I have a big chalkboard near my kitchen and last summer I made long list of all the fun things we were going to do from June-August. We made it though some of them, Great Wolf Lodge, snow cones…and then our summer abruptly stopped. When it stuttered back up again, 16 days later, I didn’t care about the list anymore. In fact, I think I erased it quickly after we returned home. Instead, our family retreated. Shep was terribly weak from spending so many days in bed, and my brain was fuzzy, my heart felt fragile, and my nerves were shot. We spent a lot of time on the couch. We didn’t care. We were just happy to be there together.
I remember driving out to Stillwater with the kids for a birthday party of my best friend’s oldest daughter. It was about a month and half after Shep’s release from the hospital. I thought it would be a fun outing, and didn’t think twice that Erron couldn’t come with us. In my defense, I had never experienced a ‘big kid’ birthday party before, and this one felt huge. I had totally underestimated what I was in for. Even though it was familiar, the sheer size of my friend’s house was problem number one. Add to that tons of guests and kids running everywhere. Naturally, my two kids went in opposite directions the minute they entered the door. The whole thing felt like an out of body experience. What if Char fell down the stairs, or got hurt in the bounce house full of big kids? And where the HELL is Shep? I mentally couldn’t loose track of him for longer than 30 seconds. The worst (and craziest) part was stressing over everyone’s opinion of me if I didn’t have both kids in my sights at all times. I was doomed, the set up made that impossible for any single parent. Still, “What will they think of me?” was on repeat in my head. Everyone there knew our story and I couldn’t shake it. I was a train wreck. I made it a little over an hour on polite autopilot, then as soon as I could, I said goodbye to my friend, and bolted, vowing never to go to a birthday party without back-up again. It was a humbling drive home, knowing I was obviously not as “fine” as I thought I was.
Yet here were are, halfway though another summer twelve months later and things feel so different. It’s amazing how much time is needed to really recover from a blow like we had, but on the flip side, it’s impressive how much time really has healed us. This summer has been full of wins for our little family. We watched Aunt B get married. We sleep in together, and we move slow, because we want to. We’ve done the neighborhood pool over and over again, and it’s fun every time. (I still avoid home pools, but we’ll get there.) We’ve hit up splash pads, museums and done sleepovers with the Grands. Most things I’ve done with the kids solo, just like I used to, but Erron’s been around for just as many, which means the little people are in family bliss. Shep’s had some personal wins: On the rare occasion Shep leaves the pool steps, he swims, and he loves it. And one day, early in the summer, he looked at his pedaled bike, which had been sitting in the garage for nearly a year, and decided he was ready to use it. This was huge for little man who does these things on his own timetable and cannot be rushed. The new, shiny summer memories have piled up over our broken ones from last year and the season returned itself back into my good graces.
It took a whole year, but it happened. Our Reclaim-the-Date party felt like turning a page to end a long and difficult chapter. It released me to start over this summer, feeling lighter, braver than before. Last year I couldn’t wait for summer to end, I desperately craved a season change to even begin processing what had just happened. This year, I’ll be sad to see it go.
We have spent nearly every night of summer, curled up with the littles watching a movie. It’s how we ease into bed time. By then, their tiny tan bodies are finally relaxed, and lounging on the couch or the easy chair, these little people nestle in, fitting into our larger bodies, like puzzles pieces.
Last night, when Erron got home, we played hide and seek. Charlotte gave Shep away every time, because she would only hide where he was. He screamed and she bounced every time anyone was found. Attempting to out do Erron, I wedged myself in the cabinets under the kids’ bathroom sink, and then got stuck. Erron would only drag me out after he’d stolen a picture on his phone.
On nights like this my eyes wander across the room and land on Shep resting on Erron’s lap. I gaze at his smooth face while he watches the dragons across the screen and I study his expressions. His tiny slope nose, his giant eyes. Then I lean in and smell Char’s hair, wet and clean from her bath… and my eyes begin to water, I can’t help it. This last year has made me such a softie. I know these are the moments I’ll remember when I’m old, and my babies have walked out the door and into their lives. I’ll think back on how sweet nights like this were, and how we all had to be touching someone else in order to be truly comfortable. This…is the good life.
Erron and I celebrated 8 years of marriage this week. Last year we spent our anniversary in the PICU, extubating Shepherd and hearing his precious first words, “I want to go home.” We were exhausted, having experienced every possible emotion in that one day alone, after a marathon 9 days of minimal sleep and intense fear. Yet it was the most meaningful anniversary we’d ever had considering what we’d just experienced as a couple, the nature of Shep’s accident, and the fact that Erron wasn’t even in town when it happened. The gift of a second chance at life with our son was indescribable. I later learned that in the bible, 7 stands for completeness and perfection, or something that is finished. I internalized this as God saying, “This catastrophe for Shep is over, I will make him whole and perfect, and you two will make it through this.”
Except I forgot that a lot this year. The truth is, this year was rough. We had so many intense emotions process through. PTSD hit me like a tidal wave the day Shep was transferred out of PICU and hung around for months. But we circled the wagons and continued to put one foot in front of the other. Anyone who’s done it can tell you: Marriage isn’t easy; and marriage with children is something else entirely. I recently watched my little sister walk down the isle and it got me thinking over the things I’ve discovered about making a marriage work since Erron and I said “I do,” at age 23. We were babies. What did we know? And who’d have thought we’d experience all we have so early into our vows? So, I made a list…8 real things I’ve learned after 8 years of marriage, plus one to grow on.
