The Storm – A Short Story

storm, elaina m. avalos, i was born to love you, elaina avalos
Photo by Dasha Musohranova from Pexels

I was born to love you.

The day I was born, a violent storm ripped through town. It was the stuff legends were made of – or so I’ve been told for the last forty years. Walls of torrential rain fell, washing away hillsides, leaving homes teetering on cliffs, flooding streets, downing trees, and pelting everything in sight with hail. When you grow up in a desert, this is significant news. The newscasters from the city called it the storm of the century. Law enforcement had to pull people from their trapped vehicles. In the midst of it all, I came into the world screaming like a banshee on the side of the road – my parents unable to reach the hospital. Instead of a sterile hospital room, I made my appearance in the world, with unforgiving amounts of rain pouring down on my dad’s truck and the scent of the desert in a storm – unlike anything in all the world – reminding my mom we lived in an unforgiving desert, harsh and brutal. And then all at once exquisitely beautiful, as the colors take your breath away – as the sun rises and sets and when the night sky tells the story of the Creator’s sovereignty. Under those clear skies, not marred by a city skyline and lights, you can feel Him, right clear through to your bones. I decided long ago, the desert is the best place to find Him – brutal and harsh though it is.

My Mom and Grandma would tell you that’s when they knew. “It’s a sign,” they used to say, when the story of the storm and my birth would be retold. Most of the time, it was followed by, “She’s destined for great things.” I come from a long line of strong women. But they were all tied down by the past and the generations before them. Everyone one of them struggled to claw their way out – each barely scraping by and stepping one step further than the one before. Somehow, I became their opportunity. I would be the one. You will be the one, they all told me. These words have played like a song on repeat, in my head – for as long as I can remember. It defined me. My will is indestructible. I have survived what most could not.

I tried to set my world on fire – as they dreamed for me. I worked harder than everyone around me. But still, in all the years of sacrifice, hoping to live up to the expectation, there’s always a faint scent of disappointment because I’m not what they imagined. I have toiled unseen and unnoticed. There’s nothing great about me.

That is, on my own, there’s nothing great about me. I’m half of the puzzle. The rest of the pieces were missing until the day my world collided with his. I questioned everything until that day.

I was born to love you, I say to him every chance I get. I know this now.

I wasn’t the storm destined for greatness. He is destined to shake foundations and change the people and places he touches.

I was born in the storm, so I would know him when I saw him.

I knew him when I saw him.

Story continued . . . soon.

Arms That Hold Me

it  looks like this, arms that hold me, elaina avalos, elaina m avalos, katie owens, one more cup of coffee
Photo by: flickr.com/photos/katieowens/8386886945.

A short story

Home isn’t always a place – sometimes it’s a person. I could live in hut, in the middle of Africa, or a shelter built of whatever we could find, in the poorest village in Baja – or in a leaky old farm house in Burgundy and I’d still be home. He is my home and always will be. Turning into our driveway, after a long week away, has become this perfect joy – the kind of joy that I didn’t know could be possible. I mean, I wanted it to be possible – I just didn’t experience it for most of my life. I travel for work – more often than I’d prefer. But it pays my half of the bills. During the weeks away, in spite of how busy my days keep me, I count down the moments until I return to this quiet haven we have created.

The day I met my husband was a horrible day. The worst – the kind of day that makes you want to crawl into bed and drink yourself into a stupor. At the end of the worst day, I’d had in years and years, I stepped off the escalator at my Metro stop and the sky unleashed with a holy furor – the likes I hadn’t seen in ages. There’d been no rain in the forecast, because of course not. Somehow, the worst summer thunderstorm I’d seen in ages, just happened to hit the moment I stepped onto the street. It soaked me to the bone. When I walked into the corner grocery store I shopped at every evening for my dinner, I am 1000% certain I looked like a drowned rat. But I shopped here every evening before walking to my Brownstone – and a little sloshing about, wasn’t about to stop me.

