Yesterday morning while rooting through my jewelry box to find a bracelet or necklace to wear, I came across the “promise ring” Mike gave me sometime during the weeks before we started looking at wedding rings. He made me wear it on the ring finger of my left hand and said it was to “reserve the space.” It wasn’t exactly a proposal—Mike was far too afraid to say those precise words at the moment. It was simply a promise of events to come. You see, with Mike, everything came in slow steps. Marriage was a huge deal to him (as it was to me, as it should be to anyone) and he didn’t want to rush things. He was just trying to get his toes wet with the idea. I understood. And I didn’t want to push him either. Despite the fact that he’d already told me, off-handedly one night at a party at which we were drinking, “Someday, you’re going to be Mrs. F.”

It’s really a simple ring. I’m not even sure where he got it or what its significance was to him. It was something he had in his own jewelry box, not anything new that he bought specifically for the purpose of sealing a promise to propose to me. I’m not even sure it’s worth anything. It actually could pass for a wedding band—small and thin gold with little white stones that I assume are cubic zarconian on half of it. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a ring he gave to a former girlfriend. It doesn’t matter to me, really; I wouldn’t even get jealous. For me, the ring was a symbol of Mike trying say, in a small abstract way, that he loved me and was thinking about spending the rest of his life with me.

It’s the holiday season again and, as always during this time of year, I’m reminded of that increasingly small period of my life (it gets smaller and smaller as my life goes on) in which I was truly happy and seemed to understand the true meaning of family. This is the time of year when we started talking about marriage. His father and step-mom had met me over Thanksgiving in Colorado and they kept dropping hints to us on the phone. The day after we’d looked at rings–and were keeping quiet that he’d bought me an engagement ring–we spoke to Mike’s father and step-mom on the phone. The conversation went like this:

Mike’s Dad: So, um, are you getting Heidi anything special for Christmas?

Mike’s Step-Mom, snickering: Yeah. Like something gold and shiny?

Mike’s face was like the cat who ate the canary as he tried to deflect the question: Um, well, you never know…

If they could have seen his face, they would have read the whole truth of our activities the previous day. Mike was blushing as he always did when his emotions were tripped. And I’d had had to keep it quiet too. I couldn’t tell my friends that we had looked at rings, that I had witnessed Mike buy one. I was holding my breath because I didn’t want to say anything at all, in fear that Mike would change his mind and not propose to me, leaving me feeling stupid with false hope. I didn’t want to jinx it. When he purchased my engagement ring, I told him the ball was in his court to ask me to marry him and that I wasn’t expecting anything until he formally asked. I even told him it was his responsibility to pick the ring up when it was ready (it needed to be fitted to my size). I wanted to know nothing about it until he asked me to marry him.

Yes, I’m a romantic, indeed. And, believe it or not, a little traditional. We’d already broken what I felt was tradition by shopping for the ring together. I’d have preferred he’d picked one out for me and asked me by surprise in some completely random moment. The ring was never important to me. It could have been a bubblegum wrapper or a milk lid ring for all I cared so long as there was sentiment and truth behind his request for my hand. I am not even that big of a fan of diamonds, to be honest.

In my little romantic world, the man asks the woman. Despite being a ranting and raging feminist, it just seems to me a little pushy for a woman to ask a man. I’d be afraid that his heart was not really into the asking, that he would just go along with the idea because I wanted it and he wanted to continue our relationship. I think it says a lot when a man decides to ask the Big Question because it shows clearly that he really and truly wants it. I would feel that I was coercing the guy into marriage if I asked myself. I know a lot of women feel differently about this and that asking the guy worked for them fine. It’s just not, for me, how I would ever want things done.

Fortunately, Mike was a romantic. I don’t think he’d ever admit to it. His romantic tendencies were subtle and shy, but they were always completely honest and from the heart. A small phrase on a card or in an email–“the thought of not being on the same continent make me sad”; sometimes a simple “I love you” whispered at precisely the right moment with a certain tone of voice; tender touches to my shoulder when we were out in a crowd, fingers that begged for connection with me to make sure I was still there; a look in his eyes.

So I left it all up to him to complete the mission of asking me to marry him. I was giving him a backdoor out of the situation. I was giving him more time if he needed to think it over some more. Mike was never a person to rush into anything and I knew this about him. He had to consider everything, weigh his options, think before speaking. To me, nothing was permanently set until I saw that ring in his hand as he asked the Big Question.

My friends knew before me. On Christmas Eve, before going to my grandma H’s house as was tradition in my family, we stopped to have a gift exchange at my best friend’s house. Diane was there too. I’m told at one point, when the three of them were together in a room in which I was absent, Mike took the ring out and flashed it at them. There are many tales from each of those present at that moment–including Mike–on the reactions from my friends. It must have been more of a surprise to them than it would have been to me, as I knew all along that we’d bought a ring. They knew nothing. I wonder, often, what it would have felt like to be one of them, looking at Mike with this ring–my ring, the one I picked–and seeing it all for the first time. They must have felt as I felt when Mike turned to the girl behind the counter at the jewelry store and said, “We’ll buy this ring.” My god, it’s really, really happening.

