Katie and Nathan

December 25th, 2010

She had a list.

Most women do. You know, that list that outlines what they’re looking for in a partner? He has to have perfect teeth, a 401K and a good relationship with his mother. Maybe a dog. He should never curse, and always iron his clothes. Flossing wouldn’t hurt, either.

Katie’s list wasn’t like that.

There was the optional part of the list, which included dark hair, an accent and green eyes, but other than that, the list was solid.

#14: Likes sunshine.

#34: He will feel comfortable talking about poop with me.

#40: Likes mullets.

#42: Will sing me “The Glory of Love” and the “Top Gun” song.

Her list makes me giggle. But it also makes me cry.

#7: Wants to be 100% in love.

#15: Is tolerant of children with special needs.

#23: Looks at me when I talk.

#25: Has integrity.

#29: Says, “Hi, beautiful,” every time we talk on the phone.

#44: Will look at the stars with me.

#50: Will choose to live his life with joy and will challenge me to be a better person.

The list had 53 items on it, and Katie told me Nathan ended up fitting every single one of those items (except the dark hair and accent part). This really made me start to wonder what I should be including on my list. I’ve made tons of them in the past, but when I look back at all the superficial and empty things I had on them, it’s no wonder I ended up so darned confused.

Katie was confused, too – before she met Nathan. She spent five years in an on-again-off-again relationship that taught her only one thing – what she didn’t want. The day she heard Nathan speak at a Greek Christian Alliance meeting on campus, she turned to her friend and said, “I didn’t know guys like him even existed.” He was respectful to women, he was kind, he didn’t use profanity and he shared her faith.

Little did she know that once, when she shared with a group at a Greek Christian conference about the ways in which her faith had changed her life, Nathan was listening. He developed a crush on her instantly.

So here were two people who never officially met, but who were both completely taken by each other’s words. Neither knew of the other’s crush, college graduation was drawing near, and they would each go home, to cities four hours apart.

Nearly a year later, something remarkable happened. They both ended up at the same dinner gathering in the same city. They started talking. They exchanged email addresses. They emailed for two months, dated for six and were married nine months after that.

“I knew during our two months of emailing that Nathan was the one.  I knew immediately because when my previous relationship ended, I made a list of 53 things I was going to wait for in a husband, and told God that I was not going to settle and would wait however long. Nathan came two months later. I knew what I was looking for, and Nathan was very obviously it for me.”

Nathan knew fairly quickly, too. It was as obvious as the nausea on his face.

“On our first date,” he recalls, “I had so much energy and excitement from getting to be with her, that I decided to take a run around the park after eating. I came back and threw up right in front of her. She rubbed my back, and I knew then she was really nice.”

It was a good thing Nathan was so generous with his, um, feelings, early on, because that night was just a drop in the bucket compared to some of the struggles the couple would face throughout their marriage.

Not long into their marriage, Nathan changed careers, and they moved from Kansas City to Madison, WI, where he went to school for his Ph.D. Right before that happened, they had their first child, then had another child shortly thereafter.

“Since moving to Madison, we have had two of the roughest years of our seven years of marriage,” Katie recalls. “We moved to Madison with a five-week-old, knowing no one, Nathan started school, we were trying to live on a fourth of what we were making prior to our move, new state, new apartment, Nathan had a really rough first semester, we were so lonely and Nathan worked all the time. The second rough year was the year Sophia was born. She was sick, I had pretty severe post partum depression and anxiety, and, over time, all the stress began to negatively affect our marriage.

“There was a time when Sophia was about seven months old that I was ready to give up. I thought, ‘Is this too hard?’ And a little voice in the back of my head said, ‘No, don’t give up, keep going, this is worth fighting for.’ So I did. I remember coming home and talking to Nathan, and us both agreeing that things were getting bad. We called my parents and asked them to take care of the girls for a weekend, and we went to a hotel and talked things out, tried to make a plan of how to get our marriage back on track, and remembered why we loved each other. Things definitely began to get better after that, but we really had to work at it.”

When you’re young, and you watch a lot of Disney movies, there’s this unfortunate glamorization of marriage. It looks like all it takes is a man, a white horse and a glowing sunset. For so many of us, we inherit the false idea that love is all it takes to make a relationship work. Katie and Nathan can tell you it takes a lot more. For them, faith is a big part, too.

“I think things get skewed when the media and movies make love look like this great, easy thing,” says Katie. “I have learned that love is not always how you feel – it is a choice you make. There are times when I feel totally in love with Nathan, but there are also times when I don’t feel that way. I feel tired or blah or angry or sad. I have learned that feelings cannot always be trusted, and I try my best to show Nathan love no matter how I feel.”

Nathan does the same.

In fact, during that rough patch when their second child was sick and Katie was having a tough time, Nathan still chose love.

“Every Christmas we write out 100 reasons why we love each other,” he says. “The year Sophia was born, we did not get to do that, so I did it for Katie’s birthday the following August. Those eight months from Christmas to her birthday were bad. She had post partum depression, and was angry and being kind of mean to me. I did it anyway, though, because we are both committed to making this work.”

