Perfect

I watched you today in Target as we both browsed in the same general area. Your shiny, long hair hung perfectly down your back and your swing dress fell perfectly just above the knee. Your boots were swoon-worthy. Your bag was to die for. And your children – oh! Your children! They were angels! The older one sat quietly in the cart playing with his dinosaurs and the little one gnawed thoughtfully on her pacifier. They were content to wait while you looked at shoes, and then ambled over to the clothes.

I watched as you picked up a beautiful sweater – one I’d been eyeing only minutes before (but put down because come on, Target! $37.99?! It isn’t Anthropologie!). You held it against yourself, examining it in the mirror. Your lips curled up slightly and I saw you think it:

Perfect. 

I spend a lot of time watching others, wondering how they do it. How do they stay calm when their children run away, when they choose not to listen, when they scream? How do they keep their houses clean after working all day? How do they maintain their sanity day in and day out when I feel like I’m going to lose my freaking mind if I don’t get to work out or read a book or take a shower without someone calling my name or asking me for nursery rhymes.

I spend a lot of time feeling like a failure.

I’m not a patient enough mom.

I’m not an understanding enough wife.

I’m not a sensitive enough daughter.

I’m not a present enough sister.

I’m not a thoughtful enough friend.

I’m not perfect enough.

I’m not. I’m not. I’m not.

And then I cry in Target because somehow your togetherness high-lights my mess. Somehow your quiet children and beautiful clothes and smooth hair mean I’ve failed.

I feel like I fail constantly, like I’m a giant screw-up, because I do a lot of stuff wrong. I hyper-focus on my mistakes, thinking and re-thinking about things I said and did, but wish I hadn’t, allowing them to consume me. I let them gnaw at me, until I’m convinced everything I do is wrong. Until I believe that my mistakes mean I’m a failure and I forget everything else. Until I forget everything I did that was good, everything that was right, everything that meant I was trying.

And so this season (because when’s a better time than Advent?), I’m going to practice giving myself grace. I’m going to practice joy and peace and love – for myself as well as others. It’s here, written in stone, in black and white, so everyone can hold me accountable, and remind me to be joyful and forgiving and kind.

And the next time I start to doubt or worry or stress that I’m failing, remind me of the moment when my adorable, manipulative, wonderful little toddler takes my face in her hands and says, “You make me so happy, mommy!” when I let her out of time-out.

Remind me of the moment when the house was a disaster and we were fighting, but Casey mixed up the serious phrase he wanted to say and we laughed so hard we cried and the fight was over.

Remind me of the moment when it seemed like things couldn’t possibly get any worse, when Casey was too sick, and I was too tired, and the doctor said the tumors were shrinking.

Because those moments? They were perfect.

But I don’t have to be.

Advertisements

A Country Song

When I was 15, I fell in love for the first time. We spent our afternoons driving to Sonic for Route 44 Cherry Limeades with the windows down, blaring country music, imagining we were living a country song. We passed adorably folded notes in school addressed to “Babe” and “Baby” that were just cleverly rephrased conversations from the previous passing period. We fell asleep on the phone, our voices getting quieter and quieter as the hours passed, until finally one of us would hang up with a smile and a sigh.

It was true love.

Then I moved.

We stayed together for a few extra months, until distance tore us apart. Still, we kept in touch and played the on and off game for a few more years, each break-up more dramatic, more devastating than the last.

I thought I’d never get over him. I thought I’d love him forever. I thought we’d find our way back to one another eventually. I thought we were a country love song.

Then I fell in love again.

And again.

And again.

(I can’t help it. I guess I’m kind of a hopeless romantic.)

It turns out we were a country love song, but the song was over.

When I got married, I promised to love my husband forever. I promised to love him in sickness and in health. For better or for worse. Until death do us part. As long as we both should live.

I made those promises with a very vague notion of their actual meaning. In sickness? Sure, the flu’s not so bad. For worse? Well, all couples struggle. Until death? Gosh, that’s so far away!

It wasn’t long before I found out that sickness was cancer. Worse was far worse than I could have imagined. Death was too near, too possible.

And things were hard – really, really hard. But they were also better because, as a result, I learned how to love my husband. I learned how to talk to him. I learned to hear the things he said and those he didn’t. I learned when to give him space and when to smother him with affection. I learned how to be his friend, as well as his wife.

I learned what true love really was.

