I know how much that word makes you giggle. That day we took Will to the zoo and we saw those aardvarks roaming around in that drab pen, you couldn't contain your fits of laughter, gasping for air and eventually collapsing into my body because you were giggling too hard to hold yourself up. I can't even believe how much I love you.
Now, Charlotte's copy of Arthur the Aardvark is sitting atop my piles of Kafka and Joyce and Fuller. She left it in here last night when she was begging me to read her a bedtime story (even though everyone knows that my storytelling skills are subpar in comparison to yours). It's that weird pre-morning time right now, where the sun is just coming up and the air still has that uncomfortable kind of chill that you adore.
I couldn't sleep. I just tossed and turned all night long, those terrible memories plaguing my mind. I'm sure you could tell; you could feel my restless body on the other side of the bed. You rubbed my back a few times, but your gentle touch just electrified my nerves even more. So I came up to the study to work on my book, but the words just weren't coming. Nothing I wrote really seemed to work, and every letter just fell on the page with a dull thud, dead and helpless and poisonous.
So I decided to write this instead. It isn't really a love letter- you know how terrible I am at those- but it's something a bit more fitting for us, I think. I don't even know if I'm going to give this to you yet. I'm probably too much of a coward, but I hope I can be brave enough.
Hero, these pages are going to be filled with everything I love and hate, everything I always tell you every day and everything I've never spoken to a soul. Everything that matters, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, perfect and painful, is right here, committed to paper for your eyes only.
My entire existence is an accident, the result of a drunken mistake and an unfaithful husband on a business trip. I know that while you're reading this, you want to take my shoulders and look me in the eye and say in your genuine way, "Human life is never an accident." And I'd love to agree with you, and I probably would, if I weren't a living, breathing counterexample.
It was another accident, 14 years later, that changed everything. A rainy Tuesday, a faulty seat belt, a bright white hospital room. A flat line, a funeral, and a "beloved daughter, friend, and mother." And death.
And it was a different accident a few years later that changed my whole world forever. Two bodies crashing together in an empty eventually became friendship that eventually became love. For some reason, against all odds, that accident became us.
It was all my fault, and you were left to pick up the pieces. You were the collateral damage that I never intended, and I'm sorry.
"John, why do you like to be alone so often?"
Your words and curious tone made me look up from my sketchbook. I wanted to say that people choked me and confused me and overwhelmed me, but looking at you sitting next to me, with your gossamer blonde hair and blue eyes, the words got stuck in my throat.
Maybe, when you're with the right person, being alone isn't the only way to survive.
You tell me time and time again that the past is in the past, and that I don't need to continue to apologize for my mistakes.
I don't think you understand that I really do. Because you deserved nothing but happiness and I gave you nothing but pain. Because I screw up everything I touch and I screwed you up, too. Because you saved my life, and saying sorry is the least I can do to thank you for keeping me alive.
So because I love you more than I love life itself, I am sorry.
The way your hair smells when I bury my face in it and kiss your head. Also, a little slice of heaven.
I came to university to study art. I found you.
In all of my studies, I have yet to find a more beautiful masterpiece.
I found you on the couch, smeared mascara and bloodshot eyes looking back at me, pregnancy test in your trembling hands. You cried because you were finally going to become a mother. I cried because there was too much to lose now.
For the next few months, you would play with my hair as I laid my head in your lap and read Kafka to the baby. Our baby. I was terrified because now that things were finally going right, I was bound to screw up and lose it all.
And then William was born. I've never thought I could love anyone even half as much as I love you, until he came along. He had your eyes and downy hair. He was beautiful- still is- and I fell in love with him the minute I set eyes on him.
He used to be so tiny, but just the other day you marked his height on the doorframe yet again. He brings books home so excitedly from school and he can't wait to read them to us, complete with the dramatics. He can ride a two-wheeled bike now too, and Pedro bets he'll be at the Olympics for football before we know it.
Right now, he's fast asleep in his bed. In the middle of that mattress, he still looks as little as he did 6 years ago when we brought him home. As rowdy as he is during the day, he sure is an angel when he's sleeping.
And he's ours.