Nathan has a list of his own when it comes to what he loves about Katie.

“She is gentle, compassionate, loves to help people, gets excited about the little things in life, is a good nurturer, an excellent mom, encourages me, believes in me, trusts me, works really hard, is creative and really cute,” he says. “An important bond between us is our faith, and it helps that we both realize we are not perfect, and do things that are hurtful to each other, and when that happens, we ask for forgiveness, and that fosters healing.”

“Nathan cares about how I feel and what I think, and he is present when he listens,” Katie beams. “He opens car doors for me to this day. He brings me tea in the morning. He challenges me to be a better person, and is an awesome leader for our family. Most nights I go to bed thanking God he is mine. Although marriage is hard work, it seems not so hard with him. I think he totally rocks.”

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Erica and Mike

December 16th, 2010

He’s a food snob. She makes caramel corn with high fructose corn syrup.

She’s never been married. He was married for 30 years.

She knows no strangers, and he is soft-spoken and shy.

She prefers movies where there is fighting and things blowing up, and he cries at Cinderella.

They are perfect for each other.

Erica and Mike met in 2008 at a boundaries and relationships class. Mike, who was recently divorced, signed up for three classes, and Erica was in the last one he attended.

“I did not want to be stuck in a room with 70 people I had never met before for two freakin days,” she recalls. “Mike came up to me and started yelling, and said, ‘You’re just like my ex wife.’”

“There was more to it than that,” Mike rebuts. “I said, ‘You’re a type A personality, just like my ex wife.’ And she said, ‘You’re a crazy little white man.’”

“We’ve been together ever since,” Erica laughs. “Before I met him, I made a list of everything I wanted in a man, and it was very long. There were only two things he didn’t hit – tall and black! We were both praying every day that we’d find someone, but I’ve always been single. I like my job and I’m happy, so I was okay being alone the rest of my life.”

Mike was praying that his ex would find peace in the world, and that his daughter and son would find happiness, but admits to having given up on finding love.

After just two dates, however, they knew their prayers had been answered.

“I was dating several guys at the time, and called them all and said it was over,” remembers Erica. “They all laughed and said I was crazy and there is no way I’d settle down with one person. I’m an indigo. We have a different DNA strand than everyone else. One thing the experts say is that we only mate with one person the rest of our lives. You’ll know it when you meet them, and that’s it – you’re done. Mike is my soul mate, and I believe God put us together, because I wouldn’t have put us together!”

Erica’s mom gave her seal of approval.

The twist, however, comes from the fact that her mom is no longer alive. But like any opinionated mother, she found a way to make her feelings known.

“My mom is a pervasive spirit,” says Erica, “and she smells like sandalwood and patchouli. She kept coming to Mike’s apartment.”

Though Mike was totally baffled, he can’t argue with what happened.

“It was a guy’s apartment,” he says. “If it smelled like anything, it smelled like meat. Then all of a sudden it smelled like patchouli. No matter how many times I washed my sheets and towels, the scent was still there. It seemed we got her blessing.”

Perhaps Erica’s mother was happy that Mike had learned a lot about relationships after his thirty-year marriage ended.

“I had a lot of therapy before I started dating again,” he admits. “A lot of the things I did in my first marriage and the mistakes I made…I’m attempting not to make them. A marriage is a partnership. There isn’t just one person who screws it up. You can’t make someone else behave a certain way. I try to be cognizant of my part in everything, and respect her making her own decisions.

“When I was living alone, it was all about me and what I wanted. I didn’t have anyone to share it with, and found that very hollow and lonely. Now that I have someone to share it with, I don’t feel less freedom or independence. I just know there’s someone here who loves me.”

Erica had to ask her guy friends for relationship advice.

“The best advice I got,” she admits, “was, if you’re going to love him, you need to love all of him. Even the stuff you don’t like.”

That’s how James Earle Jones showed up.

“When we got together, I noticed that every time he repeated something I said, he’d use an obnoxious, screechy voice,” Erica says. “When I would repeat things he said, I’d use a dumb guy voice. These were very hurtful habits to both of us, so we decided that when imitating the other person, we’d use James Earl Jones’ voice. Silly, but not hurtful. It seems to work well for both of us.”

It’s compromises like this, coupled with a hearty dose of good fun, that seem to be the glue that so tightly binds this sassy couple’s relationship. That, and the fact that they are both crazy about each other and truly enjoy one another’s company.

“When we’re apart, all we want to be is together,” says Mike. “We like walking, talking, being on the couch and snuggling. I don’t sit in my armchair and read my paper. I sit, with Erica next to me, playing with her hair.

“She takes really good care of me. I don’t ask her to, but she does. I always tell her how beautiful she is, and remind her I love her. She gets foot rubs. Women need attention. You can’t forget how special they are. You have to appreciate them for the things they do for you.”

Erica gives Mike pedicures, cuts his hair and brings him into the key decisions she makes in her life.

“I want him to die to get home every day,” she admits. “He went out with his friends not long ago, and texted me that all his friends wanted to find women to take home, but he wanted to come home to me. THAT is what I want to hear.”

Whether it’s in a James Earle Jones voice or not, it seems like something Erica will be hearing for a very long time.

