on the Metra train headed to work in Chicago’s loop?

On the outside, life was normal. He was enjoying time alone while I was in Germany on a business trip with my boss, the queen of a good boondoggle. We were in that safety net of a young marriage – few responsibilities and only adoration for each other.

Chromosomes are too small to see, even with a microscope. They are described as looking like an uneven X, with longer legs than arms. Each chromosome comes as a set – 22 pairs plus the two that decide your sex, and this total of 46 make up a single cell.

There are trillions in your body.

What triggers one cell out of trillions to go rogue?

Inside Jim, deep inside, something broke.

Translocation is the swapping of material between chromosomes. Among the masses of chromosomes in Jim’s body – the body I loved – two swapped the wrong material. In an instant. Just like that.

A mutant cell was created, an immature blast, and this blast did what is simply in its nature…it multiplied. Imagine popcorn popping – that initial burst, followed by rapidly increasing “pops!” until the lid is lifted off its pan and white kernels spill out onto the stove top.

Jim’s abnormal cells spilled out from his bone marrow into his blood stream…and they took over. They crowded out the red blood cells and Jim became fatigued, lacking oxygen. They elbowed away the platelets and he developed clots in his legs. They pushed aside the neutrophils, and he came down with a fever. He was Jim on the outside but within, leukemia was swiftly taking over.

We spoke on the phone.

I was in the Marlene Dietrich Suite of the Hyatt hotel, my heels lay aside the white couch where I had kicked them off. I was cozied up in a corner, a crimson tasseled pillow cradled in my lap. He was dismissive about his state, “My knee swelled up. I must have strained it sanding.” It was simply a detail in his day.

I danced in a disco in Berlin. I kept requesting “Dancing Queen” but they never played it.

I sang The Supremes “Stop in the Name of Love” with my boss and co-workers on a karaoke stage at a random street fair.

I saw Lionel Richie in the lobby of the Hyatt and acted nonchalant.

Jim and I spoke again. His knee was still troubling him – he’d gone to the local hospital, picked up crutches and was told to take Advil. He was up to 12 a day.

The day before I flew home, I visited the Berlin Wall. I stood in the area known as “The Death Strip” reading about the over 5,000 people who tried to escape to the west by driving their vehicles straight into the wall, or by leaping over it from nearby buildings, or by digging tunnels under it.

More than one hundred people died while desperately trying to reach their families on the other side.