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shipwrecks and miracles

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Let me tell you about my husband. We met on a Sunday evening in the year 2000, that year of years. By chance it happened that I was meeting a friend at a café on Ponsonby Rd and Pat was there meeting someone else. I say by chance but there was nothing chance-y about it. I’d just started going to a new church, the beginning of my journey towards the outer edges of organised religion, and he already attended that church. We were bound to meet, one way or another.

I’d been so lonely. I’ll write more about that another day but it’s important to say here.  I had landed in the world of young adulthood completely adrift. Nothing settled me. Not my undergraduate degree which I finished by going through the motions, not my years of intense involvement in the church which only led to burnout, not the year I spent working with my Dad in his video production house, nor the years I spent in the fiction section of the Queen St Whitcoulls store. Nothing centred me, nothing sat me down. I was lost to myself.

The intermittent depression and anxiety became most noticeable the year I turned nineteen, but apart from a period of burnout when I was 23, the low and anxious times were short enough that I never felt like I needed to announce them. I had no language for them, no awareness to be able to put them together and think about them as a whole. The religious narrative I was immersed in at the time was simple: do the right things and pray the right words, and you’ll be happy. And I wanted to be happy! So I kept trying. God knows I tried.

I had no idea about myself. I knew I was a writer and I felt like I loved the whole world. But that was it. I was desperate to write something decent, but I had no agency. It’s one thing to have ability and another thing altogether to have the gumption, drive and self-awareness it takes to conceive a work and carry it to completion. It disturbed me that I couldn’t write the way I felt capable of but I had no idea why I wasn’t really writing. I just need more time, I’d say to myself and anyone who asked. Which wasn’t true.

I had a couple of “sort of” boyfriends after I finished university. Nothing was really serious, nothing lasted long, and that was not for want of trying on my part. I’m sure the boys I had my eye on could sniff out my desperateness a mile off. And I was always more attracted to the idea of having a boyfriend than the actual reality. I had no criteria, no real notion of who I would be suited to. All I knew was that everyone around me was getting married, and marriage was the all-important threshold in the church community I was part of.

I’m not suggesting by association that Pat’s arrival in my world was anything less than incredible. The night I met him is etched onto my memory. Here was a boy who wanted to talk theatre and the arts, who was smart and had a quick, sharp wit. I thought to myself this is someone I could get to know. That night back at my flat the phone rang. I tell you without an ounce of exaggeration that these words came into my head: It’s Pat, he got your number off Leonie and he’s ringing to ask you out. I picked up the phone. It was Pat. “I got your number off Leonie,” he said, “I was wondering if you wanted to go out for coffee sometime.” I dropped the phone. No one had ever asked me out like that before. I was twenty-six.

Within weeks we were an item. I’d been attracted to a few boys before, as much as I understood attraction back then, but with Pat it was different. We connected on a level I hadn’t connected with a guy before. Fifteen years later I would be describing our relationship as a “marriage of the minds,” and I look back now and see that was true from the beginning. We talked about things I didn’t talk about with anybody else. He was a feisty and independent thinker even then, and his mind fascinated me. And did I mention he was funny? I laughed. After all those years feeling lost, laughter brought me back to life.

The depression and anxiety never went away completely, even after we married, which surprised me. But at least now I had someone to share my feelings with, and Pat took it all in stride. He never worried about me, never once expressed any other belief than that I would be ok. When I burnt out near the end of my first year teaching, he was my faithful companion and nurse. I was a mess, having been pushed to my limits with a difficult class in a rough school, but I wasn’t lonely any more. I had company. Someone who loved me dearly.

That I loved him back was unquestioned. One night during the summer we were going out we stayed up talking until morning. I drove home heading into the brightest pinkest dawn and before I went to bed I wrote: you lift up my heart, you remind me how precious it is, with you I feel like I’m pink and shining all across your sky. I adored him. He was everything I knew (consciously and unconsciously) I wasn’t. Big, bolshy, independent, rebellious and fearless. And he was also some of what I knew I was. Sensitive, curious, adventurous, spiritually-minded. We felt like a match. And we had fun. We had found in each other someone who wanted to play.

There were tricky moments from the start. I was reading one of my old journals the other day and it’s all there. He felt like we were getting too ensconced at one point. And I kept bumping into these great differences: he didn’t always get my jokes, some of the things he liked to do I wasn’t all that keen on. And then there were the misunderstandings. I’d say something and then he’d say something and I’d get hurt and wouldn’t be able to explain it. I blamed my misgivings on my need to face the reality that I was with a man, and laughed them off. You just need to accept he’s a guy, I wrote in my journal when we’d just started going out, half-teasing myself. Inferring that on some deep level I’d thought I was going to end up with a woman. Ha.

But there was no way I was going to give myself permission to be with a woman. That was never going to happen. And anyway, I wanted babies. I wanted babies. Unless you knew me at that time you cannot even imagine how much I wanted babies. I wanted them so badly that I remember saying to someone “once I start having babies I don’t think I’m going to be able to stop!” I remember holding a family friend’s six month old boy during a party. More than two hours sitting in a dark room, away from the noise and the swarm of people, holding that precious sleeping baby. I felt peaceful, I remember it clearly. Peaceful and happy.

