When Dan and I were dating, I used to daydream about the moment when he would propose to me. I pictured him recounting all the reasons why he loved me, dropping to one knee, and asking the million-dollar (or, diamond-solitaire) question. I would be caught off guard, adorably throwing my hands over my mouth. Tears would spring to my eyes as I choked out a “Yes, of course!”
The tears, I knew, were a given: I well up at sappy commercials and photos of rescued dogs who need homes. I just hoped that my tears would be the pretty kind — the ones that stay put in my eyes, except for a single drop sliding down my cheek for dramatic effect — rather than the ugly ones that come out in sobs, staining my face.
The night Dan proposed, I was genuinely surprised. We were on day two of a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, and our group was staying at a small, locally owned hotel right on the beach. He suggested a moonlit stroll along the water before dinner started.
We walked down the wooden steps and let our feet sink into the sand, still warm from the sun that had just set. We stopped after a few minutes, and Dan read aloud a letter he’d written to me before we left home, about his vision for our future and his hopes for our life together. I’m sure it’s painfully obvious what was coming next, but I kid you not, I still had no idea what was happening. So when he got down on one knee, bravely opening the ring box over the sand, I’d had no time to mentally prepare. I put my hands up to my mouth like I knew I was supposed to, and I looked away from Dan’s eager face, willing the tears to come. They didn’t. I waited another second that felt like a minute; my eyes stayed dry.
I had concentrated so hard on what I thought my reaction should be that I had totally missed the moment. I shamelessly asked Dan to ask me again, committing myself to remember the way he said each word and the smile on his face as he obliged my crazy request. I took a mental snapshot of the moment and then said a resounding yes, letting him slip the ring on my finger (ever so gingerly — did I mention the sand?).
I did this same thing when Dan asked “Will you be my girlfriend?” and when he eventually said “I love you” for the first time. I tried to make my reaction look and sound and feel the way I thought it should rather than simply allowing myself be fully in the moment, reacting in a natural way.
Long before all these events, I had stopped believing the fantasy of romantic comedies: that each person has a soulmate, that everything is set right when we find that one person, that love is unstoppable once unleashed. Though I knew on a large scale that love takes work and no relationship is as simple as Hollywood would have us think, somewhere inside I still desired for even my small-scale moments to shine with cinematic perfection. I wanted to be the star of my story and hear the overture ushering in my happily-ever-after.
I do this in small ways too. I put pressure on myself to layer meaning onto every snuggle from my daughter, every date night with Dan, every conversation with a friend. I envision perfect Mother’s Days and birthdays and Christmases, complete with Instagrammable photos to prove that our perfect day actually happened. But I often find myself so wound up on these days that small frustrations — things that would hardly ping my radar most days — result in total derailment.
I don’t think my intentions are bad. My goal is that I want the important moments to last longer than the photo for social media. I want the mental snapshots to be just as happy as the real photos. I want these memories to be both precious and durable, the sorts of stories we’ll tell around the dinner table someday of that one Easter when . . .
But I know my puppet-master tendencies are more of a hindrance than a help toward this goal. I can’t generate a perfect moment any more than I can turn back time and edit all the blunders and missteps out my memories. And when I’m being honest with myself, I wouldn’t want to.
It’s tempting to tie this up with a trite little bow and say something about how the imperfections and unanticipated twists are what make the moments memorable. (For instance, my wedding was quite a memorable event: A flash summer storm rolled in unexpectedly, soaking me and the entire wedding party on our way over to the ceremony site. I’m still not over it.)
Sometimes imperfections do color memories in not-so-great ways. But often I’m the only one who notices these imperfections, simply because I’m so hyperaware of wanting everything to be rosy . . . and I’m definitely the only one who dwells on them after the fact.
Tsh Oxenreider, when describing how she travels with her kids, said that she wants them to remember how they felt during special moments rather than exactly what they did. This is what I’ve really been after the whole time — to create memories that have a warm incandescence. But in the process, I’ve tried to engineer the feeling by controlling the experience rather than letting it glow on its own.You can't engineer picture-perfect moments by controlling the experience. Click To Tweet
When Dan and I were trying for a baby, I thought of a million possible cute ways to tell him when I finally got pregnant — wrapping up a pregnancy test, purchasing a sweet onsie, giving him a book about fatherhood. But the morning when I saw those two pink lines, the ones I thought wouldn’t be coming for me this month, I knew I couldn’t wait to create the perfect moment. I needed to tell him the news that was not just mine but ours; I needed him to share in the joy and fear with me; I needed him to know about this growing poppy seed, because the act of sharing it with another person would ground me in what was real.
So that morning, as I was turning over a piece of chicken sausage on the cast-iron skillet, I blurted out the words, “I’m pregnant.” I felt peace instead of pressure as we stood there in our pajamas in that tiny kitchen in our first apartment. The moment wasn’t fancy or romantic, planned or perfect; it was simply us.