Brothers

I hear it all the time. Even now, as an adult. Even as recently as last week.

“You’re their little sister? I never knew they even had a little sister!”

It doesn’t surprise me anymore. I roll with it now. Sometimes with invention: “I was locked away in a tower” or “I grew up in France.” Sometimes with humor: “I’m the best thing about my family, and they just didn’t want anyone to know.”

The truth is, I was a latecomer. The last of the progeny. The baby. They were learning to drive when I was learning cursive. When I started middle school, they were starting their adult lives – moving out (and back in), working, dating, and leaving a legacy with friends in the Tri-State Area. Friends that I met in my adult life, and continue to meet as time goes on.

It’s like being the little sister of a couple of celebrities. People instantly recognize my maiden name. And it’s not “Oh, are you the daughter of So-and-So?” No. It’s “Are you related to So-and-So? Oh, they’re your brothers? I didn’t know they had a sister!” And so on, and so forth.

I can remember a handful of times they let me, their tomboyish kid sister, tag along – but this was the exception rather than the rule. A day at the amusement park there, letting me hang out while they played computer games here. But I was just a kid, you see. And nobody wants to be responsible for their kid sister when they’re trying to have fun . . . unless there are girls involved. Then I became a commodity. Look at how awesome and sensitive I am, taking care of my little sister. Right.

Sometimes my oldest brother T would let me hang out in his room while he played video games, with the ubiquitous array of electronic innards scattered about the floor.  He was the child of the Commodore 64, growing up in the utopian age of computers, and familiarized himself so much with the technology he made a career out of it.  He used to try to explain to me what everything did, and how it all fit together so I could play Lemmings, but I never quite understood what the heck he was talking about. It wasn’t until I was about 13 and he was 23 that he had vital information for me: how to download music using the program Napster. Those were the days, my friend.

My other brother (and he is definitely the “other” brother and poster child for Middle Child Syndrome) never let me go near his room. I was mostly okay with that, though, because it smelled pretty bad in there. On the rare occasion J would come out of his room, we would usually start fighting, and more than once it got physical, to the point where I do believe I took off a few layers of arm skin with my fingernails. But to his credit, he probably could have literally killed me, and he didn’t. He just disappeared into his room with a bowl of cereal and a Band-Aid.

Nevertheless, as I was growing up, I always knew that both of my brothers were extremely talented.

T is the artist. His artwork is meticulously crafted and breathtaking. From cartoons to comic books to detailed portraits, his talent is second nature, but never superficial – his subjects have heart and soul. His portfolio is an extensive marvel of precise skill.

Not just a talented artist, he is well read and intelligent, taking his skill with computers to “wizard” status and running the gamut of the English language. He was the first one to teach me about Word Of The Day and introduce me to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as well as the prolific sci-fi genre in general. His quick, sarcastic wit often goes over the head of his audience, a fact which often amuses only him, but has pushed the parameters of my own understanding to get his jokes.

T wearing an example of his favorite kind of humor.

T wearing an example of his favorite kind of humor.

However, with his massive brain comes a deep and attractive quality of humility and compassion that permeates everything he does. His intimidating size throws people off, but his friends know him to be a great listener, diplomat, and mediator. He is something of an oxymoron, with his deep brow and terrifying glare, but absolute disdain for controversy. It could be said one might be able to walk all over him. Except no one would ever, ever try.

At an Airborne show, T is my bodyguard.

At an Airborne show, T is my bodyguard.

J’s talent has always been poetry, though this might come to a surprise to those who don’t know him well. For as long as I can remember, he has kept a folded piece of paper and a pen in his pocket at all times, and will produce it randomly in any given setting to scribble down a verse or two. His poems can be shockingly painful, about life and death and heartache. But he, too, is an oxymoron. The same person who can take your breath away and break your heart with words can also make you laugh until you can’t breathe. He is the paragon of middle children everywhere, demanding your attention whether it’s positive or negative. It doesn’t matter. You got mad. You laughed. You reacted. He is pleased with all forms of attention, even going so far as growing a handlebar mustache for controversy’s sake. He uses Instagram like target practice, taking aim at every picture you post with sarcastic wit at your expense. Sometimes I will go on there just to read the comments he leaves. He walks the very thin line between a good-natured dig and an offensive remark, and he is beloved for it . . . for the most part.  But even the ones whom he offends amuse him.

