This week’s essay, written Louise Gleeson, is about a harrowing night during which the author awaited news of her parents’ fate following a tragic accident. Over the course of many scary hours, Louise reflected on her parents’ marriage. It’s funny how our opinions on marriage change as we get older and our own relationships mature and flourish, or fall apart. Do we learn how be in a successful relationship by modeling our parents behaviors or by avoiding their mistakes? And considering the fact that each marriage is unique, does it even matter? I can’t give away the ending, but I hope you enjoy this wonderful piece of writing. – Allie
What a Sinking Ship Taught Me About Love
I’m a high maintenance bedfellow. A sliver of light or a creak of sound during my descent into sleep means game over for the rest of the night. And I’m not that nice about it.
Despite my nocturnal shortcomings, my husband and I have been sharing a bed for two decades, and we’ve become skilled partners under the sheets. I am persistent in my belief we should end each day side by side, and he puts up with me.
I hadn’t thought about it in a bigger picture way until that night. I could hear him moving overhead, dawdling and distracting himself until I came up after him. Sometimes, he gives up and goes to bed ahead of me, especially at the end of one of those days that make it hard to feel any generosity towards each other. But that night, he was waiting.
I was scrolling through my online news feed one last time, before letting the dog out and turning lights off downstairs, when I saw a breaking news headline from The New York Times, “Cruise ship sinks in China on Yangtze River.”
I must have called out his name sometime during the rush between my desk and laptop, with a copy of my parents’ travel itinerary trembling in my hand. I crouched on the floor, not trusting my legs, and desperately tried to clear my thoughts before the pounding sound of my pulse filled the space between my ears.
Somehow he was down on the floor beside me while my panicked whisper filled him in: “My parents’ cruise ship is on the Yangtze River today.” I could hear myself repeating it again and again, as though to convince him to take action—because I didn’t know what to do next.
It was of no consolation that the initial news report said the boat was carrying Chinese tourist groups. My parents never travel through Asia with North American tour groups; they prefer a more authentic experience that allows my adventurous Irish father to enjoy the traditional Asian cuisine and entertainment he has learned to embrace since falling in love with my Chinese mother. In a Skype call a few days earlier, he had boasted about being dubbed Mr. China by his fellow travellers for his ability to assimilate into the local culture.
When my eyes traveled further down the news story to the fact all those on board were between 50 and 80 years of age, I had to flatten myself on the floor to brace against the sudden tilt of the room. The location of the sunken ship was the same sightseeing destination my parent’s cruise ship was meant to be visiting that day.
I watched my husband quietly compare the itinerary he had taken from me to the news article on the screen, and when I saw him begin a search for a contact number on an official government website, I squeezed my eyes closed against the visual of my parents drowning.
I let myself calculate the time difference and started to shake uncontrollably as I imagined them in the past tense. A single thought looped through my brain, like it was trying to keep pace with my persistent pulse:
They must have been so scared for each other.
Because I knew if they were on that sunken ship, any fear they felt for themselves would be overwhelmed by the fear they felt for the other. They met and married within six months, against the wishes of both their mothers, because they knew their marriage would leave no room for second-guessing. They raised my sister and me during a time when interracial marriages and biracial children were still something to be judged. They have always been united, because it was an essential part of their choice to be together.
They started traveling abroad without us when I was in my senior year of high school, leaving my younger sister and their travel itinerary in my trustworthy care. It was only when we were grown, and they had both retired, that my mom started including up-to-date photocopies of their passports—in case something happened to them, she explained.
I told her she was being morbid the first time I noticed the additional pages, and she looked at me and said, “If something happened while your father and I were on a trip together, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.”
After we found the number for our government’s travel crisis helpline and gave them my parents’ passport numbers, I followed my husband upstairs not knowing what else I could do. I tried to read a book while waiting for a return call. Beside me, he eventually fell asleep and quietly started to snore. It wasn’t keeping me up this time; I had my adrenaline to do that instead.
Sometime during my teen years, my mom began sleeping upside down in the bed to create some space between her ears and the sound of my dad’s snoring. We used to make fun of them, saying we never knew where we would find her in the bed by morning.
When my sister finally left for university, my mom made the space between her and my dad even greater by moving into the empty room and setting up a new place to sleep. By then, I had started my own journey into romantic relationships, and instead of laughing at their sleeping arrangements, I was judgmental and indignant repeatedly telling her something like snoring would never separate me from my partner in bed.
Maybe I thought it was a sign they had allowed staleness into their relationship, like they weren’t trying hard enough or too easily letting a distance grow between them. At the time, I was still greedy for outward gestures and declarations to reassure me of my romantic partners’ love. Losing myself to that togetherness was part of what I thought united a couple that had declared themselves in love.
My mom would tell me, “Your dad keeps me up. And knowing he keeps me up, keeps him up.” She reassured me they didn’t need to sleep beside each other to stay in love. She was steadfast in her belief. They’ve happily maintained their sleeping arrangement ever since.
Still, it sounded more practical than loving. And I was determined that once I found someone to share my bed with every night, I would not let any space come between us.
I did end up meeting him, the guy who taught me that losing myself to him was not the best way to love or be loved. The reassurances of his love are there beside me each night, whether he is in the bed with me or not. Every time we brought one of our four children home, he moved out of our room for the first few months to allow me to synchronize my sleep with our newborn. He often slept on a couch or curled up in a twin bed in one of the other kids’ rooms And I knew it was a sign of growing love, not an indication that it was lacking.
My parents knew they could be apart without losing their closeness. But when I challenged her all those years ago, my mom was too wise to give that advice away easily. She let me watch her and my dad figuring it out, so I could too. They had a ritual of kissing each other on the lips exactly three times whenever one of them left the house, and that didn’t change with the adjustment to their sleeping habits. In fact, I didn’t notice any blips in their affection for one another. Their nightly ritual of checking in with each other before turning in has been going strong ever since.
And so, while I waited to hear if my parents were on that ship, I was stuck on that thought. If either of my parents had a chance to swim to safety, put on a life jacket, or be rescued, they would have refused unless they could stay together. Their love, even with a greater physical distance placed between them during the nighttime hours, never translated to what they feel for one another.
Maybe, I realized as I waited for news of my parents’ fate, years of partnership turn the desperate need to press our bodies against one another into a quiet gratitude and respect for the other parts of ourselves that become connected.
When the call finally came several hours later, and I was reassured my parents had been further along the Yangtze than the fateful cruise ship, my husband sat up in our bed and shared my relief and tears. Then, without needing a reminder, he turned on his side and settled into a position least likely to make him snore.
And I reached for his hand under the covers and tried to fall asleep before he did.
Louise Gleeson is a journalist, blogger and mother of four. She writes about parenthood, relationships, food and her obsession with concerts. She does whatever she can to avoid acting her age and is on a mission to flog the internet with optimism and joy. Louise blogs at http://www.latenightplays.com and can be found on Instagram and Twitter @louisegleeson
**Our theme for our May Voices column is “motherhood.” Email Allie at herstoriesvoices @ gmail.com to submit, and check out our submission guidelines first. We will then take a summer hiatus from our column and will announce our fall themes and re-open submissions in August.