An "in my dreams" moment happened recently.
While it didn't happen by chance, it also wasn't because of anything I did. It was because my husband did something extraordinary.
It wouldn't come as a surprise to my closest friends and family to say that this huge, life-altering event my husband engineered took place just as we were climbing out of a wobbly period in our 18-year, three-child marriage; wobbly because for the first time in our two-dozen years together I was finally comfortable enough in my own skin to begin expressing my likes and dislikes. This 180-degree turn did a bit of a number on the marriage. After all, I had until then been a go-along to get-along wife.
It also wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, including my husband that he had never, ever done anything like this before. It hadn't been in his repertoire or even his consciousness. Quite frankly, I don't think many could put what my husband did on their "been there, done that" list. Those who have done something this moving are members of an exclusive club for which I've nominated my husband the executive director.
To fully understand the extent of what he did, I need to draw a picture, delve a little into our backgrounds, explain who we are as people, as a couple. First off, we are a much like oil and water -- one could say poster children for the adage "opposites attract." For instance, my husband thrives on gift giving while I don't much like to receive gifts, mostly because I am not a spendthrift and I tend to worry about money. This quirk of mine likely developed when we were first married and were struggling to get our lives and careers on track and had very little money; I hated the thought of the few extra dollars we had being spent needlessly on me when the money could go to more important things, not the least of which was our savings account. Money issues aside, my husband adored -- continues to adore -- everything about gift giving. Perhaps to counter my parsimony, his purchases often come with a persuasive point: "You should like this because ..."
Take, for example, the gift he bought me following the birth of my third child. He gave me the gift after I had dressed for my son's Bris, eight days after Sam was born, as we prepared to celebrate the Jewish ritual of circumcision during which my son would be given his Hebrew name. My four-year-old and two-and-a-half year-old daughters were downstairs with their grandparents when my husband handed me a box. I was weepy and overwhelmed, tired, fat and bleeding -- a pretty typical postpartum woman. I told him he shouldn't have, and actually meant it.
Despite our now comfortable living situation, his gifts still made me nervous. Oh no, I thought as I gingerly took the box from him. How much could he have spent on this? I attempted to calculate the cost while slowing untying the silky, grey ribbon looking up to see my husband ringing his hands together in excitement. Folding back the tissue paper, I discovered a truly beautiful white, waffle-fabric dress embossed with a magnificent flower and vine design.
"Oh my God, it's gorgeous," I gasped.
"I thought you could wear it for the Bris, because it's so beautiful and you deserve something new."
I looked down at my bulging belly (40 more pounds than I usually wore) draped under the maternity clothes that I still needed to wear, shifted my stance and felt a torrent of menstrual blood leak onto the thick sanitary napkin between my legs, grudgingly worn because tampons are taboo after a vaginal delivery.
I took a deep breath and repeated, "Oh my God, it's gorgeous." Then, nervously asked, "what size is it?"
"It's an eight instead of your usual four, you know, to give you some wiggle room," he said his confident smile waning a little as he caught my deepening frown. "The women in the store said that if you wore a size four before the baby, you would definitely be able to fit into this dress."
"Oh. Okay." I hesitated. "So is it a stretch fabric?" I asked encouraged, rubbing the fabric between my fingers feeling no give yet still hoping.
"Uh, well, I don't know," he staggered.
I seized on his momentary and uncharacteristic lapse in confidence. Taking a deep breath, I reached deep inside myself for the strength to say what I really needed to say. "I don't think," I started slowly, "that I'm going to be able to wear it," I said in a breathy exhale. "Do you think you'd be able to return it?" I asked, reading his face for a reaction. "It's white and I'm bleeding and, anyway, I would never be able to fit into it," I finished, shocked that I'd been able to say it, reveling in my strength.
"Just try it on. They said it would fit. I bought it for you. It was a nice thing," he said urging, his confidence back, his hands wringing, listing anew the reasons I should model it for him.
And so, falling under the spell of his persuasive gifts, his endearing smile, and relentless urging, I walked into the bathroom to try it on. My tears stained my face as I prayed the sanitary napkin wouldn't stain this beautiful dress that I knew before even attempting to put it on, would still need to be returned.
