I remember the night that I met my husband face-to-face for the first time. Well, that’s probably something that goes without saying, but I like replaying the moment because I will never forget how his eyes lit up when he saw me and quickly (and not ungentlemanly) gave me a once over to take in my tiny, 25-year-old frame. “Mission accomplished,” I thought as he grinned and avoided eye contact for the rest of the evening. I clearly made him nervous, and in the world of feminine wiles, that’s essentially the winning hand.
Truth be told, I was dressed totally inappropriately for the setting — the First Baptist Church of Pelham. My oldest friend Leah’s wedding rehearsal was our meet-cute after years of her trying to set me up with her boyfriend’s chicken-farming best friend, Bobby (or Gene for everybody that knew him pre-me). And now here he was, in the handsome flesh, blushing at my admittedly too short and too tight fire engine red French Connection dress. His shyness was endearing and when he stepped on the train of my bridesmaid’s dress the next night at the reception and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?” I knew I was on the verge of something special.
Less than five months later, I listened as he used my full name to ask if I would spend the rest of my life with him. “Haley Carlyn Aldridge. Will you marry me?” I don’t know why hearing my middle name in that moment felt so special, but it made my answer an even easier “Yes!” and here we are seven years later with 60,000 chickens and two tiny humans that depend on us daily.
When we first got married, I weighed 112 pounds. You’re probably thinking that is oddly specific, but I know it to be true because I was working out and weighing myself every day at the gym leading up to my wedding. What a glorious time to flash back to. Not just the number on the scale but the actual time to go to the gym. I was in the best shape of my life and I reveled in being a cute little thing that my new husband could be proud of.
Fast forward to last week at work, when the conversation of my currently short hair came up and I started digging through old Facebook profile pictures to prove that I indeed once had gloriously long, blonde locks, pre-chemo baldness. I handed my phone over to a co-worker to impress her with my once swoon-worthy hair and watched as she flicked through the photos and dove into the past.
Confused and a bit alarmed, she turned to me and asked (dead serious), “Who is this woman with your husband?”
She turned the phone back towards me and I stared back at a 27-year-old me on vacation in Mexico with Bobby for our first anniversary. It was like taking a bullet. She didn’t even recognize me as my younger, prettier, skinnier self. The self that I still imagined, like when you think you know what you look like until you catch a mirror telling you the truth. Had I changed that much in just the few short years since we sat on the beach, just the two of us?
Carefree and four days deep into bottomless pina coladas casts a real nice glow in photographs, and this one was practically mocking me on several levels. The first being the superficial and obvious fact that I was not that person anymore physically. I’ve gained forty pounds since that picture, and before you strike up the “but you’ve had two babies and breast cancer” chorus, let me stop you right there. I know all that. I preach all that. But the fact still remains, I am currently not happy with the way I look. More so, I’m even more unhappy that I’ve been admittedly too lazy (or too exhausted) to do anything about it.
The thing that struck me the hardest in her shocked comment is that I get it. I may recognize that girl in the picture is me and not some random chick with my husband, but I definitely don’t know her emotionally or spiritually. I am a completely different person than I was on that Mexican beach and it kinda broke my heart for a minute because, well, look how happy (and well rested) she looks!
I went home and sheepishly realized that there were infinitely more pictures of me pre-baby and pre-cancer than there are recent pictures of our family of four which crushed me because there is nothing I am more proud of than my little family. My husband and I always joke that we do something really big every year since we were married: build a house, have a baby, build a chicken house, have another baby, get a new job, get cancer. We were perpetually lining up life’s biggest milestones and knocking ’em down one by one. Our life is so beautiful and something to be admired and celebrated, and yet here I was, displaying a misrepresentation of what’s truly important in my life to those that came to our home.
We are all a product of our past decisions and experiences and I love our story. I’ve heard people say, “If only I could go back and warn my younger self . . .” but it would be completely unfair to the girl in that picture to steal her sparkle by telling her one day she would get cancer and her whole future would be in jeopardy. Our happiness in that picture was the foundation for getting us through the hardest time in our life these last two years. I would never ask for it play out any other way. I know that today I am stronger, wiser, more grateful, and more joyful than I was at that all-inclusive resort because I have the perspective that only comes with being overweight and bald.
Kidding. I have the perspective that comes when you realize how incredibly special your life is that you get to live every single day. Extra pounds and all, I would rather be me now than 27-year-old tan and skinny me because life is infinitely more beautiful now than it was back then. My babies, my family, my husband, my friends, my job, my diagnosis — it’s all a blessing and a lesson that I needed to learn to become the best version of myself possible.