“Would you like another slice of ham?” I pushed the plastic bag of lunchmeat toward my husband David.
“No, thanks, but pass the pickles.”
I slid the food storage container closer to him and popped the seal. The tangy fragrance of homemade refrigerator pickles greeted my nose, displacing the pungent scent of mixed evergreens and deciduous trees surrounding our table. A giant maple leaf drifted lazily to the dirt at my feet.
I grabbed a few baby carrots and tossed one to our senior dog, Gunny. Wiping my fingers on a frayed cloth napkin, my gaze rested on our old picnic basket. Once bright and gleaming with varnish and clay flowers, its broken handle and sagging hinges now reflected the years of service it had given. I smoothed the tattered edges of our tablecloth, and sighed.
Things had certainly changed for us over the years. As the old joke went, we’d started out with almost nothing, and after working hard all our lives, we’d managed to keep it.
Gunny flopped onto his side for a nap, the pine needles and soft earth offering the finest bed around. Murmurs from the nearby stream must have set his mind to dreaming. Lucky dog.
I stifled a yawn. I could curl up here, too, despite the crispness of the autumn air.
David glanced at our surroundings, then settled his gaze on me, his lips turning up just a bit at the corners. “Look where we are. This is as good as it gets, isn’t it?”
Was it? We’d made a life for ourselves, raised our daughter with everything she needed and most of the stuff she wanted, and we supported her marriage to a good man. We’d traveled all over the world, and gradually our tastes in food, clothing, and lifestyle had come to reflect our income. For a season, it had been too easy to indulge.
Then the recession hit, and David lost the job he’d held for a great part of his adult life. Decades of dedication were reduced to a small severance check. A month later a brain tumor demolished any hope we’d clung to for our future.
Close to a year following those personal catastrophes, Dave once again secured employment—this time as a custodian—but he was different. In fact, we’d both changed.
I glanced across the table at him. A long-sleeved shirt, jeans and hiking boots replaced the dinner jacket he’d have chosen in the past, and a ponytail took the place of his once styled hair. Yet he looked better than ever. Relaxed, content, healthy.
Where appearance and possessions had once dominated our thoughts, other priorities held importance. Money mattered now, but not for the same reasons. We’d stopped searching for the finest restaurants and swankiest hotels to visit. At this point, every penny of our income focused on paying the mountain of bills we’d accumulated. Reality hit full-force. We’d survived what in some circles is called a humbling. Perhaps we needed it. But had we learned from it?
My gaze shot to my washed–out jeans, then down to my muddy hiking boots. A week earlier I’d tried on a pair of the spike heels I used to wear. My feet, now accustomed to sneakers and flip-flops, no longer fit. My soul no longer did, either. It was time to let go of both the old clothes and the old me, once and forevermore.
I rose from the bench and circled to the table’s opposite side, to sit next to my husband. Facing away from the food, I focused on the glimmering stream as it raced past. Where had it started and where would its journey end? The rivulets shifted and flowed, sometimes tumbling over boulders, other times languid and pooling. A stray leaf dawdled at the edge of a summer swimming hole. Seconds later it slipped loose and floated by, carefree as a butterfly on the breeze. It bobbed along, went under the footbridge and disappeared from sight.
I scratched my palm. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t about the destination at all, but on enjoying the ride—pools, rapids and all..
Muscles in my back relaxed a notch. I took a deep breath, relishing the chill as it filled my lungs.
David pivoted to face the same direction as me. He slipped an arm around my shoulders and we leaned in to each other’s warmth. Dappled sunlight broke through the canopy of trees above, creating an enchanting, private world. Red, orange and yellow leaves broke free and fell, their descent a slow and graceful dance.
My husband poured each of us some wine, and we raised our glasses to toast. Not to four-star resorts and Caribbean cruises, not to our possessions or living to impress others. Not even to our past.
No, we toasted to re-learning to love things we’d long since forgotten, things that don’t cost a cent or take up space in the closet or garage. We toasted to dreams we’d hatched during our times of trial. To a love that had endured, even thrived, through our long walk through the fire, when all that was left were tears and ashes—and us.
We did it silently, without words. No need to waste them. Not after thirty years together.
Had we learned from the humbling?
Yes, but that’s not to say we enjoyed it. Like snapping a wish-bone, we kept looking for a miracle to save us, to return our lives to the way they’d once been. It took a while for us to realize that wasn’t going to happen. And longer still for us to acknowledge that a different sort of miracle had indeed occurred. Our lives had been restored.
My gaze swept the area, taking in the trees, the creek, my dog, and my lifetime mate. I smiled.
David took my hand, and brought it to his lips for a gentle kiss. A moment later, he repeated his signature statement—his mantra. “It doesn’t get any better than this, does it?”
I nodded. Because you know what? He was right. It doesn’t.