willie with anna from sweden

670 days + 2 minutes

On our travels, Willie and I have seen some amazing places, but what really stood out was the people. I recently decided to start writing about the people Willie meets on his journey through life. I’m going to start with a few personal stories of my own. Here’s the first…

It was 1991. Willie’s great grandfather had not yet been born. I had just finished high school and had a lot of free time, since I completed a semester early. I decided to volunteer and one of the jobs I took on was preparing tax returns for seniors and low income individuals. It was a free service offered by the government of Canada.

Most of the people coming in were seniors. Being only 19, I remember thinking that most old people were no longer aware of what was happening in the world and did not have much to offer anymore. Yes, they had life experience, but I felt that it was out-dated and could not be applied to the present day. I didn’t expect to get much out of this job, other than the good feeling from helping someone with something that was so complicated, even a younger, more capable person would get frustrated and head to the closest H&R Block. I soon discovered that I was wrong.

I recall one couple that came in together to do their taxes. I started by asking for their names, date of birth and address. Halfway through typing their address the gentleman interrupted me to say that he was the happiest man in the world. I stopped for a brief moment, smiled and then continued entering the information. He then repeated that he was the happiest man in the world because he had been married to the most beautiful, kind and loving woman for the past 50 years. I stopped again and looked up to see an old man smiling a wide smile, sitting next to his wife, who beamed joy and peace from her piercing blue eyes. It was at this moment that I thought, maybe, he had a secret. Maybe he knew something about love, the one thing that I thought was too complicated to understand.

I stopped typing, set aside the paperwork, took a moment to breathe and then asked… “Okay you have my attention. Tell me. What is the secret to your marriage?” The man smiled even more and began to tell me the two things that, he felt, had made his marriage so great and helped it to stay intact over so many decades.

1) I never allowed my wife to work.

2) Every evening we would spend 20 undivided minutes together over tea and talk.

I then thought… could it be that easy? I also thought that getting a modern woman to stay at home and not work would be very difficult. Maybe it was more the fact that that, in those times, life had been less stressful as there wasn’t a need for dual income families. So family life would have been less busy as one parent stayed home to take care of the family… it made sense.

The second point was the one that was timeless. Spending undivided attention with your significant other for a set amount of time every day. It sounds easy to do but, over the years, as I have tried to implement it in my own relationships, the unpredictable busy-ness of life or, sometimes, the person I was with, would somehow break the pattern of daily routine and that 20 minutes of time would feel like an impossible thing to fit in.

20 years and 5 relationships later, I found myself still with the same negative thought patterns, going through the same highs and lows. I would frequently find myself in an unhappy state. I was still looking outward to fix an inner problem. This story is about my last relationship, in which I found myself on the same rollercoaster, but this time with a tall, beautiful, Viking princess from Malmo, Sweden, who was also on a path leading to the same unhappy place. This is my story of Anna.

Have you ever been with someone and everything, I mean everything, is perfect. So perfect that you become an attraction point of many more great things. I was always a clumsy person when it came to sports but, for some reason, the day I took Anna to a theme park, I was able to do exactly what she wanted. I was hung-over from the night before and she asked me to win her a stuffed animal on the games that are 100 to 1 chance you’ll win. It was part of a deal she made with me so that I could avoid going on the last rollercoaster ride for the day. I had never played these games because I felt it was like throwing money away, but that day I did. And, in my second throw, the ball swooshed into the tall jar and she got the prize she wanted. It was magical.

willie canadas wonderland

Anna with the prize I had won for her at Canada’s Wonderland

As quickly as this magic enters, so, too, it can leave. And when it does, it seems like everything is against you. Perspectives change and the perception of what you thought was real no longer is. No matter how much love I threw at it… no matter how hard I tried… it went down… fast.

Let’s start from the beginning. It was 2011 and, at the age of 39, I had decided, for a second time, to give marriage a try. Willie and I met Anna one early morning at Starbucks coffee in Miami. She was only 22. Looking into her eyes, I saw the reflection of my unborn children. They would be tall and beautiful. The grandchildren that my parents always wanted. My ego had taken over and was already steering every turn.

The first words spoken were “good morning” and, from that moment until she left 10 days later, we were together. It was in these 10 days that I decided to try adapting to the advice given to me 20 years earlier from the old man. The first morning I asked her to come lay next to me for just a moment. I set my timer for 2 minutes and asked her to be still. I held her in my arms as she squirmed and complained in what she felt was an eternity. I did this for the next 9 days and, on the last day, I found her asking me for 2 minutes of quiet, peaceful, undivided, love and attention. On the last day, that 2 minutes elapsed in what seemed like a snap of the fingers.

After she left I planned a trip to visit her. For the past 10 winters I had headed south to escape the cold of Canada. For the first time, love was able to pull me to a dark, cold place… Norway. I visited for a few weeks over Christmas and then a second time in early spring. The first trip was an adjustment as she was no longer on vacation. She would wake early and was always in a stressful state, fed by the fear of being late for work. I’m not a morning person, but I felt joy in making her breakfast and walking to work with her. She no longer felt alone and far from her family, that were in Sweden. I was now there, and so the stress and loneliness slowly melted away.