J - the non-conformist "Middle Child."

J – the non-conformist “Middle Child.”

Though close in age, they’re both very different, but equally beloved by those who know them. They have an extensive group of friends of different ages, one so large it often overlaps with mine. And every once in a while, I will meet someone who knew them when they were young adults, and only later will they realize I am their little sister.

Maybe we’re not as close as we could be, or should be. Time and age has influenced that up until recent years, but as I became an adult and started a family of my own, things began to change. I wanted them around more. Sometimes this came back to bite me. Such was the case during my first time seeing The Airborne Toxic Event. I rounded up a couple girl friends and my brother J. Mostly, I wanted protection an older brother affords – just in case. I had never been to a concert without my husband since I got married, and for all intents and purposes, I had never been to one like this at all, as a fangirl in the front row. But J – well, he can only be himself. The Middle Child. The big brother who never grew up.

In the middle of the show, during a prolonged and quiet pause, my brother took aim at my expense in a singularly public way, much like he does on social media. Very loudly, and with great pleasure, he yelled out “MY SISTER IS IN LOVE WITH YOU. AND SHE IS MARRIED.”

In horror, I whipped around and whisper-yelled back at him. “Shut up, you moron! What is wrong with you?!”

And of course, he just smiled. Because all he wanted was a reaction. And maybe that was his way of putting me in my place. Maybe he thought it was his job, as a big brother. Or maybe he is just a turd. Whatever the reason, in the end he smoothed things over with the purchase of my first band T-shirt. And thankfully, no band member past or present seems to remember my total humiliation.

I didn’t have those classic sibling moments growing up that you see on sitcoms or read in memoirs. I just have what I’ve got now, as we are all grown up and trying to make sense of our lives and the challenges along the way.

Those challenges define who really is your family. It doesn’t have to be the person your mother gave birth to before or after you. Sometimes a friend can be like a brother, and I am blessed to have many “brothers” in that sense.

But these men with whom I share my maiden name are both my friends and brothers, and they have proven to be such in my own times of distress.

The brother who can meticulously craft a portrait of the anguish in the eyes of a human was there at my son’s funeral, with tears streaming down his cheeks, as he held my head against his broad shoulders. And he was there in the days after, quietly listening with compassion – his intimidating form never an intimidating presence, but that of a welcome and warm companion.

The brother who delights at making others laugh or pissing me off was there at the funeral with a poem he had written for me, about the nephew he never knew. A poem about life, death, and a kind of heartache he couldn’t possibly understand, but somehow seemed to capture in verse.

These are my brothers, the men who have preceded me and left a legacy. And I’m the little sister no one knows about.

For a long time, I wondered where I fit into the trifecta as the only girl, the little sister, and the baby. We are each so different, yet there are overlaps in our respective interests and abilities. I draw a little bit, but I’m not even close to being an artist like my brother T.  I’ve tried writing poetry, but it pales in comparison to J’s raw exposure of emotion through verse.

I guess I’m just trying to write it all down.

And maybe this is my legacy, a string of words on a nonexistent page.

But I would hardly be the person I am today without my brothers, and I am proud that, for some people, their first impression of me is built around their last impression of my brothers.

*For T and J with love, from your li’l sis

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Not For Wimps

**The following post is not an attack on those who have chosen, for whatever reason, whether by necessity or choice, not to breastfeed.  Certainly we moms are hard enough on ourselves without having someone criticize what we feed our children.**

Like most women, I had grandiose ideas of motherhood. I watched my friends have babies and admired the ethereal transformation that took place when they tended to their infant children and toddlers. Most notably, this happened when they attached a hungry child to their breast seemingly without difficulty, while one hand supported the baby and the other reached for a glass of wine. It was an incredible thing to witness, this moment of ultimate multitasking. When I found out I was pregnant, and the idea that I might actually have a baby one day became a real possibility, I was already on board. If this was breastfeeding, sign me up.

Sure, I was a little concerned about cracked and bleeding nipples, and the likely reality that my already monstrous-sized boobs would go up a size or two. But by the time I was eight months pregnant with Little Rock Star, these concerns paled when I considered how fortunate I was that I could have a baby, much less breastfeed one. After all, everyone else survived it. And not only were they successful, they encouraged me to try it as well.

