Yesterday I saw a woman that looked insanely like my late wife. It caught me off guard, and my body turned and immediately began walking toward her, the woman hand in hand with a little blonde girl, a near carbon copy of my daughter, Abbi, as a little one. I panicked as she looked at me because I realized it wasn’t Andrea, and my body belied my brain and showed that my muscles still react like I’d seen her and tried to walk to her and give her a hug for the unexpected pleasure of seeing her. But I hadn’t seen her, it just made me realize things even more. I just realized that I missed so many of those opportunities in the past, the glances, holding hands, the quick drives, the holidays . . . the birthdays.
My sister-in-law gave me a line I hadn’t really considered once before. You see, her birthday was this week and I was bound and determined that I would not forget or screw that up just like I had her sister. It’s not my responsibility, and sure, I don’t have the pressure I had with my wife – that’s up to her husband, I know – but I’d already messed up this week. Getting the flu two weeks ago and then coming down with a chest infection isn’t something that lends itself to an increase in thoughtful discourse. It got even worse this week when I realized a day late that it had been my Mom’s birthday. I had the kids get on the phone, we called her, and made sure that she realized we hadn’t meant to forget.
I also remembered that my sister-in-law is a day after my Mom. But I’d already anticipated what I was doing for her. A bit on that later…
The line my sister-in-law told me was that Andrea and her sister had unrealistically high expectations of others’ actions when it came to special occasions. Andrea’s birthday was the biggest example of this. I’d messed up more birthdays than I’d gotten right. She disagrees, says it’s the pneumonia talking, not the actual events.
So I get it, there were some that were just plain hard to explain. For our entire marriage I worked in the media. Four months out of the year are “swept” for the viewer ratings. They look at a sampling of the audience to see how many are watching your station every February, May, July, and November. That being said, it’s never just those months. November, for example, usually started the week or two before November, bringing October 30th, Andrea’s birthday, right smack into the first few days of ratings – the most important few days, quite often. In those twenty-odd years I worked every birthday. The tradeoff for getting to go to the doctor, see the prenatal appointments, having evenings off, not go to every single piece of breaking news was the fact that I had to work these days.
Two years before she died, I thought I had it right. I had ordered a birthday cake from a local bakery. The kids had broken a lamp she loved that had a rooster/toile pattern on it. I replaced the lamp and the rooster, I got the cake . . . but I was an hour late getting home. That was it, that was enough. She lost it. Nothing from that point was right. The cake had the wrong spices, it wasn’t dark enough chocolate, the present . . . wasn’t something she wanted. It was a replacement for something that she didn’t think should have needed replacement. My Dad thought she was being unreasonable. My oldest daughter tried to plead with her, and they all wondered why I put up with it.
Do you know? It’s because she wasn’t wrong. I said I’d try to be there and I wasn’t. I didn’t make it the top priority, just a priority. That day, that year, just for once, she wanted to be the absolute, most important thing in my world and she didn’t think she was. At the time I thought I needed to keep my job, keep the income coming in, just try to keep some sort of stability. But that job gave me no loyalty and I’m not sure I reaped the benefits of staying late and disappointing this woman who’d done so much for me.
You have to understand, she’d been broken. She counted on her parents for a lot of help and she felt like it always came with a price, but I would call and feel guilty for calling, my own parents and would get no lectures just the stern advice that I needed to make sure I fixed my problems. In the state she’d reached the one person she counted on completely, implicitly, was me . . . her husband, the person who was supposed to love her without question, without thought. Yet this one day, her day, I didn’t. She came second. It doesn’t matter that she’d been first every day up to that point, she wasn’t today.
Like our family, she was beautiful and she was broken. I just wish she knew how beautifully broken she was.
I say this so you don’t get the impression we were perfect. Andrea had a lot of problems, I had even more. Andrea, right before she met me, had been date raped. It took her years – literally years beyond even when we had kids – to get over that. We fought about issues surrounding our own intimacy. She thought for sure there was no reason to stay with her, that I would abandon her . . . counselling helped, but when that special day, her day, would come along she just needed someone to put her first. Not her parents, not her sister, the person she relied on, me. It’s a lot of pressure to shoulder, and I admit I wasn’t aware many days I was, and that’s not an excuse. I know we had our problems because I wasn’t aware of how much she needed from me when we started, and we were in love, married in a whirlwind. We loved each other, brilliantly, but love isn’t all there is to a relationship. That’s why I still beat myself up over those little things.
Knowing what happened to me and the way things changed after she passed away, there’s no excuse for not putting her first. I should have and now I have to live with knowing what she was thinking and it hurts. A lot.
So when my sister-in-law’s birthday came the day after my own mother’s I wasn’t going to let it just go by with a card. She’s picked up my children. She’s babysat them, let them spend the night, bought them presents, lived with me and Andrea when we were younger . . . she’s a part of our family. Now she is caring for her family and her parents.
I don’t have a lot, not a lot of money or material items. What I did have was a piece of her sister. My wife – in a rare birthday I got right – had admired a charm bracelet that had profiles of kids and the names engraved with birthdates. Andrea wore it until health had made her wrists swell and she had to take it off. It was silver, it wasn’t really expensive, (wasn’t from Tiffany’s, despite the bag!) and it was special to her.
I gave that bracelet to Andrea’s sister. It isn’t something a father wears, I wear Andrea’s St. Anthony medal around my neck. The girls each have a piece of their mother’s to wear later in life. I have rings and crosses I can have my sons wear. But this . . . it would sit, reminding me of Andrea, reminding me she’s gone, tarnishing and aging with no use. With her sister, the bracelet will breathe new life. I will get her charms with her own children on them, I can add to it, I will put Andrea’s picture in the tiny picture frame on the corner . . . and it will mean something again. It will mean that, maybe, now that it’s too late, I know, I got it right just once.
Yes, her expectations were unusually high, but was it too much to ask that I meet them . . . just once a year?
Why, as the song up there says, did I pretend I could break her when she’d already been so beautifully broken?