The Life He Offers You
My dad, a retired Air Force pilot, is the kind of man who seldom speaks. He is not mad or anything, it is just that he is rarely compelled to share his thoughts. So when I was 21 and he stopped the car in the driveway and motioned that I should roll down the window, my mom and I were already listening.
“Brad is a fine upstanding young man,” he said. “We like him.”
I glowed at this. Probably with postcoital bliss. Brad, a Navy ensign, had spent Christmas break kissing me senseless.
My dad persisted. “We like him. But, Honey, the life he offers you… sucks.”
My mother’s mouth fell open. He never used a word like suck before.
“Daddy, I love him!” I cried. “Every minute with him is better than a lifetime without him!!!”
I clasped my hands to my bosom. Twinkling stars appeared in my eyes like a Japanese anime character. My dad walked away shaking his head.
When I tell this story—and I have told it a million times— I always tie it up with the same bow. I always say that my dad was right. The life Brad offered me in the Navy..well, it sucked—the eight deployments, the 18 moves, the loneliness that returned like a seasonal allergy.
I always say that I was right, too. That every minute with him is better than a lifetime without him.
Cue the glow. Cue the anime stars and twinkles. Cue the postcoital bliss.
That is not the reason I will tell this story when I am on my deathbed, when my electrical synapses are fading, when I am sorting through the parts of the past that are unsettled. I will tell this story because after 30 years of Navy service, we got stationed in Norway.
We went there because my husband made admiral on the last possible day, on the last possible look. He made it the moment before he figured out how to tell our kids he had been passed over without sobbing and coughing up his heart.
I was elated for him. After a year of watching him die a little every day at the prospect of the civilian khaki pants, the golf shirt, the cubicle, I was happy to ditch house, cars and clients. Twenty one days after his promotion, we stood together on the deck of our new house in Norway watching the sun dip into the North Sea like a golden coin on a string. This was the life he offered me.
Norway was a real step up for him and a jolting step down for me. I had my husband and my son and no work. My phone went silent. My email dropped from 250 a day to a couple of Talbots ads and a request to attend a coffee morning. A Bible study. A tiramisu class.
I knew what to do. I am an American equipped with my own indomitable soul. I set out every morning determined to find a local coffee shop and chat with the natives and finish my novel; take language lessons and join a hiking club; learn to eat with my fork in my left hand.
American determination meet a thousand years of Norwegian stoicism. It turns out Norwegians do not speak to strangers. They do not, in fact, make eye contact. There are no libraries with cozy tables. No coffee shops open before 10:00. The one Starbucks was so far away, that between tolls and parking fees, my coffee cost about $25 a day.
“Spend it,” Brad advised.
“Save it,” said his Norwegian staffer. “If you want to write, go into the forest with your notebook and let poetry come to you.”
I hate poetry.
I hate forests.
Besides was raining. It rained six days a week. No wonder there is not more poetry in Norway.
Then the darkness fell. When the sun did rise, it slanted across the horizon at a long flat angle as if it were following a Nazi salute across the sky. It was full dark by 3 pm.
I woke up sad. Then I woke up sad and scared. My brain nudged me in the wee small hours so I could creep from my bed to cruise realtor.com and USAjobs. I sobbed until I coughed up my heart.
Brad—the man who rubbed my hip as I fell asleep because he knew it ached, the man who texted me three times a day, the man who wanted to climb into a tub with me on Friday nights to drink scotch and listen to Journey on iHeart radio —that Brad would hear me cry and stumble out in the dark to hold me, helpless in the way men are helpless. This was the not the life he intended to offer me ever, ever.
One night as he loaded the dishwasher, I leaned against the counter reviewing my litany. The rain. The dark. The people. The despair. My lack of taxable income for the first time in 20 years. The nothing to do. The nowhere to go.
“I know you love me,” I told him. “But the life you offer me…”
I stopped. We have been married 30 years. I know when to stop.
“Sucks?” he said, slamming the door of the dishwasher. “Were you going to say the life I offer you sucks?”
We fought bitterly that night, we two who had been married so long that we thought everything was settled. Everything in marriage is never settled.
The next day the sun appeared milky white in the March sky. Brad came home early and bundled me in his car and put the top down and drove south along the coast, Journey playing on his radio.
“Let me go home,” I said. He knew I did not mean our house. I wanted to go home, back to the person I was, the life I had.
“Stay,” he said. “You can go if you have to, I won’t stop you. Please, please stay.”
I knew he meant that. I could go. But I could not go and bring him with me. I could not go and bear his misery the way he could almost bear mine.
I stayed. Of course, I stayed. Brad took me to Spain for the first warm breath of spring. He took me to the Alsace and to Denmark, to London and Cornwall. To Germany for moonlight sledding and to Malta to bake in the sun like a taco chip. Through it all I kept hearing my father’s voice in my ear: this is the life he offers you.
Before Norway, I always told that story as an illustration of how young I was, how sweetly naive. I could tell that story and feel the whisker burn of that ensign on my cheek.
So why did it haunt me now? I did not know what I was choosing when I was 21. I chose love with my bold, unerring heart. Now I was 51, the same age as my father when he stopped that car in the driveway of his neat suburban home, his military career very much in his rear view mirror. Was he talking to me then? Or was he looking beyond me at my mother in the driver’s seat, seeing the full price she paid for the military life he had offered her. Was it enough? Was it ever enough?
We are home in Virginia now. Sometimes the sun shines so hard and so bright that I am tipsy. I am wasted. I am shellacked on sun and, really, should not be allowed to drive.
Every morning I choose from a dozen Starbucks where I write. I still have no job. We will live here only one year. In his green camouflage uniform Brad is bonged aboard his ships and when he gets home he kisses me hello in his heavy boots. We compare our calorie counts on Lose It. Squeeze to fit both our faces onto the screen when we Facetime with our granddaughter.
At night his fingers slip across my hip to rub it where it aches. On the bedside table his phone pings with message traffic all night long. Norway seems so long ago, so far away.
I know when I am 90 I will still be turning this story in my mind, unsure. My grandchildren will be appalled I use the word ‘suck’ so freely. Or maybe they won’t. And I will leave this world saying, This was the life he offered me. This was the life he offered. This was the life.