When my, now husband, reached down to help me up from the floor of that corner grocery store – now covered in pinot noir and soaking wet from the storm, I swatted his hand away. Eleven years later, I still haven’t lived that down. In what I now know is his endless patience and persistence, he put his hand out again. The second time I took it. My husband is a beast of a man. He is big and broad to my tiny frame. His hands practically swallowed mine. When I stood, the room spun around me a bit. I thought I might faint. “Hang in there with me, Miss,” he said, steadying me. “You’ve hit your head pretty hard. Let me call for an ambulance. That kid knocked you over pretty good.”

                “What happened?” I asked, the room still spinning.

                “Some jackwagon stole a bunch of beer and I guess the owner must’ve seen him on camera. He started hollering as I walked in and the kid ran through the store, and took you down as he went. I couldn’t get to you before you fell back. One of those,” he said, pointing to the wine on display at the end of the aisle, “hit you as you fell back. It was a double whammy – the floor and the wine, both conked you on the head.”

By the way, the wine is a display I personally installed a week ago. I’m a wine rep and sommelier. And after three years, I’d finally convinced Mr. Green to let me sell my wares here. “Ah. Of course,” I said. “Naturally it’s the pinot noir.”

                “What’s that?” he asked.

                “Never mind. And no – no ambulance. I’ll walk to the hospital. Or take the metro.”

                “Oh no you will not,” he said. And just like that, the burly stranger I met in a southeast D.C. grocery store, was taking me to the hospital – as if I’d known him my whole life.

                That was 11 years ago. We married a year later. We’ve been inseparable ever since. He is the best thing that has ever happened to me. He is nothing I ever imagined when I dreamed about the man I’d spend my life with. The thing is, once he won my heart, I couldn’t imagine another existence – as if we were formed from the beginning, for each other. He’s everything I’ve ever needed and nothing I knew I wanted. We are opposites in many ways. But in every way that matters, he is my best friend – my true companion.

We built this house, into the mountain, a few years ago, after we’d wandered and dreamed about where we would settle. It’s weird like us – mid-century modern angles, expansive windows, and high ceilings – and the sweetest stone fireplace you ever did see. I long for home when I’m away, coming home to this man and our refuge is the best sort of gift. When it’s cold, he lights the fire before I get home. But even without it, he’s like that fire, keeping me warm from the inside out. I long for him even still, after all this time, as if it was the first time. His physical strength and single-minded pursuit of me has been steadying me for 11 years. I’ll never get over his love for me. And I will never love another human more than him.

Without considering for a second the need to grab my luggage or even my purse, the second I turn off the car in the garage, I head into the house – needing the arms that hold me . When I left California earlier today, the blazing hot sun and Santa Ana winds blew through the Temecula valley wine country. But here, so far from that dusty place, it’s cold now – the weather has turned. It’s autumn now. The warmth of the fire warms me instantly when I open the door – as does the mischievous smile that’s made me rather lusty – for so long now. My husband is hot. A smile bursts out. I cannot contain myself. Long before I reach him, the gratitude of all these years, overwhelms me. “I thought you’d never get here,” he says.

“I’ve been trying to get home for days,” I say. “It’s all I could think about. I missed you.” His arms pull me close.

“Good thing I don’t have to share you for a while. A week is too long. Can we just agree on this now? There has to be a better way,” he says.

“A week is too long. We’ll figure something out,” I say,” melting into him and his kiss. As the sun sets in the kitchen window behind us, his arms around me – he fills me in on the week I’ve missed. He holds me close – as if I’m going somewhere. The man is stuck with me. Come hell or highwater, I’m not going anywhere.