Just as Mike wipes away a tear from hearing Erica talk about how much he means to her, he tells me how much he’s looking forward to retirement.

“Then,” he smiles, “we can be together all the time.”

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Lou and Bee

October 11th, 2010

They buy bananas together. He holds the left side of the cart, and she the right.

I see them one day at Whole Foods, and he proudly tells me that they have the best bananas around.

“They’re organic,” she chimes in.

I watch as they walk away, and can’t help but smile at how adorable they look. He, in his khaki pants, pulled up to the top of his hunched-over chest, and all five feet of her, shuffling along in checkered pants and pearls.

Whether in the grocery store or in my apartment building, they are always together. Always smiling. Most of the time, he is asleep in whatever chair he is sitting in, and she is reading a book, or looking out into the garden. Every time I look at them, I think they look like the kind of couple who has a lifetime of stories to share.

Today, I decided to ask them.

Lou and Bee have been married 72 years.

They met while playing basketball at the YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association) in St. Louis.

Lou recalls an immediate attraction, book-ended by a sad realization.

“She didn’t want any part of me,” he says.

Bee was involved with someone else at the time, but recalls Lou being quite persistent.

“He said when he saw me, he knew he’d marry me, but I never knew that,” she laughs.

His persistence paid off.

They dated just five months, and were married January 8, 1938.

Lou was in the service for 27 months, not long after they were married, and their first child was born when he was away. He wrote Bee letters all the time, and she kept every one of them.

They never argue. Bee says Lou would just clam up anyway, so there was really no point.

Lou says there really wasn’t ever anything worth fighting over.

“So much of it is simple respect,” he adds.

They have always spoken so sweetly to one another. Lou takes care of her. In fact, Bee has had a few falls, and her health has gotten a lot worse, so they have learned to share their lives with one other person — Bee’s caregiver.

She comes a few hours a day – enough time to allow Lou to have his daily breakfast of scrambled eggs, an English muffin and fruit at First Watch (“Their breakfast-type food is so good,” he remarks), and then volunteer at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

They used to meet a couple every Saturday for lunch, but not so much anymore.

Instead, Lou keeps a careful eye on Bee, who mostly stays on the couch, staring into a garden she once used to watch from a much closer angle. But she doesn’t let it get her down.

“Everybody’s got something,” she says. “You don’t get out of this world as easy as you got in.”

But, then, you don’t always get in or out of this world with a partner like Lou by your side.

“If you’re lucky enough to live a long life like we have, and live it together, you have nothing to complain about,” Bee says.

I think for a moment about what she said. About being lucky to travel through life with the same person – for more than 70 years. Someone who sits next to you on the couch and stares out into the garden with you, even though he could walk out there and get a closer look. Someone who drives you around the city on architectural tours, and makes you bagels when your hands are shaking too much. Someone who knew, the day he saw you, that he wanted to spend the rest of his life talking to you. Someone who has neck arthritis, but still turns to look at you when you speak.

“We manage pretty well,” Lou shrugs.

Sure sounds like it to me.

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Amy and Randy

September 27th, 2010

I am watching them talk.

They’re across the table from me, in their cozy little backyard, having a conversation about coffee. I don’t really know what they’re saying, but I like the way they interact.

Randy has a soft tone to his voice, and speaks to Amy like she’s a friend. Like he cares about the way his words impact her.

Amy smiles all the time. She has a smile in her voice, even. Just sitting next to her makes you feel more cheery.

We’re sipping iced tea, and they’re telling me about the name of their unborn child. Jackson, they think. It was the name of one of the mountains Amy climbed in Montana.

I watch them together and I think they could probably talk to each other for hours and not get bored of each other’s company. Often, I watch couples interact in public, and no one seems to talk. It’s almost painful to watch. Sometimes, I’ve seen couples spend an entire meal without saying even one word to each other.

But Amy and Randy have a lot to say. That’s really important.

Communication in a relationship is key. So are shared interests and belief structures.

They are vegetarians – and were before they even knew each other, Amy makes sure to point out. It’s just one of the many things they share in common.

They’ve been together 10 years. Right before Amy turned 21. They’ve been married for six of those years.

It’s funny the way things turns out. How someone is placed in your life (like in your neighborhood AND your middle school), directly in front of your face, and you don’t ever really notice them. But then, years later, you happen to be walking across your college campus, and you see that person. And this time, you notice a little bit. And during the next few years, you start to notice a lot more. And they do, too. And the next thing you know, you’re staring at your future.

That’s exactly how it happened.

They both grew up in Gig Harbor, Washington. Their houses were less than a mile apart. They went to the same middle school and, though they knew each other, they were never friends.

Their siblings knew each other, but Amy’s and Randy’s paths never really crossed.

Then came college. Freshman year, Randy was rooming with a friend from high school who kept talking about these two girls, Amy and Adrian. Later in the quarter, as he was walking across campus, and his roommate pointed them out, Randy quickly realized that the Amy in this story was none other than his Gig Harbor classmate.

Turns out, the pair had similar friends and, soon, the circles in which they traveled would converge.