You told me once that you've found that the ones who always wear black have the most colourful minds. I wonder if, after you've seen all of my blackness and every dark corner of my brain, you still think so.
I never really understood the necessity for such a wide variety of hair tutorials on YouTube. You used to spend hours looking at them back when we were at university, but I never really got it.
I've come to the conclusion that those tutorials actually exist to help those of us helpless dads whose wives are in Paris for a business trip and whose daughters need their hair done for school picture day.
In case you were wondering, I can now French braid surprisingly well.
All I wanted more than anything was to be dead. I was so empty that it hurt to breathe, and by the time I went to university, I was ready to die.
And then you came along.
You didn't fix me; sometimes, you caused me even more pain than I had ever experienced before. But you added something to my life that made everything worth it. You've always been worth it.
"John, this is Pedro. Your brother."
"John hates you."
"Why can't you just be normal, John? Why can't you just play along?"
"Come home. I don't know where you are, no one knows where you are. I'm worried about you. Can you just come and we can talk about this? Please? Mum and Dad are worried about you; they don't deserve to be treated like this."
"Thank God you're back. Thank God you're safe."
"Uh, hey Pedro. I know we haven't talked in a while, but I need a favor. Could you… would you be my best man?"
Cleopatra's Needle (n.)
Tall and unwavering against the grey London skies, it was my mum's favourite place in the whole city. She told me once that it reminded her of our little family: old, battered, but never quite crumbling.
One day, I'll take you to see it. I've never gone there with anyone but my mum, but I think you'd think it was beautiful. You'd probably be in absolute awe of the meshing of the ancient and the modern, and I'd be in total awe of you.
I understand I'm jumping all over the place. There's no real order, no consistency, and for that, I'm sorry.
But this is a dictionary, after all. There's always some order there. The carriage comes before the horse and death comes before life, simultaneously defying one logic and adhering strictly to another.
Kind of like us. I'm starting to doubt my choice of medium for this, but I think you'll appreciate this. You always enjoy reading my work, even when it's awful, and you always get this little rush of delight when I experiment with something new. I just hope this works. I hope this tells you exactly what you mean to me and exactly how much I love you.
Cystic Fibrosis (n.)
I just remember you calling me from home one day with a trembling voice and muffled sobs. We spent the whole night scouring the internet, trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with our baby girl. On the outside, she looked perfectly normal, but we shortly learned that she was drowning on the inside.
What's followed in the past few years has been hundreds (thousands?) of hospital visits, tears in countless waiting rooms, and worrying that new lungs won't get here soon enough.
You never quite get used to hearing your little girl coughing up a lung in the next room over; you know that as well as I do. The difference is, you're the optimistic one. You're sure that before long, a drug will come along, a miracle cure, that will relieve all the pressure in her lungs. She'll be able to breathe for once. She won't always be the smallest one in her class, and she won't need to eat 4000 calories a day to even maintain a slightly average weight.
It's that hope that makes all of this worth it.
Charlotte just coughed herself to sleep, and I guarantee that in four hours, she'll cough herself awake again. She's just the perfect balance of princess and warrior, and she's going to make it. No blip in her genetics is going to hold her back from becoming whatever she wants to be. Her struggle isn't her destiny, and it never will be.
For now, I'm just going to take as many of her salty kisses as I can get.
It was a windy day; your hair was flying into my mouth and your laugh was warming the chilly gusts of air that came over the hill. You told me how, if you blew your wishes on a dandelion, they would come true. It was utter silliness, but we spent the whole day making dandelion wishes nevertheless.
That was the first time I told you I loved you.
Some things just can't be confined to the limits of a dictionary definition. I think depression is one of them. It's not something you put into words; it's something you carry with you and try to muffle as much as possible. It just sits in your head, your chest, your very soul, and makes your eyes heavy and your body lethargic.
Asleep. Awake. Asleep. Awake. An endless cycle and a meaningless life.
Whenever we argue, I try to be gentle. I try not to shout, not to be like him. But you know me. You know how intense I really am, how deeply I feel, and how difficult it is for me to express myself. So, more often than not, I accidentally end up yelling.
