So now I will tell you, quite simply
you are the house I will live in:
there is no good reason
to move. Good earth,
you are home, stone, sun,
all my countries. Vital to me
as the light. You are it
and I am asking.
Clare Shaw, ‘Vow’
When we were nineteen, my then-boyfriend Tim went to South Africa for two years. We’d only been dating for six months. He flew off to heat and sweat and work. Days digging graves and building sheds. Evenings in corrugated iron huts, talking to wonderful, dignified people in appalling poverty. Meanwhile, I got on with life stuff of my own: I worked insanely hard in my final year of university. I passed my exams. I moved out of my mum’s house for the last time. I got my first job.
We didn’t have any sort of arrangement or expectation, but I wrote him letters while he was away. Once a week, on rainbow coloured notepaper. In return he sent me photo postcards. On the front, a tanned, skinny kid in his early twenties leapt off sand dunes, sat in a fuzzy pile of lion cubs, grinned wearily at the camera in battered shoes. On the back, a hurried description of his day. I miss you. I love you. Tell me how you’re doing. I saved them all and so did he, carting a hundred and two letters back over six thousand miles in a shoe box.
I often go back there in my head, because that image – the boy writing postcards under African sun, the girl writing letters in English drizzle – is part of our family lore now, a story we’ll tell to our kids when they’re older. The shoe box still lives under our bed, battered and dusty. (Classic Tim: he sorted my letters into date order and grouped them with elastic bands, for maximum efficiency.)
I remember what a potent presence he was, when he was gone and I was here, wrestling my new adult life into something that made sense. It was a hard time, altogether, and he was a steadying force I missed. I remember how I would see a bright photograph on my doormat after work with a sharp intake of breath. I remember writing Hamlet essays with my inbox open (he had access to email once a week, too), refreshing after every paragraph until I saw his name appear.
Somehow the romance of that long-distance beginning fed into our early married life. We’d become so used to living on different continents that living in the same house felt like a fantasy. We had teething problems, living together, like everyone does. But I would come home from work and run up the stairs, see him in the kitchen making dinner – our kitchen, our dinner – and hardly believe my luck.
That was eight years ago. Our anniversary was yesterday.
And I have been thinking how time and familiarity and small children gradually shift that sense of wonder you started out with. A newlywed friend asked me the other month ‘so, when does the shine start to wear off? When do you have to start trying? Because marriage is the best thing ever, and I can’t see it ever being difficult’. I couldn’t think of an answer that didn’t sound depressing – and I didn’t mean it to be depressing at all, because it’s not.
The truth is that you being together becomes the new normal. You don’t do a double-take every time they come home to you, because at home with you is where they belong. Bills and job worries remind you that life is still hard when you’re together, even though it’s so much better than when you were apart. There are times when you don’t communicate well, when two sets of bad habits add together to make worse ones. Then babies, when the combination of sleep deprivation and repetitive faecal strain injury can rub you both raw, into the very worst versions of yourselves as well as the very best.
But all of that is a trade-off, just the crappy side of the coin. The flip side is that you’re looking at each other, finally, with clear sight. Not as the magical unicorn you somehow married, but as a whole, human person. You’re standing side-by-side and getting your hands dirty together. You know that sometimes they will fail and sometimes they’ll hurt you and you’ll end up hurting them too, but here you are regardless. You love them, regardless. You are loved, regardless.
Sometimes I think that ‘regardless’ is the highest and most moving thing we’re capable of.
So here we are, starting our ninth year of regardless marriage. It’s the sort of place where you can eat yourself silly and binge-watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in between popping upstairs to sit your four-year-old on the loo and shrieking when you get pee on your hand. He is home, stone, sun, all my countries. Vital to me as the light.
It’s no African sun, but it’s better.
Picture credit: Davide Ragusa, via Unsplash