Think I’ll get engaged in this episode? Yes, we’re up to Part 5, possibly the last, of this story. It’s taken longer to rewrite and post this than it did to live it. Then again, I’ve also been living while writing, so… there you go, or something.
So we headed out for our walk. I told Liana that my cousin was in charge, which she loved, and then out the door we went. Oddly enough, no one asked us to help clean up before we went. (You’d think that would have been a clue. But no.)
When we got to the bottom of the stairs, Rich looked back and forth for a moment. “Which way to go, which way to go?” I suggest one way and he said, “I’d like to go in the direction of the Pancake House.” Oh, I said, okay, and we headed the other way instead.
Meanwhile, inside my most quiet private self, I was thinking, “The Pancake House? Why are we going there? Oh. Oh dear. Is this what I think it is?”
As we walked along, Rich commented on how cold it was. He was only wearing a sweatshirt, and it really was too cold for just that. (December and he was only wearing a sweatshirt…. He’s better trained now.) And golly, he walked fast! As we rounded the bend and stepped onto the bike path that goes around NIH, I finally took his arm and said, “I can’t walk this fast. Please, slow down!” (Think he was nervous?)
So he did, all while telling me that it was cold. Yet he wanted to hold my hand rather than a glove, so I wore one and he kept my other hand warm in his own. Have I mentioned that his hands are wonderful? Just thought I ought to remind you of that. (They still are.)
As we walked along, I reminded him of a list of questions that had been in the New York Times recently — things one ought to know about one’s significant other before making a commitment to marry. There were many difficult things between us. There was the distance. Three boys on his side and one lovely-and-demanding girl on mine. Careers that get in the way. And one other thing that I have rarely mentioned in public– a disagreement about having more kids. It frightened him — and was something I very much wanted. (Y’all know how that turned out — we still have the three boys and the one girl. Given how things have evolved since then, it’s a good thing that we decided not to have more. It was still a really hard decision.)
There were other things on the list. One was “What annoys you about my family?” I laughingly reminded him of that one, since he’d just spent 24 hours surrounded by them. He said that for the most part he was finding it easier to be around them than previously, though he could see some things that would bother him in the long run. (My family, I’d like to note, is about as fractious and difficult as a family can be. They are also funny, kind, caring, and generally good people. So his answers made good sense to me — the things that annoyed him annoy me, too. He can see that that’s not all that the family is made of.) . (And — they are less fractious today than they were then. Lots of things have changed in that 11 years.)
He mentioned that my dad had seemed a bit giddy at dinner, and I agreed. (Dad had made some odd comments about Rich being the only one not related, and the entire table pointed out other people who weren’t related.)
As we approached the yellow slides (a playground so named since Liana was able to talk), I suggested that we not go all the way to the Pancake House, but instead turn around before that. I was a little worried about Liana and how late it was getting. She needed to get to bed and it was already after 8pm. He said no, we needed to run up the stairs (the Pancake House is on a plaza that’s above street level) like Rocky.
I chuckled, knowing that he and his boys had been watching the old Rocky movies recently. Yet the back of my mind was going, “Rocky? Run up stairs? Uhmmmmmmmm…” Behind that was a very quiet voice shrieking in utter panic. His warm hand in mine kept me going.
As we walked along the last stretch, we were in the downtown area of Bethesda. It was amazingly quiet — that area is full of restaurants and usually it’s busy in the evenings. I guess no one goes out to eat on the day after Christmas. (Actually, no one is even in town during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.) . We talked about restaurants we might want to try, but the conversation seemed to lag a bit.
Then we were walking up the stairs to the plaza and my hands were starting to be clammy. Is this? No. It can’t be. Is it? No. It can’t be. He asked me what time it was and I pulled out my phone to look. 8:28pm. 8/28. The day that, in 2005, I gathered up the shreds of my courage and dignity and sent him a text message that ended nine months of almost perfect silence. It can’t be.
Then he was laughing and standing up on top of a rock — one that I fell off of a year ago in September. The very first time he visited after that long, cold, silent time. The last time I had tried to jump up on that rock, I’d fallen badly. I landed on my shoulder and neck and came as close as I ever have to breaking my neck. I heard all the vertebrae pop that day — and then stop with a wild stretch as my body tried to keep going, at what felt like only a step before the pop would have been breaking.
I hesitated a moment. Do I want to climb up onto this rock with this laughing man, holding out the hands I love? I may fall off again and I don’t really want to break my neck tonight.
I stepped up, holding onto his hands, and we looked at each other for a moment.
