This is my new desk.
I can tell already that it is going to be a different animal to work at this rather than the one I was formerly at, and the temptation to write past what I should without stretching and shifting will be great. Walter, however, is upset, because not only does the keyboard tray erase my lap, but if he manages to maneuver his way there, he can’t reach my hands to force me to pet him.
Dan put this together last night. We bought it Monday, and he assembled it after work yesterday, pausing only to eat and get a haircut. I helped a little, but mostly I held things and said, "Yes, that does look right," or, "No, I think that’s the front." He also surrendered his chair in hopes that his was better than the one I was using, but I really need just a little more height than I have in either option, so now I am saving for a chair. I’m about a third of the way there. (Chairs are damn expensive. Good ones, anyway.)
I was already feeling particularly warm towards Dan for doing this for me, because it wasn’t a cosmetic upgrade, it was physical therapy, which in a way made it more of an obligation than a favor, but still. This wasn’t buying me roses. This was doing work, hard work, to help me be better.
This desk assembly changed in tone for me mid-way through, though, and that’s because I returned a phone call to my mother, who gave me news about my cousin. I forget how much older this cousin is than me, but it’s at least three years, maybe more like four. What I remember is not the number, but of being young with her. I remember coming over to my aunt and uncle’s house, and of their four children, it was always this cousin that I played with. I thought she was so beautiful, so smart, so fun, and so lucky. She had horses, for Pete’s sake. And at school, she had friends, lots of them. Everyone liked her, and they didn’t like me, and I didn’t have horses, and I never thought I could be as put together as my cousin. Despite all this, she always made me feel welcome, even when she probably didn’t want to. We played for hours whenever I came over, which was often when my mother needed me to be elsewhere. We explored the farm together, and because she lived just across the road from our grandfather, we explored his, too. When I was at my farm, I explored alone, but when I was with her, we went together. I don’t know that she was as imaginative as I’d have liked, but I didn’t care. I just loved being with her. I loved her. I was jealous of her, very jealous–after all, unlike my family, hers got to keep their farm during the 80s, and we lost ours. But I never thought I would be worthy of the kind of life she had, so I let it go.
Maybe you can see this coming. I wish you couldn’t, because it makes me sad. This cousin’s life, now, is not at all the idyllic picture I saw as a child, and of course, it probably wasn’t then, either. My cousin married, had two children, but then had what I suspect was a very unpleasant divorce. She lives now in the house on my grandfather’s farm, which in my youth would have been romantic and wonderful, but in adulthood, I would decidedly pass. Her parents are still both alive, but both have very debilitating health issues; her mother is already institutionalized, and her father is close behind, but in the meantime needs more care and attention than my cousin’s children, whom she raises alone.
My cousin’s siblings don’t live close by, and just as when we were kids, they aren’t half as strong or amazing or giving as she is, and of course when this happens in life, the reward is not glory, but work, and lots of it. It’s my cousin who does the work of caring for her father, of keeping the unscrupulous brother from taking money from her father’s wallet, her father who has dementia and can’t manage much of his life at all, who needs insulin shots and almost constant supervision. It’s my cousin who argues with the insurance company that doesn’t want to pay for her mother’s care, who works as many jobs as she can fill her day with to support everyone who depends on her, who leaves her children home alone to do these jobs, who does this, all of this, alone.
I thought of my cousin as I watched my husband assemble my desk. I thought of making houses out of bullweeds with her, of catching field mice, of watching her ride her horses and aching to trade places with her, to have her life. I thought of all that intelligence and beauty and of that giving heart, and then I looked at what had become of it, and I looked at what I’d received, too, and I felt quiet, and contemplative.
I don’t owe anything to Dan because he stays, because he’s not a deadbeat, or even because he helps me–being married to a decent human is not something you have to pay for. I don’t owe him, and he doesn’t ask for payment. He didn’t do that work because he had to, though there was a little husbandly obligation in there, just as I have some wifey obligation when I pick his underwear up off the floor or fish through his pockets for pens or make dinner when I’d rather sit in a chair. But he didn’t make my desk because he was forced to, or to force a favor out of me. He did it because he knew it would help me, and he didn’t let me use my Christmas money to buy it because he wanted me to use it for something else (though it will very likely go for part of a chair). He made my desk for the same reason he sometimes brings me coffee, for the reason he searched so carefully for my Christmas presents, for the reason he sends me music or links he thinks I’ll like, and for the reason he scraped the window of the car the other morning before he walked to work. He does all this because he loves me. He doesn’t send flowers or buy much jewelry, because for Dan, love is the little things, like desks and dishes and staying up to watch one more episode of House because he can tell that I really want to.
I told Dan thank you a thousand times, from the time we bought the desk to this morning as I sat at it. Thank you for doing this act for me, for doing it out of love, for doing it because I needed it, for doing it, period, because it means something to me. But it makes me sad, now, after hearing the story of my cousin, because I suspect there are days she would trade almost any obligation for help. I suspect there are days she is angry–we have a lot of family over there living near her, my blood as well as hers, and I suspect she is angry that they don’t feel the obligation to help, or if they already do, to help more. I suspect there are nights when she lies in the dark and feels the bitter edge of that giving heart, that she wishes she could be less loving, that she could turn her back and let chips fall, that she could just live her own life and take care of herself and herself alone.
But that’s love for you. If you love someone, truly love them, you don’t do things because your acts will give you something back, and you don’t give because you will get back. You give because that’s what love does to you. If my cousin’s parents were not unwell, they would give back like that to her, but they can’t, and they never can again in this life. And so it is she who gives, alone, building desks and mountains, every day, for everyone, for no reason except that she loves, and love, beautiful, terrible, two-faced love, always demands its price.
If I had money–real money–I would send it to my cousin. If I had time, or a better body, I would take a long weekend and go to help her. If I weren’t fighting my own battles to the extent that I am, I would help her, because I love her, too. But I don’t have money, not in the volume that would help, I’m far away, I don’t have time, and I’m frankly a wreck. What I will give her, pathetic as it is, is a letter, or an email. And this post, which she probably won’t see. But I’m going to give it, because I have an obligation, too. I have several, today, so I’m going to tick them off all at once.
Thank you Dan, for building me a desk.
L, I am sorry for the burdens that have fallen to you, and I am sorry all I have to offer is the acknowledgment that your work is more than it should be, and the honor and love for you that I feel when I see you do this. You are a credit to our family, and I wish that sort of devotion and work paid better dividends. I love you, and I really did envy you for most of my life. Right now, I’m not even able to envy you–I could never be as strong as you are. And so you surpass me still, and remain the example I must only strive for, because I can never achieve. Thank you for being a model and a teacher even when you don’t know that you are.
Oh, universe. You slap me up the side of the head, you hurt me, you taunt me, you take away. And yet, today, as I sit at my desk, as I realize how many people love me and how completely their love shelters and cares for me, I can’t do anything but admit that you, in your way, are obliged to me, too. And so, I will thank you, for everything, for the love I can see, and that which I can’t.