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“What if I wanted to be a theoretical physicist?”

I’m reminded today of a story that is canon for the Jesse and Sandi saga. Haha.

One day when we were dating in high school, I was waiting on Jesse to come out of his digital design elective. When he walked out of the classroom, he looked deep in thought so I asked him what was the matter.

He sighed. “What if I wanted to be a theoretical physicist?”

I thought this was a strange question. At the time, both Jesse and I wanted to be traveling ministers. You know, go to churches, preach, do the music, etc.

“I’ve never heard you express interest,” I said. “You hate trigonometry and you’ve never talked about it before.”

He smiled. “Physics isn’t quite the same as trig.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Well,” he replied as he turned down the hallway. “People like me don’t do things like that.”

“People like you?” I asked. “Who are people like you?”

“Sandi, I’m sleeping on a futon in a friend’s garage. I work at a fast-food restaurant. I have no money for college. I have no credit. I have nothing.”

“You have a scholarship.”

“Yeah, the one that just got its funding cut.”

I sighed. I qualified for that same scholarship and we had both just got the news that, due to the 2008 recession, our benefits were scant.

“There’s still some money left to go to school.”

He sighed. “Not enough.”

“You can get a loan.”

He laughed. “You won’t catch me getting a student loan. Besides, they won’t give a loan to someone who has no one to cosign for them.”

We walked in silence to the school parking lot and loaded up into his blue Kia Soul.

“I think you can be anything. You know so much about history and science. You can recall information like you’re a walking encyclopedia. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

“I’m not that smart, Sandi.” He grinned. “I’m just smarter than you.”

I smacked him on the arm and we headed to our shift at the fast-food joint we worked at together.

That Christmas, I was stumped on what to give him. Perusing the shelves of Books A’Million, the face of Albert Einstein caught my eye.

Wasn’t he a theoretical physicist? I thought.

I stared at the face there, thinking about all I knew about the scientist. I thought of Jesse and what he had said to me.

I bought the book and wrote a note to accompany it. “I believe you can be anything you want to be, even a theoretical physicist.”

When Jesse received the gift he smiled, rolling his eyes at me. “Thank you.”

And we had no idea.

No idea what the next 12 years would bring.

But here we stand at the brink of a dream, at the summit overlooking another mountain to climb.

Jesse Lard, my man. My man who was homeless his senior year of high school. My man who became a medic to work his way through college. My man who clawed his way out of hell to stand in the presence of what is considered great. My man who took every generational curse handed to him and broke them all.

My man who they called, “Rough around the edges.”

My man who didn’t drink a single sip of alcohol until the day he turned 21. “I can’t afford to make a mistake. Alcoholism runs in my family,” he said.

My man who never even smoked a puff of marijuana until he was prescribed it at 29. “I can’t afford to go to jail. People like me don’t get grace for misdemeanors.”

My man who worked nearly full time in high school, overtime in college, and never missed a day of church. “I keep myself out of trouble. People like me don’t get second chances.”

My man who didn’t believe it was possible, but put one foot in front of the other anyway.

My man who just got accepted to pursue his PhD in nanophotonics. Finally. After all these long years of tears and fears.

My man who had to be fully grown at 15. Make decisions children shouldn’t have to make.

But there was no time to complain. No time to think about how unfair his hand was.

No time to trade in his cards.

There was a very short window of opportunity to get out and Jesse stepped into the gap.

“I’m an imposter,” he would say to me. “People like me don’t do things like this.”

But every single move he made contradicted his belief that he would ultimately fail. If he should fail, he would go down swinging until there was nothing left to hit.

I think of us. I think of how weird life is sometimes.

“People like us.”

It’s what we told ourselves over and over again.

Not to discourage ourselves. But to remind ourself of the reality.

What we meant was that we couldn’t afford mistakes. We couldn’t afford to be reckless. We couldn’t afford a misstep. If we were going to change our stars, then we had to walk the narrow road.

And here we are, not yet where we are going but certainly not where we’ve been. Here we are, bending our knees to spring up again, these 12 years later. This time with two children on our shoulders.

Children who will hopefully reap from what they have not sown. Children who will hopefully not have to grow up too fast and walk such a narrow path.

Children who can afford to make mistakes.

And so much could still go wrong. But I’ll tell you one thing.

“People like us don’t do things like this.”

That’s the truth. But here’s the final point…

When we get to where we’re going, I hope that statement will be uttered fewer times.

Because people like us will have done things like this.

