I remember the first time I celebrated Valentine's Day with the man who is now my husband. I was a senior at a boarding school in Connecticut. Peter and I had been together since October, and at that point, each month that rolled by warranted celebration. Valentine's Day came on the heels of our four-month anniversary, but I combined those momentous occasions into one event and convinced my faculty advisor to allow me to use her kitchen to cook dinner. I don't remember the menu, but I'm pretty sure the evening involved a white tablecloth and candlelight and that wonderful feeling, that lightness and giddiness and excitement, of finally being in love with a boy.
We stopped celebrating Valentine's Day a few years later, as both of us grew discontent with the idea that we single out one day each year to emphasize romance. We stopped celebrating our monthly anniversaries too, as months turned into years. We've been married nearly fourteen years and we have three children, so our lives are now measured by report cards and snow days and physicals for the kids. I could never have predicted some of the changes we've experienced -- that we would stay together through five years of long-distance dating, or that I would marry an investment banker who would later become a teacher, or that we would have a daughter with Down syndrome and be forever transformed by her presence in our lives. The changes have surprised me, but I am equally surprised and delighted by the things that have stayed the same.
I used to tell people that ours was an easy marriage, that for some inexplicable reason, we had been given the cosmic gift of being able to love each other easily and well. And on some level, it's true. But I also look back on the times we have had to forgive one another, or ask for forgiveness; the way he was willing to change his patterns of communication (less yelling) so that I could hear him; the way I started speaking more directly so that he could hear me; the way we have given to and taken from one another -- and I have started to believe that falling in love again and again takes a lot of very hard work.
We still don't celebrate Valentine's Day. But we go out to dinner once a week, every week. Thursday night has been our "date night" for almost a decade now. It's expensive, this staying in love stuff. It literally has cost a lot of money, and it has cost even more time. We have the benefit of my mother, who willingly babysits our children once a week to offer us this night together. But it still means we often forfeit other "important" people and tasks -- work, friendships, movies, even sleep -- in order to sit down together and have an uninterrupted conversation. And it means that we force ourselves to have the unpleasant discussions that might otherwise pass us by as the torrent of our life flows forward.
On Thursday nights, we talk about the struggle I have as a part-time writer who manages our household while he works more than full-time. We talk about the tough time Penny is having making friends and how not to lose our tempers with William and how to try to rein Marilee in when she pretends to be older than she is. We laugh a lot on those date nights. But many of them also involve tears.
Even though date night often looks like a joint therapy session, it also brings me back to the reasons I fell in love with Peter in the first place. On a week when I don't see much of him because work and family pull us apart, I often keep a list of topics I want to share -- a news story I thought he'd appreciate, a funny thing one of our children said, an idea I have for an essay, some advice I need. And even though I'm not one for shopping or copious applications of makeup, and even though my childrearing years have offered me extra pounds around my middle and extra lines around my eyes, I still get dressed up on Thursday nights. I put on earrings. I take off my Dansko clogs. I wear mascara. I get dressed up for him to affirm what he assures me he sees day in and day out. Despite the years, he still sees me as beautiful.
Many aspects of my life have changed since that winter day in February of 1993. We have wounded each other. We have helped one another heal. We have taken care of each other in sickness and in health, through his mother's illness and death from liver cancer, through the early days of Penny's diagnosis of Down syndrome, through harrowing sleepless nights with our son, through the chaos of adding a third child to our family, through moves and master's degrees and career changes, through petty betrayals and the slog of reconciliation.
But one thing has stayed the same. I am still in love with that boy. It is a feeling that has now been grounded in the real stuff of pain and death and suffering and beauty and joy and healing, but the lightness, the giddiness, the excitement, the wonder -- that he counts me as belonging to him and he to me -- that wonder remains.