I know it’s almost too traditional to be proposed to on Christmas Eve. But I think Mike wanted me to be able to share my news with the entire family at one spot (which, to his chagrin, I didn’t quite do right away). When Mike did come to decisions, he was very grandiose about them. He wanted everyone to know. Which is why he wouldn’t let me get a ring with a small diamond, despite my protests every time he had redirected me from the rings with the small diamonds. He wanted everyone to know about us. He wanted people to know he treated his girl right. (I know, my feminist hackles should be raised, but somehow traditional manly strutting never offended me from Mike because I knew he really did respect me as an individual, not just a woman and sex object.) My ring was big and embarrassing at times. When I asked him why he wouldn’t let me settle for a little diamond, he replied, “Because you don’t have to! I can afford to get you better!”

I’m not one to flash money around either. And normally neither was Mike. But, I don’t know, in analyzing it in the years since, I think I’ve come to realize that there’s still sort of a need for men to prove something among other men. A barbaric need to flex one’s muscles, beat one’s chest, and howl loudly at the full moon. It’s laughable and ridiculous to a woman–especially me–but I guess there’s no use trying undo what millions of years of DNA has evolved. Sometimes these quirky characteristics of men make me roll my eyes, but occasionally I can find them sort of endearing. (So long as the man is not using his prowess against me.)

I know I’ve told this story before, about the moment where Mike turned to me in the car just after parking in my grandma’s driveway and, with the ring held out between his fingers, stammered, weakly, “Will you have me?”

I always thought that moment of being asked to marry someone would be more grand than that. And yet, at the same time, I was not disappointed. Even though I knew all along that we’d bought the ring. Of course, that had been a month earlier, and I still wasn’t sure he’d decided to go through with it. And there I was, looking at the man I loved, hunched slightly in his seat in nervous, shy fear–was he also afraid that I’d changed my mind?–and he was asking me to marry him. My moment was less glorious than I ever imagined either. “Yes!!!” I shouted taking the ring and slipping it on one motion.

This event was followed by hours of not being sure what to do. Another person in my place would probably have run into the house, leaving her fiance behind, and screamed to everyone who would listen that she had just gotten engaged. Of course, this was not my way. I suffered from some embarrassment. I feared the reaction of others. I was only 23; what would all my relatives say? I’d only met this man six months earlier. Surely everyone would have their opinions. But no one knew how magnetic our love was, how it’d always been that way despite our very slow beginnings after the party at which we met. I knew it was the right move for us, but I was still nervous and shy myself about the idea. So I tortured Mike for hours by saying nothing as his eyes bulged out of his head in frustration, bidding me loudly in frustrated silence, Tell them. Dammit. Don’t you want to marry me?

If I had to do it all over again, I would have done exactly what Mike expected and run into the party, his hand in my hand, and announced to the world right then and there that we were engaged. I would have suffered the cooing and cawwing of my relatives with dignity and not embarrassment. I would have made Mike smile with pride as he slipped his arm around my shoulder. No one did criticize me that night for my hasty engagement. No one would have questioned (except my cousin Gary who, when we told him, was really weirded out because he and his current girlfriend had only been dating six months and he clearly did not feel he was ready to marry her). Everyone liked Mike. He had the approval of my beloved grandma H. What more encouragement did I need?

Of course, I can’t go back. But I’m sure Mike knew that despite my hesitance to say anything that I did love him. I was proud of him. I was proud that he became my husband. If he didn’t know it at that moment, he figured it out in the days to come as we made our wedding plans and started to become comfortable with each other in our new lives. Young love–crazy and sweet. I miss it often. I miss his little shy blushes whenever someone gave him a compliment or when he was in the middle of an earnest expression of his emotion. These blushes–coming from a normally very confident man–told me his emotions were earnest. Whenever he blushed or looked away with a certain expression on his face, I knew he was revealing something from deep within his heart. It made him so human, so fragile. Like I always felt I was.

So yesterday morning, when I came across this promise ring, I slid it on. But this time on the ring finger of my right hand so not to make anyone–or myself—feel that I was having “letting go” issues. I’m really conscious about not putting rings on the ring finger of my left hand because I don’t want to send mixed messages, especially to those who know me as a widow. I just don’t want people to think I’m having a rough spot. Even if I am having a rough spot. I often feel a little over-scrutinized, but it’s probably mostly my imagination. Usually once a year, on Christmas, I put my engagement/wedding ring ensemble back on (left hand) in remembrance of Mike and that special moment on Christmas Eve in 1998 when he asked me to marry him.

The holidays are hard for most widows/widowers to begin with. It’s the time of year we most dread because it’s all about being with family and most of us feel as though we’re part of a broken family. For me, I think it might be extra hard because it’s one of the dreaded “anniversaries.” I don’t know how many people celebrate the day they got engaged as a formal event, but I am sure everyone remembers that moment and holds it close to their heart. Especially after you lose someone. You can’t help but remember every moment you had with the person because they were the only moments you had. When you had as little time as Mike and I had, every moment is committed to memory. Sometimes I try to just put myself back in a certain place and time and I work to recall an entire day with Mike in the same sort of meditative way I do when trying to write a scene in some story I’m working on. I try to think of all the details–the facial expressions, the feelings, the words exchanged, the way a place looked at a precise moment. It’s kind of a painful thing to do. At the same time, it brings you back, for just a moment, with that person. It’s like our special place where the dead and the living can meet. If only in the living one’s thoughts.

I think I will keep the ring on throughout the holiday season. Or at least until I feel like I want to take it off. Since I lost Mike’s wedding ring (tragically on an indoor soccer field in Colorado), this ring is all I have left to represent Mike’s commitment to me. It was only a promise, but it was a promise that was kept. I’d like to have it here to keep him with me in some small physical way throughout the holiday season.

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