The birthday card that changed everything

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I wrote this essay about mine and Mike’s love story for a contest last year. Today, on our 8th wedding anniversary, seemed a fitting day to share it. 

I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college anxious, tired, insecure and afraid. The autoimmune disease I’d managed with medication for five years presented some new complications, and we held our breath for answers. I lived somewhere between denial and waiting for the other shoe to drop. All I knew for sure was that my pants didn’t fit, my face broke out relentlessly, and no amount of sleep erased the bone-deep exhaustion.

As I lamented my constant lack of energy, I surrounded myself with the most endlessly energetic people: children. Children make great hiding places. Stand behind them, screeching with joy and filled with wonder, and no one will see you. That’s what I did for one week that summer, as a camp volunteer. I hid behind juice boxes and needlessly complicated crafts, juggling sticky children from daybreak until “Kumbayah.”

Despite my best efforts, at least one person tall enough to ride a roller coaster noticed me. Disarmingly kind, Mike popped in often to help. Consumed with my army of tiny people, I hardly noticed. Mike’s presence felt comforting and reassuring, though we didn’t know each other well, and I wasn’t even self conscious about my puffy, blemished face.

Weeks later, perpetually exhausted and waiting for lab results, I remembered that Mike had a birthday on the horizon. I confirmed the birthday date with Facebook, pulled a card from my stash and scribbled a few messy sentences inside. After dropping it in the mailbox, my focus returned to too-tight waistbands and 24 hour urine tests.

Weeks later still, I returned home from a road trip to find a plain white envelope addressed to me, with Mike’s name hovering above the return address. As I ripped the envelope, I felt excited, surprised, and anxious. I hadn’t expected to hear back from him. Had I said more than I meant with the card? I intended it as a friendly gesture, an acknowledgement of his kindness, a half apology for my distractedness, maybe. 

I half expected a note letting me down gently. Mike seemed like a guy so decent he’d send a handwritten note to clarify any misplaced assumptions. I’d find no dramatic proclamations to feed my insecurities or ego, though. No professions of love, no news of a girlfriend, no excuse about focusing on his education. Instead I read a gracious thank you for the card, a lighthearted update carried along by Mike’s characteristic humor and charm.

Summer ended. I moved into an apartment with friends. We organized our pantry, threw unsophisticated dinner parties, bought overpriced textbooks, met the guys across the street, and ate frozen yogurt in sweatpants. Romances swirled into existence. Some crumbled under too much pressure too soon, others under misunderstandings. I recognized the rush and the euphoria, followed by sudden devastation. Too much, too fast, spiraling into not enough. Still, I envied my passionate peers, their electric eye contact across a crowded room, their first kisses and up-all-night whispers.

My friends and I found ourselves suddenly and deeply submerged in the age of constant connection. Comments from an ex-girlfriend on a guy’s Facebook wall now played a part in the college dating milieu. Navigating the first tenuous steps into a relationship required a crash course in text message forensic analysis. As I helped friends read between the texts, my phone laid dormant. While we debated the surely far-reaching implications of a winking emoticon at the end of an otherwise trivial text, I wondered what it meant if a guy sent no texts at all, but long, thoughtful, handwritten letters.

I endured the rhythm of waiting for a letter, reading, re-reading and partially memorizing it, responding with carefully chosen anecdotes, then waiting again. I felt both frustrated and allured, unsure if I was half of a love story in the making or an adult pen pal playing the fool. Still self conscious about my weight gain and other symptoms, I learned to value the distance. I relished the chance to portray myself in the form I’d always loved best: writing. I couldn’t control the mutiny within my own body, but I could craft the narrative in those letters. They, and by extension, Mike, became a secure blank space to write the truest things I felt. I was learning what it meant to build a patient, sturdy, honest relationship.

Jittery and excited, yet completely at ease, I answered Mike’s first phone call on Thanksgiving Day. Our two hour conversation, which felt like talking to an old friend but with an electric undercurrent, culminated in plans for a January visit. We spoke every day from then on, and were engaged less than a year later.

When I lay out the facts of our story, it sounds ill-advised, even to me. We dated long distance, lived in the same city for the first time only after our wedding day, and married young. In conversations about dating long distance, marrying young, or relocating an entire life for love, my advice is always the same: “I wouldn’t recommend it.” At the same time, I can’t imagine a better case scenario for us.

Almost everything has changed since I sealed that initial birthday card. We live on the East Coast now, and my chronic illness is reliably stable. We’ve left grad school and student loans behind; we drink more coffee. We’re past impassioned newlywed fights; apathy is a greater risk than indignation these days. We’ve buried family members and traveled and learned which sighs mean we’re going to stay up to talk about it. We’ve delivered meals for close friends turned parents, and struggled for words when divorce news breaks among our peers. Nothing looks the same, around us or within us.

In the throes of my early twenties, I dreamt of life-changing, transformative moments that would transport me all at once out of debt, into deep friendships, out of insecurity, into an impressive career. Most of the truly life changing moments are discarded ones, not big breaks but tiny risks, nearly imperceptible steps of faith and courage. They are the sneaky turning points, the sticky binding between major plot points, injecting life with the beauty and wonder that make their home in ordinary days, while I’m looking for something else.

Such a moment could happen today. It could be as inconspicuous as a birthday card.

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