After her husband had two affairs, Annah Elizabeth asked herself what kept her coming back. And she realized she wanted to define her husband by all that was good.
“This is the hard work of marriage,” I said to Warren.
We were sitting on our deck steps, arguing the way we’ve argued for twenty-some years.
Streams of snot and tears ran down my face.
“The easier thing to do would have been to say ‘Fuck YOU,’ and leave,” Warren.
“The easier thing would be to bury our heads in the sand and pretend none of the tension exists.”
“The easier thing would be to deny that there is this trauma holding us apart.”
“It’s easier to talk about the surface stuff than to face our deep dark demons.”
In that moment, I saw the freshly leaved tree, towering across our lawn, its green foliage filling the sky with color.
“It’s like that tree, Warren. We see those glossy green leaves, but it’s what’s beneath the surface that’s the most important. The roots are what give it its strength and vitality. The roots are what hold it all together. We need to talk about the roots that produce those pretty green leaves, Warren.”
“Anything would be easier than doing this work, Warren. It’s so much easier to talk about the leaves than it is to think about the roots that are buried beneath the surface.”
Journeyers, today marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the day I said, “I will,” to this man.
I will love you when you bring me flowers or gifts for absolutely no reason other than, Just Because.
I will love you when you forget our anniversary and when you do the dishes and when I find pee spots splattered all over the toilet seat.
As I contemplated our years together, I asked myself what it is that keeps me coming back after his two affairs, keeps me fighting one of the greatest fights of my life. I realized I’ve never really shown anyone that side, not him, not you, and most of all, not me.
And it dawned on me that honoring his goodness is also one of the greatest gifts I could probably give to Warren, a gift of grace and gratitude. Something we can all use now and again.
I call managers to let them know their workers did a great job.
I call parents of students who have turned their bad behaviors into better choices.
I tell my students who sit quietly and follow the rules how much I appreciate them.
And whenever I can, I let the adults in their lives know what a fine job they’ve done, how special their children are.
After all, don’t we all like to hear that our hard work has paid off? That our children are actually living what we’ve preached? To hear that our kids are kind and helpful, that they are polite and gracious, and that they don’t fart and belch and pick their noses and eat their boogers in public? To know that others are thankful for us?
Let’s work harder on paying homage to the goodness around us.
And on that note, allow me to introduce you to Warren’s roots…
Do you remember our recent conversation? The one we had on the back stoop steps? I’ve been thinking a great deal about that discussion. Mostly, though, I’ve been thinking about that tree.
Remember when I told you about that writer, the one with a motto of Show up? And I told you that that’s one of the things I love about you, that you “just keep showing up?”
When Gavin died and I was weighed down by surgery and morphine and grief and disbelief, you were there to lift sorrow’s anchor and to tackle some of life’s most difficult tasks. A burial plot and gravestone for our son.
When my mind was too foggy to comprehend what the doctors and nurses were saying, you listened and understood for the both of us. And when I couldn’t bathe while holding my stapled-together stomach, you were the one who washed my wounds.
Every single day, you showed up.
Those things are your leaves of Compassion.
When I became so depressed and felt I could no longer cope with the seemingly senseless situations of my life, you were there to pick up the pieces of my shattered existence. During my psychiatric stay, you were there to pick up laundry. You were there to lift up our children who desperately needed a parent to reassure them everything was going to be okay. Every single day you showed up. At home. At the hospital. Even when I closed the door, you were there. With a pen, a poem, or words of promise for me. With a hand and a hug for our kids.
Those are leaves of Dedication.
When I’ve needed perfection, a way of proving to the world that I was worthy enough, you were there with your messy ways. To show me and tell me that you loved me when the floors were clean or dirty. When my mind’s been muddled and I’ve forgotten that I’ve told you the same thing five times already, or I can’t remember what you said, you’ve been there to rinse off the frustration and repeat…with kindness…
When I can’t remember our children’s favorite desserts or the details that define a story, that give it credence and merit and sense, you’ve been there with that uncanny recall of names and places and dates. When I’ve mixed metaphors and continents and timeframes, you’ve been there to fill in the facts for me. And when I’ve failed to finish my spoken thoughts, you’ve been there to encourage me to stop my wandering mind and to focus.
Those are leaves of Patience.
When I’ve been so caught up in the day-to-day drudgery and forgotten to chuckle at life and myself, you’ve been there with your zany sense of humor. When I’ve taken myself too seriously, you’ve been there with a good belly laugh at the ready. Have I told you enough times how grateful I am our children have your quick wit?
Those are leaves of Joy.
When you’ve made mistakes along the way, you’ve been there to apologize and to listen to my fear. When so many of the things you grew up didn’t fit into our life, when laundry needed folding and our stomachs needed nourishment, you were there to sort socks from shirts and to wear the evidence of your latest culinary creation.
When changes had to be made and people had to be spoken to, you were there to stand up for what you knew in your heart of hearts to be the right thing. For you. For us. For our own beautiful little family.
And when I thought we had done everything we possibly could to make it work, when I believed we had no chance of surviving this latest storm, you burrowed into the soil deeper than you’ve ever dug before.
Those are leaves of Bravery.
When I’ve been self-conscious about my weight and haven’t felt beautiful, you’ve quoted lines from Pretty Woman and spooned into me each morning after I punched the alarm’s snooze.
Those are leaves of Romance.
And at the base of all these branches is Love.
I’ve come to realize that the foliage is more than just the showy part of the tree. They need each other, those roots and those leaves. They work in tandem to make the parts bigger and stronger and prettier.
Together they strive to contain disease and distress and dysfunction.
Together they exhale life into the world.
Together, they are more than the sum of their parts.
Thank you for all you do to help keep us grounded and gleaming.
I love our roots, Warren, and each and every one of our leaves.
For, together, they comprise The Tree of Our Married Life…
Annah Elizabeth is the Jill to her hubby’s Jack-of-all-trades, an adventurous and fearless woman pledged to high heels, understanding healing, and her husband. She’s survived the death of her firstborn, three teenagers, and two affairs. She is a writer, speaker, and the creator of The Five Facets, a grassroots movement designed to understand how we recover in the face of Death, Despair, and Destruction. You can find her in the fields, in the classroom, on our highways and byways, and musing about life, loss, learning, and moxie at The Five Facets: the blog, on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.