What a Family Looks Like

Elaina Avalos, Lacey Mays

I was born an entertainer. Not like a singing and dancing entertainer (the whole world thanks God for this little bit of grace), but an entertainer just the same. There’s no one that can throw a party like me. I’m one hell of a cook. I pair wine like it’s my job. I set a table that’s Instagram worthy. Someone should pay me to do it. Tonight will be beautiful. But it won’t just look beautiful. I live for the joy that comes from knowing how at home my friends and their kids feel in our home. We do this once a month and have for years on end. They all met in college or at least during those years. I came along a little later. We’ve gone through our hard days and years, but we’ve stayed together. We’re thick as thieves. While it’s not unusual for us to break bread, there is something special about tonight. It’s in the air – buzzing and lighting up the place – like fireflies in the night sky. We alternate and have dinner at other friend’s homes, but we tend to gravitate here more often than not. Our home is nestled into the sweetest valley you ever did see, just outside the city limits of our mountain town. The day we found this place, I knew it was ours. I knew it wasn’t just any old house. We’ve collected people – mostly kids over the years. They come and go. I lost count of the number of Andrew’s players that have lived here for a couple of weeks, six months, or a year. He doesn’t even ask me anymore because he knows I’ll say yes. I usually get a text – something along the lines of Add feeding another large human to the grocery list. And then . . . it’s so. They walk in with their duffel bag or a backpack and a “thank you, Mrs. J.” When the situation at home simmers down or their extended family opens the door, they go on their way. When we bought this house, my husband thought I was crazy. It’s a lot of house and land. But he gets it now. You’d have to pry this house from our cold, dead hands now. We adore opening our home like this, in spite of the chaos.

But back to tonight. It’s not unusual on one hand. On the other, last week our world was rocked when the eldest child of our five families suddenly returned home after a handful of years of wandering and drugs, and gosh, we don’t even know the whole story yet. We wondered if we’d lost her forever. We lost complete track of her two years ago. She didn’t show up at her parent’s house last week. She came here. She came here because she knew we’d open the door without questions. And she needed to calm her anxiety before she saw her mama and daddy. So tonight, we celebrate Sadie coming home. She’s 19 now, clean for nine months, and ready-to-pop pregnant, with the first grandchild to grace this crew. My heart is filled with the best kind of joy. It’s the joy that comes when your friends are gloriously grateful and happy. But that’s not all that’s happened to our weird clan, since we last gathered here. My husband and I have some news to share – news we’ve kept quiet for longer than I’d planned. I can’t wait for them to get here.

A few minutes before everyone arrives, I step out onto the back deck to make sure everything is just like I wanted it. Our table – two together – to make room for all of us and our wild children, sits in my favorite spot under the Oak trees. Andrew – who is a saint, by the way – hung lights and lanterns all over the yard last week. We bring them in during the winter. Now that the weather has finally turned, he did his yearly duty. Which is to say, that he put up with me saying, “Wait, can you move that one a little further to the right? It doesn’t look good there.” This goes on for hours until everything is just right.

He is the best man I’ve ever known. And not just because he can patiently handle me, my lights, and all my crazy things. The thing is, he does it as if it’s no load to carry at all – which makes me love him all the more. He is the best thing to ever happen to me. As I survey the yard and our handiwork, the backdoor shuts. I’m sure he’s come to check on me. This yard is like one I dreamed of when I was a tiny girl, living on the distant hopes of what might someday be – as I beat back the reality of the life I was born into. “Hey,” he says, slipping his arm around my waist. He kisses me on the cheek.

“Hey back,” I say. “How was practice?”

“Eh. Could’ve been better. But it’s early. It’s always this point in the spring when I question why I’m still coaching.”

“You’re still coaching because you cannot help yourself.”

“True. Everything looks perfect as usual. You’re the Queen. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready. And thank you. It is lovely out here, thanks to you. It’s the lights. You smell good, by the way. You trying to seduce me?”

“Perhaps. This is your favorite, no?”

“I mean, if you want to be technical about it, yes. You should know by now it doesn’t take cologne to seduce me. But okay.”

Andrew laughs at me and pulls me a little closer. For thirteen years of my life, I have loved this man in our darkest and best days. For all the years before that, that I could dream and wish and pray about what my life would look like someday – I wished for him. He whispers in my ear, “I love you, Sweetness.”

“I love you, too.”

Before I can say anything else, Carter yells out from the kitchen, “They’re here!” Our other three banshees join in the chorus – as if they haven’t all seen each other at school or soccer practice, or the last sleepover. I let the kids take over because there’s no point at trying to beat them to the door.

