Four Years in Our House

Four years ago today, I moved into my house. In that time, it’s safe to say that I have fulfilled the cliche and turned this house into a home. 

I remember the first time I pulled up to it — back when it was still just a house. It was one of those fluffy snowy days in Chicago when the flakes are falling furiously and beautifully and the accumulation is swift. My then-future in-laws had endured the weather to drive up from southern Indiana to check out this house’s potential to be a home for me and their daughter. We weren’t yet engaged, and I already owned a condo in another suburb. My longterm visions had us getting married eventually and her moving into the condo with me, where we would save for a house and move out whenever the timing worked.

But when a family friend offered me a once-in-a-lifetime deal on a house in the suburb where I grew up — 10 minutes from my parents’ house — it was too good not to investigate the possibility. The friend was not listing the house, so I hadn’t even seen any prettified, wide-angle real estate photos of the interior, just the Google Street View exteriors, via my limited Internet stalking of the property.

I can still remember exploring the largely empty rooms for the first time with my girlfriend — what an odd word to use for her now — trying to picture a future together in rooms that have since been filled with our furniture, our thoughts, our feelings, our offspring and four years’ worth of memories. As I wandered around the basement, growing more fond of the house itself and my imagined version of that future, I remember praying that my Mr. Fix-It father-in-law wouldn’t find any devastating structural dealbreakers. I also remember being silently grateful for my Can’t-Fix-A-Thing self that the house was recently flipped with a new paint job and new appliances. I liked this house.

The house ultimately passed the test and has been silent witness to so many momentous and mundane moments of my life ever since. I asked my wife to marry me in the living room. I jokingly carried her through the front doorway on our wedding night.

We have played countless board games in our dining room. We have watched hours of television and worked through countless fights on the living room couch. We have hosted outdoor parties and built a shed in our backyard

I slept off the effects of chemotherapy in our bedroom and spent six months working remotely from the confines of this house. We keep adding new mementos to our Chicago Cubs bathroom. We have hung wedding photos and baby photos everywhere.

We have passionate debates about if or when we should knock out the wall between the living room and the kitchen.

Our guest bedroom turned into a nursery where I rock my daughter to sleep every night. My Northwestern University-themed office room turned into the guest bedroom. The office-turned-guest-bedroom is now transforming into another nursery, where I’ll rock my son to sleep. The house is constantly evolving to meet the needs of our home.

Our unfinished basement holds memories of our past stacked against the walls. It stores our bikes during the winter. It hides some still unused wedding presents. Most excitingly, it holds the promise of the future evolution of our family. There are new rooms still to be created that will be the setting for even more memories to come.

We’ve crammed so much life into this house in four years.

It’s our home.

I’m trying to form a daily routine of writing at least 100 words every weekday. Subscribe here if you’d like to read them.

The Mundanity of Marital Bliss

MattTheresa_0533 edit

Today marks three years of marriage for me, and since this blog’s niche seems to be mostly about the passage of time and marking milestones, I can’t afford not to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

First of all, I know that three years sounds like a fairly insignificant amount of time about which to wax poetic, but it certainly feels a lot more monumental to me. I think that’s because each year of my marriage has been defined by a huge life experience.

To review:

Year 1: Cancer!
Year 2: Pregnancy!
Year 3: Baby!

I sometimes think about how we might have reacted if at our wedding reception we had magically been shown a movie trailer providing a tantalizing glimpse of what the next three years would hold. Would we have run screaming out of the ballroom? Would we have been a little more reflective whilst doing The Wobble on the dance floor? Would we have wondered where the Candid Camera was hidden?

Regardless of our imagined reactions to a hypothetical scenario, we still would have been forced to do exactly what we did—live through it all and rely on each other every day.

Marriage is not a movie trailer. It is not defined by the big moments and the dramatic reveals. A more realistic trailer would show how mundane married life really is, even when you’re dealing with an admittedly outsized number of intense life events over a short period of time.

The true-to-life trailer would have Oscar-worthy scenes of me texting Theresa about what time the train will get me home from work and Theresa replying to ask about my dinner preferences. It would feature suspenseful scenes of Theresa finding out that we somehow owe money on our income taxes and me desperately trying to finish mowing the last few rows of my lawn before the bag fills up. Will he make it?!

My point is that marriage—even a quote-un-quote exciting marriage like mine—is far less action-packed than it seems like it will be. It’s mostly about just going through your daily life, but with the added complexity of going through it with a partner.