So we signed up for breastfeeding classes and patted ourselves on the back for being proactive parents and giving our son the very best food possible. I pictured myself like my ethereal mom-friends, having that special bond with my baby at the same time I enjoyed a glass of wine.

However, there was a question that everyone wanted to know, even down to the paperwork on breastfeeding I completed for the hospital when I gave birth. Why was everyone asking me if I had a support group for breastfeeding? I didn’t see any entourage following my mom-friends around while they breastfed their babies. Why the heck would I need one?

I shrugged my shoulders and concluded that I did have a support group, if that’s what my breastfeeding friends were. They were supporting me to breastfeed, too. So there you go. I guess?

Then I had a baby to feed. Only then did I understand to the fullest extent what that actually meant.

Because breastfeeding is not for wimps.

Now, I have been through hardships, both emotional and physical, in my relatively modest lifetime. I have had two C-sections, a miscarriage, and have experienced the death of one of my children. I also ran 5ks and endured grueling exercise programs to get in shape.

So let me assure you, breastfeeding is hard.

It is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

And I just wish someone would have prepared me. Yes, I took the classes. Yes, I talked to friends and relatives who successfully breastfed their children. But no one sat me down and said, “Look, what you’re about to do? It’s like, the hardest thing you will ever do. You will cry. You will feel like you’re running a marathon every day for weeks, on the littlest amount of sleep you’ve ever had in your life. And your nipples will crack and bleed. And you’re going to feel like giving up. In the middle of the night, one of the many bottles of formula they throw at you at the hospital is going to look mighty tempting. But you’ll get through it.”

Yes, I got through it, even in spite of having to give my son formula at the hospital to help him gain weight because my milk hadn’t come in yet. I got through having to trick him back to breastfeeding with my husband’s help, with him hovering over us holding a syringe of expressed breast milk that he would squirt into my son’s mouth when he tried to latch. I got through having to wake up every hour and a half to feed him – which meant spending 20 minutes waking a sleepy infant who wanted to stay asleep as much as I did, then another 15 minutes trying to get him to latch while he screamed in frustration, then at least another 15 minutes trying to get us both to stay awake while he ate, only to repeat the process again several times before the dawn.

I got through leaky boobs, a painful letdown (which, for those of you who don’t know, feels like some invisibly strong and painful gravity is pulling at your boobs), and a mild bout with mastitis (read=aching pain). I got through an overactive supply, which made my boobs go up not one, not two, but three whole sizes to the point I felt like Jessica Rabbit nursing a baby. And I got through the guilt of watching my poor baby cough and choke on his food because once my milk came in, my boobs were set to “garden hose.”

I also got through bleeding and cracked nipples, which, as it turned out, had the easiest remedy of all. I just slapped some coconut oil on those bad boys (well, not exactly slapped, but you know what I mean), and the next day I was ready to face whatever challenge this breastfeeding job would bring. And it is definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, a job.

And that support group everyone was asking about? That was actually every single woman I knew who breastfed their children. They became my go-to people for advice on how to handle these formidable challenges, in addition to the breastfeeding consultants whom I asked for help. Together with about 20 other people, me and Little Rock Star were a champion breastfeeding team.

But I still felt like I was missing something. Breastfeeding was not enjoyable for me like it was for other more ethereal-looking moms. I didn’t feel that special bond that I thought I was supposed to feel. It was more like a sense of satisfaction one receives for completing a task, not hearts and flowers and warm fuzzies.

And there was still the issue of breastfeeding in public, which I was having trouble doing. Little Rock Star wants to eat like the true performer he is – not from behind a curtain. He literally threw off every cover I tried to use, and I tried them all – from Babies ‘R Us to Etsy homemade models to nursing scarves. He would cry and wiggle and flail his arms around until I finally realized I had to go au naturel.

But the challenge of breastfeeding became, not the act of breastfeeding itself, but how I felt about breastfeeding – and my failure at becoming the perfect ethereal mom I had always hoped to be.

The idea of nursing a baby in public gave me such great anxiety, I packed bottles of breastmilk when I wasn’t sure I could find a private place for me to feed my little guy. After all, he refused to eat under a tent or a cover, and who could blame him? I wouldn’t want to eat like that either.