It will be done. And more—more, I tell you—more of “people like us” will follow.

The narrow road a bit wider.

The path a bit more accessible.

“People like us don’t do things like this.”

Our rallying cry. Our daily reminder that this should be hard. That this should feel impossible. That we’re not out of our minds, this really is a tricky thing.

One foot in front of the other on the narrow road.

We’ll see you on the other side… if nothing goes wrong. And everything could and has.

We haven’t given up, not yet. There is still life to drink up.

Onwards. Onwards. Onwards.

I think of my 16yo Jesse, covered in flour with burn marks on his arms from frying chicken.

I think of my 17yo Jesse, buying me a promised ring and slipping it on my finger at Starbucks.

I think of my sweet 18yo Jesse, sleeping on a futon in a garage, never once thinking of dropping out of high school or calling it quits.

I think of 19yo Jesse, studying to get his medic license after long shifts at a restaurant.

I think of 20yo Jesse, getting down on one knee on the back deck of Uncle Ernie’s, never once taking off his sunglasses because he was so nervous.

I remember 21yo Jesse, working overnight shifts at the paper mill and going to school during the day.

I remember 23yo Jesse, working overtime on an ambulance and squeezing into his college classes.

I remember 25yo Jesse, falling into the front door of our tiny apartment because he couldn’t outrun the trauma anymore.

I remember 27yo Jesse, graduating from college with a degree in physics—with honors.

I remember 28yo Jesse, defending his family from a thousand-year storm.

I remember 29yo Jesse, taking my hand and trusting me to get him to the right mental health facility.

And now, I look at present Jesse and think of the 17yo I gave this book to. I think of how proud I am to be his partner in life, how much of a hero he is to me. I think of all the times that warrior threw himself at the impossible again, and again and again until the dam broke and the water swept him away. I remember how many times I became angry at him, saying “enough is enough.”

But if you haven’t lived the life he’s lived, it’s hard to understand. The drive, the passion, the unrelenting desire to keep going, to take back everything life stole from you, to change your stars, to become what you choose and not succumb to what was thrown at you.

“People like us don’t do things like this.”

No. No they don’t.

But that narrative, that life-sentence, that judgment, all of it is about to change.

Jesse told me to leave him once, when things got so bad. He started throwing his things in a suitcase, determined to withdraw himself from my life.

“You deserve better than me.”

It was then I realized my husband would never see himself the way I see him. He would never understand how fascinating he was to me, how extraordinary his life was, how wrapped up in his final end I was determined to be.

I sighed, exasperated. “Jesse Lard. I threw my lot in with yours a long, long time ago. I’m committed to seeing whatever this is through to the end. If you leave, I’ll just follow you. My end is your end and there is nothing you can do about it.”

And when he was so sick, I reminded him of who he was.

“Jesse. Don’t you know who you are? Don’t you know what you’ve done? Don’t you know how far you’ve managed to drag yourself? If you were to live the rest of your life and do nothing else with yourself, you will have lived 4 lifetimes already.”

But there it was again. “People like me don’t do things like this.”

“No,” I whispered. “No they don’t. Yet, here you are. Here we are. I’ll live in this alternate reality with you any day before I go back to what’s normal. We started writing the story. We have to finish it now.”

He hung on. Breath by breath. He lay there exhausted, and I once again saw that boy in the hallway who asked me:

“What if I wanted to be a theoretical physicist?”

I thought of that boy, of all he had done to get the man to this point. I thought that the boy had finally met his end. He could no longer walk with Jesse in this next part.

The boy was dying. The man was rising.

Now, as my family and I stand on this cusp of a new journey, I think of the boy I wrote this note to. The boy who threw himself at the stars and hoped that somebody would catch him.

To the boy, I say, “What do you know? People like you can do things like this after all.”

And I imagine that boy smiling at me, covered in flour and grease burns down his arms. Always smelling like a hint of motor oil.

That boy, oh, that boy. He stole my heart and made me believe that anything in this world is possible if you just believe and refuse to quit.

I wave at him with tears streaming down my cheeks. “Thank you,” I whisper.

He sets down the Albert Einstein book at my feet and says, “Thank you” before disappearing from view.

What a life. What an extraordinary life. And it’s not over.

I look again at the man at my kitchen table. The same black hair, but longer. The same tanned skin, but the scars have faded. The same voice, but a bit more refined. The same laugh, but not as wild.

12 years later. 12 beautiful years later and I still believe…

“I believe you can be anything you want to be, even a theoretical physicist.”

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