That complexity is the key to the whole thing. If you’ve found the kind of partner with whom you would happily watch paint dry, the day-to-day “drudgery” can be pretty darn fun. Big stuff like getting through cancer, going through pregnancy and raising a baby will be similarly enjoyable (OK, maybe some more enjoyable than others) because you have entered into a partnership that enhances your life and makes the mundane moments manageable and the important moments magical.

I’m filing jointly now—in taxes and everything else.

But marriage is a process, not a proclamation, and there’s no guarantee that we’re always making things manageable or magical for each other. These three years have taught me two main lessons about how to be the loving, selfless husband that I want to be: how far I’ve come from who I was when I was single and how far I still have to go.

Sometimes it’s the day-to-day disagreements that stack up to the point where you’re tripping over each other as you try to walk around them. Other times it’s a seemingly fundamental fight that in the moment makes you wonder how you’ll ever come back together on the issue.

Thankfully, the balms of heartfelt apology, authentic forgiveness and eventual laughter have soothed wounds both big and small. We agree that the partnership is the best thing we have going—and that our partner’s influence is helping us to become the people we are meant to be.

As parenthood became the focus in Year 3, the centrality of our partnership became more complex and crucial than it had been during disease or pregnancy. We brought a new life into the world together—and introduced a host of new joys, sorrows, worries and wonders with which to grapple. With a third member added to our party, we found more magical moments to enjoy together and more opportunities for the marital rubber to hit the road. Our beautiful daughter required us to individually push ourselves to our limits of time, energy, and enthusiasm, while also requiring us to support each other and protect our partnership more than ever.

Even with our diverse experiences in the first two years of marriage, it was still hard. It remains hard. But as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, it’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great. And the last three years of my life have been a whole lot better than great.

I try not to let a day pass without being grateful that Theresa and I found each other and for the innumerable blessings that have flowed into my life by hitching my wagon to her star. To have lived through and learned so much by her side in just three short years of marriage makes me wonder what mundane and momentous experiences await when three years becomes 30 and 30 becomes 50. Is there a movie trailer for that?

I love you, Theresa. Happy(est) three years.

Back to The Room Where It Happened

In the epic hip-hop Broadway musical Hamilton, there is a show-stopping number called “The Room Where It Happened,” that details a momentous backroom political deal that had long-lasting results. Over the course of my nearly year-long love affair with Hamilton, the title of the song has slipped into my lexicon to represent (sarcastically or otherwise) places where important things have occurred. Tonight–without sarcasm–I can honestly say that I returned to what is the most significant Room Where It Happened for me.

Tonight marked the first time in nearly four years that I came back to the school auditorium at Saint Mary of the Angels in Chicago. From the outside and the inside, it looks like any other 50-plus-year-old Catholic school facility in the city–certainly not the kind of place where you would expect your life to change.


But there I was tonight, in the same space where almost exactly four years ago (give or take two months), I met my wife. Four years ago, I was a 29-year-old bachelor showing up for an intermediate swing dancing class with a bunch of Catholic young adults. Looking back, I remember feeling a lot of uncertainty about my life at that point. I was drifting toward my fourth decade with doubts about what exactly I was supposed to be doing with myself. I had a picturesque life–a steady job, a college teaching gig, a nice condo, a great family and friends–but the vocation of marriage and family that I longed for and fully expected to already have achieved by that point would still gnaw at me in my weaker moments. I began to have doubts about what the future would look like.

I trusted in God’s plan for me, but wondered if the blue prints I had drawn for myself didn’t actually match those of the architect. Faced with that conundrum, I guess I decided to sign up for my friend’s swing dancing class and look for pretty girls to date.

Tonight I found myself back in the auditorium and once again surrounded by Catholic young adults, this time for a speaker event sponsored by the Catholic Young Professionals of Chicago. I’m sure I would have attended this event four years ago as well, in search of spiritual wisdom, but also pretty girls to date. Tonight, I came to the event as a 33-year-old married man who is about to become a father for the first time. Consequently, I was able to focus solely on the spiritual wisdom…and that sharpening of my focus was actually one of the points of the speaker’s talk.

If you ever get the chance to hear Jeff Schiefelbein give a speech, make sure you take advantage of the opportunity. He is dynamic and inspiring and wise beyond his 38 years. His passion is contagious and I think I speak for many in the room when I say that his words left me wanting to be a better person and a better Catholic.