“We’d run into each other at potlucks,” Amy recalls, “but Randy was always quiet. His best friend had a huge ego and wanted to talk all the time, so I lumped Randy in the same category. During Junior year, Adrian and I took a Scottish country dancing class, and we started dancing at an outdoor concert. Randy was there.”

Randy was dating someone at the time (though it was coming to end), and noted that it took a lot of pressure off trying to impress anyone, so he could be as silly as he wanted to be.

“Sure, I’ll jump into this highland reel and make a fool of myself,” he laughs.

After that, the two started hanging out on a regular basis.

A unique twist, however: Amy was on a dating sabbatical.

“I always had boyfriends, all through high school,” she admits. “After I broke up with my last boyfriend, I decided not to date for at least a year. I want to know that all the things I think about myself — that I’m smart, funny and worth being around — are true because I know they are, not because some guy is telling me those things. After the first year, I wanted to do another year because it felt so awesome.”

So Amy and Randy became friends. They had potlucks together. They walked places together. They even became sailing buddies.

“When I couldn’t get into a sailing class I wanted, I asked Randy to promise to go sailing with me once a week,” Amy says. “He was already starting to like me by that point. It was such a funny time. We were sailing every week and took another class together, but it was very platonic on my side. I wasn’t at all open to a relationship.”

Then came the true test: stormy weather.

One particular day, the pair decided to have lunch before they went sailing. And then one of Amy’s male friends from Seattle decided to come for a visit. All this while Amy was already hosting another male friend from out of town. They were all there at once, and they invited themselves to lunch with Amy and Randy.

“I remember trying to cook,” Randy says. “I didn’t have enough food. Suddenly there are these guys all trying to add this special dash to the food to impress Amy. At one point I realize I’m making the meal and they’re chatting up Amy. I planned on sailing with her, but now I wasn’t sure. I said, ‘Well, Amy, do what you want to do. I’m still going sailing.’”

Amy had an a-ha moment while her two male visitors pulled her in different directions, and knew then and there she would be going sailing with Randy. And maybe he’d be the only person she wanted to keep sailing with – forever.

She remembers thinking, “That’s what it is. When you find someone who lets you do what you want to do and doesn’t pull on you or pressure you or make you feel guilty. That’s the feeling you should have.”

After that, everything changed.

“It was like this veil had been pulled away, and I was seeing him for who he was and what that could mean to me,” Amy says. “It really scared me. I didn’t see any end with him. It was really hard for me to meet the person I was going to marry when I was 20. I was always the last in my group of friends who wanted to get married. I really didn’t think it was possible to meet that person so young. It was a big leap of faith.”

Not for Randy.

“I had girlfriends, but it always tended to be more long-term,” he admits. “Dating is not a casual thing to me. Maybe I didn’t have marriage in mind that early, but I knew that we were right for each other.”

Amy felt the same.

“My parents are still married, and my mom’s siblings are all still married to their original partners,” she says. “I also had a very protective brother who was always honest with me about how guys viewed girls, and why it was better to be the girlfriend. I didn’t have any interest in being ‘that girl’ to someone.”

What Amy and Randy Have Learned About Love

Amy: Randy and I had rich, fulfilling personal relationships, so we weren’t seeking out someone to fulfill that part of us. Someone else was just an enhancement of who we already were.

Love is so much more selfless than I ever knew. It really is about choosing what’s best for that other person. Not putting your needs aside, but really honing in on your partner and discovering what they need. We do these camping trips. When we first got together, I wanted us to carry equal weight. But look at our size difference. Randy would nonchalantly start setting up camp and make dinner while I just sat there. He knew how to take care of me and still make me feel like it was a partnership.

It’s so much more fun than I ever thought it would be. Every single day I have fun with Randy. And I laugh. I have so much respect for him and who he is as a person. He comes to life with such integrity and honesty, and it really encourages me to bring those same qualities to my life.

Randy: I get fulfillment out of having that person in my life to care for. It’s not anything I wouldn’t want to be doing. It’s my chance to give something back, and give more to the relationship.

Amy: We can be honest with one another, and talk through situations. We’ve always had an easy relationship. In ten years, I can honestly say we’ve never yelled at each other. Neither of us like drama. We don’t feel like to have a passion-filled relationship we need to be fighting. But we’ve had a lot of different challenges and had to figure out how to navigate them together. Parents who were ill, changes in jobs, all those life situations.

We try to cultivate a spirit of gratitude for what we have. I feel more fortunate today than I did yesterday, or a year before, to have the gift of each other in our lives. It helps me not to take it for granted. When you start to do that, then you lose. Relationships are work, but they can be so much fun if you put the right amount of work into it.

Randy: It doesn’t feel like work. I’m happy being a part of this with Amy.

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April and Dave

September 20th, 2010

She was the perfect girl for him. The one by which all other girls would be measured.

He didn’t know this at the time. Not consciously, at least. Though he was always drawn to her for being the cutest, nicest, most generous girl he’d ever met, he didn’t know, at 16, that he was already beginning to uncover the basic principles of love.