And sometimes we’ll load the kid in the truck, roll the windows down, and blare country music on our way to Sonic.

And when the song ends, we’ll play it again. Every day for the rest of our lives, until death do us part.

#blessed

These past few weeks have been a struggle. I’ve had to force myself to write. I sit at my computer and stare at words that don’t make sense, storylines that sound contrived, and I cringe. I don’t want to write. I’ve read – losing myself in stories not my own for hours at a time – but I can’t write. I have nothing to say.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the bone-weary task that is adulting, easy to forget the good things in the midst of the truly terrible, easy to dwell on the fuck you moments, easy to forget that I’m blessed by so many and so much.  I know; I do it all of the time.

But today I’m not going to. Today I’m going to take my daughter to the park because it’s a beautiful day and she loves the slide. I’m going to sit on the couch with my husband and watch TV. I’m going to kiss them both as much as possible. I’m going to laugh at my hilarious kid. I’m going to sing songs and play peek-a-boo and watch “Punzel” for the twelfth time this week. I’m going to make jokes with my sister.

And I’m going to ask you a favor. Share some good things with me. Text me. Comment. Call me. Whatever. Just lend me a little of your happy.

In return, I’ll lend you a little of mine.

image

This. This is my happy. Her name is Z and she’s my favorite person in the entire world. And she’s one of the many reasons that I am #blessed.

 

I Chose Him

Last week, one of my students dismissed marriage – the idea of marriage, the institution of marriage, my marriage – with a shrug and a few thoughtless words. He asked where I’d been the day prior and I responded, “With my husband at MD Anderson.” He said, “Your husband? The same one you were with before (“before” being last year)? You’re still with him?” I told him we’d only been married three years and of course we were still together. His response was, “It’s 2016, so you never know.” Just like that. So nonchalant.

It’s 2016 and suddenly marriage doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant. It’s outdated. It doesn’t work. Everyone knows it. Even kids know it.

Well, it’s not really working out, so let’s just call it a day.

I think I’m interested in someone else, so I’m going to try that out instead.

I’m bored.

I feel ignored.

I’m unhappy with something and I don’t know what it is, so I’ll say it’s you and end things.

Class continued, but The Great Gatsby spurred questions of marriage and relationships, fidelity and trust. One girl asked me whether I’d stay with my husband if he cheated on me. I thought for a long time, stumbling over my answer, before settling on the simple, but honest:

“I chose him.”

The girls asked what I meant while one boy mumbled that I should have more respect for myself than that. I explained to them that marriage is complicated, that it’s not easy, that while we vowed to love each other, we still have to choose each other every single day. Because getting married is easy. It’s deciding to stay married to each other that’s hard.

“But if he cheats, he doesn’t love you!” They insisted.

I hesitated, weighing my words carefully, wanting them to be meaningful, considering how I might feel if my husband ever were to cheat on me.

I told them that yes, it would be difficult for me to get past and I would have issues of trust. I told them that forgiving him would be hard, that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to because I’d never been in that situation. I told them that I would probably struggle everyday to get past the indiscretion. Then I told them that I’d try because I love him, because I promised to love him forever – in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, until death.

I chose him. And he chose me.

I talked about mistakes and how we’re fallible because we’re human. Hadn’t they, after all, been placed with me because they’d made mistakes? They nodded, thoughtful. We resumed class, but the idea of choice, of choosing to stay married to my husband, stuck with me.

A few days later, my sisters came to visit. One of them is getting married in a few weeks and part of the assignment their pre-marital counselor gave them was to ask married couples what their biggest struggle was and how they overcame it. Nearly every married couple said the same thing: choosing love, choosing to fight for love, choosing to fight for each other – that was the biggest struggle, but it was also how they overcame.

I’m still relatively new to this whole marriage thing, but I know that if I want my marriage to work, to be successful, to last, I have to make the conscious decision to choose him every day. And he has to choose me too. We have to choose each other. When I feel like he’s ignoring me and he feels like I’m nagging him, we have to choose each other. When I’m tired and he’s frustrated and the baby has been crying for 12 hours, we have to choose each other. When he wants to buy a golf cart and I want to go to Hawaii and we can’t agree on anything, we have to choose each other. When I feel neglected and he wants his space, we have to choose each other.

We’re fooled into believing that marriage and happiness are the same thing, but sometimes marriage isn’t happy. Sometimes marriage is hard and horrible and scary and weird, but we get past that because we made a choice to love each other even when it’s hard.

