About this time 27 years ago, I was in a bad place.
On a late summer day in 1992, I came home from my job as a reporter for a suburban daily newspaper.
A job that filled my lifelong dream to be a professional writer. That met my insatiable curiosity and (somewhat cocky) need to be an information authority. That could lead to one day working for the Chicago Tribune and, maybe, writing books.
A job that put me above most of my college peers who’d started their careers at smaller dailies or weekly newspapers as is often the case for many new grads of nearly all smaller universities or those without “Columbia School of Journalism” in their titles.
A job I’d done so well that, in only my second year I was assigned to cover the second phase of a massive and infamous child murder trial. My work on that two-year-long story led my boss to call me his “Golden Boy” and to give me the city beat, the most prestigious in the newsroom. At 24 years old.
A job which defined what and who I was. Or, at very least, what and who my abundant ego imagined I was. As it does for many (most?) men, in a way that many (most?) women cannot understand.
And about an hour earlier, I’d been fired.
Not without cause, I admit. I screwed up. I made three mistakes in print, violating my boss’s “Three Mistake” rule.
That the errors involved several local major mucky mucks magnified their weight. Still, to be fair, I’d have been fired even if the offended parties had been much less important. My boss was at least consistent in that way.
In any case, I was spiritually decimated.
In a matter of a few ill-fated weeks, I’d apparently lost all the journalistic skills I’d honed. I’d forfeited any latitude all my achievements had bought. A mistake was a mistake was a mistake. Errors were black eyes for the newspaper and could not be tolerated.
I’d lost my personal equilibrium. My confidence. My identity.
Worse, I was only three years married. Like many young couples we struggled and scraped, squeezing every penny, doing whatever magic we could to multiply them like Jesus’s fishes and loaves.
How could I face my wife? What would she think of me now that I had failed at the one thing at which I’d supposedly excelled? The foundation of my whole being?
Now, with the benefit of 27 years of hindsight, I know I didn’t need to worry.
My wife Kellie cushioned my crashing ego, consoling me as I sobbed angry, accusatory and fearful tears into her shoulder.
Then she (rhetorically) slapped me, hard.
She held both my hands and said, simply, “Take the weekend, feel sorry for yourself, then on Monday, go get a job.”
It was the best advice of my life.
It set me on a right path, forcing me to learn how to take the bad with the good, even (especially) when the Bad seems absolutely, unquestionably, impossibly insurmountable.
Life is filled with just such mountainous bumps. Yet each can be chopped down to size with candor, courage and a lot of hard work. Just put aside your ego and address the reality of the present rather than the myth of the past or the fantasy of the future.
In other words, get over yourself, get busy and get on with it.
It was a hard life lesson learned the hard way.
The kind of advice that exposed raw anxieties. Necessary, yes, and painful. But less stinging coming from someone who loved me enough to love me honestly.
Now, we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on September 16th.
And I thank Kellie for this and countless other examples of her pragmatic wisdom and guidance. This, perhaps more than anything short of our children has been her greatest gift to me.
Her ability to understand and sympathize, then find a way forward has steadied our rudder amid more Life storms than I can even recount.
I have witnessed these razor-sharp, hammer-blunt skills used coldly and effectively with nearly everyone in her life – our kids, other adults, even her employees.
Ironically, many of her staff, most of whom are barely out of their teens see her as “Momma Kellie” when she listens kindly to their complaints about this problem or that. They sometimes forget that they’re in the adult world now. They never realize that “Momma Bear” isn’t far behind when their young adult angst crosses the line into inappropriate nonsense.
I often say, with tongue firmly in cheek that I am very nearly perfect. So, Kellie’s approach to life is often frustrating in the moment.
Yet, with the grace of time and love, that moment usually passes, and I come to understand and (usually) even admit the rightness of her position.
I am not perfect.
Kellie is not perfect.
Heck, we are not perfect.
But we are perfect for each other.
We balance each other after all these years.
Kellie is that person who waits patiently in line at the Wal-Mart behind the guy with three shopping carts full of stuff in the 20 items or less aisle. I am the one who screams obscenities at the local coffee shop because I had to wait 10 minutes for my drink.
Together, we have suffered professional upheavals, financial hardship, health issues, parenting challenges and personal hurdles that would have killed many a lesser partnership.
In those times we cried together. Held the other close. Offered each other the support that can come only from the other half of one’s true soul.
We struggled through. We survived. We succeeded.
And then, when the clouds broke, we celebrated. Often with family and dear friends. But always, first and foremost, with each other. The kind of celebration that can come only with the other half of one’s true soul.
For any partnership to work right and well, the tears must be taken together with the laughter. That is the secret – if there is such a thing — to staying together 30 days much less 30 years.
Now we look comfortably toward Tomorrow, whatever it may bring.
Retirement? Soon, we hope, but probably not soon enough.
Travel? That’s our dream. Wherever our hearts take us, in a small camper, for weeks at a time.
Grandkids? As many as our kids will give us, whether two-footed or four. Every one of them will get whatever they want from Nana and Papa.
The point is, whatever the future holds for us, we will be holding each other.
Picking each other up.
Sharing a quiet Sunday morning cup of coffee.
Screaming with laughter.
What we know, and what we cannot yet imagine.
All that, and more.
I wrote this poem for our wedding and share it now to mark our 30th anniversary. It is even more true today than it was all those years ago.
She is magnificent gift,
Serene, secure, intelligent, beautiful. Like the beach, always there
to soothe the passion of the waves frenzied by storm after life’s storm.
Caress them, quietly absorb their unguided anger, unknowing fury.
And by taking, she gives.
Little by little, grain by grain.
They pulse with life, discernible in their individuality.
Always, always perfectly whole, becoming a part of each other, their
best elements combined, but never, never repressed.
They prove the genius of compromise, the brilliance of compassion, the
rightness of forgiving.
They leave no question, for those who still do, that God, and His love are real.