To my husband of nine years

10/13/12 | It drizzled this morning. So much so we unleashed the dotted umbrellas purchased last minute for our wedding. I worried about my hair, the guests, our pictures. Did you know some say rain on your wedding day is good luck?

Standing across from you in our college chapel, I feel more than luck. I feel fluttering in my chest — not fear or nerves, rather, an awakening. Love six years in the making shifts in its cocoon, ready to fly. Your sky-blue eyes twinkle back at mine. Our hope is palpable.

My childhood pastor stands across from us reciting, “O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” I want to savor everything — light flooding the altar, my gardenia perfume mingling with my roses, your hand in mine, firm yet gentle. At 26, we have big goals, you for your business, me with my writing. One day, we’d like to get a dog. We hope to own a home and start a family. Become a new creation.


10/18/21 | We marked nine years of marriage last week. On our anniversary, a repairman was supposed to fix our long-broken oven. You laughed and called year nine “the oven anniversary.” I promised to bake celebratory banana bread. That weekend, we’d visit your folks’ place, where they’d watch our son, and we’d have a proper date night. Then the repairman cancelled. Our trip was postponed. And I wanted to say something here about our love, but I didn’t.

Tonight, before you leave for another business trip, you snuggle next to me on our couch and read one of my essays. I watch you squint at the draft and think how hard it must be to love a writer. You’ve been loving me like this — seeing me as I want to be seen, cheering me on — since we met in college. I’ve watched with awe as you achieved your goals, never quitting. In 15 years, we’ve seen each other through illness, health, hardship and ease. Isn’t that love, a kind of seeing?

Yet seeing you here, in the glow of our living room, I know the best part of these years hasn’t been observing each other grow. It’s been emerging together: traveling the world, cultivating a home, raising our son, making memories. We’ve been made new, over and over, through love and God’s grace.

The space between us

“Mommy and Daddy, are you best friends?” Our son issues the question over breakfast. I chew my Kashi cereal and shoot a glance at Jay, who’s busy draining his coffee. He raises his eyebrows over the mug and for a second, I think he’s leaving this response to me alone.

Best friends, huh?

We certainly hadn’t been acting like it. A recent dinnertime squabble had led to finishing our veggie burgers in icy silence, which led to raised voices in the kitchen and the finale: me sulking in the bedroom. What were we even fighting about that day? I cannot remember.

Bit by bit we’d built up walls — a terse comment here, tasks left undone there, feeling unseen and under-appreciated amid parenting our son.

Last Saturday, I’d gone so far as to grumble, “Why did we get married again?

I needed to remember.


Jay and I met sophomore year in sociology class. He, the laid-back genius, was late to class on the first day. I, the driven student, had arrived early. When he strolled into the classroom, there was one spot next to me.

He took it.

It became his permanent spot.

Jay was everything I wasn’t: low-key, low-stress, able to hang out for hours on end without accomplishing anything. He made me laugh. He was kind. He listened. When we were together, all my worries and stressors melted away.

We talked for hours into the night. Time together was one long exhale.


Hours led to weeks, led to 14 years “officially” together this month. Seven years married. Three years with our son.

Later that Saturday night, as we settled in to our respective sides of the bed, I put down my novel and asked him a question usually reserved for our preschooler. “What’s wrong?” And out it came — all the worries and fears and annoyances, his and mine. We talked for hours into the morning, crying, laughing, kissing. We found each other’s arms, closing the space between us. Just before sleep arrived, I sighed.


Are you best friends?

Our son’s question drifts the air. I swallow my cereal. Jay sets down his coffee.

My husband and I lock eyes and smile. We answer with one breath: “Yes.”

To have and to hold

erin and jay strybis
credit: Chris Ocken

And you have a person in your life whose hand
  you like to hold?
  “Yes, I do.”
It must surely, then, be very happy down there
  in your heart
  “Yes,” I said. “It is.” 
—Mary Oliver  

My husband Jay and I celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary on October 13. If you count dating, which I certainly do, we’ve been together over a dozen years. At first, after we married, it didn’t seem much different than dating. For six years we’d been serious about our love, on our wedding day we said vows to prove it. Marriage didn’t change much for us, at least not in that first year.

Our life circumstances have shifted significantly since 2012, the year we became husband and wife. After years of city living with minimal responsibility, we have a car loan, a dog, a mortgage and a baby (procured in that order). We officially crossed into the realm of “adulting,” and have oodles of paperwork to prove it. In recent years, we’ve taken to commiserating with one another, stating the obvious, “Being an adult is HARD!”  The hard stuff feels a little easier when you name it.

To that point: Hands down the past year has been the hardest year yet of our marriage. I thought this on our fifth wedding anniversary, the year our son was born, not knowing the challenges we’d encounter leading up to this anniversary. As new parents, we fought over diaper changes, the dishwasher and even dog food. We battled sleep deprivation and took turns caring for our son Jack when he got sick. There were many joyful moments too, like witnessing Jack’s first smile and his first shaky steps. Also figuring out how to date each other again (pro tip: finding a trustworthy babysitter helps). We were shocked by how hard parenting was, but at least we were doing it together.

