I knew I’d grow old with this man. What I didn’t know was how we’d get to that point without killing each other.

We’ve had some rough years—like almost all of them. Of the twenty years we’ve been together, I can count five that were (what I would consider) good years, but even in those “good” years, my mother died, his step-father died, and my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. So maybe good and bad are labels we shouldn’t apply to the years. Are there people out there who live a year, any year, without hard things happening? Maybe. I don’t know. That’s not how our life looks.

Michelle  (73)

I spent the first twenty years of my life in one place and seven months after I met Phil, I packed everything I had and moved to Missouri with him. We lived in his mom’s attic. She wasn’t fond of me. His step-father liked me less and his grandmother wouldn’t even call me by my name for the first five years we were together. While living there, we had the most horrible knock-down-drag-out-roll-in-the-mud fight. I almost left him. We had so much mud in our clothes, we had to throw them away. And Phil’s wardrobe isn’t cheap. On our anniversary one year, Phil’s mom gave me the earring I’d lost in her yard while rolling around fighting.

We moved in with a friend of Phil’s after a fight between his parents and him. It was a dilapidated, filthy place. Then I found what I thought was the perfect place for us. A mobile home on quite a few acres and the owner who rented to us would give Phil hunting rights. The place was full of mice. Phil played roof pinball with his cattle prod and we’d spend hours laughing at the ting-ting-ting sound of the mice bouncing off the inside of the tin roof. While we lived in that place, we had the absolute worst fight of our entire marriage. I was working eighty hours a week and exhaustion doesn’t even come close to explaining how tired I was. I got home one night and thought he was sleeping, but he was at the kitchen table, in the dark, drinking whiskey. I still remember every moment of that night. As was my defense from having been physically abused by my dad, I resorted to physical fighting and it really didn’t end well for me. I was leaving him that time. But I didn’t have the money to drive back to Indiana and I needed to wait until payday. We ended up talking and making promises to each other that were very difficult to keep, but we kept them.

Phil was an alcoholic and I was the daughter of a physically abusive man, a co-dependent woman, and the granddaughter of an alcoholic who lived across the alley from us with her father who sexually abused me. Phil’s biological dad died when Phil was just a year old, his mom was 17, his step-father was physically abusive, and Phil had his first child at 16 as well. I was an alcoholic, though I wouldn’t admit it and had pretty well quit drinking by then.

The dysfunction was normal to us.

 

After the fight that nearly ended us, we decided that we wanted to make things work. We’d not threaten to leave each other, we wouldn’t call each other names, and when we fought and argued, it would be fair. None of that is easy to do.

We made a decision to drive a semi over the road together because if Phil was driving a truck, he wasn’t drinking. That was likely one of the best decisions we made together. Those were years spent working very hard. Like you travel inside your city, we traveled our nation. We’d be in Jersey one day and LA two days later and then El Paso a day or so later. He drove while I slept and I drove while he slept. We had two meals a day together. We lived in a space the size of a small bathroom for six weeks at a time (and then I’d have to get off the truck to save us from destroying each other.)

His children were so young during this time. The situation with his ex-wife is what you can imagine a situation with an ex-wife is like. Things were constantly stressful. We didn’t get to see the kids near as much as we wanted to and the trucking lifestyle isn’t conducive to a white-picket-fence-happy-ending family life. And we’d decided that we’d like to try to get pregnant. I came off the road, we bought our own semi, our own mobile home on an acre of hay field (hello mice!) and I did get pregnant. But fuel prices shot up over $3/gallon for the first time in history and Phil was driving that stupid truck twenty-nine out of every thirty days and for six months I was in Missouri with no money, no gas in my vehicle, with a newborn who didn’t know his daddy, with a mother-in-law who drove within a mile of my house five days a week but only stopped once in six months for fifteen minutes. The only food I had was the food WIC allowed. I was afraid to drive anywhere because I had only enough gas in my vehicle for one trip to the emergency room in case something happened. Our refrigerated semi trailer broke down and Phil was home for a week (thank God!) but in that week, we accumulated an additional $10,000 in debt from him not working. I chose to breastfeed and had issues pumping because of a rare enzyme problem so we decided that I’d stay home. Between newborn Zane screaming and clinging constantly and bill collectors calling non-stop and Phil being gone, I was going insane.