But what if someone saw me? What if I became some sort of public spectacle, with my Jessica Rabbit boobs and my little acrobatic breastfeeder?  How could I reconcile all this with my crippling social anxiety?

Despite my legal right to breastfeed practically anywhere I want to, the thought of being that ultimate multitasking mom with a baby at her breast and a wineglass in her hand seemed like a dream.

Then last week, when we were at the park, Little Rock Star was hungry.

And I didn’t have a bottle.

I quickly surveyed my surroundings. Several feet away, in a small theater pavilion, a few teenage boys were skateboarding on the concrete stage. Across the clearing, a birthday party was taking place at a shelter. Next to the shelter came the cheerful cries of children at the playground.

And there we were, right in the middle of the park, taking shade at a picnic table under a tree.

I could have retreated to the car, where I could try to (uncomfortably) feed my child. Or we could have taken a walk to find some private wooded area where I could sit on the ground like our ancestors and feed him there. But the more he cried out of hunger, the more desperate I became.

And so instead, I sat down at the picnic table and lovingly calmed him before I discreetly fed him –  in public, surrounded by several other people. No cover, no scarf, no acrobatics. Just a mom feeding her baby in the most natural way.

And wouldn’t you know it, no one gawked at me, or tried to take a picture, or told me I couldn’t breastfeed in public. No one even cared. Maybe they didn’t even notice.

No one knew they were witnessing the most beautiful thing – that at that moment, a transformation was taking place. I became the perfect ethereal mom I always wanted to be – confident and calm, knowing I was giving my child the very best food there is. And maybe that’s all it takes to become “that” mom – giving your child what they need, when they need it – whether it’s taking a moment to calm them down, kissing a scraped knee, breastfeeding in a park, or waking up in the middle of the night to give them a bottle of formula. All of it is part of the selfless, unconditional love that comes from being a mom.

The only thing missing was that glass of wine.  But when I looked into my son’s beautiful blue eyes, I knew I wasn’t missing anything at all.

Until the End of Time . . .

Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place . . .

A friend told me she recently watched the movie Moulin Rouge and it reminded her of my wedding, specifically the song “Come What May.”

I laughed at first, for two reasons.

The first was that I forgot there was a prior version of myself from way-back-when, when I used to love that movie and that song.

The second reason I laughed was because I forgot it was our wedding song.

I forgot.

How do you just forget the song you danced to at your own reception?

I spent nine months planning our wedding.  Years of dating had yielded plenty of inspiration.  Then there was The Proposal, but I was uninterested in using a Disney song.  Or perhaps Hubby was not on board.  I can’t be expected to remember these details when I can’t even remember what we chose.

No one particular Disney song fit us, anyway.

There really was only one song that we could even begin to call “ours,” though perhaps it was a stretch at the time.  After all, “we were only seventeen . . .”  What did we know of love and life?  We weren’t even dating.  Yet.

Hubby’s band was playing a gig for friends in his grandparents’ backyard.  And since I was part of this rather unusually large network of friends spanning two states, my best friend and I were invited, though my invitation came straight from the bass player himself.  I had an inkling that he liked me.  And I was surprised that I was falling for him, too.  We were already good friends.  He was a gentleman and he made me laugh.  He also played the guitar.  Just how well I didn’t know until that day.

I must have told him that I could kind-of, sort-of sing, because I remember him asking me to sing something that day.  Any old thing would do.  I remember wondering if he was joking, or just trying to be nice.  He did have a reputation for being a nice guy . . .

However, on the day of the gig I came down with a bad sore throat and a fever.  Singing seemed out of the question.  But nothing was stopping me from going to hear the band play on that warm summer day – August 2, 2002.

Figment

There were a lot of firsts that day.  It was the first time I heard them play.  It was the first time I became something of a band’s fangirl.  And it was the first time I knew without a doubt that the bass player had a crush on me.

“I’m sick,” I told him when the band took a break.  “I can’t sing.”

“You’ve got to try,” he said.  “After I told everyone how good you were and everything!”

“But you’ve never heard me sing.”

“I don’t need to.  I already know you’re good.”

“Um, okay.”

Then his cousin chimed in.  “Come on, Colleen.  I’ve heard you sing even when you were just goofing off and you were still good,” she said.