“Shall we?” Andrew asks. He knows me well. I’m ready to pour drinks and get the party started. He takes my hand, which is still the sweetest thing to me. Together for thirteen – married for ten and it seems like we just met sometimes. We’re just walking inside our own house, but he’s always near – when he can be anyway. He knows how much it means to me. People often comment on this. You two are so cute, they say. You still act like newlyweds, is another one. Perhaps. But they don’t know the battles and wars we’ve raged to get here. You won’t find either one of us taking the other for granted not after the work it has taken to get here. So, when we’re standing in a room full of people, we’ll be together as much as we can – usually with his hand on the small of my back. That’s my absolute favorite. Or when his perfect hands reach for me. When he’s across the room talking with friends or we’re at one of his player’s parent’s homes and I look up and catch his eyes on me, it’s not lost on this old girl, what a gift he is. He holds the door for me as four of our five best friends in the world walk into the kitchen. Carter and Brad are already running off toward the yard.

“Stop running!” Three of us say in unison. Katie shakes her head and then reaches for me, hugging me tighter and longer than she has in ages. It’s the relief. I know it. When we pull away, I hug Sadie. Her pregnant belly is in the way – but I hold onto her just the same. This beautiful girl disappeared on a frigid November night, after the football championship game. She has been forever and constantly in our prayers and close to our conversations. Unlike some who might not want to talk about our worst fears for a missing teen, we let it all hang out. Whether it was stories of her fierceness as a toddler or someone quietly saying, just above the noise of our conversations, “Sadie would love this,” she was always close to us. We breathed prayers for her when we lost the ability to speak the words.

“You are beautiful my girl,” I say to her.

“Thanks Aunt Lacey. I feel like a cow.”

“Well, you’re a beautiful cow,” I say. She laughs at me and we all smile in unison, as if on cue. Her laugh is big and gravely – which has never fit with the tiny fairy girl she’s always been. Her laugh and voice have always sounded like she should’ve been a chain-smoking waitress at the Waffle House and not the tiny human that carries that big laugh. It was my favorite thing about her when I met her the first time, when she was just six years old. I love her so. “What can I get you to drink? Lemonade? Tea?”

“I’ll just have some water for now, thanks.” And then I take everyone else’s orders. Katie steps in and helps me pour drinks. Our fifth couple – always late to every party – finally joins us. We don’t even bother teasing them about being late anymore. They can’t help it. They’ve tried. It’s just not in the cards for them. Bo – Katie’s husband, was a Marine. He used to tell them to be everywhere a half-hour ahead of time. But that eventually stopped working, too. We love them anyway, even if we are perpetually behind schedule because of them.

I can’t hear myself think. Between the kids and our best friends catching up or talking about their day, it’s just a mess in here already. I love it with all of my heart. I lean up against the counter and close my eyes a second. When I was a kid, I grew up in the worst way imaginable. My parents were drug addicts and terribly abusive to each other. We lived in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. The only reason we even had a house was because it belonged to my grandparents. When they were at their worst, I’d hide in my closet and dream about my someday life. My daddy – Bobby Mays – never had a chance. He’d grown up worse than I did. My mom – Donna – was the exact opposite, however. She entered this world with a silver spoon in her mouth. It wasn’t enough to keep her away from the drugs that ravaged our county and countless families all around us. When they were getting high or hitting each other or they’d have their gross friends in our home, I’d hide for hours on end, with my flashlight, and pour over my books. My favorite was a picture book of prayers for kids. I memorized those prayers and the beautiful art on the pages. One of the prayers took up two pages. It had a gorgeous drawing of a home and yard covering both pages There was lush green grass, beautiful trees, and a picture-perfect house. A little girl, barefoot, wearing a sundress and carefree, was running in the yard. Though I couldn’t speak these dreams to my parents, I whispered them to a God that I kept hoping would hear me. It was in that closet, deep into Pamlico County, North Carolina that this vision in front of me, took shape. I mean, not these exact weirdos. But something like it. Our kids, our lives – this sharing of life – I’d prayed for it and hoped for it for as long as I knew how. And this house, it’s just a larger version of that artwork in my children’s book of prayers.

“Shall we head outside?” Andrew says. I open my eyes and look up at him. Of course he’s here next to me. He picks up his beer from the counter and with his other hand, takes mine. We head outside. The clan follows us. Until the food is ready, everyone is seated around the deck, talking, laughing, and enjoying the adult beverages and warm weather. When the oven timer goes off, we gather up the food and head out to the table. Everyone gets situated – after negotiating with arguing children about where everyone will sit. We have sixteen kids total, between us. That’s right. Sixteen. They’re not all here each time. The older we get, the older they get. Our older kids are often busy with work, sports, cheer, or dance. But all of the littles are here – which is still quite a lot of crazy.

