My husband turns 40 today. To celebrate, Gustav contracted a stomach virus and vomited on Ryan’s shoulder.
Ryan slept for only six hours last night. He fell asleep in his 30s and then woke up, having crossed an invisible threshold, becoming in those short-lived dreams a middle-aged man, a kind of Rip Van Winkle. At least I’d dressed the bed, right before lights-out, with clean sheets and a new hand-made quilt from my mom, for the occasion.
It’s a workday birthday, so I’d expected the usual schlepping of five children along the covey belt of our morning routine, all of us frantic at 7:25, Ryan buttoning up an un-ironed dress shirt, married as he is, to me, a 21st-century wife. If whipping clothes against the wall, in the way of beating rugs with a stick, doesn’t smooth out the wrinkles, we go through life rumpled and unapologetic.
But Gustav is clutching his tummy, porcelain-pale, against the toilet, as I write this.
Something always goes wrong on Ryan’s birthday.
Exactly a year ago today, on Ryan’s 39th birthday, I received an especially difficult rejection of The Motherhood Affidavits, which at the time was called Possession with Intent to Deliver, a title Ryan himself had conceptualized in 2014, creatively appropriating the language of criminal defense to describe my obsession with childbearing. He’d been helping me to write and edit my manuscript for two years.
Selling a book, even with my beloved and celebrated agent in NYC as an advocate, was a grueling journey, and on December 13, 2016, a few glimmers of hope had been snuffed.
Ryan’s birthday – blame it on unlucky 13 – tends to end in calamity, and these misadventures seeming always originate with me.
We can trace this cursed pattern as far back as Ryan’s 18th birthday. On December 13, 1995, I received – gasp! – my first bad grade, an “A/B,” some strange ranking that was neither A, nor B, but rather both, and which has long since been phased out. I bombed a couple of multiple-choice exams in American History: 1865 – present, at UW Oshkosh, where I was enrolled in college credits. The grade would thwart my bid for Valedictorian, and I was crushed.
In 1995, burdened by depression and perfectionism, I couldn’t yet imagine I’d never iron my future husband’s dress shirts. I’d stayed awake past midnight throughout my entire adolescence, working toward the 4.0. It’s laughable now, the BIG 40 just one decimal point’s difference from the obsession where we began, but back then, I was too serious for my own good. Luckily for me, by December 15, 1995, I would discover a G.P.A. loophole. If I re-took History and earned an A, I’d replace my low grade and rise back up to the level of a 4.0, which is exactly what I did.
When parents today lament rising levels of anxiety in children, I feel innately connected to their mental health crises.
Only 17 years old in 1995, I could not stop myself from self-castigation. On Ryan’s first day as an adult, I cried till spent and slept through our celebration plans.
Then in 1997, I was so sick with stress during my first year in college, far away from home in Boulder, that I came home emaciated, having dropped ten pounds in a single week, unable to muster much celebratory strength.
In 1999, Ryan and I broke up shortly before December 13. I took two Incompletes and spent his birthday in bed.
Between then and now, with only two exceptions – 2003 and 2008 – I’ve been either an unbearably serious student or a college-level instructor, such that December 13 has coincided with my end-of-semester woes or those of my students, many of whom I love as my own children.
I can only imagine that other occupational equivalents exist. Born on April 15, married to an accountant. Born on Christmas, married to a preacher.
For us, December 13 was and remains jinxed. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every year, we feel compelled to answer this question: what will go wrong? Nothing is not an option.
Maybe Gustav’s stomach bug is a blessing for 2017. We can let down our guard now and enjoy what remains of the day.
Last year on Ryan’s birthday, in the wake of happy-birthday book rejections, we decided that I’d re-write the ending of what would become The Motherhood Affidavits. Both endings – the original and the revised – were true, but the new much darker conclusion was truer-to-our-lives. Ours was not the stuff of self-help or homily or Facebook posts.
In such lighthearted forums, I could endlessly list Ryan’s best traits, and I could tout our happy marriage. He makes me laugh to the point of stomach pains. And he is the visual artist to my wordsmith. His free-hand drawings are so exquisite that our children gather at his helm as if watching Bob Ross. He can impersonate any voice or accent; his best is Pee Wee Herman. And he loves surprises. One spring day, as I rifled through my closet, I discovered three new dresses on hangers. He’d strategically dangled them there, to brighten my day – sizes and designers I loved. All three fit as if I’d tried them on before purchase.
“Wow,” a friend said to me. “My husband wouldn’t notice if I were wearing a paper bag.”
And just last week, when I emerged from the Walk-in Clinic at Aurora Medical Center, Ryan sat waiting for me, having ditched out on work, knowing I’d been stressed out with swollen joints for weeks. He wanted to buy me a drink. His clients at the jail could wait.
“They’re not going anywhere,” he said, laughing, taking my tender knuckles in his.
On social media, these kinds of posts might do the trick. Our duty unto marriage is to praise our spouses with little balloon emojis and kissy faces. And for the record, I feel immeasurably happy my husband was born forty years ago today.
But conflict is the heart of literature. Anybody who reads voraciously knows that problems are the bones required to flesh out epic tales. I refer to The Motherhood Affidavits as a book Ryan and I wrote together because he sat beside me: muse, critic, editor, and lover.
And after all, we’ve been writing this story of our lives, for twenty-two years, and counting, one bad birthday at a time.