1. Sometimes the mundane is harder than a crisis: Erron and I tend to unify quickly in really scary or exceptionally stressful situations but it’s the day-in-day-out grind that gets to us. Things that all couples face: Unexpected expenses, an over-packed schedule, and the perpetual lack of sleep that comes with our particular little people. This stuff gets under our skin and starts to cause friction between the two of us. We become short-sighted, irritable, forgetting that we aren’t really in total control of our circumstances in the first place. After a while, we have to call a time out, remind each other what really matters, and hit the re-set button.
2. Have a higher calling: There was a clear moment; sitting slack jawed on that little couch-bed in the hospital room, nurses buzzing around us…when the two of us were pretty sure we were going to loose Shepherd. In that minute I looked at Erron, eyes wide and nervous, and I whispered, “Are we in this together?” He looked me in the eye and said, “Yes, we’re in this together.” It was the first time I could take a breath. Erron’s few words told me all I needed to know. He still believed in Us, and he felt as I did: If we had to say goodbye to our little boy, it didn’t mean forever. Facing whatever the next minute would bring, we were unified in our belief that this was not “The End”, and our whole world hung on this belief. That moment was bearable, and oddly peaceful, only because our faith was bigger than our circumstances.
3. Being a good Dad counts extra. It just does. There are seasons when Erron and I are not on the same page, things are not awesome, and we are not madly in love. But even in our worst moments of marriage, Erron has never quit being an intentional Dad and I’ve never failed to notice how obsessed our kids are with him. Being a great parent counts big time, sometimes more than being a great husband. And it goes both ways, I know Erron thinks I’m a good mom and that matters…. A lot. Erron and I always manage to get back on track, but I’m not going to pretend I’m never motivated toward ending an argument so we can just go back to being a happy family.
4. One-on-one time actually IS a big deal. NO, we do not have weekly date nights, not even close. But on the rare occasion we make it out of the house child-free I’m always amazed at the difference it makes. You don’t have to leave the house. Sitting at home watching Netflix while your kids are in bed does not count. But sitting at home and having an adult conversation while they sleep does. It’s the talking that does the trick. Conversations with little people are hectic. Attempting a serious personal conversation with our kids around looks like this: “Babe. I’ve been thinking it’d be really good for me if I started- “SHEPHERD! Stop wrestling your sister!” or, “At work I’m having this issue and I’m trying to figure out how to -“CHAR! No more cheerios before dinner!” You get the picture.
5. Forgiveness. I’m just going to go ahead and say Erron’s better at this than me. Erron seeks out reconciliation before I do, and it’s one of the things I love most about him. I feel like arguments repeat themselves less than usual because we work them out to the point of actual verbal forgiveness. This concept now extends to our kids. Since becoming parents, Erron and I have improved the way we argue, but we still tend to fight loud and it’s not always clean. Many times we end up going to our kids and asking them for forgiveness after an argument as well. It keeps us in-check and hopefully, the take away for the littles is that we aren’t perfect, but we keep trying.
6. Have at least ONE show you can watch together.If not, you’ll always be in one room watching Nashville and he’ll be in the other watching Walking Dead and that gets lonely after a while. Even if you’re too whipped to do anything but zone out, it’s nice being able to do together.
7. Get excited about what your spouse is excited about. I’m not into disc golf, but Erron is crazy good at it. I bought him a putting basket for Father’s Day last year and you’d of thought I bought him a truck. He loved it, best gift ever. I should be exempt from all future gifts, it gets used that much. Likewise, writing is not Erron’s thing. Still, he faithfully reads what I write and he takes me seriously when I talk about what I’m putting on the blog. It’s possible he only cares because he’s at high risk for subject matter, but I’m going to say it’s because he loves me. And I love that he cares enough to listen and provide feedback.
8. Sending out the distress signal can be a smart move. Hands down the best thing Erron and I ever did for our marriage was go talk to someone about it. We’d never done that before this year, and we probably wouldn’t have if it was not so obvious to both of us that we were in way over our heads after Shepherd’s accident. Once we were able to air out our truths in a safe place, the truth didn’t seem so scary, and we realized things were actually really good between us. Inviting wise council into your marriage helps you process better and think as a team. We never left counseling more discouraged then when we came in.
9. Assume the best. This one is hard, but a game changer. I would say at least half our arguments are born out of false assumptions about the other person. And people tend to become the type of person you treat them as…so give your other half the benefit of the doubt. Erron is not avoiding that insurance paperwork because he doesn’t care about our family; he really is slammed at work and just forgot. Our house is not trashed for a week because I’m lazy, the kids are going through a phase that requires extra attention. Extending grace…goes a long way in short circuiting arguments.
For us, marriage means we’re better people together than we would ever be apart. It’s not about the individual (even though it really feels like it). It can hurt, a lot, having the rough edges of your personality worn away. Selfishness, entitlement, pride…. everybody struggles with these feelings, but tied to another person you have to be willing to own them….and cut them loose. Over and over again. This year wasn’t always pretty for us, but it’s beautiful, what we’ve become. Erron collaborated with me to finish this list. Last week, I came to him, defeated over the lack of material I had to write this post. “Babe, I only have about 6 things to on my list! I panicked, “It’s like I haven’t even learned anything in 8 years of marriage! And after all we’ve been through!”
“Or maybe…” he suggested, “…we’re just so damn good at it.”