This past year, however, showed me the meaning behind our vows, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health . . .” We faced the greatest obstacle of our life together when my husband got sick. This summer we lived in sickness, for worse and for poorer. We didn’t always live gracefully–in fact, I definitely didn’t live gracefully. Most of the time, I felt terrified and tired. I became intimate friends with anger, anxiety, fear and heartache. A lot of the time, I was parenting alone.

In the middle of the summer, I went on a five-day work trip to Houston, a brief escape from hardship. The trip couldn’t have happened at a more horrible time. Not only was Jay having a difficult health week, but our son managed to catch the dreaded hand, foot and mouth virus two nights before my flight out. Luckily, I’d arranged for my in-laws to visit and care for Jack. Low on sleep, I kissed my family goodbye and headed to the airport, feeling a mix of deep relief and nagging guilt. Ultimately the work trip was fun, and sleeping in my own bed for days, with no snoring or cries or worries to wake me, was heaven.

The last morning of my trip, I looked at myself in the mirror and struggled to hold back tears: I envied my former single self and all my single friends. I wanted to turn back time or fly home to a different life. I wanted to be free. I touched my face, then noticed my ring. My heart ached for my family too.

When I came home, I could barely contain my joy when I hugged and kissed my son and husband for the first time. Later on, snuggling my husband and our dog while they snored along in our cozy bed, I struggled to imagine my life without Jay. I’d spent much of the summer going over what-if scenarios regarding Jay’s health, pushing myself to be a caretaker, primary parent and provider even though it felt like I was barely holding on myself.

Holding my sweet husband that evening, I realized I didn’t have to. I could choose to thank God for each day we have together, rather than worry about the future. This outlook sustained me through the rest of the summer–and continues to be a guiding force in my life today.

to have and to hold
credit: Mona Luan

Six years ago, on a rainy October day, Jay donned a slate gray tux and I wore cream-colored lace dress as we stood in our alma mater’s chapel and recited our wedding vows. We were–and are–surrounded by a crowd of witnesses who support our union.

That moment in the chapel is where marriage diverges from dating. As one year leads to the next, and life circumstances shift, living vows is not for the faint of heart. Here’s what I know: My husband and I faced great adversity in this past year of marriage and we are stronger for it. And now, as we enter into our next year of marriage, we’ll continue facing lows and highs.

I’m just glad we still get to do it together.

Husband of mine, I’m grateful for everything you do and are. I’m deeply grateful for your presence. Happy Anniversary, my love.

A backyard tale

Once upon a time, a young couple bought their first home. They had a baby on the way, and a little dog too, and after eight years of apartment living, it was time to move.

The home they purchased was in an ideal location–close to work, the airport and public transit. It was just their style–cute and cozy with modern updates. Their neighbors were friendly; their neighborhood was picturesque. Everything seemed perfect, except for one tiny detail: their new home came with a lush backyard garden.

Expertly manicured shrubbery, lively wildflowers, spindly tall grass, blooming peonies and healthy hydrangeas surrounded a small backyard patio. The back right corner of the lot featured some potted plants, flowers growing up lattices and a sizable Japanese maple. Across the lot was a vegetable garden with kale, spinach and green tomatoes. But the pinnacle of it all was an 800 gallon pond, complete with a cascading waterfall, lily pads and five koi fish. It was, by all accounts, a hidden oasis in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Or so it seemed.

backyard garden
Our backyard garden, summer 2016

Even though others assured them their beautiful new backyard was “actually low-maintenance,” the young couple was skeptical. In fact, when they purchased the home, their first concern was how their new pets would survive another Chicago winter under their novice care. Furthermore, they worried how they’d manage such a yard come summer, with a new baby and two full-time jobs to juggle. One of them was already convinced they should sell the koi, tear out the pond and replace everything with sod.

Had they made a huge mistake? Would the koi survive the winter? Only time would tell.

Year one: Welcome to the jungle

That was nearly two years ago, and yes, that darling, naive couple was us. My husband Jay and I found our first home in August 2016, closing on it Halloween Day.

There’s usually something on which you compromise when you buy a home, and for us, it was the backyard garden. Neither of us pictured ever owning such a space nor did we have much gardening experience. We loved everything else about the place, and we knew, theoretically, if the backyard didn’t work we could always change it.

At first, everything went OK. My husband read up on koi care, winterized the pond, and the fish survived their first winter with us. On January 30, I gave birth to our son, Jack, and we began the lifelong adventure that is parenthood.

pond with koi at winter
Koi pond, winter 2017

We survived three months caring for Jack, and when spring arrived, Jay thought he’d give the garden a try. I was already back to work, and with breastfeeding our son, my free time was limited. I was too overwhelmed to help with the garden, and, since Jay resumed traveling for work, he could only work in the garden when he was home.