One reluctant agreement later, I was in the living room of his grandparents house practicing to an audience of one, Hubby’s 14-year-old friend.

“Man,” he exclaimed suddenly after the first verse, “that’s how you sing when you’re sick?  You must be really good when you’re healthy!”

“Not really,” I told him modestly.  Anything else seemed a lie.

Nevertheless, I told my friend the bass player that I was ready.

Since they had already been videotaping his band perform, he grabbed the video camera and stationed himself stage left as I nervously stepped into the hazy evening sunset glow that served as a spotlight.

I closed my eyes as friends’ and strangers’ voices fell to a hush.

Never knew I could feel like this . . .

When I close my eyes now, I open the ones that remember that moment like a snapshot in time.

The first thing I see is the bass player holding a video camera cocked to one side, as he stares at me transfixed.

Now it makes me laugh, seeing him like this – the 17-year-old boy with a crush on me.  But back then, I was too stunned to do anything but close my eyes and try to not to look so obvious as I trembled with the microphone and tried to sing.

There was no rhyme or reason why I chose the song from Moulin Rouge.  I just liked it.  I spent that whole summer obsessing over that movie, over Ewan McGregor (he can sing!), and that one scene where they dance in a Parisian sky and pay homage to Singin’ in the Rain with the Eiffel Tower.  The movie itself was nothing more than a bloated music video that stole songs from 20th century, from Elton John to Nirvana.  “Come What May” was an original song written for the film – just as hopelessly romantic and bloated as the film itself.

But I was 17.  I practically lived on bloated hopeless romance.

For me, however, the romance was just beginning.  It was this tiny, blossoming little thing out of a friendship with a bass player.  Three days after the backyard gig, we were dating.

Fast forward five years and I was on a mission to find our wedding song.

Why not this one?  After all, in those five years we had – for all intents and purposes – stuck together “come what may” in spite of it all.  High school, college, disapproving friends who thought we were too young, not too mention the distance between us – we overcame it all.  We even overcame ourselves and our own youthful selfishness and hot tempers.  We had broken up more times than I can remember.  But we could never stay apart.  We were each others’ best friends.  Naturally, the next step was to get married.  We felt like seasoned pros at hardships in our relationship.  Bring on the storm clouds and the colliding stars.

And so we danced to “Come What May” on our wedding day.

We really were tempting fate, it seemed.  Laughing in the face of it.  Double-daring life to really put the screws to us.  Invincible wedded bliss.

Nearly seven years have passed since I married the bass player.

Storm clouds gathered like the jobs we had and lost, the apartments we lived in, the house we bought.  Seasons changed and we changed with them, and somehow along the way I forgot all about our wedding song.  With each situation and challenge, I evolved into someone who probably wouldn’t even like that movie anyway.

Then I found myself sitting on the toilet in the bathroom, sobbing as I held the hand of the bass player, who was sitting in a dry bathtub because I could not be alone for a moment – not even to go to the bathroom – because just a few days ago our baby boy had died and I was terrified to be alone for any stretch of time.

Those bygone days of backyard gigs and pool parties and bloated hopeless romance were blown away, leaving barely a memory of them here in this wasteland.  I stopped singing, and he stopped playing the guitar.  Even our wedding day seemed but a hazy dream.  Were we ever really that happy?  How was it possible to experience such joy, when the only things we felt were excruciating, unimaginable pain and the cry for numbness that followed?

The days came and went like the tide.  They would have come regardless, stretching out the time between our wedding day and the present day.  The days between are what make a marriage.  Not the wedding day.  Not the song, either.

But now, the bloated, pretentious song seems ironic when I see the bass player hold our newborn son in his arms in the middle of the night, his eyes betraying both lack of sleep and the joy we thought would never be ours to experience again.

Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place . . .

My friend’s words are recent, but they seem to echo from the past.

“I watched Moulin Rouge tonight, and I got to thinking about your wedding song and how fitting it turned out to be. You guys have loved each other through thick & thin, come what may. I admire you two.”

I guess I chose the right song after all.

More importantly, I chose the right person – that boyish bass player who became my best friend and then husband and undoubtedly the man I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with, no matter what life has in store for us.  No matter what happens next.  Every day, I love him more and more.  I love him until the end of time.

