A couple of months ago, Milo discovered Mad Libs. I gave him a quick-and-dirty rundown on the parts of speech, and he was off and running. We’d hear him giggling alone in his room as he carefully penciled lists of his favorite words…skateboard, boogers, Pokémon…before plugging them into the nonsensical stories. One evening after dinner, he was hunched over his Mad Libs book, and getting frustrated because he couldn’t remember the difference between nouns and verbs. “Lots of words can be both,” I offered. We sat together and thought. Attack. Fool. Hammer. Burn. Surprise. Escape. “Can you think of any?” I asked him. He chewed his thumbnail, thinking, and then his eyes lit up. “Fart!” he yelled, delighted. “That’s a great one,” I laughed, writing it down.
Later that evening, once the kids were in bed, Jason and I were in separate corners on separate couches, lost inside our phones. He broke the silence, “Oh no: they’re cutting down the tree on Mt. Pollux.” He turned his phone towards me, the browser opened to an article from our local news site. We didn’t need to say anything; we were both feeling the same sinking sadness. Our tree, the aging maple at the top of the hill where we had sat in the grass, cutting up apples and cheese with my Leatherman knife almost twenty years ago, had been hit by lightning so many times that it was no longer safe to leave it standing. I skimmed the article, noted the date of the tree removal in my phone calendar, and we promised each other to try and make a trip there to have Milo take a photo of us by the tree before they cut it down.
“Cut!” I blurted, suddenly. “It’s a noun and a verb. I need to write it down for Milo.”
We never did make it to the tree. They cut it down, and I don’t think we’ve spoken about it since. I am so mad at us for not getting there to take that picture. It’s so perfectly representative of so many of the things I’m mad at, all the things that keep falling through the cracks. We don’t get the gutters cleaned, we don’t finish reading the parenting books, we don’t save enough money for Christmas presents, we don’t plan vacations, we don’t go to couples therapy. Our struggles these days have darkened and rusted into something beyond the ordinary vicissitudes of life. These days will not be the ones that we look back on and laugh about. And the battles we are fighting right now are too complicated to be described in simple terms of victory or loss.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the (often barely perceptible) difference between letting go and giving up. I’ve been thinking about how they had to cut down the maple tree at Mount Pollux, because it had been hit by lightning so many times that it was too damaged to continue standing, and how sad it felt to let that tree go.
We are light years away from where I thought we’d be. I remember how at our wedding in 2007, somebody gave a speech and described the two of us as being “lit up like stars.” The other day, Milo came home from camp nearly bursting with the new knowledge that the light we see when we look up at the night sky is partially from stars that are already dead, and burned out. “They’re not really there anymore, but we can still see them and know they were beautiful,” he explained. Even for stars that burn out, there is no doubt a glow that lasts beyond itself. (“Glow can be a noun or a verb,” I reminded Milo, scribbling it on a Post-It for him to stick in his Mad Libs book.)
Our wedding anniversary is this weekend. Eleven years. The anniversary gift for eleven years is steel. Are the gutters made of steel? Maybe we can get each other new gutters for the house. Or, possibly, a lightning rod.
Or maybe we can think of it another way. Steel is also a noun and a verb. As a noun, it is hard and cold; rigid and impassive. But steel as a verb, like any good verb, denotes movement, mutability, action. Maybe the gift is to make this the year to brace, fortify, and strengthen; chain-linked arms holding each other up, galvanized.