By Sally Bittner Bonn
July 4, 1994. I am home from college for the summer, walking back to my mom’s house after the nighttime display in the downtown sky. The sidewalks are navigable, the streets are not—bumper-to-bumper cars moving at a crawl. My friend and I turn to one another and agree that a bicycle would be a much wiser mode of transportation than a car. At that moment David appears out of the crowds—on his bicycle. We had just started working together, a couple weeks prior, and had clearly started taking a liking to one another. We smiled at each another on the holiday street, both silently marveling at the serendipity of running into one another amidst the crowds, just outside of downtown in this city of a quarter million. That was the moment the real fireworks went off. And that is the moment we mark as the beginning of our relationship.
Every year since, I have joked on this anniversary, “It’s Independence Day! Get away from me! I need some independence!” But, indeed, it is our individuality, and our commitment to our own independent endeavors and interests and needs—and our commitment to supporting one another in our individuality—that have helped fuel our relationship, and keep it going for so many years. Who knew that 20 years later we’d have traveled tens of thousands of miles, lived on two coasts, taken on many creative endeavors, and would be raising a very special boy together?
Taking creative time for ourselves has been one key to our relationship and to the well-being of our family. We are both writers, and David is a musician—and we both have day jobs—but we can’t live without our muses. We each use our art to help process the challenges we face as parents of a special needs child. We actually schedule creative time in the calendar regularly for each of us.
Socializing individually has been so important, as well. David and a couple friends established MENDay night. The three regular participants do happen to be men, but the emphasis is on mending (and the original incarnation of the event took place on Monday nights). They go out for a beer, or to hear a band, or to sit on someone’s porch in warmer weather, and they talk. I have a moms’ group I have been a part of since Oscar was 4 weeks old. For three years, the group of about ten met weekly—moms & kids. Once the kids started preschool, the moms started gathering occasionally in the evenings. And a cup of tea with a friend out of the house, does wonders for me.
Taking time as a couple is so important, too. We try to go out on a date at least once a month. We rarely go to the movies, because being in a quiet place, sitting across the table from one another talking, with no interruptions, seems more important. Recently, we knew we had gone too long without a date, so we scheduled one. The night before, Oscar came down with strep and we had to cancel. We were distraught. But we came up with a solution: we could have a date at home. I put Oscar to bed and David picked up take-out from one of our favorite restaurants. Then I set the dining room table, (which we tend to use only for holidays), with candles, and a glass pitcher of water with lemon slices in it. We sat together for an hour and a half at the table, having quiet, meaningful conversation. We finished our meal and then had tea, and even dessert. It was okay that we didn’t get to go out. We still got what we needed.
David and I have gone away overnight, alone, three times since Oscar was born. The first two were to hear bands we loved, in cities several hours away. We drove most of the day, saw the band, and drove home the next day. My favorite part of both of those trips were the many hours of uninterrupted adult conversation in the car. The third trip was an overnight to a spa—not something in our regular budget. We spent two days essentially doing nothing at all: soaking in the hot tub, getting massages, being still and quiet in the relaxation room. This trip taught us the value of sitting still and reminded us of the value of taking care of ourselves.
Communication is definitely key. We got the idea from our therapist of scheduling time to talk with one another. We could otherwise go weeks at a time going to work, taking care of Oscar, making dinner and cleaning up, and pouring into bed at night with books or a TV show on Netflix—having only talked about the surface happenings of the day, in passing. And yes, now and again we do see a therapist. Not because we feel like our marriage is in danger, but because sometimes the emotions we are handling, and the decisions we’re facing, are mammoth, and having a sounding board, an outside person to help us talk through it all, can be so freeing and illuminating.
Marriage is work. Hard work. Good work, in our case. When we became parents, the nature of that work shifted and changed—as it will for any couple, and the time and energy available to us to do that work, decreased. Fourteen months later, when Oscar was diagnosed with SMA—and we learned he would never walk, and that his life expectancy would be compromised, we were presented with new challenges. We found a way to embrace these challenges, to allow them to bring us closer together.
We’re not perfect by any stretch. We get stressed, overwhelmed by the chaos. We snap at one another on hectic mornings. And then we call one another at work and say I’m sorry. And we forgive, and we move on. We try to remember to ask for help, from one another, and from family and friends. We each bring something unique and important to the relationship. It is our individuality that makes the braiding of two lives together to create this family possible.
For most of the years of our relationship we have refused to celebrate Valentine’s Day, saying that every day should be Valentine’s Day. Now that we’re parents, and parents of a school-aged child, especially, Valentines’s Day has come to mean more. So, Happy Valentine’s Day to all families, of all shapes and sizes, and all abilities. May each of your days be guided by love.
About the Author
Sally Bittner Bonn is currently working on a book-length memoir about the joys and challenges of raising a son with a physical disability. Her poetry has appeared in Don’t Blame the Ugly Mug, Women. Period., and Lake Affect, among others. She works as the Director of Youth Education at Writers & Books, where she also teaches creative writing. She lives with her husband and son in Rochester, NY. Visit her family’s website and blog here: www.oscar-go.org.