He didn’t know that all the cartoon characters he would draw of her (including one of her as an angel) meant he was thinking of her enough to memorize her smile. He also didn’t know that when he drew those pictures to cheer her up when she was sad, it meant he’d want to spend the rest of his life keeping her happy.

That’s just not the sort of thing you know when you’re a kid.

You know it later, though, when after years of staying in touch you still can’t shake the memory of her smile. You know it when you all you do is compare her to every girl you meet.

Eleven years and a lot of life experiences between you, and, still, April is on your mind.

That’s how Dave knew.

He was preparing to move from New York to San Francisco when he finally put the pieces together. April, who lived in D.C., had come to visit him for a few days, and the two had a surprisingly wonderful time together. Though they had remained casual friends since high school, and even attended the same college, they never dated or took any steps beyond friendship. They’d see each other during summer vacation or holiday visits back home. Sometimes they’d share hot chocolate. Other times, they would share stories about their lives. They never expected to fall in love.

But something happened on this particular weekend that would change the course of their lives.

April was totally bummed that Dave was moving to the other side of the country. She, too, had felt an undeniable pull toward him, and was hoping Dave would say out loud what she was thinking.

But Dave isn’t that kind of guy. He’s shy and contemplative. When he wants to express his feelings, he writes a song or draws a picture. This time, though, he wrote a letter. A LONG letter. Longer than he expected. Eleven years’ worth of thoughts about the evolution of his feelings for April long. That’s a lot of words.

April thought it was about time! She told Dave she felt the same, and the two officially started their lives together as a couple.

The cool part about their relationship is that they had a long time to cultivate a friendship and really get to know each other. Everyone says couples should be friends first, but that rarely happens. Though it wasn’t exactly intentional, I wanted to know whether or not Dave and April would have started out with a slow friendship, had they known all those years ago they would take the romantic route together.

“I don’t think I’ve ever dated anyone I wasn’t friends with first,” April admits. “You know so much about the person’s core, what their morals are and you get all the major questions answered. I had crushes on people I wasn’t friends with, but I wouldn’t let it turn into more because there wasn’t a base. Having a friendship under your belt gives you a great level of trust. Whether the sparks fly, you have to wait and see.”

Dave agrees. “I got to see April from all different angles, in every stage of life, and that was really helpful,” he adds. “Having already had a relationship for 13 years, it’s not hard to think about the next 13 years and the 13 after that.”

Future tripping is so easy for Dave, in fact, that he wanted to start those next 13 years right away. So he and April got married July 4, 2010.

How do two people decide they want to stay together forever? How, in this day of drive-through divorces and relationships that start and end in the time it takes you to say cheeseburger, do people form their thoughts about commitment?

Having healthy relationships modeled to you is one way – an option most of us aren’t fortunate enough to have had, but something from which Dave and April both benefited.

Shared goals is another. Dave and April both want children, and it was something they discussed up front, so they could be sure they were on the same page. Teamwork is also another big one.

“Having someone you can rely on and always trust as a part of your team is key,” April says. “You need to be able to open up to them about anything and if you get really bogged down with work or have a bad day, they will support you.”

Beyond the basics, though, April thinks a good partner should also inspire you and work to keep things fresh.

That’s why they play piano together. And go on secret trips. Whenever it’s someone’s turn to plan the trip, they send photos and clues to the other person throughout the week. They cook dinner while listening to music, and April has gotten Dave addicted to “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“Dave and I have core commonalities like our beliefs and morals, but on the outside – the way we look at things, our reactions and problem solving skills – we’re different,” April admits. “We wouldn’t pick the same movie on any given night, but I never feel like he’s dragging me to something I don’t want. The part that doesn’t overlap helps us grow and be exposed to something new. A lot of people think your perfect match will be like you in every way and agree with you, but I wouldn’t want it that way. Dave is so exciting, inventive and imaginative.

“If I said one weekend, ‘Let’s go to a park and just draw for the day,’ he’d be up for it. I’m so glad I get to have him for the rest of my life.”

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Helgi and Kate

August 30th, 2010

Helgi and Kate Love Story

It was love at first height.

That’s how Helgi tells the story, at least.

He says he spotted her first – mostly because it was hard not to spot her, but that’s the part that drew him to her in the first place. Kate is a tall woman. Model tall, with a movie star smile, porcelain features and skin most women would die to have. Helgi is basketball tall, with rugged good looks and an accent to boot. All of these superficial markers are evident immediately upon meeting the couple. What isn’t evident, however, is how perfectly they fit together when it comes to the fundamental stuff. Like how well their personalities complement each other. How kind they both are. How passionate they are about gardening, travel, animals and the outdoors. How close they both are with their families. How they make each other laugh. How they motivate each other and believe in and support each other’s dreams. That’s the kind of stuff height alone can never reveal.

Of course, all of that would take time to come clear. For now, on this night in November of 2003, when they first met, they would notice each other’s eyes. And, of course, the bad makeup job.

That’s what Kate remembers, at least.

“He was wearing a black leather jacket and bright red stage makeup, pancaked on his face,” she says, shaking her head.

It was a Day of the Dead party, held the day after Halloween, and everyone had to dress up. Kate came as a southern belle, in a shiny green dress with lots of lace.