The laughter and conversation as we eat and drink, is home to me. We don’t do a ton of toasting around here, but I think everyone knows tonight is different. When it seems like most everyone is done eating and the kids are scattered and playing in the house or in the backyard, Andrew clinks his glass – as if we’re at a wedding. He stands up, “We all know tonight is special. We’re celebrating Sadie and the bambino of course. There’s no other way we’d want to head into our weekend than to be here with you all. Especially because we,” he says pointing back and forth between the two of us, “-we have some exciting news to share, too. We are grateful for each of you and all of the support you’ve given us over the years. It wasn’t easy – some of you were around when it was just me and the boys and we -”

“Spit it out, Drew,” Bo says.

“Yeah, man. Get on with it,” Hayden says. I know they are not expecting what we are about to say, so I stand up and stand next to Andrew, taking his hand.

“Wait. This is really big, isn’t it?” Katie asks. “What’s going on guys?”

“When Lace and I met, she took on a lot. She worked her ass off at work, she raised my boys, and she sacrificed months and months of the year as a family. I was never here. I’m never here – between practice, watching film, and the season. She’s done it all.” I smile at him. He’s the sweetest man I know. “She gave up a lot of herself, you know?” He’s getting emotional. His voice cracks a little as tears rise in his eyes. I’ve never seen him quite like this, except on our wedding day. I look up at our friends and there’s a mix of emotions etched on their faces. I smile and squeeze his hand. “So anyway, she’s given up a lot. And I kept asking more of her. I fill up the house with these huge kids that smell and eat all of our food. She gets up the next day and is like – what’s next? But there’s been one thing that has escaped us. I blame myself and all of the effort she’s put into everyone else’s lives and dreams, mine included.”

“Oh my god,” Ali says. “I have chills. Come on, bro. Tell us. Is this what I think it is?”

I shake my head yes. “What? No way!” Katie says, pushing back her chair and hugging us both. We’re all crying now – before the words have even escaped our lips.

When we pull away, I know everyone has already figured it out. I take over for my husband. “I’m pregnant! We passed up the first trimester about a week ago. It’s a girl. We’re having a baby girl!” Everyone is up and out of their chairs congratulating us. I’m crying. Andrew is crying. I’m so grateful they’re so happy for us. “We didn’t mean to steal your thunder, Kate. We were going to tell you all last weekend but better things happened last weekend than our news,” I say to Katie. I’ve not wanted to take away from the absolute joy we all still feel that Sadie is home. But I wanted desperately to tell them.

“Are you kidding me, you lunatic? There’s no stealing thunder here. This is incredible,” she says. The conversation continues – once everyone has shaken hands or hugged – as we settle back into our chairs.

Under the table, Andrew takes my hand, as Katie and I talk about all things baby. We tried for a few years when we first got married. And in those few years, I had six miscarriages. I gave up then. I threw myself into work, our boys, and Andrew’s students and players. There are football coaches. And then there are football coaches. My husband is the latter. Our lives are consumed by the school and frankly, the town who thinks we’re public property. That’s the life of a coach in a small town that lives for the Friday night lights. Our lives revolve completely around these young men he parents and coaches. I am there for practices with the other wives. We cook for the boys on the weekends. We take food to Drew when he’s sitting in his office for hours on end. Somewhere in there I just stopped hoping. I met Drew when the boys were deep in grief over losing their mom. They clung to me in a way I didn’t expect. I figured when we started dating that they’d maybe struggle to accept me. They didn’t. I was consumed by raising them. I love them as if they are mine. I’m not a stepmom and haven’t been since nearly the beginning. They’re our boys. But always, always – hidden underneath our busy lives and this dream that I wouldn’t trade for anything – is this longing that stayed just out of my reach. A few weeks after I turned 42, long after I’d given up all hope, my doctor came into the exam room with a huge smile on her face. I thought I was starting menopause. Or maybe I was sick. I’d been run down – feeling awful for weeks and weeks. I was losing weight and couldn’t stay awake half the time.

