My husband had a friend that always challenged him with one word: Proof. It was a paragraph, neatly condensed into five letters. Proof meant everything from I’ll hold your beer, to I don’t believe you at all, and you’re gonna have to show me.
Proof. We say it now, though his friend passed away several years ago. Or, maybe we say it because his friend passed away, and parroting him, keeps him here longer. Either way, it has become an indelible part of our conversation, another sort of familial shorthand, not entirely decipherable to the casual eavesdropper.
Sometimes, we say it after days of striving. When words have hard rigid edges to them, and our bodies have separated long enough for an unkind chill to form between them. Sometimes, the one most humble and brave enough to try to broach across the chasm by saying I love you, is met with the mumbled dissent of, “Proof.”
Other times, it is a flirty come-on. A one-word pickup line in response to a compliment. It is a daring, giddy antithesis of rejection. It is an invite and RSVP all rolled into one.
We use it to challenge each other to rise above their fears, and accomplish what we are capable of. We raise it in conversation, like the opposition to white flags of surrender. This word, it binds us together. It transforms one of us, suddenly, into Rocky, the other into Adrian. We take turns, alternately being the one in the ring, and the one who inspires the other to keep fighting.
Lately, things in our marriage have settled a bit, not unlike an old house. Yes, there has still been odd creaking, and the random startles of things you didn’t know where coming. The pops of old radiators, letting off hidden steam, then silence. But also, a kind of quiet peace, as we huddle together, our foundation sinking deeper into the bit of earth we are borrowing. Our walls, like hard sponges, soaking up the sounds of laughter, until joy hangs like an invisible pennant from the beams.
Proof. We don’t say it as much now, in this season, and I couldn’t think of why until this morning. Then I realized, it’s because we show it. Our words have been given wings, or maybe, feet. Yes, feet are more our style. They are the harder, slower, more determined way, not given to flapping and an easy out. They are a constant process, requiring rest and tenacity. They stumble, and get hurt, the littlest parts of them prone to breaking. But they heal, and they bring you where you needed to be going, even when that isn’t the direction you set out in.
It is not a secret that my love language has been receiving gifts, probably for my whole life. From the time I was a small child, I craved them. A stick of gum meant more to me than a held door. An actual present, no matter its cost, could make my heart swell to tsunami levels. If people give you gifts, they must absolutely love you, and if they don’t, well, then they must not. That’s about how black and white I felt about things. And, I’m ashamed to say, I acted accordingly.
The thing is, that love, just like the people who feel it, looks differently on everyone. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or maybe it’s because I am a slow learner and have a patient teacher, but I think I can finally see that now.
This year, things have gone in a dramatically different direction than past years. This year, (partly because of the great basement cleanout), I asked for acts of service for my birthday. From everyone. I have enough stuff. What I need is to know that I have people who will come alongside me and work. Or at least sit beside me while I work.
My husband thought that this was a great idea. He probably never saw it coming from his gift-needy, commercializing, consumer of a wife. The girl with impossibly high standards, who watched too many movies growing up and still believes that John Hughes should direct her birthday, complete with a music montage, every year. But there it was, and he agreed wholeheartedly. “Make a list,” he said, “one item for every year. Things I can do to show I love you.”
That’s quite an undertaking, as I am now more of a winter hen than a spring chicken. Thirty six things, people, thirty six. And truthfully, I only made it to 28 things, because I ran out of real ideas and felt intoxicated by the possibility of the things I had already written. My list contains everything from ‘help me rehang and space my gallery wall’ to ‘take over bedtime duties one night so I can Netflix’. Sounds amazing, right? Having someone help make your life easier or prettier, instead of throwing money into the winds of commerce and hoping you like what’s hidden in the tissue paper. Yeah, I think so, too.
And yet, something strange has happened. Everyday this week, I have been showered with gifts. People just stopping by with handmade jewelry and throw pillows, the Apple product I have wanted for the last six months, a surprise envelope of cash, and yesterday, a vintage sterling silver locket that my husband had bought secretly and had re-chained at a jewelry store. How I love jewelry with a story of its own. I have been dreaming of a heart shaped locket of my own (without the hair inside, ew) since I was a little girl, but had never told my husband.
When he gave it to me, I asked if I was dying and everyone knew it but me, because this is just too much. It feels surreal and lovely in a way that Sara Crew must have felt upon waking in a warm, furnished attic towards the end of A Little Princess. Even if it’s all a dream, it’s been wonderful.
How many years I have wasted, striving and dropping hints like heavy metal bombs, searching for evidence that I am loved. And finally, when I sit back and choose to just let life happen, filled with the knowledge that I am okay, that my life is okay, it shows up.
Around my neck something beautiful hangs, but the truth is that my husband gave me his real heart long ago. I just didn’t see it. I was too busy looking past it, hoping to dig out validation from a pile of presents. But it wasn’t there. It was standing beside me, holding my hand while our children were born. It was disguised in a plumber’s uniform, going to work every morning to support our family. It was never available at Nordstrom or any online retailers. It was here, in the miraculous mundane of every minute together.
On this birthday, I was given the best present that I could ever ask for: Proof.