- 11th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- Schaal Prize: “’Slife," Matthew Kane ’14
- 2nd Place: “These Are the Ways We Live," Kathleen Kollman Birch ’17, ’19MGA
- Honorable Mention: “Sehnsucht," Charles Kenney ’20
- Honorable Mention: “Life is One Big Toothbrush Party," Libby Garcia ’16
It was supposed to rain on our wedding day, but it didn’t. Instead, we got married on a mild, glistening June day, a perfect-weather rarity for midsummer in Indiana. There were a thousand things that could have gone wrong, and not one did.
During the homily, the priest quoted from a poem by Li-Young Lee about the wonder of finding a perfectly ripe peach at a roadside stand on a summer day:
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet
Days as good as this, he said, can only be met with one proper reaction: astonishment.
“In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for as long as we both shall live. . . .”
My husband’s grasp on my hands was firm and warm as we faced each other at the altar, repeating these memorized vows. We spoke them earnestly, unfalteringly, even if, in that moment, glowing with health and joy, our enumerations of the pains we might face felt impossible.
In the first eight months of our marriage, we unpacked the dreams we had for married life one by one.
We leased an overpriced basement apartment in our new city and decorated the walls with too much religious art — our little domestic church. We gathered friends for long and lively dinners followed by sung night prayer.
We came home from our new jobs and were delighted to find our favorite conversation partner sitting on the couch. We shopped at a co-op, volunteered, joined a parish. All these ideals of married life we had could be realized now that we had energy, time and a partner to accomplish them with.
Occasional fights punctuated these happy months. Some nights we’d stand bickering in the kitchen, each accusing the other of not carrying their portion of the load — dishes, laundry, bills. We had imagined an equal partnership and were surprised by our tendency to “count” what each was contributing and our frustration when we each felt our list was longer than the other’s.
Apart from these moments, the first months were a slow trickling out of the store of joy we’d bottled at our wedding.
We loved our shared life.
We did not, however, feel ready to share it with another person. In September, I sat in our bathroom holding a pregnancy test and trembling as I waited two minutes for the result.
Negative. A near miss. As my heartbeat slowed, I felt a twinge of guilt. Hadn’t I just made vows of openness to the gift of life? I wanted children, of course, but there was plenty of time for that. We were young, and there was so much of life — so much freedom — to enjoy first.
My husband’s pain began in February 2020. It started off as mild stomach discomfort, but over a few weeks it moved further into his bowels, intensifying, causing bleeding, weight loss and malabsorption. He had many scans and tests, all generally ruling out major diagnoses: not a parasite, not an ulcer, not cancer.
The weeks went on, and as our anxiety grew, his body weakened. We still didn’t have a diagnosis, and the world began shutting down. We went on lockdown, our friends dropped off groceries. We feared COVID, given his weakness. In just two months, he lost over 40 pounds.
These were quiet months except for the humming current of worry running through our minds.
As my husband spent more time on the couch out of fatigue and discomfort, I took care of our physical needs — cooking, cleaning — without thinking about it. There was no counting.
During those weeks I was unable to pray in silence. The questions in my mind became too loud. What was wrong with my husband? When would he be well again? Would he be? But I did find myself praying rote prayers while walking or cleaning, my spirit reaching out to God before I realized I was doing it, like a child reaching for her mother’s hand. God, please hear me. Please heal him. Give me strength.
On Easter Sunday, I awoke in the dark, early hours to my husband calling for me from the living room. I fumbled out of bed and found him crouched on the carpet on all fours, white-faced, retching in pain. My mind blanked for a moment in shock, then I knelt, held his head to my pounding heart and considered what to do.
Should we go to the COVID-filled hospital, which doctors had warned us to avoid unless necessary? Was this pain, now, worth the risk? Was I strong or awake enough to get him cleaned up and in the car? But when he gave another groan of pain, resolve hardened in my stomach.
I dropped him at the emergency room, and I watched his tall, too-skinny frame walk away as he was guided through a set of doors. I was not allowed to enter, so I drove home, tears blurring the road in front of me.
I passed the day alone, praying, worrying, weeping. At 8 p.m. I got the call that I could pick him up.
When I brought him home, he was better, strengthened by a first round of treatment. At the hospital they’d diagnosed Crohn’s, a lifelong, life-altering but not life-threatening disease.
We sat on the couch, lit candles and prayed Easter night prayer together. Alleluias came easily. I held his shrunken body and ached with a new intensity of love for this man I’d married; different from the shining love of our wedding. Thicker. Deeper.
His recovery, with diet and medication, took six long months more. All the while I continued my regimen of care — shopping, cleaning, cooking into a digestible mush the limited food he could eat.
There were times I felt worn ragged from caregiving and trapped in what I referred to as “sick land.” No one my age that I knew lived with a partner who had hardly enough energy to walk up the street, who could eat only eight foods, who needed to be within a five-minute radius of a bathroom. My friends sent pictures of adventurous outings and trips, and in moments of weakness I’d slam down my phone in jealousy.
Outside of these low moments I felt awake to the gift of each day with my husband, intensely grateful for each small sign of improvement when it came — a meal well digested, a willingness to go for a walk. As we never knew when he would turn a corner, each week was a test of endurance and hope.
At the end of those six months my husband began improving by leaps upon starting a new medication. He gained weight rapidly. Normal coloring returned to his face.
We were dreaming of the future again. With the gift of health we had previously taken for granted, our world widened.
We moved out of our rather dank basement apartment and into a small townhouse full of light. In what felt like a miracle, my husband participated in the labor of our moving day, lifting boxes, setting up furniture. Soon we had a balanced routine of responsibilities. Friends started coming over again. Life was returning to normal.
I had more time to myself, but at times I felt restless. I had untapped energy, a new capacity to give of myself, with no outlet.
Three months later, we stood in the bathroom across from one another, watching as the line on a pregnancy test darkened. Positive.
On our faces was dawning wonder at this new reality that we’d entered in the span of a moment. We sputtered a few words of joy and embraced.
Eighteen months into our marriage, death and suffering were never far in the background. They were tangible, imaginable, familiar. Yes, we would suffer for this baby, pour ourselves out until we were worn through. I was no longer worried about that — how we would handle it, how the burden would distribute between us, what freedom we would lose.
This child, a sweet, impossible blossom, all the more astonishing and miraculous to us now.
Just then I felt free from worry, suspended in the gift of this life, this moment, this marriage with vows that grew stronger with each sacrifice, each step taken in the light of faith.
Kathleen Kollman Birch’s essay won second place in this magazine’s 11th annual Young Alumni Essay Contest. Kollman Birch studied theology, peace studies and global affairs at Notre Dame; she works as a writer and editor for a nonprofit in the Washington, D.C., area, where she lives with her husband and young son. Read the honorable mention winners at magazine.nd.edu/schaalprize.