The two of us sat across the dining room table from one another, working on a jigsaw puzzle of a tiger lurking in the trees. Our voices were calm. We even laughed a little bit as we shared memories of our dating years and talked about where our relationship was currently: broken and on the edge of divorce.
We were less than 3 years into our marriage.
High school sweethearts, we’d met through our drama department our Junior year when Matt’s family relocated to our little town. We’d noticed each other immediately. His shaggy, bleach blond hair and dimpled cheeks shone like a beacon home for me.
It wasn’t until a year later that we’d begun dating and then, only after our friends Jimmy and Joy forced us to have a face-to-face conversation about how we liked each other instead of simply telling everyone else. It proved to be an off-again-on-again kind of relationship for a few years, but once we decided that we meant it when we said, ‘I love you,’ it stuck and wedding preparations were soon underway.
On June 24, 1995, before friends, family, God and one homeless lady who joined the festivities, we gave our vows and celebrated the start of our lives together. We danced, we toasted, we tossed the bouquet and garter. A week later, we loaded all my earthly possessions into the bed of a truck and the trailer we towed behind and drove the 12 hours to our first home together in Ogden, Utah.
(Matt and I, exhausted from all the photos we took after the ceremony.
June 24, 1995. Welches, Oregon)
Pulling in well after dark, it was hard for me to really see what our new town looked like, but walking through the door of our little house-turned-tri-plex, I was overjoyed. It had great charm and it was OURS! Unpacking and decorating was a thrill. As a kid, I’d only ever lived in three homes and two of those were before I was 5, so I’d never known what it was like to actually move. It felt a little bit like playing house.
Our first 2 years in Ogden were full of college for Matt and work for me. We had little to no money but learned how to make the most of instant mashed potatoes, Kool-Aid, and pancakes. When time allowed, we’d pack a picnic basket and head to a local park. When time was tight or the weather didn’t cooperate, picnics happened on our living room floor. By working at the college’s theater, which also had touring companies coming through, we had the opportunity to see and be a part of some wonderful shows and performances, including Ballet West, Christopher Parkening, and Sundance Film Festival.
(Me and Matt hiking in Ogden, Utah. circa 1996.)
It all seemed pretty good. We had our friends, we had our little nest. We had each other.
But lurking underneath was a dissatisfaction growing inside me.
Growing up, what I wanted most in life was to be a wife and mom. Here I was, on the path. Step 1: Get Married. Check. Step 2: Have babies. Not happening.
I’d wanted to get pregnant from the beginning. Matt wanted to wait until he was done with school. Tension was growing, while my belly was not. Health issues from earlier had me worried that fertility might be a problem. Meanwhile, I was seeing people everywhere both getting pregnant and also having abortions. It was heart-wrenching.
Then my world came crashing down in the most unexpected way. My dad, at the age of 48, died of a massive heart attack. He’d been my rock. We shared a love of oldies music, fly fishing and ‘puttering’. And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
(Me and my dad painting the trailer that carried all my belongings to
my new home and life with Matt. 1995)
The week or so that followed is a blur. Matt and I went back to Oregon, we buried and memorialized my dad. My mom, brother and I sat silently together, numb and unsure. Eventually, though, the regular flow of life had to return to normal. Matt returned to Utah, where he was chin-deep in school and work. I stayed behind with my mom, unwilling to leave her side.
Life was untethered and I didn’t know how we were going to survive.
When I finally returned to Utah – I’m not even sure how long I’d been gone – I was restless and anxious. I jumped everytime the phone rang. I couldn’t concentrate. I hated to hear about anyone else’s struggles or problems because it all seemed so petty. I lost any compassion I’d had. And I was angry at Matt.
He hadn’t ‘performed’ the way I wanted him to in the wake of my dad’s death. He shed few tears and in my mind, felt distant and emotionally unavailable. What I then saw as a character flaw, I now know to be a strength. Even though I wanted Matt to mourn with me, what I needed most was for him to be strong and hold me up. He did both. But he did them quietly. I was too lost in my own chaos to even recognize what was happening around me.
Within a few months, I got pregnant and soon thereafter, miscarried.
I was at a complete loss. I didn’t want to be in Utah anymore. I wanted to be with my family and friends back home. I wanted my dad and my baby and I wanted my husband to do more than he was capable of doing for me.
So there we sat. A jigsaw puzzle between us. One thousand pieces of a perfectly destroyed image. And it was our task to put those pieces together, to recreate the picture on the front of the box, the picture that looked so seamless and perfect.
We worked for hours and as we worked, we talked. We reminisced about the day we first met. We laughed about our awkward beginning. We recalled our first kiss and so many kisses after. We talked about our fears and our hurts, our disappointments. We talked at length about the possibility of divorce.
As we talked, the pieces in our fingers began to come together. The edges were formed and soon, the inside picture grew, little by little.
We talked about how much we’d grown up with each other in the 10 years since we’d met. How we’d shared so much of ourselves with each other that we’d never shared with anyone else. We’d already invested so much of ourselves into one another, the thought of having to start over with someone else seemed daunting, at best. After all, despite the struggles we’d endured, we were best friends. We loved each other.
We always would.
Before we knew it, the final piece of the puzzle was set in place revealing not a seamless image, but a complete image. Where the pieces had been cut, there were crevasses as they joined together. It wasn’t smooth as a photograph. But it was whole. And together. What sat between us was a picture, not of a tiger stalking its prey, but a picture of how two separate people with their own brokenness can come together and form a beautiful union.