Thirty-nine years ago, I met someone who would change my life forever. I was visiting a former roommate who’d forgotten he promised to take his girlfriend to a rodeo. When she called angrily to remind him, he looked at me and said, “Hey, Steve. Wanna go to a rodeo?” And I was like, “Aight.” And his girlfriend, horrified that her boyfriend’s loser friend Steve would be going too, invited her friend Alisa. And when Alisa yelled, “Look! That calf has mange!” I knew that she was the one for me.
I read something once that said that, to make a long-term relationship work, you must accept that your partner will do things that are “predictably stupid and unforgivable.” And you need to forgive them anyway, because that’s who they are and they’re never going to change. You have to accept that they will always do that thing, no matter how many times you’ve told them not to. And no matter how many times they’ve promised not to. They’re gonna do that thing regardless.
Note: I really should be saying “I” here. No matter how many times I’ve promised to not do that thing, I do it anyway. Because I’m a horrible person. But somehow she’s managed to forgive me and we’re still together.
There’s an article today in the New York Times speculating about what famous women might have accomplished if they had a wife. It’s been well known that success of male academics is often strongly influenced by having a wife who takes care of all of the flotsam and jetsam of day-to-day life so they can focus on their “life of the mind.” So it has been with me.
After a few interesting years of both working the jobs our bachelors degrees brought us in the late 1980s, Alisa put me through graduate school; she worked at a series of both temporary and what she calls “pink collar” jobs which provided enough money to support us living frugally in student housing with the meager supplement of what I made as a graduate student. (Pro-tip: always refer to yourself as a “doctoral student” to University staff — they treat you way, way better.)
She found the classified ad in Science for the job I ultimately got. When I started, she was able to quit working to stay home with our children (though not without sacrifices). I had been the primary caregiver of our first child while I was finishing my dissertation (which was challenging), but when I started working I was able to focus on my career because she gave up hers and allowed us to make that pivot.
As the kids grew and she had more time, she wanted more than to stay at home and began to pursue an interest in municipal service after various parenting groups had run their course. She got elected to Representative Town Meeting, helped renovate a municipal playground, helped lead the PTO at our son’s elementary school, and served on various committees at the school and town levels, then was elected to the School Committee then the Select Board. She was Select Board Chair for some tumultuous years when the Town Manager unexpectedly passed away. After the form of town government changed, she felt compelled to bring her experience to help shape the transition to a Town Council, and then retired after that three year term — after twenty years of town service.
I occasionally got to see Alisa in action as a municipal official because the meetings are all televised. Personally, I didn’t pay much attention to town issues because she was already there attending to my concerns (not counting the closure of our elementary school, for which I have mostly forgiven her). But I remember a particular event very early on that stuck in my mind as emblematic of her puissance as a public official: They were considering a budget that was many, many pages long. At the conclusion of the presentation, she asked, “On line 30 of page 1 there is a budget item labeled X. And on page 80 there is another item labeled X, but the amount is different. Can you explain this discrepancy?” Alisa has this unique ability to see BOTH the forest AND each individual tree in it. It’s uncanny.
Since her retirement from public service, she has continued in her long-term part-time job that’s been terrific to allow her to continue to work remotely, as she has increasingly been managing family members’ — including my mother’s — health. We’ve been so lucky that my mom has lived with us since our oldest was two and, while she is now 90 and in generally good health, she has a stream of medical appointments. There are few 90-year-olds who have any hope of navigating the patient portals, phone trees, and bureaucratic hoop-jumping required to effectively manage their own care. Furthermore, Alisa attends all of the medical meetings and keeps an eye that, when they propose a procedure or a prescription, that it makes sense. And, when the order actually appears, that it matches what they said in person and in the patient portal.
When I was hospitalized, Alisa brought all of this to my care. She was a constant fierce and obsessive advocate for my medical treatment. Several times she prompted me with key information and questions so that issues were addressed properly. She identified several places where wires had gotten crossed or information was mischaracterized in my care. She was constantly checking and reconciling what the staff and doctors were telling me and what was recorded in the patient portal. And asking questions when anything wasn’t clear — or challenging them when they were mistaken. I was overwhelmed being stuck full of needles and constantly pinched and poked and squoze. (Plus I just can’t do that sort of thing to begin with.) One of the hospitalists admitted it was vital to have someone who could keep an eye on everything. And there is no-one better at that sort of thing than Alisa.
I love my wife and I am profoundly grateful that she has chosen to share her life with me. I met her when I was 20 and so, next year, we will have been together for twice as long as we were apart in our lives. And, with her diligent care of me, perhaps we can share another 20 — or more — years together.
Alisa, I love you.