During the first Friday of Spring Break my senior year of college, I boarded a plane bound for San Diego with my college beau, Pat. He and I had dated since our sophomore year and planned to spend the break taking our first vacation together. Our trip started with a visit to his mother in San Diego and, from there, we planned to drive up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco and then over to Yosemite. The day after we arrived his mother hosted a birthday dinner in Pat’s honor. Pat and I were both very young college seniors neither of us becoming “legal” until our spring semester. In his birthday card, underneath the canned Hallmark verse, his mother wrote, “Happy 21st Birthday to a son of whom I am so proud.” I remember reading those words and my eyes welling with tears. Surely the intensity of my reaction reflected my own love for Pat at that time, at least in part. But more likely it was the true meaning of those words that overwhelmed me. She wasn’t saying that she was proud of him for doing this or that. What she was saying is that she was proud of the person that he was. She could see the wonderful man that she had raised and know that she was sending a good human being out into the world. I do not know how Pat felt about those words for I never asked him, but I suspect that it was an enormous gift to know that that his mother thought so highly of him.
I was thinking of her words again a couple weeks ago. Bill’s mother shipped his birthday present and card via USPS and it arrived on time as always. The box contained some desperately needed new clothes and a note acknowledging that she knew he needed new clothes but had no time to shop for them. A few days later I saw the card lying on the floor. When I opened the card and saw the signatures, I felt a little sad. I wanted so much to see someone tell Bill how proud they were of the man he has become. I know the absence of the words doesn’t mean they aren’t felt or believed, but I wanted so much for Bill to see, in black and white, an acknowledgement of the wonderful man that he is.
My illness has made me so mindful of not leaving things unsaid. When we are children we are taught that words are not powerful: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” How untrue. I do not know if the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know that words have the power to heal and hurt, comfort and agitate, build and destroy. And yet we are so generous with hateful speech and greedy with our kindest thoughts and feelings. Perhaps the vulnerability that is inherent in truthfulness is more than we can bear. To admit our love and admiration for another leaves us open for rejection. And rejection breaks our fragile hearts. Or maybe we just assume that people know how we feel.
I suppose given my Italian heritage I was always comfortable sharing my feelings, wearing them openly on my sleeves, pantlegs, coats, etc. I was voted “Most Emotional” in my senior class and it wasn’t an originally listed category. People added it in at the bottom of the page. Aidan’s developmental pediatrician suggested I needed antidepressants when my eyes welled after he suggested Aidan’s might have ADHD. “Antidepressants?” I thought to myself, “I’m not depressed. I’m Italian; we emote.” I come a family that lets it all hang out, perhaps a little too much. Now that I have lived away from my family for over 2 decades, I get a little overwhelmed by all the simultaneous emoting that takes place at the Sunday dinner table. Bill’s family, Mid-western German stock, tends to keep things inside. Perhaps that’s why Bill and I were attracted to each other; he’s the yin to my yang.
At times I think Bill regrets choosing such an emotive partner. He once told a marriage therapist, “I wish Michelle wouldn’t cuss at me when we fight.” The counselor laughed at him, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen. You married her because she has all the fire that you don’t. She laughs hard, cries hard, and fights hard. You cannot ask her to change that now.” I’m a little too quick with the tongue-lashing, but at least I am generous with kind words as well. And thankfully Bill is more reserved; I cannot imagine a marriage made from two people with my disposition.
As I sat looking at the card I felt this overwhelming need for someone to tell Bill what an incredible human being he has become. I met Bill when he was 23 years old. And, like most 23-year-old American males, he could barely take care of himself. The bathroom in his apartment was the perpetual site of a microbe orgy. “You know, the pink ring in the toilet is not decorative,” I would remind him. In those days, Bill could spend $100 at the grocery store without buying a single food that I considered an ingredient for dinner. But what Bill lacked in innate skills, he made up for in openness to suggestion. Over the years, he learned to eat better and clean better. He may not do everything to my exacting standards but he does them well enough.
When we first started dating Bill wanted to make me a cake for my birthday. He called his Aunt Mary Jean on the phone, “Mary Jean, what does it mean to ‘fold’ the egg whites into the batter?” Mary Jean later related the story to Bill’s mom and said, “He must really like this girl.” This past Saturday I asked Bill to chop some rhubarb that I had purchased a week before. I wanted to make a cake before the rhubarb spoiled. But I spent all my energy making a pot of chili. “If I give you the recipe, can you make the cake?” I asked. He happily agreed and an hour later I pulled a delicious cake out of the oven. He has come so far.
Of course he isn’t perfect. He works too hard, and doesn’t take care of himself enough. But as I watch him these days (and I spend a lot of time watching life from the sofa), I’m amazed by him. He shoulders so much without self-pity or complaint. He humbles me daily with his goodness. I used to think, obnoxiously, that he was lucky to have me. He always seemed so simple, like such a young soul on its first time out. I felt like I was teaching him about travel, food, and culture. But now I know that I am the lucky one. Of the two of us, he is the far better human being. I don’t know that I could have cared for him with such love, compassion, and patience had the situation been reversed.
A few days after his birthday I sat with him in the living room. I told him about my experience with his birthday card. “I just wish someone would tell you that they are proud of you,” I sniffed. “You are a really wonderful man and I want you to know that. I want you to know at the core of your being that you have done everything you should do.”
I don’t know how to tell him how I feel. I don’t know how to tell him how much I admire him. How do you put into words the feeling that comes when you look at someone and your heart feels full and warm and settled all at the same time? Do we have a word for that?
The words of Pat’s mother never left me. For 18 years they have floated in and out of my mind. I don’t know why they were so important to my naive 21 year-old self, but I realize their wisdom now. They say everything. And to my husband I know of no better summation, “You are a man of whom I am so proud … to know and love.”