We had to file bankruptcy on the truck, (which showed up on my credit record as a $150k Mercedes because Mercedes owns Freightliner) and move back to Indiana with my parents. Phil had to get a different job. He was home two days a week and gone five. I was overjoyed. I also had to get a job which only lasted two weeks because my mother, who volunteered to watch Zane, couldn’t handle him screaming all day, every day while I was gone. September 11 happened and changed the whole face of the trucking industry. Those were such uncertain days.

We found a duplex and Phil found a good-paying job hauling fuel. He was home daily! Granted, he was working 5pm-5am and sleeping most of the day, but he was home. We found out we sharing the walls of our duplex with a convicted child molester, though, and I couldn’t be there with a new baby and Phil being gone so much.

We then bought a house and for a few years, things seemed ok, but what I didn’t know was that my health was going down the drain. Phil’s grandma died, my uncle committed suicide, my best friend died, Phil’s grandfather died, my grandma died, Phil’s other grandma died, I was sleeping nineteen out of twenty-four hours and didn’t know why. Phil thought he had a heart attack while I was across the country taking care of my dying best friend. I rushed home to find out the company he worked for fired him for having heart issues that turned out to not be heart issues but a problem with a medication with a rare side effect that mimicked angina. He found a different job making considerably less and we started getting behind on bills to the point that I received a home foreclosure notice. Nothing we did kept our heads above water. We didn’t qualify for any help because of the amount of money he made in the previous job. We couldn’t afford to see his kids in Missouri and it broke our hearts daily.

 

We had a heated argument one morning. He was working midnights and went to bed while we were still yelling at each other. I picked up his cowboy boot and threw it at the wall behind him, next to his face. I played softball. I knew it wouldn’t hit him. What I didn’t know is that the heel of the boot would stick in the wall anchoring the whole boot in place close enough to Phil’s face that when he turned to look at it beside him, his nose nearly touched the boot.

In another fight, Phil punched the wall. Only he punched the stud and the nails in the stud. He had to have surgery to fix his broken bones and was off work for nearly two months.

 

We ended up filing bankruptcy a second time. I’d made all kinds of deals with creditors, doing voluntary repossessions and the like. More than two years after I’d made arrangements and kept my end of the deal, my creditors sold our debt to junk debt collectors and we were served over $40k in lawsuits in one week. There was no other choice but a second bankruptcy. Phil left the trucking industry for a property manager position at a private resort. We had about nine months of enough—enough money, enough food, enough time together, enough friends visiting, things were pleasant and content. Then we found out my mom had a 5cm brain tumor, lymphoma and his step-father had a tumor the size of a baseball wrapped around his spine. My mom died within eight weeks and his step-father lived a year. Phil was fired from that job after an emergency room worthy asthma attack that had him on bedrest for a full week. We had thirty days to vacate our home on the property. We were homeless and jobless and heartbroken and my health was still failing. Then my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

After almost two years of Phil working nearly eighteen hours a day, we found the job he’s currently working. Compared to the abundant days of us driving team and grossing $250k a year and fuel hauling bringing home $120k gross, we’re currently living on $52k gross a year. That’s a lot of income to lose. He’s been at this new job, in another new city, for nearly two years now.

 

We’ve lost income, houses, semis, cars, trucks. We watched so many of our close family and friends die. We’ve moved about every two years. We’ve had a lot of bad things happen to us and around us.

I wrote all of that out because people believe we’ve had it easy. That the relationship we have is fake. That the love we share is nothing but a facade, a show.

 

This relationship was forged in dysfunction, dipped in a hard life, and sprinkled with tragedy. We could choose to focus on that.

But we didn’t.

