My Beautiful Sons,
You’re young men now, 26 and 21, and you’re both more perceptive than I ever was, especially when I was your age and older, when I was full of rage, when I went looking to take it out on any man who’d just hurt another man or, especially, a woman. You’ve heard about this time in my own life, and you’ve read it in the book I wrote about growing up in fallen mill towns where this kind of trouble was so very easy to find. So, because you are — both of you — smarter and more whole than I was at your age, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the notion of truly loving someone and being loved back, terrified me.
The first time I ever went to a therapist I was 24 or 25. This was in my hometown, her office not far from the Y where I lifted weights and hit the heavy bag and kept myself ready for the next fight. A block or two south was the convenience store with cracked front windows and mostly empty shelves that everybody, even the cops, knew was a front for bookies and drug dealers. Across from it was a Laundromat where young mothers washed the clothes of the kids they let run wild through the streets, and to the north was the park where the drunks slept on the ground in the summer on a hill that overlooked the Merrimack River.
The lady who became my therapist for the next few weeks seemed old to me then, though she was only in her early sixties. She had a lined face and wore cardigan sweaters and skirts and nylons. Her eyes were gray but warm. She asked me why I’d come to her, and I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t because I couldn’t stop looking for victimizers to victimize and once almost beat one to death and nearly got beaten to death myself. It wasn’t because I saw the world as a dark place, or that I expected disaster at every turn. It was because more than one girlfriend had said to me, in various ways, “You don’t let me love you.”
It was true. I would much rather do the loving, the rescuing, the tending-to than have it done to me. But as I explained to that smart, kind woman in her small office so many years ago, I knew that if I surrendered to love that I would die. And then this image came to me: a clear glass of warm water and a hard, dissolvable tablet. The water represented the sort of love required of me, the kind where you open your heart fully to the other. The tablet was me. This young man who still remembered as a boy his mother crying herself to sleep in the weeks after his father drove away, this young man who couldn’t get all the fighting out of his head, his mother and father throwing things at each other, swearing, screaming, slamming doors. This young man who watched his still beautiful young mother date man after man after man and asked very few of them to stick around. This young man who, like his brother and sisters, felt tossed out on his own.
I believe we human beings are all a multitudinous mystery, so I reject the notion that it was my childhood alone that formed me into a hard tablet who wanted no part of a glass of warm water, who would rather love than be loved, who would rather hug a woman with one arm because he had to keep the other free to ward off the danger that was surely coming.
I don’t remember what my therapist said to me about this image, but as it hung in the air between us. I knew I did not like what it revealed about me, that I did not trust the good things in this life, that I would rather not love, as the wise saying goes, than lose and hurt again. Then I met your future mother.
When I first saw her, she was doing that thing that made her her; she was dancing on stage, and I was in the audience and I could not take my eyes off her. I was drawn not so much to her physical beauty as I was to the power she exuded as she moved. Like she needed no one. Like the world was hard, yes, but dance.
Then, months later, meeting her for the first time, I found myself sitting next to her in the back seat of my friend’s car on a four-hour drive south to New York City. I was heading there to do a reading with your grandfather. She was heading there to visit a friend and to dance. I hadn’t slept much the night before, and she was getting over the flu, and so we both lay our heads on the seats and talked quietly to one another. And the thing is, as I looked into her brown eyes, as I listened to her talk of wanting only to dance and to draw, I recognized her. From long, long ago. From before I was born.
On our first date together, a lunch where I was so nervous I ate only salad, I had to keep looking away from her face because tumbling down through my head was this sentence: “God, that’s my wife.”
I’d never wanted a wife. I never wanted marriage, and I sure as hell wasn’t looking for one. But when I was in the presence of this strong, creative, and beautiful young woman, it was like hearing once again the strains of an ancient music, and I knew I was supposed to move to it, to join myself to it, whether I wanted to or not.
I could have proposed to her that very day, but my fears began to stalk me like a gang of young men years earlier who’d cruised the streets looking for me for weeks. Then a cold February night, 10 months after we’d met, I finally got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. She punched me in the shoulder and said, “What took you so long?”
That night was 30 joyous years ago this month. All the way to our June wedding, I vacillated between hope and black terror. What good could ever come from marriage? What could ever come from love but pain and loss and an acute loneliness?
But here’s the thing: Whenever I was with your future mother, the parts of me I was ashamed of — my lack of faith, my short fuse for bad behavior of any kind — felt smaller around her. And the parts of me that I was not ashamed of — my desire to create art, my tendency to feel compassion for others — felt larger. By opening myself to her love of me, I was opening myself to also loving the boy whom I had stopped loving to protect myself from it all.
Then I was stepping into that terror the same way I learned to square off with a man who had every intention of doing me harm; on a hot, cloudless day in early summer, your mother and I vowed to love one another in her Greek Orthodox church in front of 250 people who loved us, including my mother and father, who had gone on to love other people a few times over yet still loved one another, hugging and kissing and teasing each other whenever they could.
My sons, my true life began when I allowed myself to dissolve into something greater than myself, when I allowed myself to be loved by your mother as I loved her back, an act which then opened into an infinite cosmos of love when you two and your sister were born. And I’m so proud that I don’t have to tell you that women were not put on this Earth to help men; they are not here to serve us, or to bring us pleasure. They are equal beings in bodies different from ours, and their very presence commands respect. What has made these last 30 years with your mother so strong is that equality, and that we learned early on how to fight clean and how to fight as often as we needed to, without calling the other a name, without throwing things at each other, without straying from our vows. And it is my love for this one woman all these years that has carried me into some eternal village of spirits, where I have not died but lived far more fully and acutely than I would have otherwise, and it never would have happened if I had not surrendered to the deep and terrifying and exalting mystery of love.
Andre Dubus III is the author of seven books, including Bluesman, Dirty Love, and the memoir Townie. Born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, Dubus III currently teaches at UMass Lowell. He has also been an instructor at Harvard University. His novel House of Sand and Fog was made into a feature film starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.
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