[This fictional representation of a conversation in my mind borrows liberally from actual events. I wrote most of it during my flights home from Utah last Monday.]
My husband walks into our bedroom and asks if I’m OK.
Bent over my laptop, I steadily gaze at the screen and answer with some uncertainty. “Yeah…?” Then the edge of my defense shows: “Why?”
“Nothing, really. It’s just that you’re looking at dogs again.”
Some irritation now. “Don’t worry; I won’t get a dog until we’re at least in our own home again.”
“I wasn’t saying that, dear.”
He sits down on his side of the bed so that he is turned toward my profile and reaches for my taut shoulders. I bristle as I stiffly turn, as if I’m doing him a favor to let him massage my stiff frame.
He sweeps my shock of long hair to one side and continues his explanation as his hands work the tension from my neck and shoulders: “It’s just that I noticed you start looking at the dog adoption sites when you’re already feeling down. Aren’t you just making yourself more miserable by focusing on something you can’t even have right now?”
My hands have left the keyboard and curled themselves into sullen fists against the give of my face. Through pouting lips I grumble, “Well, we could get a dog if one of these stupid rescues would let us keep a dog outside only.” My eyes have not left the screen, but my vision has begun to blur with indignant tears.
“Dogs are people too,” he playfully chides me.
I slap down his playfulness with a motion meant to disguise the sweep of my hand across my wet cheek.
“Oh, sorry, did I just pull your hair? Here you go.” And he winds the few odd strands into the tidy tornado I am forming with my dominant hand.
My other hand has refused to leave my face. It catches the other stream now sprung from my nose. Holding in tears does that. But sniffing to pull it back would give away my tearful state.
I take a deep breath to regain my composure, but my love knows me too well. That isn’t a sigh of relief. It is the quelling of a sob, and he grasps a shoulder in each hand as he pulls toward me and ventures a look into my face.
“Oh no! I wasn’t trying to make you cry. I was just teasing! You know–about our friend who was angry that our party wouldn’t include dogs since my mom is allergic.”
I attempt to stay rational. “You can’t make me cry. I cry because I have emotion spilling over, and my emotions are coming from my thoughts, which you cannot cause.”
I sink a little deeper into my dejection by wiping away tears with my hair. A paintbrush of pity. I had planned to finish with: “and my mind is my own,” but a pang of doubt grips me, and tears now flow freely. Our box of tissues resides on the dresser, directly behind my husband. His long arms have gathered and delivered that ray of momentary salvation already. I accept the box the way an amputee with a new prosthesis might accept a walker from her physical therapist. Grateful. Angry.
I thrust the wadded up tissue into the trash can. “I was doing so well, and then I just blew it today!’
His fingers now strum my neck bones in perplexed thought. “I thought you had a really good day.”
“But that’s the point! I did have a good day! I was present. I listened to both sides instead of assuming I had all the answers when the kids were yelling at each other. I felt actual sympathy for the people I’m tempted to complain about. But then the one time my son wants me to come play a game with him, I’m too busy being a listening ear for the other kid and making a complicated dinner, so he just wandered off and got in a big fight with his cousin. And now he’s in trouble with us again because I can’t simplify my life or ask someone to hold their thought. He was a toddler like his brother just five minutes ago. In another five minutes, he won’t even want to speak to me, let alone spend time with me!”
I have broadened my brushstrokes into a painting only I can see: a broken future that began with a single moment of mothering gone wrong. I know my fears are unfounded. I know my son will find his own way, that no matter how well I do at my job, he is responsible for the choices he makes. But I indulge my reckless dive into self-pity with one more accusation.
“You know this is exactly how I treated my little brother, and he could have avoided so much pain in his life if I had actually been there for him when we were growing up!”
My husband’s hands have paused entirely. They rested lightly while I ranted, supported by the tension in his I-must-fix-this body. Now his hands hang heavily as he takes his own deep breath.
I wait for it. The carefully chosen words that ask me not to blame myself. The reminder that I am here for my brother now and that history doesn’t have to repeat itself. That I am perhaps projecting my fears about a separate situation onto our son.