Still laughing and holding my hand, he leapt to the next rock and I followed. So we went, leaping along the rocks, him making sure I was steady and me laughing along behind. (Note for current self: No more rock jumping. The ankle won’t take it.) Once he had to let go of my hand for a long leap, and then turned to catch me as I jumped across as well.
We stepped down from the rocks and he was laughing again. “Now, around the circle like a train — because that’s what Liana and her friend Owen did when we brought them here. (Owen and Liana, now very grown-up at 15, no longer play trains.) . So around we went, my hands at his waist. He was doing a cha-cha sound while I made train noises, and I thought, “No. This is just fun. Just fun, and great fun it is. I really like this man a lot.”
We were both laughing and out of breath when he took my hand again and began to lead me down from the stage where we;d been standing. I thought for a moment that we were heading home, and then he stopped next to that very first rock, the one that nearly killed me when I fell head over heels for him.
“Have a seat, love,” he said, hands firmly in mine.
Then I fell off the rock again.
I swear, I did, and Rich will attest to it.
His hands, warm and strong on mine, caught me before I hit the ground. We were laughing as he began to speak, and then I wasn’t laughing anymore because he was down on one knee in front of me. (Ooo, on a knee. Makes me ache just thinking about it… good grief, we’ve gotten old.)
“I’ve been very happy the last year and a half,” he said, “and a lot of that is about you, Joanna. I can be on this knee at least partly because of you. (See previous picture of him with the wrap and the crutches…) And I want to know if you’ll walk in streets of fire with me, because sometimes they will be. And I want to know if you’ll walk in fields of clover with me. Will you walk even closer?”
I lost my smile as he spoke, and I could feel my heart racing in my chest. Oh. My. He really is. Oh my. Yet his warm hands in mine, his eyes — holding the warmth of the sun even in the dark in December — his soul, keeping my heart safe even when I’m scared and even when I’m angry and even when I’m lost.
“If I give you my hand, will you take it? And make me the happiest man in the world? Help me tie up the ends of a dream. Joanna, will you marry me?”
He took a cream-colored box out of his pocket and opened it, offering me a diamond ring that, even in that dim light, sparkled and twinkled at me. I’ll admit now that I couldn’t get anything like a good look at it and had absolutely no sense of what it looked like; I suspect I squinted at it for a fiftieth of a second. Then I looked back up at him, for I’d learned something important in that fiftieth of a second. I really didn’t care what the diamond looked like at all. Not even a little. For all of me, it could’ve been a ring from a Cracker Jack box. (It wasn’t.)
I took his hand and pushed the box aside. “There’s something more important than that,” I said. “Hang onto that and don’t lose it. But right now…” I put my hands on either side of his face, pulling him closer. “I’ve been very happy, too. I’ll walk with you. Through streets of fire and fields of clover. I love you.” We lost ourselves in each other for a long moment of timeless eternity. There was a kiss. You know the kind of kiss I mean if you’ve ever been in one. The kind that, even after it ends, sends ripples of change up and down the time stream, creating its own reality as it goes. That kind of kiss.
Then he was taking the ring out of the box and there was a moment of — something. Recognition, maybe, of a step forward that Meant Something — and he put it on my finger. I looked at it and I looked at him and I had no idea what to say. Me, for once in my life, completely at a loss for words. He commented that that was worth writing about — I always have something to say (or at least write).
Quickly enough he was pulling me over to the windows of an art gallery on the plaza. He wanted me to see the ring in real light. Even that wasn’t “real” enough to get a sense of it, I’m sorry to say, and I didn’t come to appreciate its beauty until the next day when I saw it in daylight. Let me say for the record now, though, that it is completely perfect and absolutely lovely. (I went and got it cleaned yesterday. It’s still a spectacular ring.) As we turned away from the gallery hand in hand, he pointed to our reflection in windows across the way. “What do you see?”
“That’s what we’ll look like to the congregation when we turn to face them.”
Oh. OH. OHBOY. OHMYGOD.
I think I just giggled. I said to him, quietly, “Somewhere far back in the deep recesses of my head, there is a small voice that’s screaming in complete panic.”
He nodded and said, “Let me know if you need to reconsider. I’ve got until January 15 to return the ring. They gave me extra time because I was going to be out of town.”
Oh good, I thought. I’m glad he took care of that detail, just in case. And then, And there is no way on God’s Green Earth that I’m giving this ring back, buster!
Then I was in his arms, holding on tight and whispering, “Will you keep my heart safe?” (I realize, after all that I’ve written, that this seems somewhat insane. I will just note that taking this step, after all we had both been through, made me both insanely happy and reminded me of all the similar steps I’d taken that had turned out so badly.)