We don't fight much (at least, not compared to Bea and Ben), but we still disagree. Over bills, weekend plans, our ideas of the future. There are nights where you go to bed in tears and I feel so terrible that I lock myself in the study for hours. Those are the nights that even Stephen Dedalus's struggles can't lull my soul, and every word I try to write seems to die helplessly in a sea of uninspired sentences. Those are the nights where my only peace comes when I crawl into bed at 4AM and feel your arms instinctively wrap around me.
Those are the nights where all I need to save me is a reminder that you still love me.
For as long as I can remember, I'd rather write about the world than live in. I'd rather sketch your face and wander through bookstores and look at people but never really be one of them.
I just want to be. I just want to exist, boundless and infinite, in this beautiful, wonderful world.
There's always a princess, always a villain, always a rescue. It's always the same dull, mind-numbing story. For some reason, Charlotte loves them, and you read them to her every night, making all the different voices and making her giggle like no tomorrow.
But you've never read her a fairytale where the princess rescues the villain. Those are the stories that are never written, but they exist nevertheless. Those stories are never as romantic or endearing, but for the villains of the world, they gives us some hope. Those love stories should still be penned, if only for people like me.
Maybe I'll write ours.
You, me, William, Charlotte, Mathew. Both the confusion and calm in my heart, a beautiful contradiction.
I was terrified on the plane ride from London to New Zealand. My first night at the Donaldsons'. The entire month I was on the run.
I was terrified on the drive to your house for our first date. The night I asked you to marry me. Our entire wedding day.
I was terrified the day you told me you were pregnant. William's birth. The whole first month he was home with us.
I'm being unfair though. I've scared you more times than I can count. The times I snap at you and see you recoil in fear. The nights you rush home faster than usual to make sure I'm still alright when you get there. The time I wasn't. The time you thought I would die. The time I wanted to.
The night I found out we were expecting William, I drove straight to Pedro and Balthazar's. I was shaking, and I thought I was going to veer off the road. Somehow, though, I made it.
That was the night that Pedro taught me to play football. I'd never done more than kicking a ball a few times in gym class, but my brother and I spent the whole night together in his backyard, passing the ball back and forth between us.
"Do you think I'll be a good father?" was all I could manage to say to him after we had finished. We were just lying there in the grass, looking up at the full moon overhead. "I screw up everything I touch. Hell, I even ran over a bird on the way here. I can't do anything dads are supposed to do, and I've hurt absolutely everyone I love at some point. I was the one who managed to make my own wife's life a living hell."
"John, you are literally the only person who still remembers that."
"I've done nothing to deserve such a great life. I know I'm bound to fuck it all up at some point. And now, with a whole new human… There's too much to lose. And Hero… Hero doesn't deserve someone like me messing things up again."
"You will be fine. Hero will be fine. You're more stable now than you ever have been, thanks to Hero. She's stuck with you through everything, and she loves you. She married you, not some loser who can play football and grill burgers and fix a flat tire. No one ever thinks they're ready to become parents, but mankind has survived to now. You're already starting your little guy off with a better foundation than Dad did for you. Just relax and enjoy it. I know you, John. You're not your past; you're the only one who refuses to let that go. You've gotten help, you've changed, and you deserve the world, so enjoy it while you can." With that, Pedro picked up the football, and we headed back inside together. Balthy made us tea, and for the first time, I think I finally got what it meant to have and be a brother. Sure, Pedro had been my best man, and he had been there for me when I came home after running away, and we had a friendship of sorts. But that was the first time I really felt like I had Pedro in my corner, even when I didn't have faith in myself.
I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've told this story to you, or anyone, for that matter. It's not that I never thought it was important; on the contrary, it's probably one of the moments that I find the most precious, so I just locked it up to keep all to myself. And you've always been okay with that. You get that I'm not going to tell you everything, and you never pry. I tell you things when I'm ready to say them, and I always thought this would be one thing I would never be ready to commit to words. I guess I'm still not ready to say any of these words out loud. Writing them is a good start, though. Maybe one day, I'll be ready for more.
Something I promised you. It's so irrational, so impossible, but I promised it anyway. I guess that's what love does to you. And I think I'm okay with that.
