Marriage, like other mysteriously powerful things we encounter, can be hard to define, let alone keep alive. For us, marriage has been a laboratory of grace. We have done experiments in life with jobs, babies, pets and finances, discovering which things pull us apart and which things bond us together, all the while learning each other with seasons of curiosity, boredom, perplexity, and joyful discovery...not necessarily in that order. You think you know all there is to know about this person, and then they confound and amaze you. Because people are not stationary, fixed entities. And no one is more stunningly interesting to me than my husband.
I am not oblivious. I know him to be a planner. A strategist. A master-surpriser. I mean, who could forget the Madcap Surprise Piano, delivered in the dead of Christmas Eve night, by a crew of conspiring friends, slipped under my nose until the moment of surprise the next morning after all other presents had been opened? A PIANO, I said. Our 20th wedding anniversary had been on the calendar horizon for months, and I knew that Robb would make something of it for us. Because we know our strengths now, we admit that he will do the planning and I will do the going along and being happy with it because that's what we are really good at. And whatever gifts are exchanged are not utilitarian things but only gifts that are to us, gifts to our couple-hood, things that will strengthen what we amusedly called our "we-ness" when we were just getting started.
And so, when we were out and about one day at a local antique market and his eyes fell on an antique Biblical chart of the end times according to the dispensational tradition, and he stared and blankly uttered the words, "I have to have that" but the owner of the establishment refused to sell it because it was her own little treasure, I immediately went home and purchased the one and only copy available from an Etsy seller and mentally puttered with the wording on the card that I would write and give with it...something about "I've given you the last 20 years of my life, and now I want to give you the whole future."
And He. He simply said, "There is a plan for our anniversary." And I was content. We were juggling a job change for him and for me. The kids home for the summer. One getting her driver's license. One working his first full time job. Our days were busy. Cram jam with everyday life. I went on a girl's weekend and found a cute dress on the clearance rack that I tucked back in the closet and thought I would wear that day. This after mentioning,
"Maybe I should ask my Stitchfix stylist to send something for our anniversary?"
"Nah. Wear one of the dresses you already have." He says. And I feel a little disappointed, but it would be a little frivolous to spend too much. That clearanced-price dress would be just the thing.
The week before our anniversary, he says, "I planned something for Saturday. I thought I would take you to 21C and then we can go to Crystal Bridges and then maybe we could do something else on our anniversary next Tuesday." I wondered how that would work, since he would be starting his new job on that Monday. We had never really pushed the "big" part of our celebrations, but this seemed like a sensible plan. The arty restaurant/hotel seemed like a fun destination that we had never been to before, but I puzzled about going on a Saturday. It wasn't as if we ever are out late on a Saturday when we have church the next morning. We laughed about other hotel-adventures on past anniversaries that found us fast asleep by 8 pm, zonked out to the sounds of the Olympics on hotel TV's. Because we aren't flashy. We like sleeping.
Saturday morning found us sleeping in 'til 8:30 am thanks to a drowsy little toddler, and a then on a trip to our weekly date for breakfast at Susan's. He was so happy, I knew he had something nice planned for us, because nothing makes him happier than planning a good surprise. He told me the kids had made plans for the evening, which seemed a little synchronized in my mind, but hey! It was nice not to have to worry about a babysitter if we were staying overnight at a hotel! (But...what about church? That can't be it...) I reminded him that it was the tax-free shopping weekend for school supplies and asked if I shouldn't take the kids out for a few things.
"Why don't you take Vin and Chuck? Mattie won't really want anything from Old Navy and her supply list is so short. Just plan to be back by one."
It did not seem like much time for school supply shopping. And why 1 pm? I thought we were going out to dinner? But I shopped fast and with my mind on the prize. Except for the five minutes I gave myself in Walmart to get a box of hair-color and a brown eye liner. Because all of a sudden, it just felt like my hair was kind of weird. I didn't know how I wanted to cut it, but maybe a fresh color would help? I tossed it in the cart and made it home by 1:20 pm. Practically right on time!
Mattie greeted us at home, and I noticed she had done her hair. "Oh, you look so cute! What are you planning to do with your friends?"
"Oh we are just going to hang out. What time do you want me to be home tonight?" I turned to her dad and asked, "What do you think?"
"Oh, not later than 11, ok?"
So maybe we wouldn't be out late either?
Robb began rounding up the kids..."Ok everyone, I'm taking you to your friend's houses. Let's go!" It seemed early to me for the kids to be going anywhere, and I asked again, "What time am I supposed to be ready? Do I have time to color my hair?" He shrugged, "Sure. I guess so. Just be ready around 4." Four seemed early, but maybe we would go the museum first? I had already reminded him the Crystal Bridges is open late on Friday nights, not Saturdays.
So he took the kids and I colored my hair. I had time while my hair was processing to fuss with my toenails. Thought about wearing blue nail polish to go with the blue dress in the closet. Was unusually undecided about the color. Mix and match? Jamberry? Hmm...better just shave my legs and call it good. How about that bright coral color? That works. Toe nails, check. Time to rinse the hair-color. I wrapped up in a giant towel about the time Robb returned looking smirky. "I have a surprise for you."
I walked into our room to find a Stitchfix box on the bed with the contents laid out on the bed.
