The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(3)

Written By: Rachel Starnes

Ross took all of this in with the occasional, quiet “Holy shit.” He had the unnerving habit of maintaining intense eye contact while we talked, a move that made it feel like he wasn’t just listening but learning me as he did. He could relate to some of my story—at least, more than most people I’d known in high school or college—because it turned out he’d had his own similarly timed uprooting and reshuffling away from Georgetown and back again. Ross’s dad was a soil chemist who worked at several different national labs and research firms over the course of his career, and when Ross was in ninth grade, his family moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, a city he’s hated ever since, and where he had to walk through metal detectors to get into school. After one year, during which he learned a mean game of pool by spending all of his free time with his dad, Ross’s parents became worried about him and it was agreed that the best plan was to move him back to Georgetown, where he would live with the large and lively family of one of his friends, people he still maintains a connection to—he refers to the friend’s parents as “Mom and Dad Simek.” Ross’s parents eventually moved back and he also finished high school in his reconstituted family. The coincidental timing of those moves gave us a lot to talk about—missing family, being the “old/new kid” in a weird living situation that required frequent explanation, feeling painfully conscious of being a logistical headache for other people, and the awkwardness of trying to reclaim old rhythms and relationships after significant interruptions.

The difference between our experiences, though, other than a whole lot of global miles, was that my passport bore the stamps from a crossover into the territory of “known f*ckup” while Ross stayed firmly within the boundaries of honor student and Eagle Scout. This was important because explaining the true course of my sophomore year to someone I intended to become close to had become something of an obligatory disclaimer I had to deliver with the proper gravity—I have the proven potential to screw up massively and be a problem and liability for everybody close to me. Do you accept the risk in investing in me? It wasn’t the kind of leverage I was fond of giving away.

By the time of our conversation at Doug’s birthday party, Ross and I stood on the other side of college holding on to big dreams—his to be a fighter pilot and mine to be a writer—but grudgingly pursuing other, humbler short-term plans with no idea how or even whether the bigger stuff would work out. Soon after we began dating, Ross found a job as a billing analyst at a check printing company in San Antonio and moved into a tiny one-bedroom apartment. A hundred miles north in Austin, I left my reception job and started working as a scholarship administrator at the same university, where my desk held a framed snapshot of us tethered to climbing ropes on a cliff in Colorado, the kind of action-packed, REI catalog stunt I never would have undertaken before dating him. Our outlooks improved. We traded off cities on the weekends, and I worked hard for the approval of his dog, Abby, who started off eating my shoes and muscling me out of the bed and then grew to anticipate my hugs so much that she would rocket up the stairs to my apartment and leap into my arms.

It was on one of these afternoons, when Ross had driven up from San Antonio with Abby for the weekend and we had both finished recounting the horrors of the week in our office jobs, that Ross took a deep breath and said, “I have something I need to tell you.” We were sitting on my couch and the light coming in from my small balcony was thick and golden red as the sun began to set.

“You were so honest with me about what happened with you in high school,” he began, “and now I need to tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me. Actually, it’s still happening, and it will be for a long time.” Then he told me that during his senior year in college, his parents broke the news that his father, at age fifty-five, had been diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, one that was inherited genetically.

“Before they even knew what to call the disease, my dad’s family had it. We’re part of some genetic study, and they’ve traced the roots of our particular mutation all the way back to somewhere in Russia.”

He stared at the lengthening shadows on the floor and shrugged. In high school I used to think things had always come easily for Ross—good looks, popularity, a girlfriend, academic success—and now here was this grim disease that had been stalking his family for generations. Along with the terrible feeling of grief for the pain happening to someone I cared about, there was a layer of guilt for having seen him so one-dimensionally for so long.

“I feel like I’m just starting to figure out who I’m supposed to be,” he said, “and I don’t know how long I’ve got before he’s gone.” We talked until there was no more light in the room, our dinner plans forgotten, and at the end of the conversation I told him for the first time that I loved him.

Our families were openly supportive of the match, which was a new thing for me—I was used to a certain lukewarm patience in my family’s reactions to the boyfriends I brought home, a state we all agreed was great progress from my early college days when they often fought to conceal outright horror, sometimes at the boyfriend and sometimes at the stranger I’d become in his presence. Doug openly took credit for this fortunate turn of events, reminding me of a conversation we’d had a few weeks before his birthday party, when he’d asked me, “Why don’t you date someone like Ross?” and my frustrated reply had been, “I don’t know anyone like Ross.”

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