Sitting on the couch watching telly, M turned to and very casually asked, “So, what do you want for your birthday then?” It was Wednesday of last week, and my birthday — a very Significant Birthday — was only a few days away. The sound of the telly faded from my consciousness abruptly as I looked at him, dumbfounded.
M has not had a good track record these past few years when it comes to my birthday. He started out just great a decade ago, when love was fresh and the stakes were high, but these days… Well, I haven’t had a birthday or Christmas present from him for about three years running now, except for one book that he grabbed at the grocery store on Christmas Eve. And not wanting to continue this trend, I have been reminding him of the Significant Birthday almost every day for the last four months. So it really did stop me cold when he asked his question.
“Youuuu… ummmm…” Paused, dumbstruck again, and then found my words, “You haven’t bought me a gift yet?!?” It was said with calm control, but with a rising irritation he could hear plainly.
He decided to play with fire. “When have I had time to go shopping for a gift?!?” It’s true that he works practically every hour God sends, but if he thought that kind of logic was going to help his cause in any way, then he clearly did not understand what he was walking into.
I will spare you the full transcript, but suffice to say I flew almost instantly into a full-blown rage, and proceeded to tear strips off him in a manner that he never saw coming. Honestly! When did he have time?!? He’d had the past four months that I’d been reminding him every other day! No, he’d had the past YEAR, because — conveniently enough — my birthday rolls round with stunning predictability. I’d even made a wishlist for him and emailed it to him, as well as my sister and my mother.
He made more feeble attempts, pointing out that he barely knows how to use the computer, let alone how to buy off a wishlist… and I blasted back that he could have asked my sister, my mother, or even ME to walk him through it. He made noises about me maybe helping him now… and I nearly spat that it was too late — most everything on my list was obscure enough to need to be back-ordered, almost nothing could be bought now, with my birthday only a few days away. He’d blown it! He’d blown it AGAIN! And that realisation motivated me to really rip into him in earnest, at full volume and with hands waving wildly, and — I’m quite sure — steam blasting out of my ears.
There was no stopping me and he didn’t fight it. He sat quietly and let me go on and on and on. And then, at a moment when I paused to draw breath, he said quietly — so quietly I barely noticed he’d spoken — “Could we… could we just forget this happened?”
I stopped at that. This is what psychologists call the “rescue moment” — he was trying to rescue this, to claw it back before it really went too far. He was presenting me with a fork in the road and I could choose which way to go: to follow his lead and rescue this, or to carry on tearing mercilessly into my husband’s psyche. I thought about it for a moment, and the sensible part of me decided to stop now, to go with the rescue.
But then, just as I opened my mouth to say something mature and calm, I realised what was about to happen. I would forgive and forget this ever happened, he would rush out the next day and try to buy something… something… some little trinket or maybe the easiest thing on the wishlist or, heck, a book from the grocery store again… And on my birthday I’d stick by the bargain and say, ooooh thank you, thank you, and give him a kiss… And the whole time — the whole stinking time — I’d know that, actually, he’d forgotten. Actually, he’d forgotten my birthday again. So there was no “forgetting this had happened”. It couldn’t be done — the cat was out of the bag, the truth was told: he had forgotten my birthday again, even though this was an Important Birthday, even though I’d been reminding him, even though I’ve been a GOOD WIFE, DAMMIT! He hadn’t cared enough about me to make as much paltry effort as was needed to just remember my birthday long enough to order a present off a wishlist. And now I knew it, and there was no “forgetting” that.
And so when I opened my mouth, instead of going with the rescue moment, I let all of that fury and frustration fall out instead — very loudly and for a very long time. And when I was done, I turned back to the telly and just sat staring in its general direction and so angry my stomach ached.
M let out a little groan and I looked at him. His face was twisted, his jaw clenched at an odd angle, and he was looking at the floor. Then a glance at me. And then, “No… wait.” A pause, a deep slow inhale, and then very quickly, all in one breath: “Look, something’s been done. It’s… it’s been taken care of.” And then his eyes back to the floor, and an uncomfortable silence.