The second trip was magical as I felt a love and peace in her that I knew had always been there. It happened on two occasions. One was on a Sunday afternoon after a long hike. I fell asleep in her arms on the couch. This was something that I was never able to do before. It was either the body heat or an uncomfortable position that made it impossible for me. For the first time in my life I woke up with the feeling that I was in the right place with the right person. After all the years of moving around, I felt like I’d finally come home. The second time was on a long bus ride to visit her family in Sweden. This time she fell asleep in my arms. How I wanted to be in that moment, watching her sleep, for the rest of my life. It was on that bus ride that I decided that I wanted to marry her.

After returning from my trip I began creating a perfect ring that would hopefully remind her of the love we had. It took a month to have made and then it began its 4 month journey in my pocket, occasionally coming out when I met someone that wanted to hear my story of Anna. I proposed to her on the ferris wheel in Niagara Falls, Canada. We went on that ride single and came out engaged.

Anna then moved to Canada to start a life with Willie and me. She brought her dog, Bossi, who quickly became a loving younger brother for Willie. It felt like a family… my family.

Having Anna in Canada was a special experience. She was tall; 4 inches taller that me… 6’2 and very beautiful. Everywhere we went, people would stare or approach to ask how tall she was. It must have been annoying for her, but she became used to it… I never did. On one occasion we were at the grocery store. Anna had her long mane of blonde hair out, a dark summer tan, and was wearing this super short jean mini skirt. After a few minutes a woman approached her and said that she was so exotic looking that everyone was looking at her. I looked around and the woman was right. Everyone in that store, including children, was looking at Anna. Her presence was felt by all… I was with a goddess.

Anna in Norway

My most favourite photograph of Anna taken Christmas Day in Norway

Living in Canada was hard for Anna. She had left her family, friends and job to be with me. She couldn’t legally work yet and we had plans to move some place outside of Canada soon. Making friends was difficult in the retirement city that we lived in. She used the word “bored” many times and it was clear that anyone her age would not be too thrilled by the lifestyle I was providing. It offered no schedule, no routine, no stress and a lot of freedom. This lack of structure could have gone two ways. One way would be to free and enable someone to find their internal peace and the other, more likely, would be depression. I, too, had gone through this adjustment when I started working from home, so I tried to prepare her for its coming and offer assurance I would be there to support her through it.

Depression came fast. I tried to provide everything she wanted to keep her happy. Short vacations, good food, new clothes… I just couldn’t say no to her when she asked for something. Just like a child, she pushed the boundaries of our relationship, which tested my patience in many different ways. No amount of attention or buying would fill her heart and I knew it. These were all external distractions from issues within that only she could resolve. Issues with her father and how he left her mother. Issues of jealousy over her friends and the great lives they appeared to have when she saw photos on social media. It was soon clear that the old man’s advice to not have a working wife would, in this case, soon lead to a very unhappy marriage.

In my observation of Anna’s highs and lows, I began to think from her perspective and find acceptance and compassion for her, no matter what. One extreme test was when Anna tried to sneak a little marijuana onto a cruise ship. She got caught and the captain, who was also Swedish, had zero tolerance. He made us disembark the ship at the next stop in Mexico. She didn’t intentionally get caught, but at the same time she wasn’t very careful. For some reason it was meant to happen. I maintained my patience throughout and bought plane tickets to get us safely home. At the time it was stressful, but it’s a story that I can definitely laugh about today. All in all, it was the ultimate lesson of patience and love.

After a year and a half of Anna changing her mind about what she wanted, I had to make a painful decision. Should I stay with this person that I loved so much or should I let her go to so she could experience life on her own and grow? Inside, I knew the answer, as it was very likely that the relationship would end badly and with resentment if I kept her with me. She was a beautiful bird whose wings were too colourful to be caged up with me. She needed to be free.

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.” Morgan Freeman – The Shawshank Redemption

So, with all my love, I decided to let her go. It was such a hard decision to act upon. For the same reason I wanted to be with her, she did not want to be with me. I felt it. I knew it. My last inner enemy was showing its ugly face. The one that I had known too well. The one that looked outward rather than inward. The one that fed me lies to make me feel good. The one that is still trying to hold me back from freedom… my ego. I had to leave it behind. It had been holding me back for too long. I needed to be more like Willie.

On the morning of her flight back to Sweden, I woke and asked, one last time, for my 2 minutes with her. It would be the last for us and I knew it.

It’s now been over 2 years since Anna returned to Sweden. There are still times that I second guess my decision to let her go but, if I search deep inside, I know that it was for the best. In recent months she’s communicated how hard it’s been to adjust to the lifestyle and expectations there. Looking back, she revealed a greater appreciation of our relationship and this made me smile. She’s going through a wonderful time of growth. A growth that everyone needs at some point.

And there it is… my story of Anna. Maybe one day she will read this and, if she does, I want her to know that I didn’t let her go because I didn’t want to be with her. I did it because I loved her and felt that she needed to be free. I still miss her… her fullness of life, her smile, her presence, her love. Maybe one day we’ll see each other again or maybe not. Either way, I feel extremely lucky to have had her for as long as I did. 670 days + 2 minutes and worth every single moment.

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