Come what may.

 

Once Upon a Time

There was a castle here once.

If you look closely, you can still see remnants of its foundation here in These Stunning Ruins, a line of stones left in the grass.

Perhaps this is the most ruined part of this metaphorical space, and it is one I do not care to visit often.  I have no interest in trying to rebuild it.  It is largely ignored, forgotten, and altogether despised.  What’s left is subject to the overgrowth of the earth with bitterness at its roots.

But I remember when this place was an empire, and the castle was at the center – what I used to believe was “the heart” of these ruins.  I remember the children who played here – the prince and the princess – who were kind but foolish, and naïve in a way that was both admirable and pitiable.  With a wave of their shiny plastic scepters, they thought they controlled the weather with each passing day full of sunshine and rainbows.

Little did they know they were powerless to stop the eventual destruction of their beloved home, and the resulting flood that would wash away their plastic beliefs and dreams, so that both the castle and the couple who lived there were unrecognizable.

But I remember them, because they were us.

Once upon a time, I was a princess.

I grew up during the Disney Renaissance – that period of the 90s when Disney’s animated films were celebrated works of art.  In addition, my parents made the pilgrimage to what has been described as a modern-day “Mecca” and a rite of passage for every little boy and girl in the United States: Walt Disney World.  I used to tell people that this was my “home,” and the place I “grew up,” but there is no growing up there at all.  It is the real Neverland, and for all its commercialism and propaganda, it truly had the power to transform its tourists from bitter Mr. Darlings to playful Peter Pans.

I had no interest in ever growing up, and this was an ideal I clung to through adolescence and into early adulthood.  My long-suffering boyfriend was aware of this childish belief and love of mine, and decided to indulge me.

Since we knew the inevitable was coming – that he would probably ask to marry me someday and these pilgrimages would become a thing of the past – my parents and I took one last trip to Disney World.  Meanwhile, I had no idea they and my boyfriend were scheming and plotting a marriage proposal that would rival the ones you see on those bloated wedding cable TV shows, with the help of the staff at Disney.  To their credit, they planned an elaborate show at no expense of ours.  They even waived the entrance fee for my boyfriend.  They took him out to lunch, making absolutely sure we wouldn’t run into each other, since this was supposed to be the surprise of the century.

They paraded my parents and I through the Magic Kingdom as the Grand Marshals.  I remember being giddy and delirious, thinking this was the perfect way to end things, at the height of it all.  “It doesn’t get better than this,” I thought.

At the end of the parade route, near the entrance to the park, we stepped down from our antique parade vehicles and into the spotlight.  They had there waiting for me the barbershop quartet, the Dapper Dans, surrounded by an eager crowd waiting for the parade.  But first, they were to receive a surprise show.  The quartet sang “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” to me as I stood in wonder and shock, asking myself over and over again the question why.  “Why are they doing this?  What is this about?”

“She’s a wonderful Disney princess,” they said after they finished.  “If she only had a prince.”

Suddenly there was a little mad searching, asking if there was a prince to be found anywhere nearby.

“She has a prince,” cried a voice.

My boyfriend.

Wearing a black top hat adorned with Mickey ears.

“And he’s right here,” he added.

Then he got down on one knee and my brain exploded.

I guess I said yes, but I didn’t hear the word come out of my mouth.  I was left breathless.  Speechless.  Dumbfounded.  Caught up in the disbelief that my boyfriend was supposed to be at home, and instead he was here with me in my happy place, the Happiest Place on Earth, and there was a ring on my finger, and after five years of dating, now we were engaged.

I think I cried.

I remember thinking that this was it.  This moment.  This was the happy ending I was waiting for.  The little girl who grew up at Disney World had found her prince.  And now we could live Happily Ever After.

Looking back, I now remember we were not the only ones celebrating that day.  There were two other grand marshals that day, a couple on their honeymoon.  I wonder if they felt like they were being overshadowed.  Outdone.  Forgotten.  They stood off to the side like everyone else, watching the fairy tale unfold that was not theirs.  I wonder what ever happened to them, and if the Happily Ever After was truly theirs, because it certainly would not turn out to be ours.

