I Couldn’t Hear Until I Learned to Listen

I Couldn't Hear Until I Learned to Listen

My wife almost didn’t marry me because I couldn’t wrap a gift. Alcoholism – we survived that. Four kids, emergency room visits, emotional immaturity, running a business together – we made it past all of those major hurdles, but Sheri almost dumped me before any of it got started because I did such a crappy job of wrapping her present on our first Christmas together.


It’s true. My wife takes the act of giving seriously. At first, I thought her rejection of my feeble attempt at wrapping made her selfish. Then I realized I had it backwards. She puts so much thought and effort into the act of giving, and she didn’t want to be with someone who half-assed it. It’s not about materialism, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate, either. But if it’s not from the heart, she’s not interested.


Sheri used to make a really big deal about her birthday. She would celebrate for a week. Again, it was never about gifts or receiving. It was always about spending quality time with quality people – the kind of people who take their time with the wrapping if they do give her a gift. It was experiential, and Sheri wanted everyone to be as happy as she was that she was a year older. She didn’t need a big, fancy party. Her smile and laugh were celebration enough. She oozed carefree joy.


And I ruined it all for her.


It wasn’t my wrapping that crushed Sheri’s love of her birthday. It was my drinking.


It really came to a head on her 40th birthday. Friends kindly loaned us their condo in Vail, and I surprised my wife by secretly arranging for a babysitter so we could get away for the weekend. We ran into traffic on our Friday evening mountain drive, and I made my displeasure clear that the other cars were delaying my highly-anticipated drinking. My frustration was a major disappointment for my bride. It was her birthday weekend, and we were kid free. Yet, her company wasn’t enough for me. I needed beer to have fun. Her smile and laugh had lost their power.


The weekend got worse once we arrived at our destination. Sheri wanted to relax and soak up the Saturday sun on the back deck of the condo, but I insisted we go into the village to eat and drink. Sheri wanted to ride the gondola to the top on the summer afternoon, and I agreed only if I could pack a little cooler of beer for the adventure. Sheri wanted to go back to the condo after dinner and enjoy each other’s company, but I wanted to stay at the bar with live music and mingle with the locals.


Sheri was done, and I was just getting started. Her opinion didn’t matter because I was planning her birthday celebration. Her opinion – the birthday girl’s opinion – carried no weight. I was in charge of the fun. More accurately, my unquenchable thirst was calling the shots, and I wanted to party whether Sheri liked it or not.


All those years had passed since that first Christmas, and yet I still didn’t understand the message. For Sheri, it wasn’t about the content of the gift, it was about the care that went into giving it. It was about loving her enough to take my time with the wrapping. It was about listening, loving, slowing down and being together. And it was about being together being enough.


But that would never be enough for me. Not as long as I was drinking. For me, for an alcoholic, there is no such thing as enough.


We argued well into that Saturday night of her 40th birthday weekend, until I eventually passed out. Sunday morning and the Sunday afternoon drive home were even worse. I was so angry that she spoiled the fun, and Sheri was crushed that she wasn’t even the most important thing to me on her birthday. The present didn’t matter. The fancy condo, the babysitter, the expensive meals and limitless drinks – none of that had an impact. That I couldn’t hear my wife, that was devastating. The materialism was irrelevant when I couldn’t be bothered to deliver the gift with sincerity and care.


We celebrated Sheri’s 49th birthday this past weekend. I hope she had as much fun as I did. For me, this was the best birthday weekend of our marriage.


We started by hiking a 14er on Friday. A “14er” is Colorado slang for the 58 Rocky Mountain peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation in the state. Sheri and I have hiked one every summer for the past decade or so. We always choose one of the easiest ones – this isn’t mountain climbing, and there is little or no danger involved. But it is an accomplishment, and it is a day worth remembering.


This is the first time we’ve done our summer 14er on Sheri’s birthday, and it’s the first time we’ve convinced our kids to hike it with us. Our two oldest, our 18-year-old daughter and our 16-year-old son, pushed ahead finishing almost two hours in front of Sheri and me. Our 13-year-old son wasn’t far behind them. They were kind enough to wait at the summit so we could take a family photo that means the world to Sheri and me.


Sheri and I and our 10-year-old son hiked together the whole day. Descending a 14er is just as hard as the assent. Instead of battling our conditioning and gasping for oxygen in the thin air, our knees take a beating as we try to climb down without missing a step.


Our son slipped and fell in the loose rocks that slid free under our feet. I helped him up, brushed him off and gave him encouragement that he was doing well, making progress and doing something his older siblings would not have dared at his age.


I held my wife’s hand as we came down the mountain together. It was not simply a sign of mutual affection. We were sliding, and her anxiety was elevated. I was there to steady her and reassure her that we were in it together. And that we’d make it, no matter what.


On Sunday night, the six of us capped off Sheri’s birthday celebration with a drive-in movie – a double feature of Grease and Dirty Dancing (OK – the second movie was maybe not the best parental decision for the 10-year-old). We popped popcorn to take with us, and rotated seats in the car to give everyone a turn to lay down in the back. We didn’t get to bed until 1am (also a questionable parenting decision, but with this endless COVID-19 summer, the kids could sleep in on Monday morning).


It wasn’t fancy. Not the hike. Not the drive-in. Not the ribs we smoked on Sunday afternoon, and not the facial and manicure we gave her in the living room (I’ve got pictures of that, too, that I won’t be sharing). We weren’t chasing excitement or chasing a buzz or chasing the next thing without taking the time to enjoy the moment. We all just basked in the glory of my wife’s 49 years. It was a simple celebration, wrapped with care.


Nine years ago, I was incapable of participating in such a celebration. The drive-in didn’t have a liquor licence, and I couldn’t have carried enough beer in my backpack for the 14er to have been appealing. But most of all, I could not have heard my wife, not through spoken intention nor silent desires. I could not have gotten out of my own way long enough to listen to the birthday girl’s plans.


If I was still drinking today, regardless of the value and importance of the gift I might have chosen for my wife’s 49th birthday, it would have been wrapped in selfish gluttony and alcoholic insecurity. It would have made Sheri again wished she’d followed her instincts that Christmas so many years ago.


But I’m not drinking anymore. And while sobriety itself is a solution for nothing, with alcohol out of the way, I can finally listen, and I can hear the celebration.


We invite you to celebrate with us. If you live in Colorado, we hope you’ll join us for some laughs THIS THURSDAY, August 20th at our soberevolution Sips and Giggles event in Southeast Denver. We’ll eat yummy food, drink adult AF beverages, admire beautiful art and laugh until to we cry at the comedic stylings of my friend, and stand-up comedian, Debbie Scheer. Click the button below for details, and to reserve your spot at this limited-attendance event.

Sips & Giggles Details

If you’d like to find permanent sobriety, too, please join us in our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery. Maybe you’ll improve your listening skills, too!

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