Love Lessons From a Callistemon

There are innumerable songs, poems and paintings dedicated to the feeling of love at first sight. I am not as convinced as the creators of those works that it actually exists. I do, however, agree with the sentiment that when you know, you know. Not so much in the sense that you know this is the person you will spend your life with or anything that romantic. For me, it was more a sense that I knew when I was in love and that it was a love story with many pages.

When I first met Ben, he was wearing fluorescent yellow and sky blue board shorts in a Hawaiian floral print. He had paired these with a dark blue and white striped soccer jersey. My first impression from this encounter was that his outfit hurt my eyes. I also remember he was especially eager to be in a Monday morning lecture on human geography.

The first time I said, “I love you” was after beating him in a game of lawn bowls. Ben had spent time ‘coaching’ me on the art of the perfect bowl while I nodded and listened quietly (very out of character for me). What followed can only be described as ridiculously lucky because my bowl rolled from the far right and landed perfectly to win the game. Ben erupted in disbelief and anger then ran to the bushes where he appeared to punch imaginary tigers – and that was the moment when I knew. I knew this was a person who would kindly and patiently pass along wisdom but also, and probably more importantly, play fair but tough. Here was a man who would support me and challenge me, so may the best wo/man win. I plonked those three seemingly little words out there into the space between us while we drove home. Ben simply replied with, “Thank you”.

Our relationship grew with hard work but overall I remember lots of laughter and adventures. We once pitched an old tent on his derelict balcony, but retreated to the bedroom when we woke wet from rain just before sunrise. We drank banana smoothies while flying kites on the top of a water reservoir. We made a bed from the soccer balls Ben always had in his car and timed who could stay on them the longest without falling.

When I look back on the start of our journey together, we were two seedlings. We had our individual goals and dreams. We were both reaching high and growing with the same nurturing elements. The families we come from are our soil, sun and rain but I feel we were both rootless.

I had lived in and moved around ten countries before I met Ben. Ben was unsure where he fit in the world and still spends an exhausting amount of time assessing all the possible disastrous outcomes before committing to a decision. We kept our roots shallow for many years, even after moving in together.

Seven years passed and I remember feeling restless. I have three passports and felt the only thing keeping me in Australia was my relationship. The winds from faraway lands were blowing. While it felt we had grown up together, our roots were not yet planted. Our story felt incomplete. I thought this was because, while we had both met the other’s parents, our parents had never actually met or even spoken to each other. What I have come to realise is that it was so much more than that. However, it has taken me until now to fully grasp the meaning of incompleteness.

One autumn night, after eating take-away in the car with the heater on, we walked the short trip through a national park to a lighthouse and stood under the umbrella of light circling the ocean. I had started to walk back to the car when I realised Ben was stalling at the steps of the lighthouse, rummaging around on the ground. I sighed and whinged about needing to pee. He told me not to go. When he stood, he said some beautiful things about the love story we’ve been writing and took out the ring he’d only moments ago dropped and nearly lost. He didn’t ask me to marry him as we’d previously discussed marriage not being important for us. He didn’t make a proposition, so much as a statement of commitment. It was clumsy but full of good intentions. We hugged and cried and laughed then walked back to the car, unsure of what to do next.

We spent a week figuring out what it all meant. We discovered we would need to be legally married to pass along the benefits of my American citizenship. We like to keep our options open, so that decided things. The party to casually celebrate our commitment turned into a wedding party.

Floral arm band by Raylene Chapman.

Planning the wedding turned into twelve very unenjoyable months. My disgust at the Wedding Industrial Complex shadowed the planning process. It was too contrived. I felt pressured in ways that overwhelmed me, and eventually left a lot of the logistics up to Ben. He was a wedding* planning hero. If Ben were a tree, I would have to be the koala holding on for dear life while counting down the months to a bush fire. The other heroes were our families; we received gifts and messages of incredible love and support for our engagement/public commitment. One card welcomed me into Ben’s father’s large family “with all the love and support that brings”. My heart turned into a puddle and with that I felt rooted into Australian soil.

We decided to plant a tree to represent that we were finally putting down roots and growing into bigger opportunities together. There was a lot of discussion about the best tree to plant and whether to plant two trees that worked together in synergy as they grew. In the end, it came down to lack of time (read: my terrible planning skills).

My best friend and I bought the prettiest looking tree available in the nursery, which happened to be a Callistemon (bottlebrush). A few days after we rapped (me) and rhymed (Ben) our ‘vows’, Ben’s uncle, mum and grandmother, and my best friend helped us to pick and dig out the spot to settle our new roots. It is heartening to know that bottlebrushes are some of the hardiest native plants out there, require minimal maintenance and are ‘almost impossible to kill’**.

We drove home the night of the storm that devastated the region where we live. We pulled the blankets off our bed and went to sleep on the couch in a part of the house that seemed the safest. When the sun rose, dozens of gum trees had completely fallen over, exposing their shallow root systems.

It took a few weeks to decompress after the wedding. It felt like time had stood still and disappeared at the same time. People we had looked forward to seeing for so many months had come and gone in the blink of an eye. We had memories to laugh and smile about but then questioned their existence at the same time.

Cue the photos.

Photographer Hannah Morgan provided one of the most incredible gifts anyone could give. Memories captured. Tangible, visual snapshots of what happened the day some of our most favourite people were all in the same place at the same time. I saw friends who had made me feel so welcome in Australia chatting with friends who helped to shape who I am as a person when growing up in Hawaii. I saw cousins from both sides of the family playing cricket and chatting over cake. I saw parents hugging parents and aunties shaking hands. I saw all the moments I had been too overwhelmed to process on the day turned into fine art with a backdrop of the beautiful blue skies of Australia. Ben was wearing gum leaves painstakingly stitched together by a friend’s mother to replicate the Hawaiian maile lei we couldn’t transport through customs. The two women I consider to be my hearts, my sister and my best friend, were meeting not just people important and dear to me, they were meeting people important and dear to Ben. Who were also people important and dear to me. And that’s when I knew.

I knew the whole reason why we had felt incomplete. We had been two seedlings, side by side in small pots, eventually transplanted to larger pots. We had worked on ourselves and grown together as individuals. But it took a wedding to realise that we hadn’t been allowing anyone else in. We lived in a field, just the two of us…enduring the elements on our own.

It took a storm after the wedding to see the effect that such shallow roots can have on a tree, especially two trees growing too close together. There is actually a term for a fallen tree resting upon another tree. It is called a ‘widow-maker’.

So now I know that this is indeed a love story with many pages and most importantly a marriage of families. I still do not know where it will lead, but after planting our wedding tree at the home of Ben’s grandma, filled with love notes from our families and friends, I feel like we are living in a forest.

*Made possible by the incredibly generous financial backing of our parents.

**A veritable fact, according to Burke’s backyard.