“What’s up the with smile?” I asked her.

“Well . . . you’re pregnant, Lacey.” And then I didn’t hear her for a full minute or so. I still have no idea what she said. I didn’t realize she was talking until she started laughing at me.

After ten years of infertility, losing six babies, and burying this dream, I’m having a baby with the man who made me a mom to his wild brood of boys. When I dreamed about days like this, in that closet in my parent’s old clapboard house in Pamlico County, it didn’t look quite like this. But I didn’t know it would feel this good, either.

It May Stretch or Tangle

One a blustery afternoon in mid-December, I turned around in the middle of a busy NorCal Trader Joe’s – intending to reach for the olive oil that was behind me. It was the first day in months I’d had a true break. Our busy season stretched from March through early December. And I was reveling in the luxury of wandering. I’d wandered all day. I’d wandered at home – piddling around and doing nothing meaningful. I’d wandered in Target. I’d sat drinking a latte at my favorite coffee shop. And then, I wandered in the grocery store – prepared to spend ridiculous sums of cash at TJ’s.

By the way, I know that store like the back of my hand. I had just grabbed some of my favorite soups from the shelf in front of me and turned quickly, before realizing there was someone behind me. I crashed into him. Now let me tell you something about running into someone when you’re not paying attention. First, there’s total embarrassment. Then, there’s terror – because it’s 2021 and people are gigantic and horrific arseholes. And then, when your brain catches up with your body, there’s a thing that happens when you’re a me. If you’re a me, you realize you’ve just run into the man you’ve spent years of your life loving {and then missing}.

It’s hard to explain the confusion that filled my entire being in that moment. I turned – red-hot, flustery, embarrassed – in an instant. The last time I’d laid eyes on that beautiful man, it was thousands of miles and a lifetime ago. I’d walked away from him and the fatigue of fighting for us, alone. I’d been certain I’d never see his face again. When I ran into him, literally, it wasn’t his face I saw. It was the back of his head. In case you’re wondering if you’d ever be able to pick out the love of your life based on the back of his head, I can promise you – you can. He said, “Uh, helllloooo? Pay attention to where you’re going.”

I replied in the only way I know how. “I never did have a good sense of direction.” He froze – mid-motion and turned around. Not that I’d doubted my skill at identifying the backside and/or head of the man I’d burn down the world for, but there he was, looking hotter than ever – standing in my freaking Trader Joe’s.

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world…” I said. He smiled. It’s the smile I’ve spent a lifetime waiting for. And it’s the smile I have loved without reservation, for far too long. But it’s not exactly a smile I expected to see in the olive oil and soup section of my Monterey, California – Trader Joe’s.

The day I walked away from him I was willing to accept that I might spend the rest of my days alone. I was somehow okay with that. I mean, not okay. But like, sort of okay. I’d found the soul I thought I was created for. It was his – it was his soul. He’d been the one. He will always be the one. But when I watched the foundation we’d built – crumble, I wasn’t sure it would ever be in the cards for me to find someone else.

There were times when we’d talk – for hours on end as if time didn’t exist or we’d argue over the stupidest things – or laugh in the simple joy of learning another human being – that I’d come to believe that I’d literally been formed, from the foundations of time, to love him.

Stupid. That sounds stupid. And yet, I can’t escape this thought. There’s an old Chinese proverb that I’ve come to understand as being beautifully and restoratively true. The proverb is, “An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but will never break.” It may stretch or tangle, but it’s never gonna break.

We – this beautiful man and I – standing in a noisy and busy Trader Joe’s – thousands of miles from where we fell in love – are proof positive. His eyes lock with mine and his smile widens. I tilt my head a little and smile back. I don’t need to wonder if I should let him know how terribly I’ve missed him. “I’ve missed you,” I mouth. But I choose not to speak these words out into the open, as if it’ll break the spell. But I can’t help myself, I want him to know, in-spite-of-it-all, I’ve missed him. He looks down at the floor. And then, when he looks up at me, I know. The intensity in his gaze is almost too much for me to manage, here in front of the olive oil at TJ’s. We are tied to each other with a red thread. It has stretched and tangled. Oh, how it’s stretched and tangled. I’ve wondered at times if the tie would sever. It hasn’t. It’s never gonna break.