The theme that stood out–and played right into the nostalgia of the location for me–was commitment. Jeff posited that when you fully commit yourself to something, it can be a challenge, but ultimately a freeing experience. Based on the ways my life has changed and the commitments I have undertaken in the intervening four years, I couldn’t agree more.

By committing myself to Theresa for the rest of my life–and now bringing a new soul into the world to share in that commitment–I have freed up so much of the energy and attention that I was wasting on meaningless activities like forced relationships, physical and emotional insecurities, fears and doubts. The difficult and permanently binding commitments of marriage and fatherhood have given my life a purpose and fulfilled a vocation that were previously lacking. I am so grateful for the gift of this vocation, and the ways it has challenged me to become closer to being the person I always wanted to be. I know the refining process will continue as Theresa and I prepare to raise our daughter. I know there will be challenges that will sometimes make these commitments difficult to fully keep. But I also know that I have the focus and ambition to keep them–powers of self-mastery that I had not yet realized when I entered that auditorium four years ago.

Jeff’s challenge to the audience tonight was to live a life that honors your commitment to your chosen vocation as well as to your faith…and to live authentically in a way that makes these choices visible to the world. I am well aware of my shortcomings in both of those categories, but I look forward to integrating his advice into my life and helping others that I encounter to understand and respect the commitments I have made, as well as to embrace their own commitments and experience the freedom with which I am now so richly blessed.

Lessons in Love on Valentine’s Day

My life has moved pretty fast over the past few years, and looking back on recent Valentine’s Days really brings that reality home for me. Let’s revisit the last four February 13’s of my life. (Special thanks to Google Calendar and Facebook for helping to fully refresh my memory):

This was my first Valentine’s Day with Theresa, a mere 8 days after we had officially started dating. (Awkward!) It was Ash Wednesday and I was teaching a night class, so we didn’t even see each other that day. We eventually celebrated Valentine’s Day the following weekend by going to dinner in Little Italy and swing dancing at Willowbrook Ballroom. The evening did not even end with our first kiss, as I got nervous and claimed to be disgustingly sweaty from all the dancing. How romantic!

vday2014This was almost exactly one month before we got engaged. I was at Theresa’s apartment in the city for a casual night celebrating our one-year dating anniversary. I don’t remember what we had for dinner or even much of what we did, but I know that I made her a Shutterfly photo book of images from our first year of dating and she got me this awesome “It’s A Wonderful Life”-inspired sign that now hangs in our living room. Speaking of our living room, we were already in the process of buying our house and selling my condo. Things were getting serious. We spent that Valentine’s Day driving to Newburgh for her friend’s wedding and had dinner at a Bob Evans in Terre Haute, Indiana. How romantic!

nochemoIt was just one year later, but everything had changed. We had gotten engaged, gotten married, both got new jobs and now shared an address that neither of us had lived at just a year earlier. On February 13, however, we were not off toasting to our marital bliss somewhere. Instead, we were getting up early for my second chemotherapy appointment, which I was unable to receive due to my low white blood cell count. I eventually developed a neutropenic fever and we spent Valentine’s Day weekend living in the hospital for four days. How romantic!

Another year, another lifetime. Cancer is behind us, but a baby on the way has ensured that there are new health-related adventures to be had. Today’s February 13th activities included Theresa taking a three-hour nap in the afternoon while I graded my students’ audio stories. She woke up from the nap feeling nauseous and spent the rest of the evening on the couch as we watched “Groundhog Day”–punctuated by her multiple nauseous trips to the bathroom. How romantic!

Writing this brief travelogue of where we’ve been on this day for the past four years has shown me not only how much my life has changed and how quickly time has passed, but also assured me that Theresa is exactly the person I am meant to be with and that true love has absolutely nothing to do with romance–even on Valentine’s Day. Sure, swing dancing and movie signage are nice, but the love that we have expressed for each other in these first two years of marriage is so much deeper and more difficult to come by.

Love is a complete commitment of trust, attention, affection and service toward another. Love is a willing sacrifice of your needs for the needs of your partner.

Never is this definition of love more tangible than when you are spending the night on a couch bed in the hospital next to your husband or when you are sitting on the couch endlessly rubbing your wife’s as-yet-invisibly-pregnant-but-terribly-upset stomach to try to soothe her discomfort.