Suddenly I understood. He’d got me a gift. He’d remembered my birthday — not forgotten me at all. And he’d just been winding me up and it went too far and he’d not known how to pull it back. But he hadn’t forgotten me at all.
And it was only then that I felt the full strength of how hurt I’d been by his question. The feeling took me completely by surprise, and churned violently in my stomach, and mixed with the relief and the regret that were washing over me like waves. I felt suddenly nauseated. And all that emotion rose up from my gut so fast that I couldn’t contain it — up through my chest and spilled out across my face, mouth open and pulled tight, eyes closed. And I managed a soft “oh no!” before it all escaped from me with a sound a little like belch, and I burst into sobs that racked my whole body and revealed, there for him to see, just how much the being forgotten has hurt these past few years.
“Oh no,” he repeated back, so lost for words that he could only borrow my own, and then sat there, helpless beside his blubbering wife, no idea what to do with her. This what never what he’d intended — he’d only been taking the mick — and now he wasn’t quite sure how it had gone so far. He’d never meant to hurt me. He put his arm around me and pulled me in. I needed that desperately, but there was no outward sign that it help — I couldn’t stop crying. He let me go, except for one hand that he held, and stared at the floor. Eventually, I calmed myself down. We sat for a while, both a bit shell-shocked, and neither of us knowing what to say.
My birthday was absolutely wonderful. There were balloons and singing and three cakes and my family all around me. My children presented me with hand-made gifts. It was not a big celebration, but it was exactly what I’d hoped for.
Led by M into the next room, I spotted a bouquet of balloons first and then, underneath it, a huge box wrapped in flowered paper. I knew immediately — there was only one thing that would be in a box so big — and the realisation made my lip quiver. I tore the wrapping off and spotted that I was right. “Oh sweetheart, look!” my mother exclaimed to my father, “She’s crying!”, and her announcement embarrassed me sufficiently to stop the tears before they really started. But the emotion was the same, and I was overwhelmed. “Something’s been done,” he’d said and, indeed, something had. It was the Lendrum spinning wheel I’ve been coveting for a year; the wheel with an 18-month waiting list, and my mother had had to ring a dozen places before she found one in stock; the wheel we couldn’t afford. I pulled to from the box, put it together there and then, treadled and felt the silky movement of the mechanism, wished for fiber and spun air instead. Over the moon! Over the bloody chuffing moon and not knowing how to really tell them all properly and just hoping they could tell by the trance I was in.
Later, after my family had gone back into the kitchen to pick at the leftovers and I was still sat treadling, M came in and knelt next to me. “Do you like it?”
“Yes!”, with shock and incredulity plain in my voice, feet still treadling, hands spinning air.
“The thing is… we, um…” He took my hands. “I have to pay my portion of it. Ummm… I owe your mum. I don’t really know where that’s going to come from.” He had to tell me, because I handle the finances and, when money has to be found, I am the one who finds it.
But I didn’t mind, because he hadn’t forgotten me. He’d got me my heart’s desire, taken that plunge even when he didn’t know how he’d pay for it. He could have been sensible and bought a book from the list, but he hadn’t. He’d bought me what he knew I really wanted because he loves me, and love is not sensible. It was never about the gift — it was about being remembered.
And that was what I’d needed — what I’d been needing for a long time. And now, to his surprise, I could offer back a little of what he needed. “I have something we can put toward it, ” I said, as he looked up with surprise. “About half of it.” Because I’d gone to my knitting group earlier in the week and cards had suddenly appeared, and some of those cards contained money from new friends who had read my previous post and had taken the opportunity to act like old friends. “It’s for your Lendrum fund,” one had said, and I nearly cried there too, stunned by their generosity.
There were loud voices from the kitchen and then laughter, and I felt a warmth rush over me. There is much in our lives that we have to worry about but, at that moment, none of it was touching me. I had my family gathered around me, a husband who (secretly) loves me, and — after a long time — I have some friends.
And those things alone were gift enough. But then, there was also the brand new Lendrum, whirring away softly at my feet.