Since I don't live in a made-for-TV movie and since I had indeed gained 40 pounds and since the fabric was not, in fact, stretch, the dress didn't budge past my thighs. I cried, defeated, fat and bleeding while I stepped back into my not too over-sized maternity clothes, folded the dress back into the box, retied the ribbon and wordlessly handed the box back to my husband.
I tell you this story, because during the 26-years I've known my husband, the gifts have been aplenty. And unintentionally, like the white postpartum dress, they usually made me sad: expensive outfits I wore to please my husband even though I didn't like them, jewelry, shoes, dresses, blouses, jackets. Gifts I didn't want because I didn't want a "thing" from my husband, I wanted understanding; I wanted him to understand me and these gifts told me that he didn't.
It took me until about four years ago, around my 40th birthday, to truly explain what I needed, to let my husband know that I didn't want Hallmark cards or expensive gifts, that I didn't want things just because the calendar said it was gift giving time. My admission -- you could call it finally getting up the nerve to self-advocate -- shook up the marriage. Gift giving was the hallmark of my husband's existence, the world in which he'd been raised.
And then recently my husband did something that even I could never have envisioned. He came up with an idea so magical, so imaginative and inspired that even my unconscious hadn't dreamed it up. On the night of my 44th birthday, I received a gift that I am sure no man, husband, father or lover will ever come close to giving the person he loves.
Which leads me to another digression since what my husband gave me means little without a brief explanation.
From the time I was a teenager and all through college, during my young years as a radio reporter struggling to get into television and during the years I worked as a television reporter struggling to decide if I should give up my career for my children, which I did, and through the years I raised those children, one woman always stayed with me. I had watched her on the network news for years as a reporter and an anchor and had thought she was more brilliant than the "starring" male anchors of the decade. And I was angry and irate when time and again she was passed over for the few other rising female anchors of her era, all coincidentally blond (to Ellerbee's brunette).
She was, and still is, Linda Ellerbee. Her writing was brilliant and clever. She strung words together in poetic volumes that enabled her to explain what was going on in the world without being condescending, without being a man, without the "benefits" of blond hair or a model's training. Despite winning critical acclaim and numerous awards for "the best written and most intelligent news program ever," Linda Ellerbee faded from the television limelight.
But I never forgot Linda Ellerbee. I wanted to be just like her: brilliant and funny, and better than the executive suits who ranted only about ratings. She stayed true to herself and for that she became my hero. I read her books, including And So It Goes: Adventures in Television; Move On: Adventures in the Real World; and her latest, Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table. I read them with a pen in hand, underlining and starring the phrases I wanted to commit to memory, laughing out loud and nodding my head in agreement.
By the time I was turning 44, I had been out of the business for what seemed a thousand years, perhaps because in that time I had changed many thousands of diapers and could no longer define myself as a reporter. Although I was happy with my decision to stay home and raise my children, I did have many twinges of "what-ifs" as I saw those with whom I had worked in the nation's 24th market (Hartford, Connecticut) make their way into the upper echelon of TV: NJ Burkett in New York City and Jim Handley in Washington, D.C.; Mika Brzezinksi and Virginia Cha on the networks, not to mention Oprah's best friend, Gayle King, who would never remember me, though she is hard to forget.
With this "Sliding Doors" phenomenon still haunting me and my new, more confident self-enabling ability to express my likes and dislikes, I turned 44. I turned 44 and my husband gave me a gift -- the gift -- during my birthday dinner. He handed me a box which, as had become habit, I open gingerly. It wasn't an especially large box. In fact, it was smaller than the white dress box from a decade earlier but larger than a box that would house earrings or a ring. It approximated the size of a box that would hold a necklace. I looked up at my husband and saw a wary, yet expectant look on his face. His expressive eyebrows which I often watched as a barometer of his mood, turned downward with the slightest hint of worry.
I took a deep breath as I folded back the tissue paper and discovered more paper with an enclosure that, actually, wasn't addressed to me.
"Cari Shane Parven, my wife of 18 years, NYC native, Chapin School and Vassar Alum, former local TV anchor in Hartford and Roanoke -- turns 44 in September," I read from a print out of an e-mail addressed to a woman named Holly. Did I even know a Holly? I wondered briefly.