Still in the months that passed, we planned a Disney-themed wedding.  My wedding dress was a ball gown and I wore a tiara in my hair.  A miniature castle with a light inside was our cake topper.  We were the real-life version of a fairy tale.  I’m surprised someone didn’t set off fireworks as we left the reception.  But I guess we couldn’t have everything.  Could we.

We went back to Disney World for our honeymoon a few months after the wedding, but it was hardly magical.  I was sick for the majority of it.  I remember shivering with fever in 90-degree heat while eating a bowl of chicken soup at the Magic Kingdom, my long-suffering husband sighing and trying to make the most of it.  He said he had a good time.  I didn’t believe him.

Nevertheless, a year later we went back, this time with both sets of parents and our 10-year-old niece.  We returned for the last time a year after that, visiting the Magic Kingdom for a day before we went on a Disney Cruise.  My husband, the reluctant follower, was now a full-fledged convert.  We had the happiest day there, running around Tom Sawyer Island like two big kids.  I have a picture of him sitting on the little wooden bleachers at Casey’s, eating a hot dog while watching old Goofy cartoons.  He looks like a giant 10-year-old.

We kissed under the flickering colors of fireworks, absolutely in love with each other and ourselves.  We were invincible.  We were as timeless and as classic as Cinderella and Prince Charming.  Someday, we said.  Someday we will bring our kids here and continue the long-held tradition.

Kids.

Two years later, we were burying our first child.

The empire we had built was now a stunning site of ruins.  The castle was destroyed, the prince and princess stripped of their plastic scepters and dreams.  And in no time at all, the rest was washed away in a great flood of tears with the reality we had lost another child when I had a miscarriage.

Now the fairy tale ideals we cherished were not only naïve, they felt like deceptions.  Syrupy propaganda.  Unrealities.  A screen behind which lay the truth – that life was no fairy tale, that our lives were sad, that we would never be happy again, and to tell us that there was still a Happiest Place on Earth where children laugh and play while ours lay buried in the ground could drive us to the brink of going mad with grief and bitterness.

I hated it all.  Every vestige of that place, every memory I had, every moment I grew up believing my life would be a chorus of singing cartoon animals and pixie dust.

I would be sitting in a movie theater and a trailer for some insipid animated cartoon would appear, bearing the twinkling castle of the Walt Disney Pictures logo, and my skin would crawl.  Then I had the sudden urge to give it the bird.  “How dare you,” I thought.  “How dare you mock my pain with your fake happiness.”

I even hated the way my husband proposed to me.

“Someone asked me if we were going to Disney World this year,” I said during one of our late-night conversations.  “I wanted to punch them in the face.  Why would we EVER go back there?  Do people have no common sense?”

“Oh, god,” he said.  “Yeah.  I guess not.”

“I hate it.  I hate it all.”

“Me, too.”

“I hate that I have any connection to that crap.”

“Yep.”

And then I just put it out there.

“I hate the way you proposed to me.”

I hadn’t meant to hurt him.  I was worried that deep down, I might have.  So when I looked over at him, searching his face for a flinch or any sign of pain, I was surprised to see understanding instead.

“Oh, thank god.  So do I.”  And we both sighed with relief.

Once upon a time, I was a princess.

But you won’t find any pixie dust or singing cartoon animals in these ruins.  What you will find, however, is a couple of resilient souls bent on survival.  We are no longer naïve children clinging to unrealistic ideals, waving plastic scepters thinking we control the weather.  We know better than that, and we can’t help but feel bitter about our past.  And although you may still find piece of a glass slipper or half of a rodent’s ear lying amidst the piles of broken dreams that failed to be swept away with the rest, make no mistake: we don’t really care about those things anymore.  Perhaps someday we will put them in a museum for future generations to remember the people we used to be.  But our emotional attachment to them is forever lost.

You may perhaps find this story to be sad.  You may feel sorry for us, and sorry for those people who were part of the illusion.  I am sorry, too.  I miss those naïve kids.  I miss the delirious, giddy joy I experienced when I would walk through the gates to the Magic Kingdom and leave reality behind.  No one needs to leave it behind more than me.  But it follows me everywhere, and it removes the twinkling façade of fairy tales until they are nothing but twisted lies.

But although I am no longer the Disney princess they proclaimed me to be, the eager boy in the mouse ears holding the ring is still a prince amongst men.

