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.


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.”