Note: First posted, October 1, 2014. Revised.
They navigated the deep, sometimes murky, sometimes turbulent waters of marriage. Staying afloat, largely without listing. Only on occasion having to bail. Though, at times, drawing dangerously close to rocky shoals or nearly running aground on those stubborn sandbars of intimacy, children and child-rearing, career advancement, household and money management, in-laws, illness, and God knows what else. (Some of their troubled moments had faded so blessedly far into the shadows of faulty memory, making them, even when a flicker of recollection dawned, fairly easy to escape mention.)
They still took time to prepare and eat dinner together, alternating by the day who served as chef de cuisine and sous chef. That part of the rhythm (perhaps, more the routine) of their living remained intact. So, too, in greatest measure, their unflagging pride in the lofty attainments of their loving twin daughters. One, a physician. The other, an attorney. Each with a ten-year old, their darling grandsons; both natively curious and with a perspicacity surpassing their spare length of days.
More to savor. Less to regret.
Except the nagging tug of their insignificance. All their successes, individual and shared, now mostly the stuff of legend. The sorts of things of which they rarely spoke, though others frequently recognized them for this or for that community or lifetime achievement award.
(They had no more wall or book shelf space for another plaque or trophy or storage room for another box of congratulatory certificates, pendants, and ribbons. And they, mindful of their substantial carbon footprint, had no intention of adding on to their more than spacious abode, already filled with the air, the sickeningly redolent sigh of life’s meaninglessness.)
Slowly, she drummed her aimless fingers on the table, dispelling the deafening silence of another meal of few shared words.
Finally, he spoke. “Please, pass the lemon.”
Obliging, she accepted his entrée, however limited, as an invitation, however limited, to respond. “Was the salmon grilled to your liking?”
He nodded slightly, as if he feared had he jiggled his head more vigorously it might have toppled from his shoulders, falling to the floor. Honestly, he simply didn’t have the energy for more. What would be the point? Salmon to his liking, consuming every bit of it? Or not, eating less? Ah, eating less, he would have felt hunger. He would have felt something, which would be better than the nothing he felt about the nothing he was.
She nodded, too; the simplicity of the bob of her head silently voicing the lethargy of her soul.
Then, in a flash of startling earnestness, in unison, they spoke. “When did it happen?”
Each knew what the other meant.
“For me, dear,” he surprised himself at his easy employ of a long ago (lost?) term of endearment, “when,” and, in a breathless blast came a torrent of words, “in all those years of labor, I poured myself into my work, thinking somehow, how, on instant reflection, I don’t know, that it would give me, that I could give myself the measure of my life’s meaning as a husband, a father, a provider, a person. And, at the end, to discover, shamefully,” he stammered, “that I…that I had duped myself, that I had been the fool, for it hadn’t! And, now, knowing it never could!” He wept, shocking himself at this first sign of emotion in so long a time and, embarrassed, shielding his face in his waiting, concealing hands.
“I’m sorry, dear,” she receiving, reciting, rephrasing for herself his tender word. “I am sorry. Truly.”
Harkening to her kindness, he lifted his head. “And…for you.”
“As for me, it is much the same. Being a mother, which, yes, I remain, but with less of a role. Our girls, so grown and so accomplished. Not needing us. Not needing me. At least, that’s how I feel much of the time. And I having been one who shattered glass ceilings. An iconoclastic rock-thrower at all those ivory-towered princes of commerce who thought, who still think women were made for but a few things and none of them involving the activation of the moral mass between our ears!” The rise of indignation, the first real emotion in so long a time, felt good to her. “But when it was done, it was done. I was done.”
“So much more of us behind us…” he began.
“So little of us in front of us,” she finished.
“You know,” for the first time in the longest time, he sought and looked into her eyes, “I have felt…I have been empty. For myself and, I believe, for you. I…I often have thought that if I truly loved you enough, then I should leave you.”
Unflinching, ready to risk this probe into their deepest depths, she returned his gaze. “I could not have said it better.”
“You’ve considered leaving, too?”
“But…” again together they spoke.
He reached across the table for her hand. “You go first,” he whispered, not at all sure what he would have said and not at all sure he wanted to hear what she might say.
“I’ve always known,” her voice, barely audible, “that I’ve never loved you enough to leave you. And that was and, to this very day, is because I’ve always loved you more than that.” She took his hand, the feel of his skin against hers warming her heart. “So, it’s not, it’s never been that I should leave you, for I couldn’t, therefore, I wouldn’t.”
He took a deep breath, and, relieved, knowing the truth, his truth when he heard it, slowly exhaled. “I could not have said it better.”
In the silence of their mutual recognition of their ever-present – though, until that moment, unnamed undeserved, unconditional grace of – love, they shared a smile.