We don’t follow the formula of Happily Ever After.  But in spite of everything – all the grief and tears and destruction of this empire – we have lived this simple truth:

Love. Conquers. All.

onceuponatime

 

love

On Sunday, June 2, we will celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary.

Six years isn’t such a long time. Six years is typically elementary school (kindergarten through fifth grade). Six years is just a little more than half a decade. It is a year longer than the time we spent dating, breaking up, getting back together, getting engaged, and planning a wedding. Still, when compared to couples who have been married 20, 30, 40, even 50 years, perhaps it is easy to say we are “newlyweds.”

But when I look at those six years, I see several lifetimes. I see the people we once were. I see These Stunning Ruins of a life we once had.

And the startling fact remains that he and I have faced things that no couple should have to face, no matter how long they are married.

It’s hard to reminisce when you’re standing in a wasteland. I know there are good memories beneath these ruins, and every once in a while I’ll find one covered in dust, a snapshot of the people we used to be and the dreams we used to have. Sometimes he will find one, too. But when we pause to share what we’ve uncovered, it’s hard not to cry, to not beat ourselves in grief, to not wish things were different. It’s so hard not to wish we were those people again, and so easy to hate the sad faces we see in the mirror.

I did the math the other day – we have already spent one-third of our marriage amongst these ruins, trying to put the pieces back together, to rebuild some of what we had. Some days we work together, smiling in each other’s company. Other days, the rain comes in sheets, and we take turns holding the umbrella. And then there are still more days where one or both of us goes crazy, and the umbrella is cast aside as we refuse to believe the sun will ever shine again. Those are the worst days of all, when it seems all hope is lost, and we are truly going to die in these ruins and be buried in our own sad memories.

Then something – or someone – gets us through to the next day. Sometimes that’s all we can hope for, just to survive to the next day, on the chance there will be a break in the clouds.

This is normal married life for us. We are just like everyone else, worrying over bills and jobs and the economy and the house and our families and friends. But unlike most people, we worry waist-deep in broken dreams and shattered hopes and unspeakable tragedies.

That you have come to visit us in these ruins, to see how stunningly tragic they really are, shows your bravery and compassion. It’s not easy to take a closer look. It’s easier to believe our smiling faces, to laugh at our silly jokes, to make fun of us from the sidelines when we seem to be acting crazy, or cast judgment when our actions don’t meet up to your own. It’s much harder to acknowledge that we are two very broken hearts just trying to survive the wake of an atomic bomb being dropped in our lives, destroying everything we ever knew about the world and about each other.

But there is one thing that has not been destroyed. In fact, it seems to have flourished here in this rubble. It feeds on the sun and the rain and the smiles we share. It thrives on our laughter, in our kindness toward one another, and in our warm embrace at the end of a particularly hard day. And it is connected to those buried memories, keeping them safe for now while they sleep.

Love. It’s what makes these stunning ruins so beautiful. It is everything, and it is everywhere, and it is the reason why we stay.

In fact, I would rather spend another six thousand years in these ruins than anywhere else, as long as I can spend them with him. Though he is not without faults, he is the greatest person I’ve ever known – selfless, patient, and kind. On a daily basis, he has me believe these ruins are the foundation of an empire, and we will live to see them in all their restored glory if we can just be patient. What is more, he tricks me into thinking we are having fun. He makes me laugh every day – and not just chuckle. I’m talking belly-clenching, doubled over hysterical laughter that echoes from these walls. He supports me wholeheartedly as I pursue my dreams, even pushing me further than my nervous paranoia will dare let me go alone, all for the shot at one twinkle of happiness in my eyes. And when I come crashing down with the weight of these ruins on my shoulders, he is there to pick me up and carry me to the next day, no matter how frustrated he is with his own shattered dreams and utter despair at the unspeakable tragedies we have in common.

We are not the same people we were six years ago. Sometimes I miss those stupid kids, but I wouldn’t trade the love we have now for the love we had then. The love I have for him now is so much greater, stronger, infinite, and real – borne in the fiery, toxic fallout of a tragedy, and refined with each passing day we spend in these ruins together.

I wish that things hadn’t turned out like this, but when I look at the people we are now and the love we share, there is no reason to be sad over something so beautiful as the depth and longevity of a love like ours.

Happy Anniversary to Us.