Kevin asked me to marry him on my birthday. Although we’d dated for more than a year, and I envisioned a life together of joy and possibility, I couldn’t say yes. Instead, I was captured in a binary: yes to Kevin meant no to my family.
My family. We were four: two parents, two daughters, more than 30 years together as a unit. Four sides of a perfect square; four strong walls holding a single roof, sheltering us; four players configured perfectly for four-sided board games or tennis.
My math skills are poor, but I understood. Marrying Kevin — the summing of 1 + 1 — also meant subtraction, that is, the shrinking of 4 – 1 = 3, or worse, 4 – 3 = 1. Simply put, walls collapse, a chair teeters and one of us is left alone on half the tennis court when one of us walks away.
And so, I faced an impossible choice: to cleave to Kevin meant cleaving from my family. Like one of our game pieces, I couldn’t occupy more than one space at a time. Like one of our favorite ball players, I was changing teams. Gain necessarily meant loss.
Initially, I said yes to Kevin. Then, back in the car, I realized what I had done. Gasping, sobbing, I tried to explain: “If I marry you, I won’t be my parents’ daughter any more.”
So, no. I don’t know if I’ll marry you.
The following day I headed home to New Jersey to celebrate Mother’s Day and my birthday. Growing up, this was a double holiday when two of us feted the other two. I arrived home late Friday night, and said nothing about Kevin’s proposal. Saturday dawned and my Dad swept us into an outing of some sort. Too much joy. Not the time, not the place for my sobering news: that four would soon be three.
Sunday morning arrived with birthday pancakes, Mother’s Day flowers and church. Oops, no time. Finally, all four of us were at rest, savoring the afternoon sun on the riverside deck of my sister’s condo. Companionable silence, companionable chat.
I glanced at my watch. I would be heading back to Virginia soon. I had to do this.
“I’m marrying Kevin,” I announced.
I don’t remember what happened next. Silence? Alarm? Joyful congratulations? All I remember is that my family knew I was marrying Kevin before Kevin knew I was marrying Kevin. And then I fled.
I eventually told Kevin too. (Hurray!) And for Father’s Day we returned to New Jersey together. My parents welcomed us graciously and then: The Conversation. My Dad escorted Kevin upstairs to the guest room. My Mom stayed with me.
My Mom. Scarred by the Great Depression and deep poverty. Toughened by hard work and the responsibility of being her family’s — and our family’s — primary breadwinner. (Dad was a low-paid sportswriter.) Emotionally wary.
She wheeled on me, thinking of Kevin’s modest income, and moaned: “I don’t want my grandchildren going to school without shoes.”
“Ma, I will go back to my law firm and make a million dollars, if that’s what it takes to keep shoes on my kids’ feet.”
That mollified her, and she admitted that she liked Kevin. He was tough and scrappy, like her.
Meanwhile, my Dad — loyal and loving, volatile and unfiltered — turned to Kevin up there in the guest room. “I have only one question for you, Kevin,” he said sternly. “Do you love her?”
“Yes, I love her, “ Kevin said.
“No, no. Do you love her?” my Dad insisted.
“Yes, Sam, I love her.”
“Listen to me. Do you REALLY love her?
“Sam, listen to me. Yes, I really love Carol Ann.”
My Dad was satisfied, my Mom was (reasonably) satisfied, and both my parents gave us their blessing.
Looking back, I think about this with horror. Kevin: dangling three days to learn my answer. My parents: experiencing a daughter’s joyous milestone like pedestrians squashed by a hit & run driver. Me: displaying the emotional intelligence of a lima bean.
An overriding notion of scarcity animated me. Every joy came at another’s expense, every union triggered another’s abandonment, every opportunity seized was another lost. Loving Kevin more? That meant loving my family less.
I was lucky. Kevin loved (and married) me anyway. My family still numbered mother, father, sister, me. And we were enriched by a fifth fresh, provocative, loving view of the world. I also learned that a five-sided shape has softer angles than a square.
Twos, fours, fives, even sixes — those were my numbers now. Sixes: me, 2 + 4, in two loving places, embracing a multitude of interdependent identities. Lots of me. An abundance of me. A daughter, a sister and a wife. A lawyer, a reader and a seeker. Eventually a mother. Each identity enriching each other identity, doubling and tripling myself.
Marrying Kevin was not a subtraction or even a small-scale addition. Instead, it was a multiplier.
I don’t idealize my journey. I caused hurt, or at least bewilderment. When I hid from my family my decision to marry Kevin, I betrayed the very relationships I frantically tried to protect.
I had envisioned the choice falsely. Every opportunity has implications, but they need not be costs. The costs came only when I worried about spiraling away.
And here’s the funny thing. While I fussed, Kevin and my family simply gripped my hand harder and refused to let go.
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