Relationships often become casualties of crisis. Even the strongest of couples, when faced with life-changing crisis, can find themselves forced apart due to a range of reactions, different levels of coping, or conflicting outlets for grief. I first saw this when my best friend broke off her engagement following a serious accident that had a tremendous impact on her family. Her fiancé simply couldn’t relate. He sank inward in an effort to give her space, assuming he could just wait for her on the other side, when what she needed was for him to grab on tight and help lift her up out of the dark hole. I didn’t understand it then, but I can entirely relate now. It’s not necessarily any one person’s fault. Relationships can be blindsided by life. I have seen too many relationship casualties of child loss and suffering, and I am so incredibly grateful that mine is not one of them.
I was 27 years old when I met Lou. He was bartending at Bliss Bar in Manhattan, and I was stopping in after work to visit with my friend Christina and her Dad for Happy Hour. It’s funny how she always knows things. She told me “you are gonna love this bartender.” Well, I didn’t know how right she was until years later.
Lou served me a drink and he chatted me up a bit. He assured me that he was “really a doctor” who was just bartending for the short-term. I doubted the doctor part, but silently approved of how Lou made sure Mr. Brunn’s Guinness was always full and treated him with kindness – unaware of the pain that he holds in his heart. Mr. Brunn lost his son on 9/11, a gaping wound I could never understand until it happened to me. During the early days I tried to meet up with Christina and her Dad often because I love them so much and worried about them tremendously.
I spent the night enjoying the company of my friends but whenever I returned to the bar Lou met me with a smile. At the end of the night, I drank enough to surrender my phone number and he called me the very next morning. He had just moved to Brooklyn and I was living on the Upper East Side. I lamented over having to cross a bridge (!) but we didn’t let that get in the way of our budding relationship. Our story unfolded beautifully. We dated for a year before getting engaged on my birthday in Central Park. Fast forward another year to a perfect September wedding on a vineyard. We would live in the city another year before moving to a house and starting a family. We were going to have it all!
When I look back to my wedding day and remember the person I was, I realize that I had no idea whether or not I was marrying the love of my life. I knew I loved him, absolutely. I knew I wanted to marry him with all of my heart. It was the right time, he was the right kind of guy, and I couldn’t wait to move on to being a married person, then to start a family, etc. Live my life the way it’s supposed to be lived. We were young and relatively successful. The world was ours for the taking and we couldn’t wait. But, “love of my life” depends on what “my life” turns out to be, right?
What about those inevitable curveballs? How would our relationship handle that? I hadn’t even considered it. During the 5-year period where my friends began dropping like flies into the abyss of married life and questioning the big commitment, I used to ask, “Can you imagine yourself reading the paper and eating buttered toast across the table from this man when you’re 80? Because I worry about that. I want this to be forever!” How are you supposed to know the person you will be 50 years later? How are you supposed to know whether or not a relationship can withstand any unexpected devastation that life might throw at you?
There was an article circulated recently about suffering, and what it does to people. It focused on the most overlooked traits to look for in a husband, and how too many people forget to imagine how a relationship might withstand the greatest of hardships. Because let’s face it – the majority of us are going to face tragedy at some point or another. Really bad things happen to good people, and no one is immune. Out of all my closest friends, I can count on one hand the few that have been spared really difficult hardships at one point or another (knock on wood a thousand times).
Before cancer took hold of our oldest son, Ty, there was plenty of the typical arguing and stress over regular, every day “stuff.” As if it was a competition over who had a more stressful day at work. We were both hot tempered, emotional, stubborn and stressed out. He would rightfully call me out when I was being irrational, but I always refused to concede (I still do that), and I used to respond to his criticism by joking about the “perfect girl” waiting out there somewhere for him. The one with an outstanding income, whose family is worth millions, who is an incredible cook and will dote on him head to toe. She is totally agreeable and thinks he is just the greatest thing that ever graced this earth. Oh, and she has perfect breasts, a tiny waistline, and a 23K golden you-know-what.
Petty, emotion-driven arguments would be sparked by the tiniest, unimportant of incidences, but we were still in love; we were just feisty. Little did we know what real problems we were going to face. We had no idea what real stress even feels like. And it was that experience – that true understanding where no one else can possibly understand – that made our relationship the rock that it is today. I thank God every day for him. I couldn’t imagine surviving the pain of watching my son suffer and die with anyone else by my side. We have a greater understanding of one another that I’m not sure we were capable of achieving beforehand.
We have arrived in a place of mutual love, respect, patience and understanding. We acknowledge that we can’t control this new, incomplete life of ours so we might as well just live it with acceptance. When our emotions take hold, we can later reflect on the real reason why they run so deep and allow for them to pass with patience and acceptance. We always say I love you before we hang up the phone and we look forward to seeing one another after a long day at work.
All of this being said – OF COURSE we still get stressed out over everyday things, and of course we still argue. But when heated conversations begin to cool down, I overhear him saying bedtime prayers with our little guy, Gavin, or I watch him doing the dishes from across the room and I think to myself how lucky I am. Ty could not have had a more loving, more involved father. Gavin could not have a better Daddy. And, I could not find a better person to share this crazy, sad, beautiful life with.
I recently posed the question to Lou, “do you buy into the theory that you can’t truly appreciate happiness at its highest height, unless you have grieved in the lowest of depths?” I do. I believe you can’t taste how truly delicious an orange is unless you are suffering from hunger. You can think you love the way it tastes. You can be grateful for it. But it will never taste as good as it does to someone who is truly starving. True love is real, but I think impossible to find unless it is taken to the edge. For me, it took the most painful loss to find the greatest love waiting on the other side.
I am so blessed and lucky that our hardship only made us more in love instead of tearing us apart, because honestly, it could have gone either way. I miss my son, but I am still grateful that my life is filled with so much love.
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