I had already lost a piece of my marriage, and I didn’t even realize it.
“What are they looking for over there?” I said to my sister-in-law, Megan.
Dustin and Megan’s husband, Brett, were across the roaring brook, at the base of Mount Katahdin, staring into the foaming, churning water. Dustin had just finished riding a rope swing into the currents of what locals call Abol Pond.
“It’s like someone lost something,” Megan said.
Ten minutes later, Dustin came out of the water and motioned for me to leave the group and meet him across the rocky beach, in a secluded spot along the stream. He came close to me and held out his left hand, palm up. At first I thought he had a leech. Then I wondered if something was wrong with his hand. But when he pointed to his empty ring finger — misshapen and hidden from the sun for the last 12 years — I knew.
It wasn’t that long ago that we passed a jewelry store in the mall and one of the employees offered to buff Dustin’s wedding band. “I could get that ring shining like new,” the man said.
Dustin said no. He was proud of the dents and scratches on his ring. It had been through many things in more than a decade: flight school, multiple moves across country, three children, deployments and a few near misses when we thought it was lost forever. At a bonfire in San Diego, Dustin lost his ring in the sand. I cried that time, too. Then our friend Jamie, who had a beer in one hand and a plate of food in the other, ran his feet through the sand and said, “Is this what you’re looking for?”
In the mornings, when Dustin had an early flight, I heard the familiar ping of his wedding band hitting the porcelain sink as he took it off before getting into the shower. Sometimes, he’d forget to put it back on, and the white-gold band, which had faded to yellow over time, would sit on the side of the sink for the rest of the day.
During flights and when he was on the aircraft carrier, Dustin kept the band in the zippered pocket of his flight suit. I wondered if he would forget it and what would happen if it went through the ship’s laundry.
It never did.
Sometimes I held Dustin’s ring on my thumb when he worried about losing it in the lake or down a drain. In movie theaters, I held Dustin’s hand and rubbed my finger along the cold metal. The ring had been on his hand while he held mine during each of our children’s births, even when my rings no longer fit on my swollen fingers.
It’s true that Dustin’s finger had grown around the band, and even when Dustin didn’t have his ring on, the sun had made a de facto band in its place.
It was that white “ring” that I was staring at now, beside the river, at the base of Mount Katahdin, with tears in my eyes. Dustin went back into the water to search. I already knew it was gone. Yet he continued looking for more than an hour. The rest of our group left to get food. We would meet up with them later. Neither of us knew when to call off the search. At what point do you walk away? When do you feel satisfied that you did all you could do? If we left, we knew we’d never find it. But there was no hope even if we stayed. We couldn’t walk away.
That’s when it hit me. When a parent loses a child, how do they ever stop looking? When do they call off the search? How do they ever sleep?
Our three children were safe with their grandparents and aunt and uncle at a roadside market waiting for us. Was there any better symbol of our marriage than those three boys?
Dustin came out of the water one last time and hugged me. I cried into his shirt.
“I guess it’s just a ring,” I said.
“And I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to leave it,” he said.
We both looked out at Abol Pond. A group of white-water rafters screamed as they bounced along the roaring water. The sun was bright, the sky clear. Mount Katahdin was just beyond the trees.
“And anyway, I wear my ring here,” Dustin said, pointing to his heart.
I knew we’d get him a new one before he leaves for his deployment. (That night, however, Lindell, 4, said, “Why does Dad need a new ring if he’s not going to marry anyone else?” He has a point.)
A ring is just a symbol. I realize that. But as we drove away, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was leaving a piece of our marriage tumbling in the currents and bouncing off the rocks of Abol Pond.
Then Dustin squeezed my hand and I knew I was leaving with so much more.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.