"What did you do?" I asked, delighted. What a fun gesture! Discovering new clothes and the most adorable shoes! I held up the three dresses and set aside the one he said was his favorite to try on last. I bubbled, "Did you use my regular stylist? How did you do this? This is so fun!" The dresses were young, light colored and fun. I toyed with the neckline of the dress he liked, unlike anything I had ever worn, and figured, "If he likes this one, I'll wear it!" After all, it was only for dinner! Why not push aside any self-consciousness. The shoes fit perfectly and were so comfortably and sassy. I left the dress on while I dabbed on make-up, tried on jewelry, a little disoriented from diverging from my more normal routine of getting ready. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my new hair color went nicely with the dress and I fumbled with lipsticks to get a look I liked, remarking to Robb that I was torn about what direction to go. "Go with an orange." he suggested.
"But I already have green jewelry."
"Change to the orange; that will look good."
My spider senses shot me another message, "What if we are going to get family pictures taken? I mentioned that to him awhile ago. 'I love Nikki Toth's work', I had told him." But then I reasoned, "The kids are all with their friends, though. Surely he would want me to be in on the planning for that? That can't be it...." And I brushed the thoughts away, unwilling to delve any deeper into my intuition lest I figure it ALL out and ruin his surprise. (is there an irony font?)
I dabbed my fingernails with the coral nail polish, closely avoiding getting it on my dress. I rolled my eyes at my nearly incurable tomboyishness. I mentioned aloud for probably the 100th time in our marriage, "I'm just no good at girlie stuff. It's like I failed girl-class. I never know how to use all those products...." My voice trailed off as I applied mascara, a nod to the special occasion, albeit an afterthought as he emerged from our room with his own things. "I got myself something new to wear too. I figured it would be fun to be all dressed up in new things."
Looking back, I realize he was ironing a new white shirt to go with the fun and quirky seersucker pants he proudly found on clearance. He looked adorable. And I said so. By then I was just sort of wandering around...ready to go and wondering why he was taking so long? "Let's take some selfies!" he offered. "Ok!" I figured he knew I like to not feel rushed. So whatever our plans were, we could take as much time as we needed to get there. We stepped outside and tried to get my shoes in the picture, employing a selfie-stick, while he had a few messages pop up on his phone. I figured they were from Derek or Scott about church in the morning.
"I'm going to play the song list that makes me think of you." He tapped his phone and started the songs we've listened to together for years, bringing back waves of memories.
Near the highway, he pulled into the gas station claiming he had to go. "Too much water to drink today." I raised an eyebrow at that. It wasn't THAT far to the museum. But then I picked up my phone to Instagram one of the photos we had just taken. The music started again as we crossed the bridge to reach the highway where he turned onto the southbound ramp instead of the northbound. My hands began to sweat nervously.
"We are going south."
I was genuinely confused for a moment before I collected myself and remembered.
Oh. Yes. This is a surprise. Our first date had been a surprise. I felt the same nervous feeling of the unknown as I had that October night so long ago. I smiled quizzically at him. That night, fueled by nerves, I chattered like a squirrel before admitting guile-lessly, "I am SO nervous." I remember him smiling at me that night, in the dark, in the back of the car on that double date, winding through the curvy roads of Pennsylvania. We were eighteen years old. I remember that smile in perfect detail. It was a smile that said, "I like surprising you. I like that you can say how you feel so freely." He claims that he went home that night and told the guys in the dorm that he had met the girl he would marry. I don't know if I believe him. But I know that after I said, "I am SO nervous!" I wasn't nervous anymore. Not about him. Not about where he was taking me. Not about saying how I felt. We had so much fun that night on that Haunted Hayride. And I knew that whatever was coming was going to be so. much. fun.
Moments later, he exited the highway down a familiar road. My brain couldn't help trying to solve the puzzle, and I reasoned, "A party. A party at the Freeman's house. " We passed their street.
"A party at Luke and Natalie Freeman's house." I clarified to myself.
From the car speakers, the singer crooned,
Today and every day
If I ever get the nerve to say
Hello in this cafe
Say you will...
Robb slowed the car and began to turn, not into the curve I expected, but opposite. Down a driveway I knew.
"I just want you to know how much I love you. " He said gently, watching my face as I tried to form thoughts to catch the emotion rising in my throat.
The sign before the bridge said "Closed for an event." Sunlight filtered through the dark tree-leaves,
and the car cooled under the shade of them as we crossed the narrow bridge across the gurgling creek.
"What did you do?" I whisper - cried.
The parking lot was full of cars.
Chairs set up in front of the stone chapel.
Time slowed down as I captured the image of a beaming crowd of people under bright umbrellas in the glowing sunlight. They seemed to be holding their breath while I tried to take them all in, my eyes reading them from left to right, line by line, and then down the path that led to the parking lot where Robb glided to a stop before our children.
Especially not dressed so beautifully, holding out bouquets of flowers... bouquets like they carry in a wedding...
And then my eyes fell on my parents.... for the first time in a year, standing under the shade of the trees like a gift waiting to be given.
They were holding Whimsy, newly awaked from a nap with sleepy, sweaty curls stuck to her neck. How could she be so happy when she hadn't napped before Robb took her out with the other kids? I think slowly when I am surprised.
Nikki Toth, her camera alive and clicking, came into my line of focus, and any self-consciousness melted away. I knew her eye, the sensitivity of her photo-journalistic style of work and I trusted her to help me take in every detail I was going to need to re-live those electrically charged moments.
It is a rarity (for me at least?) to be completely present in a moment. All thought of yourself gone. All planning thoughts gone. All summarizing thoughts, gone. Instead, simply letting yourself be ushered on a wave of love into the next beautiful moment. I think I asked someone if I was dying. It must have been an incomprehensible question, but I think I felt like this was the new pinnacle moment of my life. That perhaps nothing could be more amazing than that moment, realizing that the dear ones around me had put such effort into creating something wondrous just for me. That I am indeed, surrounded by love.