This is a story about love.
Not the kind of love you typically think of around Valentine’s Day — the frilly, frothy, butterflies-in-your-stomach love of pop songs and Hallmark cards. This story is about a love that’s messy and raw and, sometimes, unbearably painful. It’s a story about a love that endures.
When I met Dennis 17 years ago, dating him was the last thing on my mind — at least, that’s what I told myself. He was a co-worker. He was divorced. He was older than me. He had kids. I thought I was far too sensible and career-focused to fall for him– but I had to admit, I did like talking to him at work. He made me laugh, cracking jokes as he leaned over my cubicle with a cup of coffee from the break room in hand. He critiqued my news stories and made me a better reporter. And even when he wasn’t around, he always left reminders of himself behind, generally in the form of spilled coffee dotting the papers strewn across my desk.
A few months into our friendship, Dennis turned up one night at an after-work gathering in a local bar. He sat down beside me at a table filled with co-workers and we started talking. After what seemed like only a few minutes, I looked around. The table was empty. The bar was empty. It was nearly 2 am. I was dumbfounded — I’d never lost track of time — or other people — like that before. I didn’t admit it to myself then but looking back, that was the first moment I knew the connection I had with Dennis was different from anything I’d ever experienced.
Not wanting to stir up gossip at work, we decided to start meeting up on our own. It didn’t take long before we started dating, but even then I told myself we could never be serious. My feelings for Dennis were intense, but I chalked it up to an infatuation, something that would burn bright and quickly extinguish itself. Enjoy the crush, I kept telling myself. And be prepared for it to end with no regrets when the time comes.
I’m sure Dennis was telling himself the same thing, because our lives were just too different– a serious relationship could never, ever work. But after a few months of dating, we got to the point where it was time to either end it or… *gulp*… move forward. I remember waking up each morning around that time thinking, This is the day I’m going to tell him we’ve got to stop seeing each other. And immediately after that, I’d think, But I can’t imagine today without him in it. In fact, I couldn’t imagine any day without him in it. I realized at that point that I was in love in a way I’d never been in love before. I told him so, and he admitted he felt exactly the same way. And that was that. He introduced me to his daughters and we all started spending time together. Despite the many reasons our relationship shouldn’t have worked, somehow, miraculously, it did. It totally did.
A little over a year later, we were married in Scotland. It was a fairytale wedding, but I knew even then that our life together wasn’t going to be easy. And I was right — Although it has been rewarding and it has made me a better person and our family today is closer than ever, being a stepmother was one of the hardest things I have ever done. And I dove into it, head first, without a map.
By the time we’d been married a couple of years, my stepdaughters were living with us seven days a week and we had a brand new baby girl. A couple of years after that, we had a son — a son who didn’t sleep through the night until he was three years old! With a baby, a preschooler, and two teens in the house all at once, I know Dennis would agree with me that those were the hardest years of our lives. We had plenty of good times and made the most of our situation, but I’m not going to lie to you — It was a challenging time. I spent my days completely exhausted, trying to take care of the needs of four children in four different stages of life, and between our little ones waking up each night and our older girls staying out late and often missing curfew, I’m pretty sure Dennis and I didn’t get a full night’s sleep for several years in a row.
Stress takes its toll on a marriage, and our relationship over the years has definitely had its ups and downs. Although our children have gotten older and my stepdaughters are now successful adults, we’ve had and continue to have our share of difficulties in life and sometimes our connection and our spark suffers as a result. There have been times in my marriage when I’ve wondered how we could possibly stay together. But with counseling and prayer and tenacity and sheer, raw grit, we’ve gotten through those times, over and over and over again. And it didn’t take me long to notice that each time we made it through, our relationship emerged stronger and more resilient.
As painful as it’s been to weather those storms, I don’t believe we’d be anywhere near as close and connected without them. Looking back, I picture each difficult time as a fork in our road together, a point at which we had to make a decision to either veer off on separate paths or stay the course as a couple. Every time we’ve chosen to continue on together, our bond has quietly strengthened. Our love has grown deeper. And with every year that passes, it becomes more solid, more impenetrable, and far more valuable to me than I ever even realized was possible.
Today is Valentine’s Day, a day when our culture celebrates and obsesses over new love, which is shiny and showy, full of promise and devoid of disappointment. But I can tell you that as wonderful as new love feels, it in no way compares to the lifetime of love I’m building now with my husband. It’s a love built not with flowers and chocolate and champagne and flowery language, but with shared triumphs and losses, arguments and laughter, grief and celebration, joy and anguish. It’s a love that says ‘yes’ over and over again, even when it would be far easier to say ‘no.’ It’s a love that allows us to become more vulnerable with each other and more accepting of each other’s shortcomings with every year that passes.
It’s a love that endures.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Dennis. I am yours forever.