Four years ago this Thursday, a college junior named Richard took his girlfriend out to dinner. On the way back to campus, he led his girlfriend to a white gazebo in the middle of the local arboretum. He got down on one knee, recited a carefully practiced Shakespearean sonnet with only the barest of hitches, and took out a ring. A look of panic crossed his face.
"I was too busy practicing the poem to think about the question," he said. "So, I guess, um...marry me?"
I didn't hesitate.
I said yes.
Richard and I first met in September 2005, on our first day of Freshman Preceptorial. He was a gangly, nerdy kid in a yarmulke and a ratty t-shirt who openly stared at me through glasses he wore halfway down his nose. Except for an odd, mottled brown patch along his neck, his skin was a Dracula shade of pale. The first words he ever said to me were to call my interpretation of a passage in Their Eyes Were Watching God "the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
I hated him at first sight.
Three weeks into the term, the campus Hillel Club held its first event, a Shabbat dinner at a Jewish professor's house. I arrived to find two dozen girls chatting away and a single gangly, nerdy boy in a yarmulke and ratty t-shirt standing awkwardly in the corner. Richard and I had warred incessantly in class like Republican activists at a primary, but for once, I felt sorry for him. Figuring that he at least knew who I was, I went over and struck up a conversation with him. To my shock, he turned out to be rather meek and sweet in person, quite unlike the arrogant show he put on in class. When one of the girls came around to pass out sheets with the candlelighting blessing in Hebrew, Richard shook his head awkwardly and didn't take one.
"I can't read Hebrew," he confessed.
I stared at his yarmulke in astonishment. "No one ever taught you?" He shook his head. "That's funny," I said. "I used to teach Hebrew at my synagogue back home."
His eyes lit up. "Will you teach me?"
I didn't hesitate.
I said yes.
On June 6, 2011, two years to the day after Richard became the first male (and only second person) in his family to ever graduate college, our son Reuven was born. When this photo was taken, Reuven was less than a day old. When Richard was the same age, he was already battling cancer. For unknown reasons, Richard developed melanoma in utero. By the time he was born, it covered the side of his neck and 60% of his back. He wasn't expected to survive to birth, let alone to adulthood.
The doctors had to wait more than a year before they could treat him. By the time he was six years old, he'd endured six surgeries to replace the cancer with healthy, grafted skin. His back isn't pretty. Whole patches of skin (like the brown one on his neck) are discolored, and tufts of thick hair sprout in strange places. But he is alive.
Reuven's conception was a surprise. From the moment we learned I was pregnant, Richard worried. He feared he would be a bad father, as his own had been. He feared we couldn't afford a child. Most of all, he feared that the same inexplicable cancer that nearly killed him would also afflict his son. Reuven was born healthy, but with several prominent moles. When our pediatrician recommended that a dermatologist examine them, Richard fretted for a week over the fact that he had moles in some of the same places. Only after the dermatologist deemed the moles perfectly normal did Richard finally breathe a sigh of relief.
He has been cancer-free for eighteen years.
Once I began teaching Richard to read Hebrew, we rapidly became close. I spent my spare time at his dorm playing video games. He sat with me and my friends at lunch. Even our in-class relationship improved. To the amusement of our classmates, we went from shouting at each other across the classroom to chatting with each other in adjacent seats within a week's time. One day, our assignment was to write a letter expressing our feelings about The Autobiography of Malcolm X addressed to any person we chose, living, dead, or fictional. Without any collusion on our parts, we addressed our letters to each other.
At that point, I knew I was in love.
I began dropping hints into Richard's Hebrew lessons. I gave him vocabulary words like beshert (soulmate) and ahavah (love). I made flirtatious comments. None of it had any effect. I began to wonder whether he was dense or just not interested. Finally, a few weeks before winter break, I finally worked up the courage to ask him out.
"Richard," I said. "I think you might be my beshert."
