Once many years ago, when I was staying with a friend, she ran outside to kiss her husband goodbye before he drove off to work. “Wait, I have to kiss you!” she said. “We don’t want you to have an accident.” They chuckled together as she kissed him. She explained to me that they had recently read about a research study that indicated that married people who kissed their spouses before they left home each day were less likely to be involved in traffic accidents.
It was not clear from the study whether such a kiss itself was magical, or people who loved each other deeply were more careful drivers, or whether the act of kissing reminded them of all they had to lose and therefore made them more careful right afterward. Whatever the case, my friend was not taking chances. Paying homage to such stories has always been her brand of hilarity. Years before, we had read an article that suggested crime rates go up with changes in air pressure. After that, whenever we were angry with someone we joked about killing them and then using “changes in air pressure” as our legal defense. However, I suspect that her insistence on the fairytale kiss was a very real nod to both science and superstition, because she had lost two sisters to fatal car accidents. If there was a remote chance that true love’s kiss could be a safety precaution, she was willing to try it.
Rituals can be catchy, even by someone who prides herself on logic and practicality, as I do. When I married Dale more than eleven years ago I would not let him leave the house before I kissed him, and vice versa. We’ve since learned to factor that into our schedule, no matter how rushed we are. I would rather risk being 30 seconds later than skip that farewell kiss. Still, it didn’t seem quite enough to me.
I was so happy to be married to someone I felt certain was the best mate for me, and so covetous of the years of bliss I might have missed because this did not happen until I was 39, that I became a bit obsessed about my husband’s safety. Not in a way that interfered with our lives, but maybe in a way that one usually sees in sentimental romance movies and books. So, in addition to the morning kiss, which I was not sure my husband imbued with the significance that seemed requisite to the magic, I threw in a verbal suggestion: “Be safe!”
Superstition set in. Over time, I’ve grown to feel I need to say “Be safe,” to him every day, lest this be the day something happens to him and I spend the rest of my life wondering, “Was it because I didn’t remind him to be safe that he was not alert to danger?” Maybe our family members would be less irritated with those of us who mother-hen them if we reminded them that phrases like, “Take your jacket,” “Be careful crossing the street,” or “Please don’t drive tonight,” are simply other ways of saying “I love you so much that sometimes I fear losing you to something beyond my control.”
For years, whenever I came upon my mom in a deep and silent sleep I would stop to watch her chest rise and fall—just in case. I feared that one day I would come upon her and the rising and falling would have ceased. Ironically, I was sitting with her the day it did stop, so I guess all those years had become practice. When she took her last breath it did not come as a shock, only as an inevitable conclusion.
Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake and watch my husband breathe, as if my watching can keep his chest rising and falling. “Be safe. Be safe,” I think. “Be safe.” It is a mantra that makes me feel close to him, even if it makes me feel no closer to having control over the duration of our life together.
That phrase, “Be safe,” is like wishing before blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. But it is also the sharing of something profound. For me, those two brief words impart the more than two decades of love that have grown between Dale and me. They carry the knowledge of all we’ve shared: the way I’ve lumbered down a public street with my arms swinging like an ape just to make him laugh, and the way he lets me walk ahead when we’re hiking just because he knows I like to be in front; the way I hate cilantro and he loves garlic; the nurse’s hat that a girl brought to show-and-tell and a teacher wrongly accused him of stealing in elementary school, and the boy who slammed my head in the closet door in third grade because someone told him I liked him.
I once told Dale I believed that what keeps people together is “the secrets they share.” I still think that’s a big part of it. I may have revealed a few to outsiders here, but for Dale and me “Be safe” is a shorthand that contains hundreds of secrets. It is our prayer, our confessional, our communion with whatever power holds us to each other. It is not a guarantee of physical safety, but a box that holds safe all that we are to each other.
Do you share a simple ritual with someone you love that serves to remind you of the bond between you?