At fifty-five years of age, I had made a good life for myself. I was secure in my job and loved my work as a teacher at the local community college. My only daughter was grown and living a full and happy existence in a city eight hours south. I lived in a small cabin in the middle of a beautiful forest, majestic Douglas fir and cedar trees towering over me.
Each season had its rituals. Spring brought the planting of seeds in the ground and the welcoming of the sun’s return. In the summer months, I happily tended my garden; harvesting squash and strawberries, eating fresh-picked lettuce, and watching my roses bloom. Come fall, it was the task of cutting and stacking firewood, gathering kindling, and getting ready to return to school. The winter months carried with them cold and quiet, which settled into the forest and made the heat of the fire a welcome companion.
I had a close circle of friends with whom I shared long phone conversations, talking of the day’s events, books we were reading, and the latest gossip. Sometimes we went out to eat, sometimes to a movie or concert. They were who I turned to for advice, solace, and to share the joys and sorrows of my life. We had been friends for decades and had committed to being there for each other, in the good times and in the not so good times. I was content to be alone and looked to my friends for my emotional sustenance, believing that was all I needed. I had tried relationships, my last one having ended seven years prior. I often thought of the different kinds of love that we humans are capable of feeling, and caritas, the Latin word for charity, would often come to mind. Perhaps I had entered a time of my life where I would practice loving of a different kind, the love for all humanity.
But in being honest with myself, I had to admit that I felt sad at the thought that I would never again enjoy romantic intimacy with another person. To share daily life with a lover can be so deeply nourishing and enriching. And yet, there can be enormous pain and turmoil, when the reality of life with that other person becomes unbearably difficult. I had known both.
Sometimes I fantasized about my one true love driving into the yard, overjoyed at finding me, and we would live happily ever after, just like in the movies. More often though, I imagined that I would most likely find a companion, someone who would lean against the kitchen counter, share a cup of coffee, and help ward off the lonely afternoons of my old age.
Either way, I was hesitant to go looking. I wasn’t willing to give up the contentment I had found, nor upset the sense of a balanced life I had created. It seemed I would live out the rest of my life enjoying a richly satisfying life in partnership with myself.
Attending a party one Spring afternoon, I struck up conversation with a friend I hadn’t seen in some years. Her relationship had ended two years before, and as I stood next to her, the words, “She’s single!” flashed through my mind. I felt a rush of heat, and then wondered why such a thought had occurred. Little did I know how fateful an encounter it would be.
I’ve read about falling in love with someone you’ve known for twenty-five years. I had wondered what unforeseen gesture or act sparked a fire after so many years of friendship, and why the two people involved didn’t know sooner. In my case, it was that she had always been partnered, so it was out of the question. As for her side of things, she told me on our first date that she had been attracted to me for a long time. I hadn’t noticed, and there was the matter of her partner. She explained, “I had no intention of doing anything about it, for I was in a committed relationship. But it was fun to look.”
A committed relationship of fifteen years, which ended overnight when her partner told her that there was someone else.
Our coming together began with emails back and forth, subtle flirtations written late at night and early morning before work. Then came daily phone calls. The first time I stayed over, I found a piece of chocolate waiting for me on the pillow in the guest bedroom. Cards, lovingly chosen, began to appear in the mailbox, and soon, the word, “relationship” became a part of our conversations.
Weekends, we drove the hour and half distance to be with each other, our hearts doing cartwheels over our good fortune. Each in our late fifties, we had both been uplifted by the ecstasy and shattered by the heartache of other loves. We had each chosen solitude for a time to clarify what we wanted in a relationship, if there were to be another one.
As we spent increasing amounts of time together, it felt like we had found, in each other, the perfect partner. Not that either of us was perfect, but we held similar beliefs about how to live life, and what was important. We agreed that honesty and integrity needed to form the basis of our commitment to each other. “I say it like it is,” she told me. “You’ll never have to guess what I’m thinking.” That, and the fact that we laughed… a lot. She was silly and playful, often defusing a tense moment with humor. Being with her, I often felt a lightness, a sense that really, everything was alright. We figured out that, due to our similarity in age, we knew all the same songs. One of us could throw out a riff and the other would chime in with the next set of lyrics. Somehow, that synchronicity sealed the deal.
It took a year of long-distance dating; a relaxed, laughter-filled trip to see one another’s family; and the sadness and longing that would overtake us when we were apart, to recognize that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. And so, after thirteen years of living alone in a cabin in the woods just big enough for me, I moved in with her, lugging too many books, my furniture, and the important mementos of my life. I also carried with me the hope that the love I felt for this woman would endure, and we would make home with the same joy and ease that had defined our courtship.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but presence makes the bond grow deeper. Our life together has been a weaving of moments, small and large, that create our shared world. The daily feeding of the dog and cat. The eternal question, “What’s for dinner?” One of us watering the garden while the other does the dishes. The reaching out, in the middle of the night, to touch an arm or shoulder — a silent statement, “I’m here, I love you.”
Some of our gestures are planned: a conscious giving of our love that surprises, excites, and delights. Our first Christmas together, I expressed a desire for a traditional tree and the time-honored ritual of gift-giving. She revealed that she wasn’t good at giving presents. “I never know what to buy.” In the days before, she made a lot of noise about not getting it right.
