It may surprise some of you to learn that my husband, Joe, has not read the book I wrote.
Oh sure, he’s read bits and pieces here and there, and he knows the general theme and the main characters, but he’s never read What Color Is Monday? from cover to deep green cover.
When I first started talking about writing a book, Joe had the reaction he always has when I announce a big project; he stared at me blankly for a minute with his eyebrows knitted together and his head tilted to one side, and said slowly, “Really? A book?”
It was the same answer he gave me three years ago when I told him that I wanted to run the Boston Marathon for the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation. “Really? Running? A marathon?” (In his defense, I had never really run much further than down to the end of our driveway to see if my package from Amazon had been delivered.) (In my defense, we have a really long driveway.)
Between the two of us we juggled the kids and Joe’s work schedule, making room for my long runs and recovery. Some Saturdays he would pack them all up and trundle over to Lowes to walk the aisles, buying me an extra hour to huff and puff through the neighborhood.
About midway through my training, he started to root for me, to say things like wow maybe you really will run all those miles. At exactly the same time, just as he lost his uncertainty and could see the finish line, I began to doubt myself. I began to say things like how am I ever going to run all those miles and I cannot possibly do this. And this has been the cycle of doubt-believe-doubt for most of our marriage.
Over the years, we’ve developed a unique dynamic: I announce a new venture or project—let’s do a sprint triathlon!—and Joe responds with caution with let’s slow down and think this through you just had a baby and you can’t swim. And then, at some point, he does an about-face, he rallies, he watches me with pride as I attempt to swim in the lake. At the precise moment he starts to believe, I lose faith. I stop swimming and I start to flail.
It all started with some shutters.
Back in Buffalo, we bought our first house in September of 2001, just a few short weeks after the horror of 9/11. This charming brick colonial had white shutters and I wanted to paint them green in time for my dearest friend Melissa’s visit that coming weekend.
It was Monday. And there were a total of eighteen shutters.
We were standing on the driveway in the early evening sunlight, talking about the project. He looked up at house, and back at me doubtfully. “That’s a lot of work.” But I insisted I could do it, it’s no big deal I can totally have it done in time, so he gamely went up on a ladder and painstakingly removed each white shutter from their place alongside the windows, and set up a workshop for me in the garage.
I knew he doubted me. I knew he thought it was a crazy idea, that I would never have the stamina, the perseverance to come home after work each day and sand and scrape and prime each shutter until they were ready for their final coat of sparkling green. But his misgiving just fueled me. It made me defensive and stubborn; I was bound and determined to paint every one of those shutters in four days, with enough time for him to re-hang them before Melissa and her husband arrived Friday night.
Tuesday night he poked his head into the garage and looked around wordlessly as I fervently scraped and sanded. There were white paint chips everywhere. “What?” I asked huffily. “Nothing.” he said. But his expression said it all; he did not think I could do this.
Wednesday night he came back in to survey the progress. “Hey! It’s really coming along!” Once he said that I looked around and instantly felt despair. Coming along? I thought. It’s a disaster in here. I was hot and tired and it felt like those stupid shutters were secretly multiplying behind my back like unsupervised bunnies.
Finally I gave up. I had a meltdown and told him I was finished, I could not possibly scrape or sand one more second. We decided to order new shutters, in a color called Rich Forest. New shutters that took four to six weeks for delivery.
I remember standing in the driveway on that Friday evening, waiting for our friends. I looked despondently up at our naked windows, disappointed in myself. In the fading springtime sunlight, he followed my gaze towards our house, squeezed my arm, and said, “I think it looks better without shutters anyway.”
So, when it came to writing the book, I wasn’t worried Joe would doubt me. I was worried he wouldn’t doubt me, that I would not be invigorated by his caution and reservations. I drew strength from his furrowed brow and tilted head. Once again, we juggled schedules and kids and mealtimes so I could have the space to write. On Sunday evenings he would bring them all to his parents’ house for dinner so I could take yoga and come home to work in a quiet house. Patiently, he waited when I abruptly interrupted our conversation with a raised finger and one minute I’ll be back I have to write something down and flew into the office to type.
Last month I had my first author’s reading in a bookstore called River Run in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There was a last-minute cancellation, and my publisher called to ask if I was interested in standing in. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to get a little experience reading out loud, and I agreed.
There were about thirty or so people sitting on folding chairs in the cozy bookstore, and after the owner presented the book, I sat in the front of with a folder of notes. I looked back at Joe, who was standing—absurdly—in front of the cash register because the room was full and there were no seats left. And seeing him stand there in his navy blue sweater, like an honorary bookstore employee ready to check out a customer or recommend the latest best-seller, I had to stifle a giggle.
Nervously, I introduced myself and started to talk about why I wrote the book, what it means to me, and how autism has changed our family for the better. I relaxed a little, and my voice grew stronger with each word.
I looked back at Joe once again and I saw his expression change, soften. I saw the doubt leave his face and hover in the air between us. But this time, instead of putting it around my own shoulders like the well-worn hooded sweatshirt I used to borrow from him in college, I discarded it. I tossed it aside. And in that moment, we both believed. Through his eyes I could see the shutter-less house and the marathon finish line and our story come to life in a book. I was swimming in the cool deep waters of the lake once more.
Just then, I realized Joe’s quietly been showing he believes in me all along, by wandering the wide aisles of Lowes with a bunch of kids piled in a cart, by holding his own thoughts so I could get mine down on paper. By stretching white shutters across two sawhorses in the garage.
I held his gaze for a moment longer, and then I looked back down at the pages in my hand and began to read out loud.