My wife Amanda was determined to save herself for her husband, to give him something special that no other man had ever received. I was her first, but she was not mine. That fact has been a source of hurt during our marriage. For her, it’s the reality of knowing that physical intimacy with me is not an experience uniquely hers and of sometimes wondering whether I’m with her mentally when we’re together physically. For me, it’s the helplessness of not being able to make amends for mistakes I made before we met or adequately reassure her that I regret my past as much as she does.
“Firsts” are special because they can happen only once, and there aren’t enough roses in Pasadena or chocolates in Switzerland to make up for the one I deprived Amanda of. Still, I can try, and over the years I’ve realized there are more ways than one to give yourself to somebody. For our tenth anniversary, I set out to give Amanda a list of 100 firsts I’ve had with her and no one else.
To begin with, compiling the list was easy. Several major life events came to mind almost immediately, like getting married, seeing a child being born, buying a house, and being financially independent. Altogether, I came up with 13 big firsts. Along with the big “life event” firsts were 19 small yet meaningful ones, things you don’t realize you haven’t done until you’re doing them. They’re spontaneous, sometimes silly, and usually generate stories (or at least memories) that serve as connection points in bonding people together. Among others, I listed playing Monopoly to the end, camping in a van, feeding a giraffe, and cleaning raw cotton by hand.
That’s right – cleaning cotton. There are cotton fields around our house, and Amanda thought it was a shame to let the cotton they dropped after the harvest go to waste. So Amanda, our three kids, and I got the cleanest handfuls we could find and brought them inside to the dining room table. Cleaning cotton was one of those things that seems neat at first but gets tedious long before it’s over. It’s kind of like when you’re watching a movie that gives away the good parts in the previews, and you catch yourself glancing repeatedly at the timer on the DVD player. After three hours, we had about four ounces of pure cotton, a pile of seeds, and no real use for any of it. Thank God for Eli Whitney or we Southerners would still be itchy, hot, and sweaty ten months out of the year instead of three.
A week into the list, I was out of life events. I moved on to compiling places I had never been with anybody else but Amanda, like Hawaii, Arizona, and our local botanical gardens. Along with the destinations came a slew of memories of firsts related to places we had gone. Things like swimming in the Pacific Ocean, riding in a horse-drawn carriage, and staying at a bed and breakfast. Travel-related firsts occupied 18 spots on the list.
The Hawaii trip was a big deal for us, and Amanda didn’t believe me when I said we were going. One day, she was lamenting to me about how she felt she had missed out on major experiences most people have. Being a rural homeschooler, she never had a prom or graduation ceremony, and our honeymoon was small because we didn’t have much money and I couldn’t get time off work. I said, “Ok. For our anniversary next year, we’ll go to Hawaii.” The whole time we were there, neither of us could believe it was real. I probably could have listed 100 firsts just from that trip. I’ll never forget how ecstatic she was to find a KFC in Hilo after three days of “traditional” Hawaiian cuisine (#90 on the list, by they way).
Another week passed. Firsts were getting harder to come by, so I defaulted to my reliable stand-bys in uncertain times: TV and food. Before Amanda, I had never watched Gone With the Wind, a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movie, Bonanza, The Honeymooners, or anything starring John Wayne. Among the 12 food-related firsts were making pizza from scratch, seeing a purple sweet potato, and eating fried eggs over rice.
Though physically impossible, I’d be willing to try and eat my body weight in Amanda’s fried eggs and rice. It’s a simple recipe from her childhood, the result of her mom trying to retool last night’s supper into this morning’s breakfast. Buttery rice, firm whites with runny yolk, throw on some bacon bits (and Sriracha, if you’re into it), mix it all up — it’s lick-the-plate good.
At this point in the list-making, I was getting nostalgic. My thoughts turned to moments that spawned silly inside jokes between me and Amanda. Like the time she locked me out of the car in a crowded Wal-Mart parking lot and wouldn’t let me in until I danced for her. Or the time right after we got married that I got misty-eyed over seeing her thumbprint in the sandwich she made me for my lunch break at work. And then there was the time we sat under a blanket sipping hot chocolate in the rain for the sole purpose of making memories. “Making memories” is Amanda’s term for doing something just to do it so you can have it to talk about later, in her amazing way of finding meaning in things I think are pointless. In total, ten firsts on the list came from classic moments like those.
After a few weeks of reflecting on our 10-plus years together, I began to realize something. I had changed a lot during that time, and there were several significant firsts that had little or nothing to do with specific things we had done together. These firsts were deeper, less about what I did and more about who I was (or was becoming). They happen as two people bare their souls and coalesce into one.
For example, early in our relationship I was an agnostic. A miscarriage changed that. Through her faith, Amanda had peace where I had none. That experience led me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior, a definite first for me. More spiritual firsts were to follow, like learning to pray, taking communion, and making a personal vow to God. All in all, there were 11 spiritual firsts on the list. Those firsts are the strength of our marriage. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Jesus is our third, and without him we would have broken long ago.
I believe those firsts paved the way for the remaining 12 on the list, ones that are helping me become the husband, father, and man my family deserves. Like recognizing how shallow I had been most of my life. And trusting someone else’s judgment in personal matters. Discovering I have limitations. Realizing the greatest intimacy isn’t physical.
At the end of Amanda’s list, I wrote, “For the ones that made the list, the ones that didn’t, and for the ones that haven’t happened yet, thank you.”
For our tenth anniversary, I gave Amanda framed keepsakes from our years together, a custom diamond and sapphire pendant necklace, and a romantic getaway to Savannah, Georgia. I meant the list to be supplemental, like a “best of” episode. To my surprise, it was her favorite gift because it held more than just good memories; it gave us a hundred ways to heal.