After Christmas last year, when my boyfriend’s children were with his ex-wife, he and I went on vacation with my daughters to a sunny spot far from our separate homes in Montana. We have been together for years, sometimes blending our children’s lives, sometimes not, feeling no need (I don’t think?) to define our arrangement with marriage.
On this trip, we stayed in a spare beach cottage where I stared each day not at the sea but at four white bowls that were generously spaced along a wooden shelf above the kitchen sink. In the wake of another bloated Christmas, the simplicity of those bowls stood in stark contrast to the clutter I had left back home.
By the end of our vacation, those bowls — never used, not a part of any real life at all, of course — had burned such a hole in my brain that within six hours of our return I had thrown out a dozen garbage bags of stuff, and I was just getting started. I was guided not only by the image of those four bowls but also a line an old friend used to say whenever I asked if he needed another beer: “Need is a funny word.”
Every day I threw out more stuff until, while taking a break to walk the dog, I started laughing at myself. I was acting ridiculous, chucking anything we didn’t need, not because I was suddenly obsessed with decluttering but because I was scheduled for surgery the following week, and I was scared. As a single parent who simply could not die, I was doing whatever I could to distract myself from the risks that lay ahead.
No matter that the odds of my dying from surgery were minuscule; I was having a hysterectomy. It was just another way to unceremoniously throw away an object I no longer needed. My mother had done it at 40. I was 44, her only child.
She died at 68, when I was 38, after radiation damage from her cancer treatments decades earlier. I wished I could talk to her about all this, but mostly I was trying to keep myself busy. I was my own bad joke. How could I not have seen what I was doing?
As it turned out, surgery was a breeze, and I was back to my regular life in no time. The next week, walking my dog on a trail near my condo, I pulled out a ball for her to chase. When I threw it into a neighboring field filled with nearly two feet of snow, the only ring I wear sailed off my finger and vanished.
I gasped. My mother had given me that ring, and the only time I had taken it off was for surgery the prior week. I couldn’t lose it.
I was afraid to move, lest I disturb the snow, thinking that any surface indentation, no matter how tiny, might reveal my ring’s landing spot. I called my boyfriend. I called a friend who was watching my girls. The three of us collectively called a half-dozen stores and tracked down a used metal detector from a pawnshop.
My friend drove with my girls to pick it up. It was after 2 p.m.; we had only a few hours of daylight left. While I waited for my friend to arrive with the metal detector, a pack of parents and children and dogs arrived with cross-country ski equipment. Though I was too dazed to remember, I must have told them I lost a ring because I heard them wondering aloud if it was my wedding ring.
I didn’t answer.
An older woman with another dog showed up and joined the skiing crowd. She was talking loudly, asking what was going on, and I was protecting my snow from their dogs, wishing they would leave me in silence to mourn. There was no way I would find it.
When the skiers left, the woman came over and said, “Is it your wedding ring?”
“No,” I said, too sharply.
A few minutes later, a man ran by, making eye contact in a way that made me think he might know me — it’s a small town — but I didn’t recognize him. He stopped running and asked if I was all right. “You look distraught,” he said.
“I lost my ring.”
“Your wedding ring?”
“No! I’m not married.” I didn’t mask my exasperation.
I’d flustered him. He was so kind. I was so sad. He left, and I stared at the snow. No ring. No mother. No husband. Not even a uterus! How easy it would have been for me to dissolve into a pity party. But in reality, I was jazzed about the surgery. In reality, I love my life, my family, my boyfriend.
Why did the wedding-ring assumption keep setting me off? On vacation, nearly everyone we met called my boyfriend my husband. Talking to another couple on the beach, he referred to one of my children as “our daughter.” Do we need to be married? I don’t know. Mostly, as my boyfriend likes to say, I want for nothing.
But I needed that ring.
The metal detector from the pawnshop was a jury-rigged piece of junk with duct tape holding the battery in place, an item I would have hauled to the dump days earlier. My friend turned it on and nothing happened.
I was getting frantic, and cold. I left my girls and my friend to guard the snow while I drove to buy a new battery, and this time — another half-hour of daylight wasted — the metal detector beeped to life. The metal-detecting needle didn’t budge, but when we tested the machine by dropping a penny in the snow, it beeped again. The sun was lower, I was drained, but we had a heartbeat.
It seemed impossible that this cheap hunk of plastic in my hand might produce a miracle, but I took slow steps into the field, sweeping it over the snow. A crowd had gathered: The skiers were back. My friend’s teenage son and his buddies had arrived. The kind runner had actually run home, showered and driven back to check on me, unable to shake how upset I had appeared.
It didn’t even take long — 15 minutes? — before the detector beeped again. I remained skeptical; I figured it was picking up the metal zipper on my boot. But the faint beep persisted in one spot, and when I knelt down and poked my fingers into the snow, there was my ring.
I burst into tears. I turned to show the crowd, mostly strangers. It felt a little weird to consider telling them the ring’s story, but by then they had invested their time, too.
“My mom gave me this ring when I was 20,” I said. “She was diagnosed with cancer when she was 25 and told she had a year to live. She hadn’t even gone on a first date with my dad. When they got engaged, her doctor told them she might have five years. They went for it anyway and got married. On her 50th birthday, she threw a big party and refused presents. She gave me this ring on that day — three bands of gold, engraved with her name, my name, my dad’s. She died 18 years later. I’ve never taken it off.”
Now a handful of strangers were crying.
I spared them the surgery detail — that, in fact, I had taken off the ring for the first time the prior week. Before leaving for the hospital, I put it in a small box that I’d given my mother decades earlier and then taken back from her bookshelf after she died.
I didn’t tell them how my boyfriend had taken me to surgery at the crack of dawn and waited with me, then filled my prescriptions, brought me home and tucked me into bed. I didn’t tell them how he cooked for my children after school, got them ready for basketball practice, kept them out of my hair. Or how, when he came to ask if there was anything I needed, I said, “Can you get me my ring?”
I didn’t go into the fact that he and I aren’t married, or explain that I may like to get married again someday — but also that I want for nothing. Both are true.
I didn’t recount how my boyfriend retrieved that box with its irreplaceable ring inside and came back to my room and handed it to me, or how I took the ring out and put it on my finger.
It’s not a wedding ring, but I didn’t need to tell them that.
Need is a funny word.
Robin Troy, co-director of the Beargrass Writers Workshop in Missoula, Montana, is working on her third book.
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