He held me just as tight and said, “That’s my job. I’ll do the very best I can at it.”
Then we were giggling again, floating on air and love. We walked home in a state of something less coherence than when we’d arrived. Once again I wasn’t wearing a glove, and the ring got in the way of his hand. But we managed and it was fun to do it.
Three or four blocks later, he paused and looked at me. “You know, you didn’t actually say yes.”
Good heavens. I didn’t? Really? I thought back through what I had said. Golly. I guess I didn’t. “Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!!!” With a kiss after each word because it needed emphasis. I think probably there were a few people looking at us somewhere along in there, but I never saw their expressions. I just remember the sounds of feet walking by. (I remember the yesses. I no longer remember the footsteps.)
Somewhere along the way I started thinking about what I was going to tell my parents. We’re not very good at this stuff, the telling each other major news. Or at least I’m not any good at it. I won’t go into how long it has sometimes taken me to tell them things, but I knew for a fact that I couldn’t do it by e-mail or phone this time. EEEEEEEEEK. So Rich asked me what I was going to tell them and I said something coherent like, “OHMYGOD I have to tell my parents. What am I going to tell my parents? OHmyGOD.” About like a 16 year old caught out after curfew with a boy, really.
Rich just chuckled and let me babble.
As we walked home he said, “Is this the way we came?” and I said yes and he said, “I don’t remember. I was a little preoccupied.”
Heh. Yes, you were, love. Yes you were.
Further along the way, under the stars, I stopped suddenly. “You know. For a long time I’ve said that I would walk away if your ex wanted to reconcile, that I wouldn’t stand in the way. And I said that there would be a time when that would end. It has ended. I am not walking away from you if that happens.”
He picked me up and swung me around and laughed and laughed under those stars. Then he set me down — and picked me up in his arms, carrying me the way a married man carries his bride. I think he would have carried me home that way if I hadn’t made him put me down again.
I love him. (Yup, still do. Maybe more now, or at least more… knowledgeably.)
I worried for the rest of the way about what I was going to say to my family. I had no idea — my mind was truly completely blank. When we got to the stairs to my house, I looked up and paused. He asked me, “What’re you going to say?” and I said I had no idea.
When we walked in, the very first person I saw was my cousin. She gave me the Look. You know the one. Well, no, you don’t, because you don’t know my family. But there’s a family look that means that there are Things Going on. There was a moment of silence, and then I just held up my hand. Because my head was completely empty by then and there was no hope of putting words into it.
So she hugged me — and hugged me a lot, too. She’s been rooting for me and Rich for a long time, and thoroughly approved of him ever since she met him over Memorial Day Weekend.
I walked a little further into the house to take off my coat and met my brothers heading down to the basement for a break from Liana. (I could hear her shrieking happily; she’d obviously worn out all the adults by then.) I caught the younger one and again, at a loss for words, just held up my hand. His eyes got big, and then he grinned, and then he hugged me and shook Rich’s hand. He said, “Congratulations!” to me. And then, to Rich, he said, “My condolences.”
(At the time, I explained it this way: Because, of course, now Rich is going to be a member of my admittedly-crazy family and he’ll have to find a way to work with it all. It’s not so easy. Now, I just roll my eyes and comment, “Brudders.”)
I walked in to talk to my dad, who was sitting in the family room. My cousin went off to get my mom. While I stood there trying to figure out what to say and Dad looked at my hand, there was a long moment of silence, and then he remembered to act surprised and pleased. He got up and hugged me, shook Rich’s hand, and then things get a little blurry for me. Somewhere in there my cousin came back downstairs and said that she’d seen mom looking at THINGS on the computer. What kind of things? WHITE THINGS.
That confused me, but I figured that somewhere along the way mom had intuited a clue or two.
She didn’t show up for a while, and someone popped a champagne cork and started pouring it and sparkling cider. Someone else rounded up Liana, who was hiding in the basement waiting for me to come find her. Eventually mom came downstairs after dad called her and everyone had champagne. Her first words were to Rich: “My tongue is perforated, Mr. Derksen!”
That was when I finally figured out that they already knew, and Rich told me about calling my parents. It flashed through my mind to think, “All that time I was worrying about him and my family and being separated from them. And he was already here.” A very comforting thought, that.
We toasted our engagement, glasses clinking all ’round. Liana, standing in the middle and below everyone, got missed until I saw her and then we all clinked her glass too. She loved it so much that we toasted again and again — birthdays, holidays, everything we could think of, until finally it was time to take a very sleepy little girl upstairs and put her to bed.