We met in a traffic jam on August 7, 1994 and fell instantly and crazy in love. Later that week, we talked for fourteen hours on the phone. We talked about a shared vision we both had of us sitting together on a porch swing, gray in our hair, coffee in our hand, smelling bacon cooking while watching the sun rise over a field. We even knew it was a red house. (We saw that vision come true in 2009) He was at a newly built hotel and the desk clerk mistakenly charged him for fourteen minutes instead of fourteen hours. At the end of that phone call, we had to hold back saying, “I love you.”

I moved to Missouri with him seven months later and learned a more laid back country lifestyle. We went swimming in crystal clear streams, fishing in some of the best bass-fishing lakes in the country. We roamed dirt roads for hours, my bare feet on the dash, head leaning on him. We had sex outside at scenic overlooks and in the woods and under overpasses. We traveled the country together and saw sights most people only see in pictures. I got to stop every morning and watch the sun rise and take pictures of that. I got to travel across the desert during a meteor shower and count hundreds of shooting stars. We walked the San Antonio River Walk together. We saw Maine in all of its autumn splendor. We were gifted boxes of Florida oranges fresh off the tree and long stem roses just cut. We watched the sun set over the Rockies. We saw mule deer migrations in Wyoming. We stopped at Snake River in Idaho. At Multnomah Falls in Oregon. At the Columbia River Gorge. On top of Donner Pass. At Lake Tahoe. Amarillo. The Brooklyn Bridge. The Smoky Mountains. Flagstaff. Reno. Vegas. Monterey. We watched hundreds of hot air balloons in the sky over Albuquerque. I led an honest-to-God real convoy across the bottom of Texas. We ate real etouffee in Louisiana. We saw the Black Hills, the Appalachian mountains, the Adirondacks. We drove over Hoover Dam. We saw the Mississippi River flood, we were in Hurricane Andrew. We experienced a windstorm on Needles in California that shut the interstate down for nearly twenty-four hours. We saw tornadoes in the midwest and fourteen feet of snow on Donner pass.

We bought our own place and the water was the best water I’ve ever had. My garden was the biggest and best I’ve ever had. I preserved food to my heart’s content. We had a baby. We had family who loved us enough to help us when we were in dire circumstances. I met one of the best friends of my life during that time.

We experienced a healing with my family. A healing with Phil’s family. We’ve helped people heal. Given advice, taken them in, fed them, loved them. People come to us for life and marital advice constantly. We worked to restore my health. We eat well. We exercise. We go and do and we hardly ever sit still. We cook together, we eat together, we go to sleep together (and I wake up first, hours before him.) We don’t think of ourselves first, we think of each other first. He’s not my boss. If there’s a decision to be made, we both make it. If one of us has a hesitation about something, we talk about it and the idea that his opinion is weightier than mine doesn’t exist. We both have strengths. If he says the brakes in the car need to be changed, I don’t argue. If I say we need to be more mindful of our budget, he doesn’t bitch and moan. If we can’t afford the vacation we dream, we do something else and we make the best of it. Always. We always always always make the best of things.

We’ve had the most abundant gardens, the best of friends, we’ve laughed way more than we’ve cried. We’ve always made the choice to look beyond the current bad thing happening. When we were monetarily poor beyond belief, we worked in our garden together. When we were down, we’d sit and talk. We don’t watch much TV. We have sex every three days (or sooner.) I have never once told him no. I don’t have to. When he knows something is wrong with me, that I don’t feel good, that I’m sad, he doesn’t ask because he respects me enough. I usually end up offering because I want him to know I respect him that much as well.

We made a commitment all those years ago and made it priority. No circumstance or situation was ever more important than us and our kids. We don’t change each other, we grow together. We foster healthy relationships by living mentally healthy lives. We encourage each other’s dreams and help make them possible for the other in any way we can. We have priorities that we’ve set. He works, I homeschool our son and take care of our home. Now that Zane’s older, I’m pursuing the dreams I mistakenly believed were not possible. When I was very young, people told me I couldn’t be an artist. But I am. And Phil supports that fully.

 

We’ve worked fucking hard for this twenty years and I wouldn’t change a single moment of it.