When I picked you up that night, I knew I was doomed. You looked like an angel, with your glimmering dress and halo of blonde braids, and I couldn't keep my eyes off you. As if I weren't already nervous enough, my mind raced with all the ways the night could go wrong. I could lose the ring. I could screw up my speech. I could spill champagne on your dress. You could say no.
I still have no clue how I managed to drive us to the restaurant without accidentally driving off a bridge, but we got there somehow. We both ordered pasta, and you commented on how jittery I was. You didn't seem overly concerned; by then, you'd been with me long enough to know when I actually wanted to talk about my anxiety. This was not one of those times.
Our conversation flowed effortlessly, your stories from your day clearing my mind and your little twinkling giggles comforting me. I got too comfortable though.
"Hero, I love you." The words came tumbling out of my mouth like an old, relaxed routine, but my brain was racing a thousand miles a minute. I pulled the ring out of my pocket, all while trying to tell you exactly what you meant to me. I don't remember the exact words anymore. They were terrible and did my feelings no justice, and I could feel my heart dropping into my stomach.
And then the ring dropped into your half-full bowl of pasta.
I was mortified, but you just fished it out with your perfectly-manicured fingers. "Try again," you said with a soft voice and love in your eyes. And for some reason, you actually said yes, and I couldn't have been happier.
"John, I'm not listening to a single thing you're saying because you're not going to die. Kafka isn't going to be recited and you aren't going to be cremated, at least not for a few more decades." Your voice shook, but your glassy eyes stared into my soul. "You're going to get better. You'll get therapy, some new meds, and a fresh start. I'm not letting you leave that easily." Your lips turned up ever so slightly while saying this. "You deserve to live a beautiful life without any pain, and we'll get there. You're not alone this time, John."
Surely you remember the first time we talked about a future together. It was one of those dreary, cloudy New Zealand days that feel like they're choking you with their dull misery. You had made us both cups of tea, and we were sitting at your kitchen table in absolute silence like we usually did on Saturday mornings. I remember it like it was yesterday; I was reading Joyce's Dubliners and you had your sketchbook in your lap, humming show tunes to yourself. "Sante Fe" from the Newsies.
Maybe it was Eveline's decision between happiness and unhappiness, maybe it was your song about Jack Kelly's dream to head west, but somehow, I started thinking about my future. And every way I thought of it, you were there by my side.
Before I realised it, the words came tumbling out of my mouth. "I think I can see myself growing old with you."
From the way you smiled, I could tell you'd thought about it before. Our future, probably complete with kids, two dogs, and a picket fence, was already conceptualised and living in your beautiful mind. For a moment, I felt terrible for never before discussing something so important to you and so crucial to us.
But then I realised that you weren't bothered that I hadn't mentioned it before. Unlike everyone else, you understood the walls I had, and instead of trying to destroy them, you were willing for me to break them down myself. You allowed me to become vulnerable when I was ready, and for that, I'll forever be grateful.
So when I told you that I could see a future for us, you understood what a major step that was for me. You didn't push for more. Simply smiled and quietly said, "Me too." And when you kissed me a moment later, so gently and innocently, I knew you were the one.
There is a concept in the field of psychology that simply states that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whenever I screw up, or you burn dinner, or one of the kids breaks something, I stop and think about gestalt psychology for a while.
Individually, we're all a little messed up. But as a single unit, we've managed to create something beautiful and indestructible.
"John, why did you want to kill yourself?"
That threw me for a loop. Every therapist I've ever met has always been the same until then. I've never met one that has been that direct. Maybe the psych ward gets the hard-hitters. Maybe once you attempt suicide, they figure you're too far gone for anything but bluntness. Maybe Dr. Barnabas was just Pedro disguised as a middle-aged woman.
Regardless, for the first time in all of my years of therapy, I didn't have a sarcastic quip to answer her question. That whole first session, I didn't have much of anything to say. I went every day for three weeks before I eventually started actually saying anything of substance to Dr. Barnabas.
I was in that stupid, intensive therapy for 52 days before I was released. When I came home, I think I was more stable than ever before, at least in terms of thinking I shouldn't die. It wasn't until I was with you every day, though, that I started feeling more hopeful about life, and myself, and us.