Weeks passed. Day by day, plants grew taller, bushes grew wider, weeds sprung up in the vegetable garden bed and by the middle of July, we found ourselves the unwitting owners of a backyard jungle, complete with a hidden koi pond.

The prior homeowners had always participated in our neighborhood garden walk, so when our neighbors suggested we consider doing the same it took everything in our power not to break down and laugh until we cried.

Although Jay kept feeding the koi, I avoided the backyard whenever I could, I was so embarrassed by its demise. I began parking on the street rather than in our backyard garage to steer clear of the overgrown plants and thriving bug life.

You know that expression, the grass is always greener on the other side? This was literally true for us. On either side of our lot stood our neighbors’ basic, green grassy backyards and I coveted them. Oh, how I coveted them. I fantasized about green, grassy lawn — no crazy weeds, no scary bugs and safe space for our dog and son to play. I lamented our situation — caused by our own inability to act — and wished someone, anyone would just swoop in and save us from this mess. I vacillated from feeling ashamed and embarrassed to completely apathetic.

Mercifully the remaining summer weeks passed quickly and the garden began to wilt away that fall. Eventually my husband braved the backyard to cut away weeds and tall grass and to prepare the pond for another winter.

As the seasons changed, my heart felt a little lighter, less worried about our crazy backyard. When snow fell for the first time, I felt giddy. Finally our yard looked like all the others! We vowed to do something about it next summer, to hire contractors to create the backyard we always wanted — a basic plot of green lawn.

Year two: The tipping point

In the margin of my 2018 planner, I wrote: Call contractors this spring. And in March, I promptly began bugging my husband about it. Jay, an engineer, is the one in our marriage who researches everything; he made spreadsheets comparing prices for our first car, spreadsheets charting our son’s sleep, etc. Naturally I assumed he would quickly and easily complete this assignment, but he repeatedly put it off. His inaction (and my own) was exhausting. Eventually we had one contractor we weren’t completely happy with, then the project stalled.

I wish I could say that this summer was different. It was different, in ways I’m not ready to share here, but in other ways it was identical. We couldn’t make time to tend our garden. Come July, the yard looked eerily similar — if not more overgrown — and I was parking in the street again, ashamed of our jungle backyard.

Late that month, on a particularly stressful night, I was doing a few sun salutations in the sun room after putting our son to bed. Out of the corner of my eye I spied movement in the backyard, but continued flowing. Inhale upward facing dog; exhale downward facing dog . . .

Wait, was that a racoon in the pond?

I stopped, mid-downward dog, and rushed to the window as a large, agile racoon slipped over the waterfall and out of our pond, closely followed by another racoon, and another, and another… I counted a total of four large invaders. I stared, breathlessly, as they romped through our backyard and on to our neighbors. Something in me snapped.

I stalked into our bedroom. “A racoon gang just took a dip in our pond,” I declared.

My husband, who was half asleep in bed the dog, sat up. “What?”

“You heard me. A gang of racoons,” I said. “This backyard is out of control. I’m calling the contractor tomorrow.”

The next day, I called the contractor. When we spoke, I was surprised to learn his team could come out as soon as the next Monday. I had a work trip to Boston, but my husband and son would be home sowe decided to move ahead. With one simple call, it was booked. WE WERE GETTING A NEW BACKYARD!

Finally, a new backyard

That weekend, Jay scrambled to call a local fish store and found a home for the koi, and I flew out for my trip. While in Boston I received a series of texts from my husband, mostly pictures:

Backyard, August 2018 (It’s a jungle out there.)

Backyard re-do, August 2018 (Praise the Lord!)

Staring at out bulldozed backyard covered in dirt, my heart burst with delight.

Was the change I’d so desperately wanted really that simple? All the hours I spent agonizing over the inconvenience of it all, what the neighbors might think and my own shortcomings could have been applied to solving this problem earlier. I was relieved the contractors finished so quickly, and a little embarrassed it had taken it so long to get to this point.

I hadn’t been there to see our contractor’s team in action but reports from the home front indicated it was a big, dirty job. (And we have a hefty bill to prove it.)

The next image my husband texted was surreal: a basic, green grassy backyard — no koi, no tall grass, no weeds, no bushes. Just lawn, a sight for sore eyes.

grassy backyard
The final product, August 2018

Finally our son and dog could use the backyard for playing. Finally I could walk through the backyard unashamed, and park in the garage again. In a summer marked by family hardship, this new backyard was giving me life. I couldn’t wait to get home and see it for myself.

The night I arrived home from my work trip, I embraced my family, put my son to bed and walked straight into the sun room. As I looked out the window, I almost cried: there, basking in the moonlight, was our new backyard.


Have you ever had an ongoing home project like this one that drove you crazy? Tell me in the comments.