“Mulu Sweet.“ “Mulu2 my groom.” You’ve maybe guessed that the afore-mentioned statements are shorthand for a particular, and important, phrase. When Monique and I met there wasn’t such a thing as texting, IM, or even short-hand email. We met in college…well, let me clarify, I met her at her college. I’d been kicked out of mine. Apparently drinking and a 1.6 GPA aren’t grounds to keep a person in college. You’ve been told that Monique and I are a “Together or not at all” couple. We are. Our philosophy began the day I met her. The day I met her, Monique found a broken man that she could love and stay with.
Long ago, there was the thought of suicide after a long, drawn out conflict. I walked out the door that day drunk, and wishing I wasn’t alive. I didn’t believe I was beautiful. All I could seem to see about me was a body wracked with spina bifida, and a bride I thought was miserable. All she could see was a man she couldn’t wait to love for the rest of her days. As I walked away she yelled out of the doorway, “Divorce is not an option!” I stopped. My hands were on the my car’s door handle. I stopped. We’re a together or not at all couple. We were that day. We have been. I’m a poet. She’s known many of her days covered in poetry. I wrote to her, and I shared our story with as many as I would listen. I began with a story of a relationship. Mine with her. Ours. It’s not as if we forget that I have spina bifida. But spina bifida couldn’t keep us away from a relationship. So one day I pondered such days with her as they were. I pondered them with this poem:
a poem by richard j elgersma
God loved on the day a strong,
social, welcoming and responsive
helpmate restored a cracked man
on the fault line.
The man quaked and she mended.
She gave hope to him
and He gave him the strength
to see you.
Four words and the experience
of an honest, honorable
and tough woman covered him
and laid an entire foundation
Beneath a man
who might one day
serve with her to become
the same for the fractured.
“I believe in you”
I believe in you.
Now, she is sweet,
and he yearns for her
as if a wondering child,
dips his hand into the jar
To grasp eagerly
and taste the cacophonous
striped rainbow candy stick
as if his soul depends upon it.
I pondered such days some time after I returned to college, and finished the effort as a 4.0 student. She was with me the day I graduated, and was with me every day before as I worked toward my degree. She found me as I studied. My relationship with my bride was the strength behind my effort.
We’ve both struggled personally, and as a couple. You know our history with disability, but we’ve also endured trauma, and loss. We’ve lived through infertility. But after nine years, we became pregnant. We lost her though. We lost our Reyana Breen Elgersma just a over two months after her conception. God took her away. We could have fallen apart…could have fallen away from each other. I suppose we did fall apart, we just didn’t fall away. We made the choice to gain strength, and we did. We could never get pregnant again.
We both struggled. I was born, and left with the charge of living with a disability. When Monique met me I was bitter about my disability. I was bitter about my special spina bifida related learning disability that no teacher had faced before. ‘Course there were all the other facets of disability I had to manage, including that I walked funny, that I experienced pain, that was at the doctor all the time, and of course I had other biological issues to navigate. By the time I was 22, I was bitter. Sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn’t have been so bitter, and more thankful. I should have used my story well, and for others benefit. But I now accept that that’s what I was.
Yea, we both struggled. But we started long ago, we decided long ago…we would be a together or not at all couple, I mean. Our Mulu’s and Mulu2’s were some of the best parts of our relationship. We started with giving each other moments of love. Now, we’ve given each other 22+ years of love, but part of our love included, and still includes small, meaningful messages. Well before instant messaging, and electronic short cuts (think “laugh out loud-lol, and IMHO-“in my humble opinion”) we used actual phrases. The only one we knew spoke in shorthand was Tigger, a cartoon, who loved his TTFN’s (Ta Ta for Now!), and Americans had TGIF long before our kiddos learned to expand shorthand vernacular.
We were just getting used to email when we met. There was no “Shorthand for Relationships” rule book. So when we said goodbye after a phone conversation we said, “Miss You Love You.” We ended emails with it, and wrote it in letters. I’m not sure who did it first, but one of started the short hand craze (I’m sure it was us ; )) when she or I said, “Miss U Love U.” And then it began…short cuts became the American Way, and we bought in. We had become texters and messagers. I texted M.U.L.U to my bride. She said, “What the heck is that?” and I took her back to the beginning…”Miss You Love You” I responded. Ever since, when we’re apart and we text or message each other, we end the message with “Mulu.”
