Many years ago, before Toby was born, Stephen and I took Yoni to his first sleepaway camp and then spent the rest of the weekend nearby, at a small bed and breakfast. In the morning we took a 10-mile bicycle ride through the woods and found ourselves, unexpectedly, at a beautiful hidden pond. Ringed by tall trees, the pond was completely deserted and still. Tiny white flowers floated on the dark surface and small dragonflies dipped and shimmered over the water. We couldn’t quite believe our eyes when we sighted the rough-hewn dock and diving board. The board, completely out of context, slyly winked.
It had been a long, hot ride and we desperately wanted to swim. The pond beckoned silently. Stephen went first, stepping purposefully onto the board, then slicing through the water neatly and with minimum effort. I didn’t see the board move. And now it was my turn. I walked to the edge, looked down into the unyielding darkness, and realized that I wouldn’t be able to do it. No matter how many times I readied myself by saying “one, two, three, jump!” my knees buckled at the last minute and the board flabbily shook in embarrassment. I was scared of so many things: the color of the water, not knowing what exactly was at the bottom or how deep it would be, the squishiness of the mud, the possibility of pondgrass, water bugs, seasnakes or worse. I longed to feel the cool water envelop me and I knew it would be a formative moment, but I just couldn’t take the plunge. And so I sat on the diving board and cried bitterly over it all: my inadequacy, my inability to quiet a churning heart, my absolute knowledge that I had ruined a perfect day.
Stephen stayed in the water for an hour, waiting for me to fight my demons. He didn’t cajole or tease or lose patience. He didn’t engage in any convincing games, nor did he sigh and exit the water. Stephen never gave up on me. He let me come to my own place of fear, and he waited while I worked through it. I am sure that he encouraged me, but what I remember most was his presence: bobbing in the water, smiling, waiting for me to be ready. He did not leave.
And then I did it. I jumped right into his arms and laughed with relief. And then we jumped over and over again, relishing the coolness, the sweet smell of the water, and the perfection of the afternoon.
Stephen turns 50 tomorrow.
Before Toby got sick, I had planned to mark this day with a no-holds-barred celebration. It hasn’t quite worked out that way and I hope Stephen will forgive me for this very public display of affection. In the absence of an actual party, I’ve decided that everyone should know how I feel about my extraordinary husband.
He is the gentlest of men. He can calm the chaos in my heart with a simple, warm embrace. He has patience in spades. He maintains hope like nobody’s business. He has unparalleled musical sensitivity. He has fantastic taste. He's a brilliant artist. And we all agree, that when Stephen is around, everything is more relaxed, more open to possibilities and just more fun.
Stephen is able to make a conversation with Toby into the stuff of legend. And he is the most incredible father: patient, loving, playful, wildly imaginative. But these words mean nothing, without actually seeing what goes on between Stephen and Toby. My own father gets tears in his eyes as he watches them play. I have eavesdropped on Stephen-Toby conversations and felt like I was in the presence of God. There is something ineffable, perfect and beautiful that occurs when the two of them forecast the weather in Antarctica or talk about chipmunk, wally worm and the gastro-intestinal effects of baked beans and cabbage rolls. Through his love for Toby, Stephen has taught me again and again how to be a better parent.
During a recent inpatient stay, Stephen spent the night with Toby and shared the room with a Hasidic father whose 2-year-old son has sarcoma and was admitted for dehydration. The father was highly observant, dressed fully in black, with black hat and sidecurls, the whole gesheft. The following morning, when I arrived, the man stopped me in the hall outside the room. Usually Hasidic men do not talk to women outside of their immediate family, so I was taken aback and apprehensive. He looked at me, directly in the eyes and said, “I have to tell you that I have never seen such a good father as your husband. The way he talked to your boy through the night, the patience he showed, was remarkable. You need to know this. He is something special.”
A wise friend once remarked that Stephen is my tzaddik. At first I translated that to mean “my righteous man,” but I’ve since learned that tzaddik refers to someone who does what is right and just in his relationships. I cannot think of a better description of Stephen.
So, remember how Stephen helped me at the pond? It’s the same way he’s helping me now. We jump, together with Toby and Yoni, into the depths of the unknown every day. We don’t know what’s at the bottom… it may be unpleasant or much worse… it could kill us. Or possibly, it just might choose to swim by and leave us blessedly alone. There are moments when we notice the beauty that floats in our midst and there are many more moments that are cold, dark and frightening. But I never feel like I’m alone in this pond. Stephen is always near me, always ready to hold out a hand to me, always there. Happy birthday, my husband.