Helgi tried to come as a demon, but, as he so aptly explains, “Couldn’t find any stupid horns, so I just looked constipated.”

Debutante meets constipated demon. Kate meets Helgi.

Kind of like the southern version of Cinderella, Kate showed up in her shiny blue dress right at the stroke of midnight.

Her take on how they met: “I walked in. He saw me first, and I guess he was following me around. I looked around for someone to dance with, and there’s this tall guy, and I was excited, so I did the head nod to ask him to dance. He says he did the head nod to me. I remember we talked about art. I thought, ‘This guy’s nice, but it isn’t gonna last.’ I remember at one point in the evening, I was in the bathroom, trying to get all his red face paint off my dress from when we were dancing. There were all these strangers in the bathroom, trying to get the red off with Kleenex. Later, while standing in line for beer, I somehow put myself down, because I’m so tall. And Helgi immediately speaks up and says something like, ‘I love tall women. I think you’re beautiful.’ My friend Sarah decided right that second she could go home, and I’d be fine. He would take care of me. The next day, we went to brunch. He’s still wearing this leather jacket from the 80s. And he had on really tight, skinny pants. I thought, ‘What the hell is he wearing? I don’t know if I can go out with him.’ He hated the food, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’”

His take: “I was not having a lot of fun at the party, but enjoying the music. Kate walks in. I noticed her because she’s tall. I told my friend, ‘I want her.’ I walked over to her with the intention of giving her the head nod. I’m shy around women. I’ve always been shy — and retarded. We danced for 3 or 4 hours. And with the red paint, well, I guess I put my mark on her. We had a horrible brunch the next day.”

So, to recap: Red face paint all over her dress and cheeks, a dated leather jacket AND a bad brunch experience. Most people would just go their separate ways, but not the demon and the southern belle. Helgi called the next day, and that was pretty much that.

After an inseparable courtship, it became obvious to both of them that a solid commitment was close on the horizon. But then there was the septic tank.

Kate recounts the “crappy” nature of Helgi’s proposal: “We had both discussed marriage a lot. We had talked about, if you were to propose, what would you want it to look like? Helgi said he thinks it’s hoakey to do it in a restaurant in front of people. I said I didn’t care, but as long as it’s not on a climbing trip. And when it’s a good moment. So we went on this trip in Northeast Oregon in the Blue Mountains. It was an enchanted place filled with wildflowers. But very remote. No toilets. I hadn’t showered for four days. We’re talking about how we want to get land someday and build a house with a toilet, and a septic system, and we can’t live with a latrine. And I’m talking about the specifics of septic systems, and then he says, ‘Do you wanna get married?’ Based on the parameters I’d given him, I can’t think of a worse place to propose. But I said yes. We drove to the supermarket, which was 60 miles away, so I could call my sister and my mom. We sat on the back of his truck, which he called the turkey truck. There was no ring, no knee, and I was smelly.”

Helgi’s retort: “Women were always attracted to the turkey truck because it made sounds like a turkey.”

I suppose humor is key when septic systems are involved. But then there was the matter of the wedding. A big affair was planned, then, one-and-a-half months before the wedding, Helgi was laid off from his job. So in the last minute, everything was moved around and the couple wed at Kate’s parents’ house.

Here’s a clue about what the rest of your life together will look like if you have no money, your wedding crumbles before your eyes and you have to fly by the seat of your pants, but you end up laughing about it: pretty sweet.

Kate says she looked like a flamenco dancer in her dress. She asked her mom’s friend Corky to become a minister just to officiate the wedding. Helgi’s friend played the fiddle. Someone read an Icelandic poem. Kate’s mom’s friends catered the food, which included gluten-free wedding cake and cream puffs. Kate and Helgi giggled all the way through.

“We were so happy and just having fun,” Kate recalls. “I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.”

You might say that’s a personal statement of hers that has remained consistent throughout their lives together. It’s interesting, though, considering the amount of struggles they’ve had. Most people would get really stressed out and fight and maybe even break up. But the hard stuff is what has always kept their relationship strong.

Like when two really tall people lived together in Kate’s 350 square-foot apartment. Or when Helgi went back to school to finish his Bachelor’s degree for two years and they had just one income. And how, because of this, they had to wait THREE years to take their honeymoon. Things were great by this time, though, as Helgi had a job, and they spent a lovely month in Thailand. But when they got back, they quickly discovered that Helgi’s company folded without word to any of its employees. Including Helgi.

What couple could weather such uncertainty?

Guess who?

“Twice now, we’ve gone through rough patches financially,” Helgi notes, “and we now know how to handle things. If something happens, I feel like we can deal with it.”

Kate says she noticed that when things get really bad, she learned that she could be very supportive. She admits that, before, she didn’t think she was the sort of person who would be that way. In fact, she says she would’ve left 50 times in the first two years to get a breather from it all, had it not been for something Helgi said to her long ago.

“Helgi told me he always stayed friends with his ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife,” she recalls. “But he said he loved me so much that if we ever broke up, he could never stay in touch with me because he couldn’t take it. So when things get rough, and I want to leave, I think about how he would never talk to me, and know I’d be a wreck.