"After raising our three kids in Maryland and giving up her career to do so she deserves an amazing present." And here tears that had been collecting since the day I gave up my career for my kids broke through their decaying, 15-year-old dam. He understands what I did, what I gave up, the enormity of my decision? He gets it? The questions swelled with the tears. Was it possible?
I took another deep breath and soldiered on wiping my tears with the black dinner napkin.
"Her Hero?" my husband wrote, "Linda Ellerbee."
I looked up at my life partner questioningly then went back to reading, hesitating often to clear the fog of tears.
"I, her D.C. lobbyist husband throw caution to the wind on behalf of my wife and ask if she could ever meet her hero? Even for a quick coffee in the village? Or just to say, thank you for inspiring me?"
I looked up again. "Oh my God," I said out loud. "Oh my God," was all I could say and then another stream of tears. I paused to collect myself.
"Knowing this is a complete long shot and likely fool's errand," the e-mail concluded, "I humbly ask consideration. It would make Cari's year and touch her heart."
The sobbing I had all but held in check broke through.
It was a few minutes before I was calm enough for my husband to explain how he had googled Linda Ellerbee and found her production company, how he had sent her assistant Holly the e-mail, and how he was now giving me my idol for my birthday, wrapped in tissue paper in a white box with a silk ribbon.
"I hope she doesn't cancel, but you are scheduled to meet her in two weeks in the West Village," my husband said, wringing his hands and smiling and looking very much like a man who still couldn't quite believe that he had just hit the jackpot. "Happy Birthday."
As Renee Zellweger said in the movie Jerry McGuire, "you had me at hello."
It didn't matter if Linda Ellerbee canceled. It didn't matter at all because, yes, while it would be amazing, incredible, a-dream-come-true moment to meet my lifetime idol, the gift in actuality, wasn't Linda Ellerbee. The gift was that the man I had known since I was 18 finally showed me that he'd been listening all along: he understood me, understood what I wanted and needed, understood that I had given it all up for the children and for him. Understood that my dreams still really did matter as I struggled for years to raise three children and make it as a freelance writer, the only way I saw I could be a stay-at-home mother and a reporter at the same time.
"Happy tears," I choked out looking up at the waiter as he handed me a pile of cocktail napkins in lieu of tissues. "My husband gave me the most wonderful gift," I explained between sobs, keeping the waiter at the table far too long so I could tell him about the greatest gift known to "men."
"He's screwed it up for all of us now, the entire male species," the waiter said in response, grinning and waving his arm in a wide, all encompassing circle. "None of us can ever tell our wives what he did because we'll never be able match up," he said still smiling and, as he walked away, giving my husband the universal man sign.
Alas, now they know. Sorry mankind, my husband deserves the public praise.
Three weeks later I met Linda Ellerbee in New York City's West Village. She didn't cancel.
We had coffee and scones at a bakery not far from the production studio she started the same year my husband and I started dating. The entire experience was a pinch-myself event, more than I could have ever imagined. We sat outside bathed in sunlight behind a wrought iron fence that divided the patio seating from the sidewalk. We sat and talked and shared thoughts and ideas like old friends. I had been given 20-minutes of Linda's time ("Call me Linda," she had said right away), but when I finally looked at my watch I noticed we had been talking for nearly an hour and a half.
We parted with a hug and Linda Ellerbee -- Linda Ellerbee! -- told me we should keep in touch.
I walked around the city for an hour before heading back to D.C., reflecting on my morning with Linda Ellerbee. I smiled unwittingly remembering her utterances, underlining passages in my mind as I had underlined passages in her books and articles. One line in particular, I highlighted then bolded and starred. I will keep it with me as I continue to write.
"After reading your essay, Finding Friendship at Forty, and watching your interview on the Today Show," Linda had remarked, "I said to myself, 'how is it that I don't know this woman, that we've never met? I should know her.'"
It's the compliment of a lifetime, and one of the greatest stories of my life. And, I don't hesitate to say, the greatest gift ever.
To steal a line from Linda Ellerbee, "And so it goes ..."
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