There are countless ways of measuring love. It could be in diamonds, love poems, romantic proposals, fabulous weddings, elaborate honeymoons, or promises of eternal devotion. For me, true love made itself known in a series of closets.
To explain this, I have to go back to age nineteen. At that tender age, I already had a miserable track record when it came to love. I was raised in the 1950s and 60s when divorce carried a huge stigma. When my parents divorced, we were detached from the mainstream of family life that surrounded us in suburban Denver. Dad, firmly engulfed in an as-yet-unlabeled mid-life crisis, moved into a posh downtown high rise. Mom went to work to keep us going, but my brother and I lost her to anger and bitterness just as surely as we'd lost dad. Our home was indeed, broken.
Just before my eighteenth birthday, I moved to my own tiny apartment. I vowed I would do better at love when my time came along, but at barely nineteen, I fell into a hasty marriage that should have never been more than a casual friendship. Five months later, I packed my belongings and came to live in Albuquerque with Dad and his new family.
It turned out to be an awkward fit that launched me into a nomadic period. I bounced from a college dorm, to my aunt's, to a room in a friend's house, to a shared apartment. Everywhere I landed felt intrusive and temporary. It seemed I had no sooner hung my tee shirts and jeans in the closet, than I was packing them up to move on.
Still, I enjoyed my classes and the easy friendships. I was in no hurry for a serious relationship. Providence, however, had other plans. One afternoon, I skipped my Introduction to Logic class to have a cup of coffee in the student union building. It was there I first saw Craig. He was skipping class as well, which explained why I'd never seen him before. We talked for a while, and the next day, I saw him again. That weekend we had our first date. After that, my grades in Logic suffered severely, but then, providence, by its very nature, isn't logical.
When Craig graduated, he and his buddy took off for a West Coast driving trip. On the night he got home, we drove to the crest of the Sandia Mountains where he asked me to marry him. Without hesitation, I said "yes." We decided to get married the following Friday to take advantage of the Labor Day weekend.
In 1972, traditional weddings had gone out of style, and that was just as well with us, because our combined fortunes consisted of $270, my finicky Volvo, and Craig's few woodworking tools.
I wasn't worried about our lack of money; I knew we'd manage, but while I loved Craig, there was a part of me that was terrified. What if I failed at this marriage, too? Maybe I was carrying an errant gene that predisposed me to divorce, like my parents or my five-times-married aunt. I wasn't a regular pray-er at that time in my life, but I prayed, "God, help me be certain about this."
Even a wedding with seven guests required some preparation, so I was busy for the next few days. After work one afternoon, I stopped by Craig's little house. As I entered, I heard hammering. I peered around the corner into the bedroom. Craig smiled at me, brushed the sawdust off his jeans, pointed to a new closet and said, "What do you think? Now you have a place for your clothes."
There could not have been a more humble closet, fashioned as it was from recycled barn wood with an old broomstick used for the rod. But what I saw was not that he'd made a place for my clothes, but that he'd made a place for me. At that moment, my lingering doubts were swept away with the sawdust.
Eventually, we moved on from that house to a bigger home with more traditional closets to accommodate our growing family. After four years of marriage, we had a baby girl, followed three years later by a baby boy.
Craig's love of woodworking resulted in a cabinet-making business, and life happened. Bills arrived in the mail, stress sometimes spilled into arguments, conflicts arose intermittently with parents, and through it all, our children somehow flourished. By this time, praying was a regular part of my routine.
Eventually, our nest emptied, and the closets thinned of soccer shoes, letter jackets, and prom dresses. Once again, we were creating our life as a couple. This time, however, our parents were growing old and ill. Our newfound freedom gave way to a brittle and trying season of care giving. Over three years, we lost three parents.
My parents' illnesses and deaths left me drained, and just a few months after mom's passing, I became ill. Following lab work, a phone call brought the bad newsI had acute leukemia. My doctor didn't sugarcoat the situationit didn't look good. During that first hospitalization, he recommended going out of state for a bone marrow transplant, but I couldn't imagine leaving our children and grandchildren. I opted for six months of chemo, which was followed by a remission. Six months later, however, we got more bad news: I had relapsed.
Now the only viable option was a bone marrow transplant, and a search for a donor commenced. When, and if, one was found, Craig and I would go to California for the transplant procedure. While the Red Cross searched for a donor, I spent more grueling weeks in the hospital getting more chemo.
As tough as it was for me, I worried about Craig. His mother was ill and demanding, and our business was a continual source of stress. When he came to the hospital in the evenings, he looked exhausted.
"Are you sleeping?" I asked.
"Not much," he answered,
"Can you take something?"
He shook his head. "I'm okay. I just wish I could do something," he looked around the hospital room, "about this."
In the roughest times of our marriage, Craig took charge. When financial hardships came, he worked harder and longer. When our marriage suddenly hit turbulence, he stepped up to deal with it. When challenges came with kids, he led them through. He hated feeling powerless in the face of this deadly adversary.
After ten days in the hospital, he brought me home. Everything looked blessedly normal as I walked in the door but, immediately, I caught the aroma of sawdust and wood stain. As I entered our bedroom, I saw that he had gutted my old closet and replaced it with luxurious built-in cabinets made of rich brown walnut. The dovetailed drawers closed with a touch of my finger. Interior lights illuminated the closet when I opened the doors, and a velvet-lined drawer held my jewelry.
This explained his exhaustion during my hospitalization. After working through the day and spending the evenings with me, he labored most of the night on my latest closet. It was as if he was saying: Don't even think about leaving me. You have to use this closet I've made for you.
When a bone marrow match was found, we left for what would be a four-month stay at City of Hope in California. During those first fragile weeks, Craig sat at my bedside willing white blood cells to emerge from my newly donated bone marrow. At a low point when I was tempted to let go, he held my hand and pulled me forward, reminding me; We have more to do, more grandchildren to welcome into the world, more years to grow, more sorrows to bear, more joys to share,
The transplant appeared to be successful, and we finally returned home.
A few years later, we moved again, this time remodeling an older home in a wonderful neighborhood that our eight grandchildren love. Once again, Craig built an elegant closet for me.
Recently, we celebrated our thirty-ninth anniversary. That evening we sat on the patio, the heat briefly relented, and we were granted a perfect late-summer's night. We reminisced about our humble beginnings and the joys and challenges we've faced so far.
From this vantage point, I clearly see that love has a long definition that has little to do with diamonds, elaborate weddings, or "you-complete-me" phrases. True love runs so deep it defies our efforts to contain it. Like water, love takes its own course, carving a path through the mountains and valleys of our lives. It ebbs and flows through the trials, and triumphs that shape us. Yet it is most refreshing when it arrives at unexpected times and unexpected places, like a chance encounter, a daunting challenge, or even in a barn wood closet.
Laura Z. Sowers
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