Say only to one another:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money;
I give you myself before preaching and law:
Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
~From “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman
Ten years ago today, I gave my hand and my love to my Camerado and officially and legally joined with him on the Open Road called Life. It took me awhile to get there. For more than a year Rich had teased me with “I think we should get married,” to which I would smile and tease back in a sing-song, “May-be. Some-day.” It became a little joke between us. By that stage of my life, I had lived confidently and independently for many years. Traveled around the globe, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Had my own network of close friends, managed my own affairs, treasured the calm and serenity of my own home. As much as I cherished our new relationship and wanted to deepen our bonds, most times I was also quite content in my single life. When the wind is in your sails, why tack and change direction unless it is absolutely necessary?
Then about a month after we moved into the house that we bought together, I had lunch with a close friend. After we caught up on the latest news of each other’s lives, Donna asked me if Rich and I were planning to eventually marry, since we now lived together. I told her that I wasn’t sure. Our new arrangement was copasetic just the way it was. Besides, I had just recovered from breast cancer surgery; in fact, was still healing. Our boxes from the move weren’t even fully unpacked. We’d see how this living together stage would turn out. Maybe I’d had enough changes in my life for this year.
Donna asked me if I loved him. No hesitation. “Yes, of course,” I replied. “Then what are you waiting for?” she said. Good question. What indeed? I had no good answer at the moment, but I figured that eventually I’d know if and when marriage was right for me. I’m not by nature impulsive. I knew that my heart and mind needed to firmly align on this one.
My aha moment arrived unexpectedly the very next day. It was a Saturday morning in mid-June; Rich and I had finally gotten around to removing the storm windows for our bedroom windows and putting up the screens. We were dressed in shorts and faded T-shirts, dirty windows sprawled around the room. I looked over at Rich with his bottle of Windex spray and scrunched up newspapers, carefully cleaning and inspecting the corners of the storm windows he had just removed. My heart suddenly felt full. I knew. This was someone with whom I could nest and interweave my life. Permanently. Later that evening over a lovely candlelight dinner that he had prepared for me, I told him just that.
I knew by the end of our first date that I had discovered a man who would be my match, at least intellectually and philosophically. Over a long and leisurely breakfast at the old Ina’s restaurant, we each shared stories of our life’s journeys. Our milestones. Triumphs. Challenges. Political views. I learned that his political life was sparked at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when as a volunteer for the Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential campaign, he was assigned as a driver for Gore Vidal and John Kenneth Galbraith. How he picketed the White House on the evening of the 1970 Kent State shootings of innocent students. Represented conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War as well as the Blackstone Rangers. A decade later, he served as the lawyer for the campaign and administration of the late Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor. Rich entranced me with a more recent story of an anonymous whistle-blower who showed up at his door one day with an armful of employee time sheets from the office of the then-Minority Leader of the Illinois General Assembly. Records that Rich had sought, until then unsuccessfully, through a Freedom of Information request. Those time sheets eventually led to the resignation of one of Illinois’ most powerful politicians.
I never wanted White Bread for a partner. Rich seemed as crunchy and textured as Ina’s homemade wheat rolls in the basket in front of me. Before our first date had ended, we had a second one planned for two days later: a Do-It-Yourself reading of Lysistrata, the classic Greek comedy by Aristophanes about one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War. This was in the weeks leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. How could I not be intrigued?
In the dozen years since that fateful meeting, we’ve woven the threads of our respective lives into a vibrant tapestry that is made to last. A tapestry that includes our amazing community of family and friends as well as our shared interests in liberal politics, social justice, architecture, travel, film, jazz, folk music. Through Rich I’ve been introduced to WFMT-FM’s iconic radio show Midnight Special, The Nation magazine, Sweden, CBS Sunday Morning, pickled herring, Kinky Friedman, electric toothbrushes, Lakerol, and Dr. Strangelove. All of the colors of the interwoven threads became a little brighter and a little stronger than our singular ones.