Marital love has been on my mind a lot lately, and not just because Hallmark thinks I should buy a card and roses every February 14. Last weekend Theresa and I led our first Pre-Cana Catholic marriage preparation session. The day-long event brought 35 couples to our church’s basement to hear us drop some knowledge and facilitate the couples’ one-on-one discussions about how to have a successful and faith-filled marriage.

It’s a long day brimming with potentially intense discussions, but looking around the room, it’s easy to see who is engaged (no pun intended) in the process and who is simply there so they can get the certificate that allows them to have their wedding in a church. Theresa and I talked openly about every aspect of our marriage–gathering anyone’s waning attention by strategically playing the cancer card and then the baby-on-the-way card at various points in the day.

Our session went really well and we received a lot of positive feedback from those in attendance, but my favorite frequent comment on the evaluation form was this:

You can tell that Matt and Theresa really love each other.

I was glad to hear that the couples recognized that just from the way we were leading the session, and I really hope that it inspired them to recommit themselves to the hard work of fully loving each other in a lasting way: sacrificing enough of themselves every day to honor their commitment to someone else.

I’m not including all this to brag. I’m including it because I see it as a badge of honor that we have earned by consciously working for the good of our relationship through honesty, open communication and sacrifice. Does sacrificial love come particularly easily to us? Heck no. Are we somehow immune to the pressures of the world and the human insecurities that lead to conflict? Absolutely not. Do we fight? Of course we do. First thing this morning, actually. It’s impossible to go through chemo and morning sickness respectively without becoming irritable and/or irritating at various points in time.

But we try to live in a way where love equals sacrifice, and we don’t move on from a disagreement until the equilibrium of our relationship has been restored. This morning’s fight ended with both of us acknowledging the points at which we had been idiots toward one another in the conversation. Humility, contrition and forgiveness are also difficult but essential aspects of sacrificial love.

After we finished watching “Groundhog Day” tonight (which I incidentally once blogged about on my old blog!), we watched a documentary called “112 Weddings,” about a longtime wedding videographer who revisits some of the couples whose weddings he filmed over the course of 20 years. As you might expect in today’s marital climate, the majority of the couples come across as rather unhappy when interviewed years later, which is made all the more compelling–and heartbreaking–when interwoven with images of their ecstatic joy on their wedding days.

The documentary goes on to detail some of the personal trials and setbacks that led marriages to end in divorce or–more frequently among the couples interviewed–linger to this day in a listless or straight-up unhappy fog.

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 1.49.32 AM.pngI’m the first to admit that Theresa and I are incredibly blessed, and we are aware and thankful that our marriage itself is blessed by God who is guiding our every step and loves us with an even greater form of that same sacrificial love. But we are also two human beings with selfish needs and interests who have nevertheless decided to commit to one another and make it work–no matter what we might be facing together on a future February 13.

Regardless of what that 1980s song says, life–not love–is a battlefield. Love is a commitment to go into battle alongside someone for whom you would willingly jump on a grenade to save. If you’re both doing it right, that person is already jumping on the grenade to save your life, too. Together, you can defuse the grenade and then try to come up with a better analogy. How romantic.

“I Sure As Heckfire Remember You!”

Ned?!Arguably one of the best scene-stealing screen characters in romantic comedy history is Ned Ryerson of 1993’s immortal (no pun intended) classicGroundhog Day. If you’re one of the few people left on Earth who has yet to see this nearly perfect film, you now have plans for the weekend.

Ned Ryerson is one of the Punxsutawney residents that Bill Murray’s TV weatherman Phil Connors begrudgingly encounters every day as he continuously relives the same 24-hour period. In his first scene, Ned runs through traffic to greet the bemused Murray and claims to know him:

Ned: Phil? Hey, Phil? Phil! Phil Connors? Phil Connors, I thought that was you!
Phil: Hi, how you doing? Thanks for watching.
[Starts to walk away]
Ned: Hey, hey! Now, don’t you tell me you don’t remember me because I sure as heckfire remember you.
Phil: Not a chance.
Ned: Ned… Ryerson. “Needlenose Ned”? “Ned the Head”? C’mon, buddy. Case Western High. Ned Ryerson: I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show? Bing! Ned Ryerson: got the shingles real bad senior year, almost didn’t graduate? Bing, again. Ned Ryerson: I dated your sister Mary Pat a couple times until you told me not to anymore? Well?
Phil: Ned Ryerson?
Ned: Bing!
Phil: Bing.

Now I never had the shingles, but that doesn’t stop me from sometimes feeling a lot like Ned Ryerson. That’s because I don’t really forget faces.