Seeing him now, standing in this brightly lit bastion of American overabundance, I’m certain of it. I won’t give up on him. And I know, seeing him here tonight, he won’t give up on me either. We don’t make a lot of sense to others looking in. Maybe we never will. In the unruly way our hearts connect and are tied to each other, I hope we never lose that. I’d happily not make sense with him, for all of the rest of my days.

You can’t tame wild things or wild hearts.

It Looks Like This

Yesterday, after dropping off Amelia at a middle school she despises, I pulled over on the side of the road and cried. It felt like hours. But was more like ten minutes. I sometimes don’t know how to hold them all up – all six of them. Thomas needs me more than ever. The kids, well…at least 1-4 think we’ve purposefully ruined their lives. Five is the happiest little girl, all chunk and giggle.

When I turn off the highway into our neighborhood, the light filters through the pines in golden pink light. This time of the day is magic here, filling every aching bone, and my tired heart, with hope. Thomas told me I’d grow to love this place, his childhood home. I will because it’s a part of him. And the now familiar glow of an early autumn evening tells me it’s so.

I pull into the garage, next to Thomas’ truck. Leaving the shopping bags, I step into the house. It’s quiet. Through the kitchen window, looking out on to the backyard, I see my people. All six of them. Thomas is chasing the boys around the yard. Amelia is holding the baby on the swing. She’s facing the action, total amusement on her chubby little face.

I watch from the kitchen. Thomas stops running, and standing in the middle of the yard, he sticks his tongue out at Ben. Ben, never one to stand down, places his hands on his hips and like every good eight year old should, he accepts the taunt, and charges Thomas. Jack, comes towards Thomas from the other direction. The two boys colliding with my husband from either end. Jack has jumped on his back and Ben’s now clinging to Thomas’s leg. Lunatics. They’re all lunatics.

I laugh. Hard. As usual, William has lost interest and he’s digging in the dirt nearby. I don’t know what Thomas just said, but it must have been hilarious – on cue, they all laugh. Like a sitcom laugh track, in unison. Amelia looks up, towards the house and sees me standing in the window. She waves. And her mouth forms the words, “Mom’s home!”

I head outside, and as I reach the deck, they’re all there. “Mooommm!!” A noisy chorus. Sadie, our terrible, rotten lab joins the rest of them. Sweaty, smelly heads and dirt crusted fingernails are all around me. I saw them all seven hours ago but you would think it has been days. They all talk at once, as per the usual. Amelia hands me Ella.

My sweetest surprise, joining us when I thought we were through having babies, puts both hands on my cheeks. She’s babbling. I’ll be so very old when she graduates high school. But she is joy personified. I smile. How can you not? The boys lose interest in me quickly and run back into the yard. Thomas is standing at the bottom of the deck stairs. He smiles at me in that way he does – the way he has smiled at me for fourteen years. He looks like himself for the first time in weeks.

I stand in front of him. His eyes, so warm, told me everything back then – long before he worked up the nerve to say the words. I know how to read those eyes still. “Thank you,” he says. “I know we have made this move unpleasant for you. Thank you for letting me follow my dream. And thank you for taking care of us while we’re all cranky and angry and surly. Missed you today.”

“I missed you, too,” I say. I’ve missed him longer than just today. “I love you, baby.” He smiles. He owns me with that smile. Always has. And always will.

“Ditto,” he says as a bouncing ball hits in him in the head. “Excuse me, I have a ten year old to torture.” He runs off towards Jackson, who is now laughing – a hyena-like laugh. I haven’t heard it in months.

With my sweet Ella girl in my arms and the rest of our clan playing in the yard, the fatigue pulls at my eyes. But this. It looks like this. The exhaustion that started when Amelia got sick, and hasn’t abated since, is there in the air around me. This noisy mess of kids and that beautiful man – worth every last bit of it.

It looks like this. This. I wouldn’t trade it for rest-filled nights, less laundry and a house that doesn’t smell like sweaty boy 98% of the time. It looks like this. And it’s all I want.