But instead of resisting my emotions, he takes them in. “Sometimes I’m afraid too.” His thoughts flicker to how I might misunderstand his words, and he adds, “I don’t mean I’m worried because of your actions. I mean sometimes I’m afraid for how my actions could affect the kids down the road, too.”
I continue to stanch the flow of occasional tears, but my breathing has steadied, and my mind has quieted. “I know you do, honey.” I release my thick twirl of hair and, without looking, place my hand on his. “Do you know how I know?”
He swallows, surprised that his admission is met with calm acceptance. “Probably because I have my own way of checking out the way you do. Like watching that mindless crap you hate.”
I smile now, and the few remaining tears slide along my eye crinkles. I leave them like prisms for light to pass through now. A rainbow is forming after my storm. “I only hate that computer gaming one. No, I know because”–and tears threaten to resurface as my voice quavers–“because when I pray at night with you and think you haven’t heard a word I said, and then you say the prayer in the morning when I’m half asleep, you plead with the Lord for the same things I did, except you add your own thoughts and feelings about our kids. So I know you care as much as I do.”
He ventures a humorous remark. “So does this mean we don’t have to get a dog?”
“Oh!” I exclaim as I turn back to my forgotten screen. “I don’t look at dogs as an escape. I just want someone to fill in where I fall short. I feel like there’s not enough* of me to go around. Someone always needs something from me, and maybe a dog could be a listening ear or a cuddle buddy or a way to run off some steam. The cost and care of a dog seems so much better than paying for therapy and sports and medication and then driving to all those practices and games and appointments.”
My husband refrains from his usual speech, for which I have supplied most of his material in more rational moments, about how a dog is a perpetual toddler until they get sick and die or get hit by a car or wander off and cause heartbreak and devastation after destroying the yard and covering our children in slobber and hair and muddy paw prints.
In that silence, my eyes take in my messy bedside table, a reminder of all the loose ends I keep gathering into a tidy tornado beside me. My eyes rest on the Gospel study curriculum, “Come Follow Me” at my bedside. Though it is only the size and weight of a coloring book, it weighs like stone tablets in my mind when following Jesus by studying the New Testament as a family does not seem like the way, the truth, and the light. It feels more like that millstone he asks us to avoid.
I pick it up and flip through the pages and sigh. The first few pages from the year’s beginning are marked up with thoughts and ideas. By February, they are nearly immaculate. Having the book on my phone renders these pages almost redundant. But at least the notes on the pages reassure me that I tried to teach my kids. My husband sees another opportunity to deter me from dog ownership. “You know what? Maybe we don’t need a dog. Isn’t Jesus supposed to make up the difference when we fall short? So you don’t need a dog–we just need Jesus!” He offers a goofy smile.
I set the book back in its place and turn to him with and return his smile. “Maybe. But haven’t you heard why “dog” is “God” spelled backwards?”
“Because if you live with one, you’re in heaven, but if you live with the other, you’re in–”
I cut him off. “Nope! And I saw this is on Facebook, so it must be true.” I don’t mind that I have just lost all credibility in this argument. I simply want him to see how his wife safely traversed tears without having him fixing anything. “It’s because a dog is a reflection of God. Just as God does, dogs will love you no matter what. And listen to your problems. Always welcome you back. See you as significant when it seems no one else does. Dogs treat you like every part of you is good. Like you can be whole. They help us build ourselves after God’s image instead of after man’s.” I conclude my speech facing him, knees to his knees, sitting on my feet, my hands patting his legs in time with my words.
He leans forward and places his hands on my hands with a twinkle in his eye. “That may be true, but I’m a man, and I have a decent image. What’s wrong with building yourself after this?” He rises up on his knees and strikes a Hercules pose.
“You’re forgetting,” I say while preparing to knock him off balance, “that Jesus also said ‘those who exalt themselves shall be humbled.’ I thump his chest with one hand, leaving him to reel momentarily in space, while I simultaneously grab his arm with the other hand so that the net result is two people hugging, feeling a bit more like one because each knows how to be enough.
*The next blog post addresses this official video for Lauren Daigle’s song “You Say” and a starkly different video by youtuber Muse of Music Olga Vels. I was writing a comment on her video when I realized it had become an essay.