The thing is, therapy can try to fix a person as much as possible, but I've never really equated fixing with healing.
And I've never really known what healing was before I met you.
A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
See also: Batman, Captain America, the Incredibles, Ironman, Spiderman, Thor, Wonder Woman
(This whole definition is cheesier than Ben's Triple Cheese Pizza. I think you'll love it, though. You always love whenever I call you those stupid superhero names, and you know as well as I do that you have that first definition memorised and at your disposal whenever you need it.)
"Last night, I dreamed about you. What happened in detail I can hardly remember; all I know is that we kept merging into one another. I was you, you were me."
"I belong to you; there is really no other way of expressing it, and that is not strong enough."
"In a way, you are poetry material; you are full of cloudy subtleties I am willing to spend a lifetime figuring out. Words burst in your essence and you carry their dust in the pores of your ethereal being."
(Were you aware that many consider Kafka's love letters to be some of the most tragically romantic in history? You've been with me long enough that I've probably told you that at least a dozen times.
It's not just his love letters I love; it's everything he writes. The way he molds words to create such amazing beauty inspires me. If I can ever write half as well as he could, I'd be the luckiest writer on earth.
In retrospect, using quotes from the greatest author of love letters wasn't such a good move. I've attempted to make this a love letter of sorts, but now that you've read something that's actually romantic, you can probably see what a bumbling idiot I am. For a literature professor, I'm somehow incapable of writing anything raw enough to really show you my feelings.
I love you. That is all.)
There's just something about Will's big belly laugh, or Mat's tiny chuckles, or Charlotte's half-laugh, half-cough thing, or your twinkling giggles, that instantly makes everything worth it.
Not me, anymore.
Thanks for that.
Do you really think I could define this?
If I had to try, I'd say it was you giving me a chance even though you knew my past. It was me going to daily therapy just to get back to you. It was you helping me through all of that.
It was the look in your eyes when you said, "I do." It was my tears as you walked down the aisle. It's the perfect way William's face blends your little nose with my grey eyes, and Charlotte's blonde hair that grows in curly wisps, and Mathew has your twinkling laugh and my booming intensity.
It's the way you kiss my temple goodbye every morning when you leave. It's the way I read to you every night before we go to sleep. It's the way we can look at each other and know exactly what the other is thinking.
Love is the way I stroke your back when you cry, or you tangle your fingers in my hair when I'm stressed, or the way Will and Charlotte come running at me when I get home from work every day.
Love is us.
Do you remember that day on the beach? The waves crashing up onto the rocks, the wind rushing through your hair, the spray of saltwater freckling my nose. You spent the entire day playfully splashing me, and I kept chasing you through the water in retaliation. I eventually caught you, right before we left, and you squirmed and laughed as I carried you over my shoulder back to the car. Your lips tasted like salt and your freckles danced on your tan cheeks. The whole day was beautiful and perfect and ours.
Three weeks later was when our lives fell apart. Every now and then, I like to come back to this memory and try to figure out how things got screwed up so quickly.
We started talking at that party our first year of university. We had spoken to each other before, of course- we'd even done a history project together once during Year 13- but that was the first time we talked about anything of substance. Sitting on the front porch of the frat house on St. Paul Street, I actually got to know you.
I was used to being an outcast; I had been one at school, with Pedro's friends, even within my own family. I could leave and no one would ever notice or care.
You had been thrown into that position when you started university. You had no desire to get drunk or get into bed with strangers. You came to immerse yourself in your studies and your art, so you were often stuck on the outside looking in, the lonely wallflower every Saturday night.
Our conversation started with your posession of my missing book, but we quickly moved beyond that. You told me about your classes, your favourite artists and authors, your dreams of launching your own clothing line. I listened intently, occasionally jumping in to comment on our mutual appreciation of Waiting for Godot or to tell you that I also preferred Chagall's whimsy to Matisse's contrasting colours. For once, neither of us felt like an outcast at those social events, and for the first time since arriving at Uni, both of us felt we had made a real friend.