“He makes me feel loved. He doesn’t fight. Even with the financial difficulties, I have absolute and complete faith in him. He would never even look at another woman. He tells me I’m beautiful all the time, and I think he means it. That makes me cry, because I always needed that. It makes me feel alive.”

On the day after their wedding, Helgi left Kate a note that read, “Happy first day of marriage. I love you.”

Even if there was no note, it is completely obvious to me that these are two people who definitely want to be together. Not because they’re tall. Or they share similar beliefs about septic systems. Because they’re one of those couples you read about in books or see in movies, but don’t think are real because you secretly believe people just don’t stick it out like this in real life.

But I’ve met Kate and Helgi. They’re as real as can be. In the mornings, Helgi imitates the Cookie Monster while they’re having breakfast, and Kate records him singing, “C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me,” on her Iphone.

For Kate and Helgi, C is for commitment, and it’s pretty darned sweet.

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Denise and Ryan

August 23rd, 2010

Denise and Ryan

They were playing ping pong in a bar – he paddling furiously and jumping around the table as if engaged in a serious battle, and she calmly standing in one place, neatly moving her paddle from side to side without much of a fuss.

From a distance, it looked almost as if she was disinterested, and he the clear master of the game. In five minutes, it was all over. They walked back to their seats without a word.

“Who won?” I asked.

“I did,” she said, calmly.

She was neither delighted nor upset, and he didn’t appear terribly dejected, nor did he look surprised. It seemed, almost, that this had happened before. Or, perhaps, it happened all the time.

When I asked her later, she verified that I was correct in my assumption.

“Ryan is very dramatic,” she said, taking a sip of her soda. “But I play the game.”

After knowing Denise for nearly two years, I can see this is true. Only the game she refers to isn’t really a game at all. It’s her life. And she plays it well.

But then, so does he. Together, the two make one amazing team.

They met at summer camp when they were 12. She was the shy bookworm and he was the gregarious charmer every girl pined after. One look and she was hooked. But she was not about to vie for his attention. For the next two years, she’d watch countless girls at camp write, “I love Ryan” on the bathroom walls. One girl even slept with a photo of Ryan next to her bed. “Don’t you think Ryan and I make a great couple?” she cooed, gliding her fingers across the frame. All the while, quiet and steady Denise was secretly fuming inside.

By the time Denise and Ryan were 14, they started spending a lot more time together. In fact, it appeared they might actually be an item. Once, after Bible study, Ryan knocked on Denise’s cabin door. It was late. She was brushing her teeth. He stood at her doorstep, the moon a halo over his head, staring nervously at his feet. And then it happened. He dove forward, planting a tiny kiss on her cheek, then ran off, into the night, without a word. You might say that was the day he kissed his fate.

The next day, he had an important choice to make. Junior high pandemonium had set in, and the girls at camp were descending like vultures.

“He’s so charming and outgoing, so every girl automatically assumes he’s in love with them,” Denise says, noting that it’s an issue even today. “His personality is part of what I love about him, and I don’t blame others for loving those same parts of him. But I had to let him know it was not okay with me to flirt with every girl around. Not if he wanted me.”

And so, at 14, Denise did what most women never learn to do – she refused to compromise her principles just to appease someone of the opposite sex. She respected herself far too much. It was either her all the way, or none of her.

And he chose all of her. From that moment forward, at the age of 14, he chose her. And he never looked back.

Their love was never simple, however.  There were challenges early on. It was difficult enough when they lived two hours apart in Maine, but when he moved to Florida to live with his mom, the relationship was flailing out of control.

Then there was the marriage. They were both in college, and lived off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the first few years.

When they decided to move across the country from Maine to Seattle, they had to fit their entire lives in the back of a Jeep. They stopped along the way. She took pictures. They camped. She wanted to rip his head off at times. They were grumpy and tired. She had no job lined up. They had only a few hundred dollars in their bank account.

They were so young.

But here they are. They are older, but for them, the struggle isn’t close to being over. They are barely into their mid-20s. There is growth yet to be done, and mistakes to be made. But not even that reality fazes them. They will do what they always do – face whatever shows up together.

When most 20-somethings are still learning how to balance a checkbook, they are learning how to balance each other. While their peers are partying and hooking up with random people, they are holding hands in church, and baking cookies, which they hand out to the homeless on cold nights.

There is a quiet confidence to their love. It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever encountered. I look at them both, and I know, with certainty, that they’re going to make it. And somehow, this makes me really happy. It’s some of the clearest evidence I’ve ever seen that a truly solid relationship can withstand all the bumps in the road, all the growing pains, all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and all the states between Maine and Seattle, so long as the people in it are committed to the same things.

Denise and Ryan certainly are.

When I ask Ryan how he knew, all those years ago, that Denise was it, he admits he didn’t know that. Not in the beginning, at least.

“She was all in at 14,” he remarks, “and I was easily distracted by female attention. I think once I got over the female attention part of it, I realized that Denise loved ME (every bit of me), and I loved Denise (every bit of Denise). After my hiatus of flirtation and cheesy relationships, I chose to commit to the woman I could see building a life with. She makes me a better person and encourages my personal growth as a human. I think I realized this at a certain point and it drove my desire to commit. She woke me up through her honesty (and sassiness!). I think it was instinctual because of how she regards me.”

