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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16 thoughts on “Opportunity Costs”
Thank you for sharing this sweet story, Carol Ann. Lima beans are so good for us! 🙂 I’m so glad Kevin was a multiplier and brought abundance to your family.
Dear Carolyn, thank you for joyful response to this story. Indeed, I learned and gained so much. I am so grateful to you for sharing your love with me.
This was a very sweet story. Thank you for brightening my morning with your writing.
Thank you for visiting my blog and for offering your cheerful comment. Your aspiration — serenity and harmony — resonates with me. I hope you share your striving with us as we seek these things together. Carol Ann
Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your engagement. I can just picture your mom and dad reacting the way they did.
Hi, dear Meg! It’s great to hear from you. And thank you for your memory: yes, indeed, my parents were true to form: loving, worried, but mostly loving. Sending love to you too! Carol Ann
I like the part, “I eventually told Kevin. (Hurray!).” That brought a chuckle. I’m glad you got that love was not a zero sum game, however geometrically you arrived there. 😉
Thank you, Jini. And, funny enough, Geometry was my best math subject in high school — except I forgot. Happily, amid my swerves and twists, Kevin was steadfast! CAS
Here’s a comment from my friend Jean:
I just love what you wrote! Sometimes it’s such a challenge with a choice to feel like we really will get to have the thing we choose rather than losing something. You write in such an exquisite way to think beyond adding and subtracting and take us to multiplying. This is a life-altering message!
Often times, our math abilities fail us. In this case, I am glad to hear that your fear of subtraction was actually an addition. And hey, I don’t know about lima beans, but I have my many moments of horror when I reflect back. No regrets, though, all learning experiences, right? Thank the Lord for gifts of spouses who love us through & through.
Such a lovely reflection, Ju-Lyn. Yes, no regrets. I try to make that my mantra: live fully, take chances, and learn from what follows (as you said). My ideas were more, uh, cramped back then. Happily, there’s plenty of room for grace and good husbands, as you know!
Thank you for pointing me to this post Carol Ann, I enjoyed reading part of your backstory. Big decisions should take time, be taken seriously. There’s no shame in that. And as the good Bard put it, “all’s well that ends well.”
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Thank you, Mr. P., for reading this story and giving me necessary reassurance. I do continue to wince about it. But writing that post helped me understand what was really going on — and helped me appreciate Kevin and my parents all the more!
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