He looked at me and blushed. "I've been thinking the same thing."
We walked on in silence for a long, long moment. Then Richard stopped.
"Wait. Does this make you my girlfriend?"
I didn't hesitate.
I said yes.
This photo was taken at a chess tournament when Richard was in middle school. See the unsmiling boy in the blue jacket on the right? That's him. I have albums and albums of photos of myself as a child, but this is the only photo of Richard's childhood I've ever seen. He found it on an old friend's Facebook page.
Richard's father, like his own father before him, was a railroad man. He was also a spouse-abusing alcoholic. My memories from when I was five mostly involve playing on the playground or at a friend's house. One of Richard's memories from the same age involves sitting on the front seat of his father's car, trying to guide his hopelessly drunk father home.
When Richard was two, his mother left. Her departure paved the way for a wicked stepmother worthy of a Disney movie. With the full knowledge (and often assistance) of Richard's father, she spent years abusing Richard in various ways. The emotional abuse, in his eyes, was the worst. They told him he wasn't smart enough. They accused him of being stupid to spite them. They told him he would never be able to live on his own. When a rare error cost him a chess tournament (during his scholastic chess career, he earned state and national-level titles), they screamed at him all the way home for embarrassing them. Everything was his failure. Everything was his fault.
The day Richard turned eighteen, he left home for good. His possessions fit into three large Tupperwares: some ratty clothes, a battered Goosebumps comforter, some of his chess medals, and some books. Among those books was a copy of A Child Called It, a true-life story of overcoming abuse, which he has kept to this day. He was still two months away from starting college. He was broke.
I have spoken to my father-in-law exactly once, soon before Richard proposed. By then, Richard's father was bedridden, crippled in an accident on the job. During that phone conversation, he ranted about his son's stupidity and maliciousness. He sneeringly asked whether I were likewise an idiot or whether Richard had slipped me a roofie and gotten me pregnant, because he saw no valid reason any normal girl could love his son. At the end, he asked me, with a pathetic note of loneliness, to call him again sometime.
I never have.
I was Richard's first girlfriend. Two months later, I would be his first kiss. Much, much later, I would be his "first." But simply having a girlfriend, let alone a girlfriend who loved him enough to ask him out, was enough to beggar Richard's mind. He spending the first thirty minutes of our dating career in full blown, babbling panic mode. Afterwards, once his paradigm successfully shifted, we went back to his dorm. He hesitated, then brought me into his room and closed the door.
"If we're going to date," he said, "there are some things I should tell you first."
He spoke for more than an hour. He told me about the cancer and showed me his back. He told me about his parents and showed me his things. He told me he was near-homeless, poor, an independent student getting by on scholarships, work-study, and massive, soul-crushing loans. He told me he wasn't sure he smart enough for college. He told me he wasn't sure he was good enough for me. When he finished the telling, his eyes were moist.
"So, do you still want to go out with me?"
I didn't hesitate.
I said yes.
This photo was taken at the Wisconsin State Capitol protests against Governor Walker in March 2011. By then, Richard had earned not only his bachelor's degree, but a master's degree in economics as well. He was in the middle of his first term as a Ph.D. student and was teaching introductory microeconomics to undergrads. His graduate GPA was a 3.6. We had been happily married over a year and a half. I was 30 weeks pregnant with Reuven.
That night, after we got home, we cuddled together in bed. He put his hand on my (by then enormous) belly and waited. Within moments, Reuven kicked. Richard's eyes sparkled with wonder.
"I have a family," he said.
I kissed him, and he smiled. We lay there for a long time, feeling our son dance.
"Are you happy?"
He didn't hesitate.
He said yes.
UPDATE: Wow, the rec list! Thank you for all the sweet comments--Richard and I are both really touched.
Obligatory capitalize-on-success shameless soliciting: Next month, Reuven and I will walk in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life to raise money for cancer treatment and research in Richard's honor. Our personal fundraising page is here.