If you've been reading my ever-so-sporadic posts for awhile, you know that we've had a bit of a rough stretch around here. Last year, at the end of what was inarguably the worst summer ever (please God), my dad and stepmom invited us to join them at the beach. We hung on by our fingernails until that week arrived and then, after a 5 hour trip that took 10 and a half, we arrived, ready to relax and unwind and hopefully, recover a little. We were there about an hour before the frantic phone calls started coming. Another crisis. another punch in the gut. Stay? Go? Navigate. Problem solve. Pray hard. We stayed.
The next morning, Barbara and I left for a walk on the beach out in front of our house. We went for a long time and then turned towards home, remarking on how easy it was to lose one's bearings along the coastline. So many houses indistinguishable from the neighbors. Some distance from our house, we were met by Katie, who breathlessly informed us that Karoline and Sarah had left the house to come find us and Sarah had been stung several times by a wasp. Sarah was back at the house with Mike, but Kari had taken off down the beach to find me and Katie had no idea where she was.
I took off at a pretty good clip to get back to Sarah, all the while trying not to let the rising sense of doom I'd learned so well over the previous 18 months get the better of me. When the voice in my head reminded be of Mike's brother's serious bee allergy, I hushed it. When I remembered the other Sarah, who was never too far from our minds, I pushed it away. It's just a sting. It's just a sting. It was actually several stings, but Mike had already started icing them and we quickly dosed with Benadryl and Sarah seemed to be handling it all just fine. Mike and I sorted out the confusion and mixed signals that had resulted in little girls somehow heading to the shore on their own and then decided that I'd stay with Sarah and he'd go look for Karoline. No one knew if she'd turned right or left off the walkway from our house. I will admit my heart raced while I waited for them to find her. So many, many things kept going wrong. I was learning to expect bad news. But it wasn't long before he found her and we all settled in to a much relieved, if a little rainy, day at the beach.
The next day, the sun shone and we headed to the water. Blankets spread on the sand, books at the ready, shovels and buckets, and sunscreen--we were finally going to sink into this much needed vacation. We played and chatted and constructed castles awhile and then Mike got in the water with the kids and I went up to the house for water bottles. Heading back to the beach, I crossed that walkway (carefully avoiding the wasps), and I knew right away.
Mary Beth was sitting on the blanket, foot in a cast, watching the quiet quest playing out in the ocean.
"He lost his wedding ring, didn't he?" I asked her, scanning the scene before me--all of them in the water, knee to waist high, looking down into ocean.
"Yep. He said not to tell you. He's sure he'll find it."
My eyes filled with tears. Dang. Nearly 28 years in, my heart still flipped a little every time I noticed that ring on his finger. Apparently, this was a season for stripping away.
He got up the next morning and went to the beach early, to look for the ring again. When I saw him walking on the sand, in the now familiar head bent posture he'd held down there since the day before, I went to meet him. Wouldn't it be perfect if he found it? Just the best story? The beacon of hope? What was lost is found?
Dude. It's a tiny band of gold in vast ocean.
We didn't find it. Further, this was not the season where replacing it immediately was feasible. This was the season of broken air conditioners and pipes bursting and cars breaking down, among countless other things.
Christmas came and I'd saved enough, a little at a time, to buy a new ring at that most elegant of jewelry stores: Costco. It only came in one size. Turns out that wasn't his size. The ring went on a shelf until it could be sized. Our finances are an open book. We have no secrets and no way to surprise each other, really. Sizing a ring up requires more gold and more cash. It was no small feat to plan a surprise.
I bided my time and saved my pennies.
The Knights of Columbus were planning to facilitate a wedding vow renewal at every Mass on Father's Day. And, it turns out that Father's Day was to be Lilly's baptism day. Perfect. All our kids would fill our "usual" pew and they all be there for the vow renewal. They would be in on the ring secret and we'd surprise him.
I found a Bible passage I wanted in the ring, something to represent this midlife token of our life together, something replete with hope. The ring wasn't pipecut like the old one. This ring was rounded and looked more like his father's ring. It had soft edges, but shone with a brightness unexpected in a symbol of a marriage nearly 30 years spent. It wasn't a replacement, didn't even try to be a do-over. It was at once new and again. And I loved imagining the day to come.
The first child started vomiting the Sunday before Father's Day. All week, they fell ill. I was up 'round the clock and when I wasn't tending sick children or doing laundry, I was staggering through Recital Week at the dance studio. Two long rehearsal nights and copious costume notes gave way to two shows on Saturday. I climbed into Mike's car to go home after the last show completely depleted.
Angry words were said. Feelings were hurt. I might have cried myself to sleep, except I didn't sleep.
I wasn't sure I was even going to Mass. The baptism had been postponed because too many critical people were sick. Only three of our children were well enough to go to church with us. In our bedroom, I broke the chilly silence and tossed the ring box to him. I muttered something about this not being how I planned it. He took the ring out, unceremoniously shoved it onto his finger, and said it fit. So that was fun.
(An aside: he reminded me later that once upon a time he tossed me a ring box and pretty much botched a proposal. All true.)
We went together to Mass, me without makeup and thanking the stars for dry shampoo. We were later than usual, so we sat in a pew several rows back from our usual one. This really, truly wasn't one bit like I'd imagined the day. When it came time for the vow renewal, Stephen was sitting between us. The priest invited married couples to stand. Mike stood. I stood. Stephen stood. We laughed a little as I moved Stephen over and pushed him back into his seat. A little comic relief was a very good thing. Father asked us to join our right hands. Okay, lightly intertwined fingers. Now turn to face each other.
Big breath. I'll tell you what, it's super hard to stay mad and to keep a straight face while looking at each other and repeating those words.
We couldn't do it. His fingers tightened around mine and I held his hand like I really meant it.
We went home to celebrate Father's Day. And the real grace in the sacrament of marriage.
It was ten days later before I told him the ring was inscribed. Late at night, we had a really good talk about the couple years we'd just lived together. Life had thrown us one thing after another and we'd caught them, deftly as we'd caught ring boxes. Mostly, we'd walked them together and mostly, we'd been each other's comfort. Even as we spoke together that night, new things had just presented themselves, new sorrows and new challenges. The next morning, Michael and Kristin returned from her family's house in Gloucester and we all went to church on a Wednesday afternoon for a private baptism before they left again for California.
The old ring had been inscribed "Once upon a time and forever." I'd loved that then and I still love it. The new ring makes no reference to a fairy tale. Instead it reminds us that winter passes and the season of singing comes again.
I believe it.