Learning what love is

 Since Saturday is Valentine’s Day, I’m posting a tribute to the love of my life, my husband, companion, lover, and friend of the past 26 years, Richard. (He’s a sculptor who works with granite and other hard rocks, steel, and wood. Here’s his work.) This post is adapted from my memoir, Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey, which is due out next month–yippee!–from University of Texas Press.


“Do you want to tell me anything about your day?” I ask my husband, Richard, as we sit side by side in the living room after work, watching the sunset.

“Just that I love you,” he responds.

We’ve been married 25 and a half years.

I”m not sure I knew what love meant when we met in graduate school. I was recovering from a marriage that left me skittish and slow to trust, and Richard was still married, but separated from the mother of his daughter, Molly.

Neither of our relationship resumes looked promising for long-term commitment.

We went on one date, a January drive to the hot springs two hours away, where snowflakes sizzled as they hit the steaming water, and we talked as if we had known each other our whole lives instead of a few hours. On the way home, I let him take the wheel of the pickup I rarely trusted to anyone else, and then fell asleep on his shoulder.

And then we moved in together. We held hands wherever we went. We talked about the future in terms of “we,” not “I.”

Our instant pairing turned out far more durable than anyone expected–me included. It stuck through my admission that I had a chronic, incurable illness and my prognosis was not good. Through his divorce, which sliced his heart when he relinquished custody of Molly, and our wedding two days later when the justice of the peace went fishing instead. Through his first academic post, where we lasted just two semesters.

Our pairing persisted through seven moves in our first decade. Through our sudden and not simple transition into fulltime parenting when Molly moved in with us after move four. It endured the ups and downs of my illness, and Molly’s adolescence, about which the less said the better, and the grueling years as Richard went up for academic tenure.

It survived his father’s diminution and death, my parents’ move to nearby, the adult Molly’s bout with thyroid cancer, and Richard’s diagnosis with bladder cancer four years later.

Our differences are striking. I’m quick, volatile, and verbal. He’s quieter, more analytical, and a deeper thinker. I’m extraordinarily tidy; he’s a spatial thinker who thrives on clutter. I was shaped by oft-hugging parents who both had careers outside the home. His parents’ marriage was traditional–and love was rarely demonstrated.

Over a quarter-century together, I think I’ve learned what love is. It’s not sex, though we do that well still despite qualifying for AARP membership. It’s not longevity, despite the bond of shared years. It’s not gifts like jewelry, expensive vacations, or fancy cars.

Love isn’t anything so concrete, or tangible.

It’s how we are together: the way his face lights up when I walk into the room. My hand, reaching for his.
The fact that our bodies still fit like paired puzzle pieces. That we can be comfortable in silence, yet eager to hear what the other has to say. It’s that sitting side by side when I ask what he’s thinking, he responds, “That I love you.”

And I know he means it.

Here’s what we did to celebrate Valentine’s Day (two days early): We ignored pressing deadlines and played hooky together this afternoon. It snowed earlier this week, and I’ve been itching to get out and play. So we threw our cross-country skis in the car, drove to a favorite nearby loop that follows a long-abandoned railroad route into the mountains, and spent two hours schussing together. We headed uphill first, mostly side by side, climbing slowly up the winding grade out of an open creek bottom into the forest, our skis creaking as they gripped the snow.

At one point Richard stopped and pointed into the small valley below us, “Look–Is that an owl?”
I looked and caught a glimpse of great horned owl back. We still on our skis as the huge bird flew away through the scattered ponderosa pines, its wide wings beating the air as the wind rushed downhill past us.

And then we skied on. The sun slid closer to the shoulder of Antorra Peak in the distance, backlighting the feathery plumes of snow blowing off the high ridges. We turned downhill, winding our way through dense lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir forest, the snow blue with shadows already, our skis picking up speed.

Where the forest opened briefly, we stopped to look down the valley we had climbed and across the wider valley it runs into all the way to the distant ridges that rise above the town where we live. A chickadee called in the quiet. We smiled at each other, kicked our skis in unison, and schussed on. Neither of us needed to say it, but I knew we were each feeling the same thing: happy to be alive, and very lucky to share this time, this snow, this beauty with each other.