Last summer, around my husband’s and my wedding anniversary, we asked each other, “What date did we get married?” The 30th, the 31st, or was it the 29th? We always have to figure it out. For our anniversaries, we do not get each other gifts. I usually ask him for a card — it can be just a sheet of notebook paper for all I care. I just want him to write about how he feels about me, something I know but never tire of hearing (I have kept all the cards he has ever given me, and yes, I reread them). But some years he is working too many hours to have a lot of time to think about and write me a card. I don’t complain.
So with Valentine’s Day, what do we usually do? Well, nothing. But to understand why we are like this for anniversaries and gift-giving holidays, I have to tell you a different story that isn’t about Valentine’s Day at all but is about gifts and is certainly about us.
Once upon a time, many years ago, we got married. I was living out of state, but I moved to Johnson City because his funeral home — and his career — are firmly rooted here. I was able to telecommute for my job. But a couple of years into our marriage, I started to write a memoir and I wanted more time to write, which would mean cutting back my work hours.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“We can’t afford it,” he said.
But he didn’t forget I had a dream, and a couple of years later, he said, “Okay, I think you can cut back a little.” I went to 80% time. I was writing my memoir, moving toward my dream of being an author.
We tightened our belts and a while later, he said, “I think you can cut back a little more.” I went to 75%. I kept writing my book.
We tightened our belts again and a while later, he said, “I think you can cut back more.” I went to 50%. More time to write for me.
Finally, I was able to quit the job and focus solely on my writing. I say “I” was able to, but what I mean is that “we” were able to. Each of us made sacrifices so I could realize my dream.
Now, I run workshops, I teach, I have authored four books and have two more on the way. I also work for our funeral home because one day, years ago, he said he needed someone with my skillset to help out, and of course I said yes. His dream is my dream, and my dream is his.
I can’t tell you all the gifts he has given me related to my dream: he’s helped me set up my computer, he’s fixed my internet problems, he’s made sure I had an ergonomic desk and keyboard. The list goes on and on. Doesn’t sound romantic? It does to me.
We have always wanted the other to be happy, to realize their potential, to reach their distant goals. Yes, I know it’s not a box of chocolates, it’s not a bouquet of flowers, it’s not a dinner at a fancy restaurant, but I’ve never been a fancy girl. Someone who wants me to get my dream? I can’t think of a better gift than that.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is a writer who teaches workshops in memoir and personal essay writing, and she has a new book out, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning: poems.