We love to entertain each other with rich memories of travel adventures that we alone have experienced. Jumping off the Saturday night train from Milan just in time, then hobbling with our clunky suitcases through the darkened cobblestone streets of the Lake Como village of Varenna. The elderly blind woman who swatted Rich with her cane when she found him in her usual jump seat on the return train a few days later. The inscrutable washing machine in our Paris apartment, the one we christened ‘Diabolique’ after she kidnapped Rich’s socks and wouldn’t release them until nine hours later. The dock over the pond in rural Sweden where we swung our legs in the water and watched the purple and golden twilight sky at 10 pm. Getting over the mountain to Durkin’s Pub in a classic Irish driving adventure that involved a giant black-faced sheep in the road. The Wisconsin Supper Club Tour. Buddy Holly’s recording studio and the Oklahoma bowling ball yard art on our Route 66 Adventure last year. Our favorite Seth Peterson Cottage in the Wisconsin woods, to which we return year after year as if on a pilgrimage.
I love it that we’ve even developed our own code words, naming conventions, and sayings, such as our Black Panther of a convertible, Huey P. Newton. As a breakfast treat and with a nod to my childhood, Rich makes me ‘cinnamon rainbow’ toast just like Mombo used to. A call of “Troll Booth!” means that one of us wants a kiss as the other walks by. When he ensures that the bird feeders in the back yard are filled for our little friends, Rich becomes St. Francis of Assisi, aka ‘Frankie.’ We both speak French to ‘La Famille Lapin’, the bunnies who share our yard. “Bon soir, Pierre! Comment allez-vous?” Rich chimes to Pierre and Sophie when he sees their silhouettes on the lawn some moonlit evenings.
As entertaining and engaging as our travel and language forays may be, the threads of our tapestry also include experiences of uncertainty and pain. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer just nine months into our new relationship, Rich was steadfast and loving in his support throughout my journey back to health. My memories of that time include him, with the laser-like focus of a surgeon, tenderly swabbing my rosy mastectomy incision with antibiotic ointment. When I complimented him on his aseptic technique, he replied in all seriousness, “Well, after all, I did learn first aid as a Boy Scout.” We honked together in harmony when we both caught whooping cough. Managed to get through a few hospitalizations for knee replacements, pneumonia, and a scary infection, always by each other’s side.
In recent years, our partnership has strengthened further, throughout the aging and increasing fragility of his beloved parents. My heart melts a little at the memory of Rich helping his 95 year-old father to prepare for bed while I assisted my mother-in-law with the same. I looked over at Rich gingerly rolling off the support stockings over Dad’s painful legs before lifting them slowly into bed. Pulling up the blankets and leaning in for a good night kiss. “I love you, Dad.” We have been faithful companions on that inevitable journey that no one would ever want to make if the choice were otherwise, the end-of-life care for a loved one.
Having a responsive sounding board for discussions of things important to both of us, I’ve found that my own values have been clarified and sharpened. I doubt that on my own I would have embraced the idea of organizing Community Teach-ins against Torture and Human Rights Abuses or for Marriage Equality. Sponsored a Teach-in which commemorated the sacrifices of the heroes of Mississippi Freedom Summer and dissected the current vote suppression efforts underway in many states. Traveled to Selma this past March to be a part of the 50th anniversary remembrances of perhaps the most important turning point in the civil rights movement. My seeds of an active commitment to social justice lay mostly dormant for many years, but now have blossomed through our joint nurturance.
I love knowing that he is always in my corner, always has my back. During a particularly difficult time with a former employer a few years ago, he summed it up neatly: “Sweetheart, they don’t deserve you. They don’t deserve your loyalty.” The crispness, even bluntness, of his conclusion startled me a little. But then I agreed with him, and got through it intact and all the better for the experience. His no-nonsense style has helped to stiffen my Pollyanna tendencies. In turn, I’ve smoothed some of his rough edges by serving as his designated ‘Director of Diplomacy’. Our puzzle pieces fit together quite nicely.
Sometimes in the early morning when I awake to the birds outside our window, I look over at him asleep beside me and just savor the sacred moment, content in the knowledge that I am deeply loved. Have deeply loved. I try never to take for granted what a blessing I have been given. Ten years on, I know that I would give this Camerado my hand and do it all over again.