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When Does Life Begin?

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A priest, a minister, and a rabbi go into a bar. Over beers, they discuss when life begins.


“At conception,” says the priest.


“At birth,” says the minister.


“When the kids leave home,” says the rabbi.


My husband, Jonathan, told me this joke soon after our eldest daughter left for college. I was not amused. Shooting him a withering look, I made a note in my mental ledger. You know, the one we all keep labeled “Marriage: Stay or Leave?” After putting a check mark in the “Leave” column, I resumed my vigil over Emma’s empty room, silently vowing not to have sex with the guy who just wanted his wife back.


I just wanted Emma back. Much to Jonathan’s dismay, I was not in the mold of writer Ayelet Waldman, who scandalized the world by confessing that she loved her husband more than her children. I preferred playdates to date nights. The hunter-gatherer model of family life, with the male in perennial exile, suited me just fine. While Jonathan trekked solo into the urban jungle to hunt down a paycheck, the girls and I gathered round the hearth, mashing Play-Doh into neon-colored victuals.


Alas, our post-kid marriage was best captured by Michael Lewis, who writes “… the American father now finds himself in roughly the same position as Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having shocked the world by doing the decent thing and ceding power without bloodshed, he is viewed mainly with disdain.”


I didn’t exactly disdain Jonathan, but I confess to sometimes viewing him as a sperm-donating ATM. After kids, I preferred quick withdrawals over deposits: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Romeo. Just give me the cash!” No wonder Jonathan wasn’t consumed with grief at Emma’s departure.


Eventually, I, too, began to see the upside. For one thing, Emma’s empty room stayed clean. Plus, I no longer lay in bed at night awaiting the sound of her key in the door or the call from the emergency room. Nor did I brood about my sleeping husband’s dereliction of duty to keep our daughter safe through the magical power of insomnia.


Emma’s absence made my heart grow fonder—of my husband. After all, he had been there long before kids, and was still patiently waiting, ceding power without bloodshed, booze, or womanizing. Jonathan, like Gorbachev, never got enough credit.


When our youngest daughter recently left for college, I tried a different tack. From my experience with Emma, I knew that life could go on, and that possibly my husband could be forgiven for wanting it to.


We stumbled across an online ad for a kayaking trip dubbed “Moon Glow.” It read:


“Salty silence surrounds you as you paddle across the gently rocking waves into the moonlit waters of the bay. … Savor the spectacular bioluminescence—with every stroke, plankton glow on the surface, leaving a trail of stardust in your wake.”


Luminescent plankton—that sounded vaguely erotic!


“Let’s do this on the next full moon to celebrate our new status as empty nesters,” I proposed.


As the harvest moon waxed, I left a message for the kayak company. No response. Then Jonathan came down with a brutal cold, and Indian summer gave way to autumn’s chill. It dawned on us that “Moon Glow” implied nighttime, “bay” implied water, and four hours on water in the 48-degree darkness implied a whole lot of shivering. Not the kind that comes from rekindled passion.


Since parenthood is one long drill in adapting to well-laid plans gone awry, we did what practice had perfected: we improvised. Instead of being marooned on the freezing bay, we got loaded on Sudafed, packed a picnic and some Kleenex, and climbed a nearby hill to watch the full moon rise. As soon as it crested, we crammed our hummus and Two-Buck Chuck back into the basket and stumbled, frozen but euphoric, back to our car.


With the defroster blasting away, we toasted the beginning of our new life. Years of full moons stretched ahead of us, filling the emptiness with the luminescence we had rediscovered in one another.

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