Christmas morning, I woke to see that Santa, indeed, had made a visit; I was overwhelmed with emotion as I opened my presents. Each one had been chosen with such caring and thought. The final touch: a montage of photographs of my cabin and the woods I had left behind, photographs she had lovingly taken and arranged.
Other gestures allow us to play, bringing laughter and fun to our lives. She taught me the way to fold the first square of toilet paper on a new roll to evoke the sensation of staying in a classy hotel. “I learned it from Leona Helmsley,” she kidded. I dutifully practiced until I got it right, and now take the time to create the effect whenever needed. Early on, she would laugh and make a remark about it, but recently I wondered if she had stopped noticing.
My answer came one recent morning. I stepped into our second bathroom, the one less used, and my eyes fell on the neatly folded triangle that lay atop the soft white roll. I felt myself gasp, and then smile with pleasure. A message from her that said, “We create home together; we create joy for one another.”
Some of these small acts of love are not premeditated, but occur from a desire to make clear, “I see you. I understand what matters to you.” Often she turns to me, or I to her, and says, “I love you.” It has become somewhat of a game between us, the question that follows: “Why, at this very minute, do you say that?” The answers are often enlightening.
When, a few weeks ago, I asked that question, she told me that she had been touched because I had assembled all of her coffee fixings — her favorite green mug, the thermometer that determines when the steamed milk is just right, and the small pitcher that strategically holds the frothy liquid — at the side of the dish drainer so she could find them easily in the morning.
A simple thing, easily done. A moment extra taken in the daily doings of life. Yet, more than the lavishly wrapped gift box on Valentine’s Day, or the serious but cherished conversations we have about the possibility of getting married, these rituals performed by each of us, as we move through our days together, form the cornerstones of our love.
My mother used to say, “It’s the little things that count.” Only now do I understand the deeper meaning of that statement. A rose cut from the garden in a vase on the nightstand, a stack of laundry found folded with care, my favorite ice cream bar appearing in the freezer. As each day passes, and we settle deeper into our life together, it’s the little things that make me love her more and more, and convince me that I made the right choice to take the risk of loving again.
They are what hold us when, in a time of stress, one of us speaks harshly, and the other takes offense. Our first really serious struggle, one that began with a simple moment of miscommunication, took all day to sort out and felt insurmountable at moments. We had entered waters we’d never navigated before, a level of turbulence we couldn’t escape from. But then, we remembered that the other person is more than a tone of voice, steeped in frustration over a lost tool; our love stronger than an affronted moment. We sought the solace of the night and the comfort of each other’s arms; we forgave each other and reaffirmed our love.
When we first came together, friends chided us that we were acting like “a couple of high school sweethearts,” so strong was our desire to be with each other, so full of joy at having found each other, and so happy to express the love we felt for the other. The weekends couldn’t come soon enough; the obligations of work that kept us apart — weights we were eager to throw off. Teaching allowed me to have my summers free, and for three glorious months, we were able to spend every day together, deepening the love that was growing between us.
High school sweethearts, perhaps, but like every other couple, we have had to experience all the natural stages of a relationship: the honeymoon period, the first argument, the realization of the other’s humanness ― that we are each flawed, beautifully so, but flawed. We’ve had to confront the fear that the other might find us lacking and seek another; and thankfully, we have reached the place where we trust that we’re both in for the long haul.
What might be unique in this relationship is that at fifty-seven and sixty respectively, we aren’t innocent young lovers looking toward a fairy-tale future. We carry our past with us: the painful lessons and the exquisite triumphs. They inform us of the pitfalls to avoid and the places to reach for within ourselves, when we need to be strong or to strike the right balance in a given situation. We are older and wiser, and our loving has a wonderful maturity to it. We are not so thrown by adversity and can more fully appreciate the beauty and goodness that we create together.
We both recognize that we are moving toward the last era of our lives. Both physically and mentally, our age has begun to show. She’s got a bum knee. I work hard to find the names of things sometimes. It takes both of us to open a stubborn jar, and no longer can we depend on the muscle strength that once was an integral part of our make-up.
Increasingly, our peers are facing death and we each have buried good friends. Each time it happens, we have a moment of pause. When will it be one of us? When will we have to face the moment of saying good-bye to one another? We are deeply aware that the time we have together is precious and irreplaceable, not to be taken for granted.
The small gifts of love we offer to one another sustain us, deepen our bond as partners and lovers, and ultimately, will give us the strength to face the illness, old age and death that will take us from one another. We are already practicing: the offer of a massage for an overworked muscle, the cold cloth on a forehead when a headache cripples, the urging by both of us, “Take your vitamins.”
I was raised on the premise that love, above all else, is what carries us through life’s journey. These years of loving my partner and making home with her have been the litmus test of that premise. The lesson I’ve learned is that it isn’t Love with a capital L, the stuff of romance novels and million dollar movie scores. It is the thoughtful gesture, the unbidden touch, the whispered word of caring that makes the heart go pitter patter.
These rituals of love in everyday life — each one small and insignificant by themselves ― together make a potent recipe for a life of loving, shared day in and day out, year in and year out, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.
This essay was first published in Eureka Literary Magazine, Vo. 24, Spring 2019. Visit Eureka Literary Magazine at elmmag.com.
Photo credit: Teresa Kasza