We don’t talk enough about the subconscious needs and longings that are part-fuel to attraction. We immortalise falling in love in songs and stories and films and in our own personal histories. We make it the pinnacle moment in a relationship, the moment that bestows every great moment afterward with life. It all started when …we say… we locked eyes across a crowded room. That was my grandfather’s one.  Or we say we fell in love and just knew we were meant to be together. As if falling in love was both the great prize and the great indicator. The sign of signs.

Oh we know it happens that some women marry a man like their father, and some men marry a woman like their mother. And it’s not only about hetero relationships of course. It’s easier to see it in others than it is to look back and see it in our own choices. We don’t readily talk about how our past and the subconscious needs that stem from our past drive our attractions.  We don’t often think about how it is we are drawn to the same qualities, and even the same flaws, time and time again.

When I met Pat, any ounce of personal power that was mine by right of birth had been taken from me. My relationship with my mother was disempowering in the extreme. She was controlling and highly strung, while I was compliant and desperate to please. A compliant child conditioned to be a doormat by an authoritarian parent becomes a doormat, she has no other option. I’ve written this before but perhaps not so bluntly. I grew up without a will. Without any real sense of who I was to myself.

So I was always going to be attracted to someone I subconsciously perceived to have the power I was lacking. On the night Pat and I met I had no idea of any of this. I thought I knew who I was and how my past had shaped me but I hadn’t even scraped the surface. And sadly a lot of what I believed, fed to me by my mother and the church I grew up in, was a lie. I was twenty-six and my self-image was largely built on lies.

But something inside of me wanted to live. Something deep inside was prodding me, pushing me, willing me in the direction of life. And so Pat came along. My big, bolshy, kind and attentive boy. The best boy I’d ever met. The only boy to thoroughly fall in love with me. The smartest and strongest and most hilarious boy I’d ever met in my entire life. Of course I was going to marry him! Everything in me wanted me to marry him. There was a road that headed me towards life, and he was right in the middle of it.

So we got on with making a life together. We made beautiful babies. Unusual babies. A crazy mix of both us, as all children are. We spent a good ten years with our elbows up to it in the daily grind of parenting. We reverted back to traditional roles at times, but we shared the load. I was in heaven. Every day, another choice to make. Cloth nappies? Working part-time? Books in every room of the house? Homeschooling when school didn’t work? Making space to write however I could? Yes, yes and yes. And every choice I made another layer of muscle grew on my will.

There were dark moments, I won’t deny them. Some of the choices I made were fuelled by anxiety, by this nagging feeling that something still wasn’t right. And until I corrected the power imbalance in our relationship, some of our patterns of relating reflected the hardwiring of my childhood. I was a doormat in transition, and there were days I was more doormat than anything else. Yet with every argument, every misunderstanding, every desire or need spoken out loud for the first time, another layer of muscle and sinew was added on. We grew together.

Does that make the darkest moments acceptable? No. We brought out the worst in each other. His control was met by my control. The force of his will was met by my nagging,  emotional manipulation, and a kind of gut-less stubbornness that achieved nothing. These were the only ways I knew to get power. We hurt each other. We allowed our relationship to become a web of enmeshment, latching onto to each other out of fear and insecurity, expecting each other to meet deep needs we couldn’t even see.

But as broken as we were, we were enough. We moved cities, bought houses, changed jobs, brought up babies, planted gardens – all of it done together. In building a life together we provided each other with rich soil to grow. Oh how we grew. And I grew that little muscle of will until I was strong enough to stand on my own two feet and tell the world the truth. The truth about who I am and who I want to love. And so I became a person.

I keep thinking of the Spanish verb cumplir. To fulfil, to complete, to celebrate turning a certain age. And I wonder now, now that I know we won’t ever be to each other the lover and intimate partner we long for, are we grown up? Are we in the future now, even as we see it crumbling around us? Have we fulfilled our vows? Is our marriage complete? Perhaps so. Perhaps we were always going to grow enough that I would become myself. Scratch the perhaps. We were always going to grow enough that I would become myself.

I will never finish being grateful for our relationship. I got to marry my best friend. I got create a family with him. I got to grow – painfully, awfully, magnificently – in all the ways I hadn’t been able to grow as a child. I was barely a person when I met Pat, and our relationship brought me up. Because of us, because of his faithful love and presence, because we both stayed when we had every reason not to, I get to live.

The irony is not lost on me. Through this whole coming out period I’ve been bitterly aware of how much I’ve hurt the very person I loved the most. That night in November – when I told Pat I was gay – threw his world into turmoil. It caused him to question everything he believed about our relationship and about my love and commitment to him. The world as he knew it crumbled.

I understand why people try not to be gay. I understand why I tried not to be gay. I understand why some religious communities pour so much energy into wanting people  not to be gay, as screwed up and damaging as those efforts are. Longevity is a beautiful, precious thing. A family is a beautiful, precious thing. But a relationship is only as strong as the strength of the two people as individuals. And a family, likewise. As much as I wished, in that long moment sitting on the couch with Pat in November, that I could take a pill that would make everything go back to whatever normal it was we had, I knew I couldn’t. And he knew I couldn’t. I wouldn’t let you take it, he said. I wouldn’t let you take it.

 

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