And it may be 2016, but I do know one thing – I’ll choose him forever.

IChoseHimMichbelle3

NOTE: A version of this piece ran on The Huffington Post.

Tomorrow

I creep into her room before we leave this morning, my hand hovering over her back. I have to leave her with my sister again. It’s only the first time this week, but it’s the fifth time this month that I won’t be home when she wakes up, that I won’t be home to put her to bed. I want to cry because I miss the days when I don’t kiss her sleepy face or when I’m not there to listen to her early morning chatter. I miss her when I’m gone. I know she loves her aunt, but I also know there’s no substitute for mommy.

“I’m sorry I won’t be here today, baby. I’m sorry your daddy is sick and we keep missing things. We love you so much,” I breathe the words over her, praying she understands, hoping she forgives us.

*                *                *                *                *

Casey can’t hold her today. He had a scan with contrast this morning and is possibly radioactive so he isn’t allowed to be close to her for 24 hours. She runs to him when we get home, arms out, calling “Dada!” He gently pushes her away.

“I can’t hold her, Michelle. The radiation…” He stops talking and turns away. He looks sad. He looks sad more than he knows we realize, both Zoey and I. She starts to fuss, hurt by his rejection, not understanding the difference between can’t and won’t. So I scoop her up, kiss her cheeks, and tickle her until she laughs. I put her down in front of her toys to make dinner as Casey lies on the couch.

“Book, Dada! Book!” I hear her from the living room and look over to see her climbing on him. I take a deep breath and walk over to them, pulling her into my lap.

“Daddy can’t hold you right now, baby. Mommy will read you a book.” I smile at her, aware that my smile is different, stilted, and false, but I read and I hold her until it relaxes into something natural, until I feel the smile in my eyes, in my heart.

*                *                *                *                *

After her bath, I wake Casey from his nap so we can play with Zoey before bedtime. He still looks tired, but he grins as he takes her from me.

“Hugs for Daddy!” He says as he squeezes her. She squeals then slips from his grasp and drags her blocks over to him. We build a tower and cheer as she smashes it up. She laughs and we clap for her, our queen of destruction.

“Do you need me to get anything ready for you before chemo tomorrow?” I ask him.

“Nope. It’s just chemo – I’ll be fine!” He responds with false cheeriness and high-fives Zoey. She loves high-fives so she brings him more blocks to build more towers for smashing, knowing that we’ll cheer each time, real happiness bubbling from us.

We play a little bit longer, until it’s time to brush Zoey’s teeth. We have a routine: I hold her and Casey dances next to her, singing a song about brushing our toofers. But tonight he has to sit down as the pain and the anxiety overwhelm him. So I brush her teeth, then sing her a song, and lay her in the crib by myself. Then, just like I do every night, I kiss her and say, “Goodnight, baby. I love you.”

As I walk out of her room, I hear a small voice. “Nigh-nigh! I yuh you!” I smile and my eyes fill with tears as think about how even in the midst of all the awful, I am so lucky.

*                *                *                *                *

We pull up to the house, bursting with excitement. After almost a year, we needed some good news. Casey’s parents are in town visiting and what could have easily been a week of sadness, of constant consolation, is now a week of celebration. His dad asks us again what the doctor said, still in disbelief, needing to hear the good news once more.

“He said there’s a tiny, active spot in my lung and it’s probably just inflammation from the radiation so he wants to do a biopsy but it’s not a big deal.” His mom looks at me for confirmation and I nod. Relief fills her face. I want to feel that but something holds me back, something keeps me cautious. Zoey starts to whine, hungry as usual.

“Daddy’s going to be fine,” I whisper into her ear as I strap her into the highchair. “He has to be.”

*                *                *                *                *

We continue our celebration at the brewery. Mid-sentence, he stops talking and I know – something’s wrong.

“I have this weird spot in my eye. No matter where I look, I can’t see out of it.” I feel the panic rising as he experiments, looking up and down, side to side. He tries to reassure us, “It’s happened before, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

I chase Zoey around, tossing goldfish at her to keep her happy, ignoring the fear that’s nestled deep in my belly. She falls and scrapes her knee and reaches back for me, crying. I pick her up and hold her, soothing her, soothing myself.

“Shh, you’re okay. We’re okay. Everything’s okay.” I murmur the words until they feel like truth.

*                *                *                *                *

I can’t stop crying. He was supposed to be better. We fight on the way back from the hospital, our emotions high, the news too much to process. He leaves me sobbing in the car and stomps into the house on his own. Even though it hurts, I know he needs some time to think, to deal with the news on his own, and frankly, I’m in no place to be of any consolation. My mom and sister walk out of the house, but I pretend not to see them. I cover my face and whisper, “Please don’t come talk to me,” over and over again, willing them to leave me alone.

When I calm down, I walk inside and take the spoon and yogurt from my mom, hoping that doing something normal like feeding Zoey, will keep me grounded.

“Did he say anything?” I ask.

“Just that they found a brain tumor,” my mom answers me, her voice gentle, so gentle I feel my heart break. I put my head in my arms and start to cry again and feel two pairs of arms wrap around me.

But all I can focus on is the tiny hand that pats my head and the sweet, raspy voice that says, “Hi, Momma!”

*                *                *                *                *

“Everything hurts,” he tells me as coughs wrack his body. I tell him to go lie down and rest, Zoey and I will play on our own tonight. He doesn’t want to miss it so he sits on the recliner, pretending the pain isn’t nearly as bad as I see etched in his face.

She doesn’t like to feel ignored so she walks over to him and touches her nose. “Nose. Nose, Dada.”

He smiles at her. “Yes, nose.” She holds out her arms, waiting to be picked up but he can’t do it. He wants to but he can’t.

“Tomorrow, baby. I’ll pick you up tomorrow. I’ll feel better tomorrow.”

Somehow she understands. She walks to her shelf and carefully picks a book and brings it to me. She sits in my lap and I start to read quietly, “In the great green house…” And we all hope tomorrow doesn’t take too long.

Tomorrow1Michbelle

 

Note: I originally submitted this piece to a contest (with fake names instead of our own) in December. Obviously, I didn’t win, which is why i’m able to post it here now. I do, however, consider it a personal win since I still get to publish and share it with all of you. Since then, Casey’s tumor has been treated and is shrinking and he’s started a new round of medicine for the tumors in his lungs.

This piece has been published on The Huffington Post.

Him

The first time I saw him, I was helping his friend stitch a name tag on his jacket. He walked sauntered in – drunk and slightly sunburned – wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off that said, “I piss excellence.” One of the girls that came in with him was crying and the other was comforting her, the way only drunk girls can. I made a joke, a reference to his shirt, but he didn’t get it and I thought, “Ugh. What a tool.”

HimMichbelle1

It was summer break and I was on vacation. I was going to get tattooed and a little bit wild, and I could have cared less about the jerk that made girls cry and didn’t understand funny jokes. But the next day he wouldn’t look at me.

He came home for lunch and regaled us all with stories about the morning and we listened raptly, entranced by his excitement, by the feeling with which he spoke. He looked at everyone else but no matter what I said or did, he wouldn’t look at me. He directed any answers to my questions or responses to my comments to his friend, to my friend, to the wall. I was awash with insecurity.

Why won’t he look at me? Do I have something huge in my teeth that makes looking at me unbearable? Is my hair arranged in a way that makes my face look funny? Does the sight of my moving lips annoy him? WHY WON’T HE LOOK AT ME?!

 He went back to work and I spent the afternoon plotting. If it was the last thing I did, I was going to make this boy look at me. There was no way I was going to allow this jerk to get away with ignoring me.

When he got home that night, he drove my friend and me to the commissary. I sat in the front seat and told him about the night before when his friend, drunk and infatuated with a girl he knew nothing about , had knocked on the door of the closet room where I was sleeping, told me I was smoking hot, and asked me if I wanted to make out.

[Side note: I didn’t.]

He laughed but he still didn’t look at me. I was intrigued and confused and annoyed – all of which made me bold. I warned him that I was going to come knock on his door later. I actually said the words, “You better watch out or I’ll come knock on your door later.” I might have been embarrassed but instead I felt daring and clever. He laughed again, seemingly startled, and he finally looked at me.

The four of us (my friend, her boyfriend/his roommate, he, and I) spent the rest of the night watching YouTube videos and knocking on pantry doors, countertops, and cabinets. “You want to make out?” was our mantra and each time it was repeated, we’d erupt into uproarious laughter.

He shared his own story from the night before. The crying girl he’d stumbled in with the was a friend from home who’d come to visit expecting something more (because what girl crosses the country to visit a guy who’s just a friend?). He told the girl he wasn’t interested, but fueled by liquid courage, she tried anyway. When she started crying, he panicked and left her in the care of another girl. Apparently, he wasn’t a jerk; he was just a guy who didn’t know anything about women.

Bleary eyed and yawning, we all finally staggered off to bed sometime after midnight. I brushed my teeth, changed into my pajamas, and lay down but I didn’t feel tired anymore. I got up, heart hammering, and walked into the hallway. I took a deep breath and before I could overthink it, I knocked softly on his door. I don’t remember what he said but I opened his door, peeked in, and whispered, “Hey, you’re smoking hot. You want to make out?”

Two years later, I married him.

HimMichbelle2

 

 

Coffee Cups and Cookies: The Story of a Marriage

When I was younger, I thought of marriage as a series of snapshots – long weekends at quaint B&Bs in the country and fancy nights out in the city, flowers after a big fight and passionate kisses for no reason, snuggly weekends with breakfast in bed and cold nights with hot chocolate cuddled up next to the fire. In other words, it was pure romance, all of the time.

Side note: In these scenes, we always wore oversized sweaters and cheesy (but beautiful) smiles and an elusive photographer with impeccable timing captured our moments on camera.

But now that I’m married, you know what I’ve found? A marriage isn’t built on pretty pictures and it doesn’t survive on romance alone. And the things that make up my marriage, that are symbols for it, aren’t exactly what I expected. They’re not pretty or romantic or over-the-top but they’re us.

The coffee cup. That $18 mug was the most ridiculous purchase, especially because you didn’t even realize it was so expensive, but you use it every single day. And it’s indicative of who you are – this impulsive person who knows exactly what he wants and makes it happen, even when that means paying way too much money for a coffee mug.

The Man Cave. At first, I hated this stupid thing that cost us more than it was supposed to, that was a place for you apart from our home, that I felt wasn’t ours but yours. But now, I’m so grateful that you have a sanctuary, a place to relax, a place to decorate as you please, a place that makes you happy. And while it will always be your space, I love that you’ve made it comfortable for all of us so when I make my way out there, I don’t feel like an intruder, but rather an honored guest.

The golf cart. Just to be totally clear, I didn’t want the golf cart – you did. I didn’t think it needed a lift kit – you did. I didn’t think it needed a stereo – you did. You asked my opinion and when the answer I gave wasn’t the answer you wanted, you proceeded to talk me into the answer you did. And I told you that if you guilted me into it, I would resent you for it, so you relented until eventually we made the decision together with very little coercion on your part. Just like we make all of our decisions.

Your snoring. It’s a horrible, grating noise like the sound I imagine a bear hit by a truck makes and wakes me multiple times a night. I’m a light, difficult sleeper. You’re a heavy, loud sleeper. And still I get out of our warm bed and leave our quiet room to wake you up from your cozy chair where you fell asleep playing video games, so that a) you sleep comfortably and b) you sleep next to me because I miss you (not the snoring) when you’re not there.

Cookies. I really want to lose three pounds, and still, every night without fail, I make myself two Pillsbury cookies and drink a glass of milk. At least twice a week I’ll say that I need to give up my nightly cookies if I really want to lose weight. And instead of agreeing or disagreeing with me, you usually say something like, “Girl, you look good” and then give me a crazy wink. I laugh and feel better even though I might keep whining about weight because I know it means you love me. Even if I’m slowly gaining my weight in cookie dough.

Books. Sometimes I’ll spend upwards of a $100 a month on books and you’ll just laugh. Sometimes I’ll find a book so wonderful that I can’t put it down and you’ll let me read. Sometimes those times are when we’re sitting in chemo for hours on end and I don’t can’t. stop. reading. But you never ask me to stop reading, and often listen to me ramble about how amazing the story is. I love that you let me love my books. But more than that, I love when you read them too because then we can love them together.

Zoey. I can’t believe we made her. The best parts of us are in Zoey. She is mostly you in looks – those beautiful eyes and sweet dimples. She is very much me in temperament – a drama queen all the way. But she is completely loved by both of us. And we’re better as people, as a couple, and as a family because we have her.

Our things may not be movie worthy, our life may not be picture perfect, but they’re ours. And I’d rather spend every day dancing around the kitchen, laughing hysterically over fish kisses than traveling around the world if I get to do it with you because being your wife is the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to me.

SnapshotsMarriageMichbelle1