Against the pale blue of the floor tiles, my blood looked too red. Too bright. Too fresh. I don't remember much of what went through my mind that night- everything was a blur- but I do remember the striking contrast of my blood to the bathroom floor. The art and poetry even in my dying still mesmerizes me to this day.
The only other thing from that night that has managed to remain in my memory is your cutting shrieks of terror and the sobs that wracked your body.
And your shaking voice pleading, "Just stay with me, John." And then everything went black.
Your garden is in full bloom right now. You always say you can't pick a favourite flower, but I can't help but favour the rose bush we planted together the night we moved into this house. And even though you never say it, I'm pretty sure it's your favourite too; that's the only explanation I can come up with for why your eyes linger on that bush a little longer than anything else in the flowerbeds.
Most obviously, mine. The single long, white line that runs across the inside of each of my wrists, a lasting reminder of an unhealthy past.
But you have scars, too. They aren't as visible as mine, and they didn't land you in the hospital, and for those reasons, I think a lot of people forget about yours. They forget exactly how badly Claudio hurt you, how much pain you felt, how much that changed you.
I see how your memories haunt you. I know how our arguments can take you back to that night, and I hear you whenever you wake up at midnight, whimpering and crying at your traumatic nightmares. I try to make sure I never raise my voice or snap at you, and I've learned that holding you in my arms is the easiest way for both of us to fall asleep after one of those nightmares.
That day we ran into each other at the library. It was a Tuesday, far too late for any reasonable person to be out, but we both were there. Sitting at one of the rickety wooden tables, I saw you rush past me, a stack of colourful books wobbling haphazardly in your thin arms. You couldn't see where you were going- who could, with that many books in the way?- and you ran right into my table. Your beet-red face grinned sheepishly at me as we cleaned the mess, but neither of us said much. It wasn't until you were long gone that I realized you had accidentally taken my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the very copy I had read so many times that the cover was torn halfway off.
Auckland is huge, so I figured I had lost it forever. That is, until you showed up on the other side of the room at the party that weekend.
A fair amount of these memories are painful. And I apologize for bringing them up again. I know they're memories you'd rather forget, but I think they're important. Your sixteenth birthday, my suicide attempt, our arguments and our tears and our pain… Those things made us, us.
Those painful memories are just as important as the happy ones, perhaps even more so, and I don't want us to forget them for as long as we live.
A break in the clouds filled with the sun. A burst of brightness in a world of pain. You in my life, and me in yours.
The official beverage of the Donaldson household. Camomile for you, Earl Grey for me, and a cup of peppermint shared between us after the kids are in bed, passing the mug back and forth as we read each other passages from our respective novels.
When I woke up, everything was too white and sterile. White walls, white bedsheets, white noise rushing through my cochlea and numbing my brain.
A single long, white scar across each of my wrists. Everything was white.
Everything but your eyes. Those were red and puffy.
The common denominator in all of this.
Now, if this were a typical love letter, I'd say that you are perfect; however, this isn't typical, nor am I. Nor you, for that matter. But you aren't perfect. You have just as many flaws as I do. You're passive, and you never say "no". You take ages to get ready, your showers in a single week use more water than a year's worth of mine, and you spend more than you probably should on clothes. You don't like Star Wars or Kafka, and you have a terrible habit of talking during movies.
But even when you're still applying makeup after three hours of preparing for a party, or you're trying to chat during the Breakfast Club (again), I can't help but love you. You're gentle and kind and radiant and beautiful. You're not perfect, but you're more than enough.
You're undefinable. And I love you.
We went into this relationship hesitant. It didn't take long for us to get comfortable, for us to find our groove and fall absolutely in love with each other. Now my hand fits perfectly in yours and your body naturally settles into the curves of my arms, and I couldn't imagine living life without you by my side.
These past few years have been more wonderful than anything I could have ever imagined. I can't wait so see what the future holds for me, for you, for us. Together.
The amount of words I have left to say.
Actually, I have three more left.
I love you.
The sky is starting to turn that burnt pink colour you love to paint with, and in just a few minutes, you'll call up the stairs and tell me that dinner is ready. I can already smell it. I'll be down in a minute, my love. My beautiful wife.