That honesty (and sassiness!) is perhaps their saving grace. Because they’re vocal about their feelings, and air out their laundry on the spot, they have developed successful coping mechanisms people twice their age have often failed to master.

“It was tricky getting married with no money, while still in college, so we basically had to learn life skills together,” Ryan admits. “I think the fact that we don’t harbor things helped us to learn to be there for each other. The first year we were married was no picnic, but I am thankful it was hard. It gave our relationship character and strength. Do we still want to rip each other’s heads off from time to time? Yes. But that is the beauty of relationship. You take the good and the bad.”

He takes it with great appreciation. How could he not? He knows about evolution. He knows that what happens between the ages of 14 and 24 is only a tiny window into what happens in a lifetime. And he’s so darned excited to watch the story unfold.

Like the part about how he finds himself loving things about Denise he didn’t even realize before. And how she’s so kind and giving, and basically how he doesn’t have enough time to tell me all the things he loves about this woman.

And so I tell him to stop. That I’ve heard just about enough. And I have. Because now my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. And I have a newfound appreciation for love stories. And I want to write more. And so I begin.

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Louise and Charlie

August 16th, 2010

Louise and Charlie

He never had much to say. Mostly, he would utter quiet phrases like, “Well, I’ll be,” or, “Is that right?” often while shaking his head.

Those in his company wondered what more there was to him. “He sure doesn’t talk much,” they’d say.

She knew the truth, though. She knew that the way to measure a man is by his actions, not his words. And as far as action goes, Charlie spoke volumes.

To be fair, however, Louise didn’t know all that yet. Not when she met him on a blind date in April of 1946. They went to a movie. It was all rather uneventful. In fact, she wasn’t even sure she liked him. They went out a few more times, and then she went off to St. Louis for a week with a friend.

When she returned to Indiana, and got on a connecting bus to go home, her girlfriend tugged at her shirt. “I think you’d better get off this bus,” she urged. “Looks like there’s someone waiting for you outside.”

And sure enough, there was Charlie. He called her sister to see what time her bus came in, and he showed up. From that moment, until the day he died, he always showed up.

He was a good husband. He wasn’t too pushy. He was clean cut. Her family loved him. And, turns out, so did she.

“You have to know him to know how he was,” she says with a smile. “He was so easy going. Anything I wanted to do, it was all right with him.”

After a year of dating, Charlie popped the question. It was rather unromantic by Hollywood standards, but it was just fine for Louise.

“He had the ring, and gave it to me one evening, before he left,” she said. “He turned around and put the ring on my finger. I accepted it.”

When I asked her if she was in love with him, she looked at me like I was crazy. She said she wouldn’t have accepted the ring if she wasn’t. When I asked her how she knew, she said she was pretty sure anybody would know they’re in love. It’s easy to tell.

“The man was so nice to you,” she says. “He wasn’t pushy. He was easygoing. He’d come and see me. He’d call me. He’d leave my house and drive 27 miles back home.”

Love, for my aunt Louise, is a fairly simple equation. It makes me wonder how most of us got so off track. How we expect so much, and have all these unrealistic fantasies about what he should say or do or how he should make us feel. Maybe it’s enough that he treats us kindly. That he wants to make us happy. He listens. He shows up.

I guess you know you love him back when you want to show up, too. Like when you find out he has cancer.

“He had cancer for 15 years, but he didn’t know it,” she reveals. “When he was in the service, the doctors overseas told him he had hemmorhoids. One day he went to a doctor here, and they found out that’s not what it was. I was waiting outside and the doctor asked if I was his wife. I said yes. He said, ‘I want her to be here to hear what I have to say.’ We didn’t even make it make it across the parking lot after that. We were both crying.”

In 1951, Charlie was told he had just six months to live, but he toughed it out until 1971, even so he would be in the hospital off and on that entire time. The last few years of his life he was bedridden, and Louise took care of him. Charlie would’ve done the same.

It’s easy to do that sort of thing when you love someone. And even if Charlie was a quiet man who nodded a lot instead of expressing his feelings, the truth was pretty evident to Louise.

“One time his mother told me, ‘I miss all my kids, but I miss Charlie the worst,’” Louise remembers. “And I asked her if she wanted him back. She said, ‘Oh no, he’s too happy.’”

I take my aunt’s hand, removing the photo of Charlie when he was still healthy and smiling. I figure she might not want to keep talking about this. I tell her we can stop.

“I’d rather talk about him,” she laughs, as if he were in the next room and she was spilling a secret. “I don’t want to forget about him. You don’t forget about someone you love. Charlie was my true love. He died June 3, and our anniversary would’ve been June 22. He died just before our 23-year anniversary. I would’ve liked to have spent 25 years with him.”

I’m surprised you can love one person for so long, and still miss them after so much time has passed.

“You really miss him, huh?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” she says, giving my hand a tight squeeze. “I do miss him. I do. I do.”

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