My husband comes home from work with his backpack slung over his shoulder, the same way he carried a similar pack during our college years. Back then, the weight of the pack was a few textbooks and a pack of cigarettes, but now it's his fancy laptop and files of responsibilities. He slides the strap down his arm, eases the pack onto the kitchen chair and unzips the outer pocket, the space where, in our younger days, he stashed Marlboro Lights. He takes out his pain meds, his only relief from the arthritis that has settled into his spine. I can see the stress of his workday rooted in the reddened rims of his eyes and the years of devotion as a husband and father carried in his gait. He's a good man, the best I've ever known, and his love has been strong and wide, always, in our 30 years together. He's solid, his feet planted firmly on the ground, his Irish heritage often on display with his playful mischief. It's been only recently that I've faced the fact that like me, he is vulnerable to time. Like me, he is a little tattered and worn. And like me, he is growing older.
I've been so preoccupied with my own issues of aging -- perimenopause, kids flying the nest, fine lines and sagging breasts, that I've kept my husband safely frozen in time. In my mind, he's always been the 21-year-old boy that I first laid eyes on in a hotel lobby in 1981. He was working as a bellman and he wore a ridiculous, black bellhop uniform that made him look like a leprechaun on his way to a funeral. But still, I fell for him, hard, and have loved him ever since. It's not like I love his battered 53-year-old self less than I loved his fresh 21-year-old self. In fact, the reverse is true, and therein lies the problem.
I know we are the lucky ones. We have each other to help bear the burden of aging, to soften the blows of time. He's always been my safe space to land, the one whom I trust completely and who can make me laugh at anything, most importantly, at myself. But selfishly, I don't want him to grow old too. It's just too damn scary and he's too much to lose.
I'd always heard that it takes courage to truly love another and as I age alongside my husband, I'm learning how true that is. Love is a trickster. In the beginning, it's like a fruity cocktail before the heavy meal. It's sweet and easy, but as you move along, it becomes richer, more textured, loaded. It's more satisfying and substantial, and yet, you know it is getting closer to the end.
But, perhaps, learning how to fully love another, despite the enormous cost, is its ultimate goal and a benefit of aging.
I ask him how his day was as he pours water into a glass and then swallows his pill. He says something to make me laugh and then he opens the back door and tells me that he needs to step out for some fresh air, but I know he is really going out to sneak that Marlboro Light he had hidden in his backpack, underneath the meds. I know that, at least for now, he's got my back and he'll lock up for the night, so I head upstairs for bed, feeling glad and grateful that together, we are growing older.