Underneath the Canopy

It was the sort of middle-of-the-night wake-up experienced by all parents who don’t have nannies. A young daughter was wailing at our bedroom door, covered in what until recently had been the contents of her stomach. I had a moment of real horror as my sleep-addled mind tried to make sense of facial features distorted by globules of half-digested food, but I soon figured out what was up and went off to deal with the consequences. The child needed a bath and a fresh nightgown, and the double bed she shared with her sister needed a change of sheets. There was some spot-cleaning of the carpet to be done as well.

My memory of this night is hazy, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t quite finished the clean-up before my other daughter evacuated her own stomach. Like her sister, she threw up in the bed, which once again had to be stripped. Soon the second set of sheets was piled on the laundry room floor, awaiting its turn in the washer.

The girls continued this horrific tandem for some hours. They didn’t once make it to the toilet before throwing up. For dinner we’d had beef stew with paprika, faint traces of which were to remain in the hallway for the lifetime of the light-colored carpet. Eventually Greg hauled in a cooler and put it in the girls’ room as a sort of vomiting trough. By now all the double-bed sheets in the house were in need of laundering, so I lined their mattress with towels.

Meanwhile, our son was having gastric distress of his own. Unlike his sisters, who were burning up with fever, he didn’t appear to have a virus. He’d been suffering for some weeks from a stomach malady similar to mine, which continues to intermittently plague us both to this day. Also unlike his sisters, he took himself to the bathroom in a rational manner rather than throwing up in his bed or on the floor. It was a small blessing, but I was grateful for it.

On my hands and knees scrubbing carpet at 2 a.m., I remarked to my husband that I suddenly didn’t feel so good myself. Soon after, I too was busy being violently ill. Greg manfully got dressed for work in spite of his own growing nausea, but he didn’t make it past the garage.

For the next few days Greg and I languished in bed, weak and horribly sick. Periodically one or the other of us would creep out of bed long enough to make sure the kids were all alive and accounted for. They had recovered quickly and were now enjoying a sort of holiday, free from parental restraint, living on crackers and staging imaginative games all over the house. At one point I was startled to find Emilie with her hair standing on end and her arms and legs striped with what appeared to be tribal tattoos. On investigation these turned out to be lines of green dinosaur footprints from a rolling rubber stamp. I couldn’t figure out what the deal was with her hair, and I didn’t care. I went back to bed.

For Greg and me, the days ran together in a blur of nausea, fever, muscle aches, and restless sleep. Somewhere in the midst of all that, one of us realized it was the eighteenth of January. We weakly wished each other a happy anniversary and went on sipping our tea.

It wasn’t our best anniversary, but the whole thing was affirming in a way, because I realized that if I had to be bedridden with a body-wracking stomach virus, there was no one I’d rather be doing it with.

Today Greg and I have been married for twenty-three years. Our relationship now is different than when we went on our first date at age twenty, more than half our lives ago. The difference is one of perspective and experience. It is like seeing a forest from a distance—from your car, say—and then seeing it again from inside. From far off you can see the canopy, shrouded with fog or burnished with sunlight or rolling with cloud shadows. There is something ineffable in your perception, a mystery and grandeur which are conditional on the distance. You can look at the forest, daydream, even doze a little. But to get out of your car and hoof it into the forest is to enter into a new set of experiences. You see roots, rocks, leaf litter, animal tracks; you feel the texture of bark with your hand; you smell the pine rosin in the air; you hear the call of frogs from the branches overhead. Each tree trunk has its own character, and the leaves that from a distance were just a mass of green now have individual sizes and shapes and tints. You have moved from possibility to particularity.

Marriage as a romantic idea is not the same as marriage as a reality. The reality is not a diminished thing; it’s a different thing, a more developed thing. Our culture is full of dispiriting representations of a settled marriage with the shine long gone—nagging wives, listless husbands, unfulfilled promises, dead dreams. There is real bitterness behind the mockery and the tropes. This is all wrong.

But so is the idea that for romantic love to be valid, it has to keep the palpable sensation of ineffability it had in the beginning. This is like doubting that you’re in the forest because you can’t see the canopy anymore. The wonderful truth is, the canopy hasn’t gone away; it’s just over your head now, sheltering and containing you. It’s not less real than the pine cones and twigs and acorns that you can physically see. It’s there. Maybe once in a while you’ll climb a tall tree to the very top, like Bilbo did, and get a glimpse of the canopy from the middle, with all the black butterflies dipping and flitting in the sunlight.

bilbo-above-mirkwood

This has been a rough year. There have been blessings that I’m thankful for, and bright spots I would revisit if I could, but overall it’s been wrenching. No sooner do we get one thing somewhat under control than we’re blindsided by something else; often I’m exhausted before even leaving my bed in the morning. And once again, I can say in all honesty that though my circumstances are trying, there’s no one I’d rather be in them with than my husband. I hope and pray for times of refreshment in the year to come, but I’m confident that I’m walking in the forest with someone I can count on. I’ve seen him keep his feet under him and his wits about him in situations that would crater some men; I’ve watched him really listen while I poured out my fears and frustrations, and heard him offer compassionate wisdom when I was tapped out.

If you are happily married and have been for some decades, you know what I’m talking about. If you aren’t married yet, I would ask this. Who do you want with you when all hell breaks loose? Because break loose it will. Life will knock you upside the head and bludgeon the daylights out of you. I say this as one who believes in the goodness and sovereignty of God. There is ultimate purpose in suffering as in all things, but we almost never know what that purpose is. Suffering just hurts. Who do you want by your side when life brings out the very worst and best in you? Choose someone faithful and durable, who’ll bolster you during self-doubt, recognize and point out when one or both of you need to adjust course, and remind you of your most precious convictions and deepest passions. Someone who takes vows seriously and is wholly and irrevocably committed to you personally. Someone you can trust.

It’s more comfortable to look at a forest from a car than to walk around inside one; you can avoid bugs and blisters, and you can daydream about Lothlórien. But that’s as far as it’ll ever go. You will see beauty and mystery magnified by distance, but you will never really know.

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was the constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant–in a word, real.

~C.S. Lewis

2 comments on “Underneath the Canopy

  1. Jim McNeely says:

    Beautiful! I love how you took the tired cliche of the cost and the trees and made a Heidi and fresh metaphor from it. Real marriage is like this.

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