Ah, but then our beautiful daughter Alyssa came into our lives. She’s part of this too. “Mulu” is a family thing, so much so that we tattooed “Mulu” on our wrists…a constant reminder of who we are.
We remind ourselves every day how important simple love is. Big love can be confusing, but pare big love down to small things, simple love, and the actions of love become simple too. We sweat the small ‘love’ stuff.
Because yea, we struggled. I have a disability, and you can’t hardly believe how easy to be all about the disability instead of all about each other. It’s easy for my bride to say, “Oh Rick, you can’t do much because of your disability, so I’ll do it for you.” We’ve lived that life. I’m amazed how quickly I became complacent. Sometimes I couldn’t do whatever it was. Much of the time I could. I’m amazed how easy it was for us to allow her to do our life for me, not with me. Disability is normal for me. Trying to live as if I didn’t have a disability was “pretend normal.” You know what? I played sports, I walked, I ran, I stood, I ducked, I swiveled, I pogo-sticked, I swam, I stood on one foot…I did most of those pretty well (standing on one foot was…not my best skill, maybe not a skill at all). Since I accomplished all of that, I convinced myself that I was like everyone else… pretend normal… because I wasn’t.
Couplehood for us isn’t what ya’ll call normal either. We’re challenged, like all of us, but pretend normal is that our couplehood is like everyone else’s couplehood. We’re uniquely challenged. I get that now. I’m not bitter. I’m sad sometimes if I’m honest. This is hard. Disability is hard. My bride knows that disability is hard. Our real normal is that we have to think about how to do every single day because of my disability. But my bride chooses – happily, gladly, lovingly – chooses to do life with me. That’s our real normal. I love real normal, because I get to do real normal with my bride and my daughter.
That’s why we establish our relationship in simple love. Simple love inspires my marriage relationship, and the relationship I have with my daughter. Simple love is about Mulus. Mulus will work for you, as they have for us. You see, we’re a family where one of us has a disability. We’ve adapted to a life we love together. We go on dates, and family dates, we stay home and sit in bed, eat ice-cream and watch movies together when I’m not doing as well. I know what that’s like for you, too. Mulus are more than missing someone. Mulus are simple messages. I’ve received mulus in my lunch bag, I’ve received mulus by text, I’ve received mulus in my clothes drawer. Sometimes it was a quick phone call, and these days I’ve received a little heart icon on Facebook. We’ve heard about one awesome story where the wife of that relationship wrote a mulu on the toilet paper roll! This works, people. Mulus can be funny, and they can be serious. For a relationship where one person is disabled, sometimes a simple message is the one thing the person…me…lives on for that day.
My wife and I had been sending each other little wisps of love almost every day. I’ll repeat myself. We call these our “Miss You Love You” moments. By the time Facebook came into our little universe, we were using our own style of shorthand, and now the phrase is part of our every-day. Furthermore, when I’ve received a Mulu from my wife Monique, I respond with my own MULU2, my “Miss U Love U Too.” That’s the beauty of simple love. I can write a Mulu or a Mulu2 right from bed. I can write one in 30 seconds before a counseling session begins.
A Mulu is anything you can think of to let the other know that they are missed or loved or both. Anything. For us it’s a statement of faith in God, and faithfulness to each other, and to God.
A Proverb of Solomon says, “As a face is reflected in water, so the heart reflects the person.” We’re often confused about what we can do for those we love. I feel inadequate sometimes…my body, and sometimes my mind, can’t function at full tilt. But my parents began training me long ago that I don’t have to do everything, I just have to have the courage to “do.” They believed I was capable of the great things I set my mind and heart to. They didn’t teach me to ignore my handicap, but they taught me that I needn’t be limited nor belittled by it. They empowered me to think that appreciating the story means: I must give myself my utmost. I tried. I didn’t always succeed. I didn’t always live gratefully, or empowered. My bride helped me find my empowerment back. So on my tougher and toughest days, I do everything I can. And I can give a mulu. I can love my wife by serving her with my words, and I can love my daughter by serving her with my words. I can. I’ve done things that no one thought was possible, such as ride a bicycle across Iowa (RAGBRAI). The first of the two RAGBRAI’s, I rode injured on top of being handicapped. But I’ve done greater things in thirty seconds than I accomplished through RAGBRAI. Mulus. Simple love.
I know there’s love for others in your heart. You don’t have to buy a car or a house for the one you love. Try a simpler action that reflects what’s in your heart. We’re conditioned to have to do something big… bigger than before. People like me can’t always do that. But love doesn’t need “fancy.” