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Learning to Hold Hands Again

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We'd turned into one of those forever-married couples, the ones we'd mocked in restaurants. Sipping decaf, sharing the same table but not talking to each other. Not angry or anything... just nothing left to say.

A businessman by day, on weekends an avid photographer, my husband of 38 years is quiet by nature. After dropping our daughter off for her freshman year of college, I realized how much our conversations had centered around her. Suddenly a twosome, we sat amid couples holding hands.

"Should we get the check?" My husband broke the silence.

"Yes," was my earth-shattering reply.

Our daughter called this our "banana" conversation. We both ate a banana each morning with cereal. At dinner, my husband would report, "I bought bananas today," even telling the price per pound.

"Let's not talk about bananas again!" our daughter protested. "Soon, you'll be eating prunes, like Grandma."

No prunes -- yet. But the empty seat at our table had never seemed more pronounced. Our threesome dynamic had suddenly become a duet, rusty and out of tune... a duet that had to find its harmony again.

We married young and had a child late. Devoted to our careers, we swam laps in the gym after work and dined out at 10 p.m. An "old" married friend remarked he was tired of us smooching at the dinner table. Our life was full of ambition, foreign films, lazy Sunday afternoons in bed. I supported him during a year of unemployment. I had back surgery (successful) and he had his first colonoscopy (polyps gone!). I took dance classes and he studied karate. We sojourned to romantic vineyards in the Loire Valley. We went to funerals of our grandparents and to one tragic loss, of my brother, to cancer at age 46.

I had a miscarriage.

I was 39. We were ready to settle down. We were terrified of settling down.

"I don't want our relationship to change," I naïvely told him.

"You're the most important person in the world to me," he promised.

If you Google "ruin a marriage by having children," 79.9 million results pop up.

I delivered our daughter at the age of 41. Our romance shifted to the toddler who exhausted us, the preschooler showering her father with neon-colored hearts: I LOVE YOU DADDY!!!!!

We evolved into soccer parents, nursemaids cleaning up vomit, neurotic parents surviving an overnight hospitalization for dehydration, all while managing my mother's care as she grew old and infirm. Watching a parent die adds no romance to a marriage.

No wonder we felt spent when we dropped our daughter off at college. We drove home dazed. Wandered around like stunned, jet-lagged tourists. Everyone looked under 30. Neither of us spoke as we ate a late dinner. We'd become accustomed to six o'clock meals to feed a cranky child.

My husband paid the check and asked if we needed to pick up bananas on the way home.

The noise of our daughter had filled up our house for 18 years. Two females and one man. Lots of hormones -- hers rising, mine waning, his confused. Now it was quiet; we'd look at each other and say, "It's so weird." Instead of waiting for our daughter to come home, we escaped our eerily still apartment, remarking how many people swarmed the streets at this hour. Generations had been born and grew up while we were playing Candyland and pretending to help with pre-calc homework we couldn't understand.

Every movie seemed to be a romantic comedy about twenty-somethings. Every restaurant was too loud for my husband's diminishing hearing. Everyone on the street seemed to be in love.

A few months before, we'd taken our daughter to Paris. Strolling by the Seine at sunset, we passed couples drinking champagne. We had a quarrel that brought me to tears, one of those marital tiffs where neither remembers why it had started. After so many years of marriage, we'd learned to fight in public.

My daughter rolled her eyes, wondering, I'm sure, were my parents ever in love like these smooching couples on the Seine? Yes we were, and still are. But it's impossible to explain the evolution of a long-term marriage to an 18-year-old. I once vowed to never turn into the marriage of my parents. And I remember the shock when my mother told me, "Your father and I still make love." She was in her seventies. After my father died, she found love again, I saw her smitten, the way she must have been when my father courted her. By the time children grow up, we can't imagine our parents had once been youthful lovers.

My husband and I have seen each other naked in lust. We've bathed each other when surgery scars were raw. We've had fights so boisterous that one of us slammed the door and disappeared to cool off. We've watched a baby come into the world, a scrawny, six pound, six ounce girl created from love. Now she's gone, and we're filling up the empty space with books, hobbies, naps, and finding conversations to share about politics, retirement, and yes, bananas.

In her first letter home from college, our daughter asked, "So what are you doing with your nights now that I'm not around?"

We are learning to hold hands again.

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