I'd lived for years facing a dark fear that something inside me had broken or died during the turbulent, wrenching, surreal months surrounding the end of my first marriage. Convinced that I simply wasn't capable of mature love, and was too foolish and selfish to sustain a committed relationship, I'd set aside hope of true connection with another man. In the early days of dating Al, I prayed God would protect both of our hearts from me. That He would heal the brokenness and give me strength to step out of myself and give this amazing man what he needed, no matter what. I wanted to transcend my own limitations and fears and let God's love lead me to Al's heart. I remember the moment I realized my prayers had been answered - a time of pain and challenge for both of us.
As we enjoyed a year of dating, getting to know one another even better and having, seriously, more fun than humans should be allowed, Al continued his training for triathlons, swimming laps for hours before the sun rose each morning, running nearly 30 miles every weekend, and riding his bike over trails that spanned the city. He began mentioning here and there a pain in his hip, leg and foot, which we both chalked up to overexertion during his strenuous workouts. But as time wore on, the pain grew worse for him and he grudgingly agreed to see a doctor. An MRI revealed a bulging disk in his lower back and the doctor recommended strengthening exercises to realign the spine and relieve pressure on the disk, with prescription painkillers ease Al's suffering in the meantime. Al dutifully followed instructions and did the exercises, trying to limit his use of the pills to only those times when he truly needed them to function. The pain, though, kept coming. And coming. And eventually we sought another doctor for a second opinion. Al endured three epidural blocks before the new doctor determined that the disk had begun to rupture and would require surgery. A surgery very similar to mine, and one that would require as long and as difficult a recovery, as well.
I sat alone in the waiting room as the surgeon worked on Al. Hours went by with no word, and I was so afraid something had gone wrong. After more than five hours total surgery and recovery time, I finaly met Al in his post-op room and saw him as I've never seen him, weakened and vulnerable. He looked at me, and I could immediately feel his utter dependence on me. That first night after the surgery, Al vomited for hours as he reacted to the anesthetic used during the procedure. Unable to move, he needed me to handle it entirely, from holding his head to cleaning him up afterwards. I have never seen anyone so sick in my life, and it was terrifying for me. I still can't even imagine how scared he must have been. All I wanted to do was make it stop, give him relief, hold him still and give him comfort, even for a moment or two. The hospital staff seemed to forget about us except for infrequent checks of Al's vital signs, so we managed through the night, him vomiting and falling back to sleep exhausted, me holding and cleaning and praying and trying to be strong for him.
After daybreak the following day, the nausea finally eased up, and a vague glimmer of my Al shone in those glorious brown eyes again. But we both were transformed now, for good. Those eighteen grueling hours together in the hospital room had deeply expanded our love for and trust in one another, and I realized that God had given me the gift I'd been asking for - proof that I wasn't broken anymore. That I was able to love and give and hurt for Al. And that Al could trust me. We both could.
Al recuperated at my house, in my guest bedroom. He lay flat on his back for the first two weeks and I loved every moment of caring for him. As he gradually regained mobility, we laughed and enjoyed one another as before, but there was a new certainty about our togetherness. I could tell Al boldly that I loved him and know I meant it the way I'd always wanted to mean it.
As Al recovered and returned to the office, our work lives grew more and more stressful and complicated. Our firm, struggling to generate sufficient revenues for its survival in a post-9/11 economy, made deep reductions in staff, and we looked on sadly and angrily as many of our long-time friends and capable colleagues lost their jobs. The atmosphere around the company was grey and oppressive, and scattered the close-knit work family we'd known for years on the winds of suspicion and fear. We did our best to sustain peace and confidence by focusing on doing our jobs and not taking life too seriously. I'd pack a picnic lunch some days and we'd leave the office behind and sit together outside in the warm spring sunshine, just talking about anything other than layoffs and budget cuts and job performance evaluations. Outside of work, we continued to travel and have fun together. Al was feeling much better and we were in love, afterall.
One hot summer day though, everything in our lives changed. Al's position was eliminated, and in the space of a few minutes, our world flipped upside down. He walked away from the firm he'd helped build and shape for nearly twenty years with nothing more than small brown box of his personal belongings. Just like that, he was gone. It is still hard to think and write about that day. Still so painful to picture him leaving the career he'd loved, the people he'd supported and developed and changed forever, the place we'd begun and where we'd done so much of our growing together, never to return.
With the layoff came immense pain, distance, resentment and loneliness. We struggled to maintain our togetherness as forces both inside and outside ourselves pulled and tugged at the seams of who we were as us. The betrayal and devastation Al felt in the wake of the layoff left him angry, cynical, and shaken. Trying to carry on without him, in the same office we'd shared for years, I trudged through each day feeling more and more frustrated, alone, and depressed. In the absence of a real foe to battle, we often unleashed our anger and anxiety on one another. We fought bitterly for the first time since we'd met. We worried about money, about security, about the future.
But these new challenges, like those already behind us, would only prove to strengthen our bond in time. We learned to hold tight to one another as change and uncertainty stormed around us. And in the revelation of Al's vulnerable, breakable side, God taught me how to love this man more selflessly, more confidently, and more completely. Gradually the Nos in my life would turn to Yeses.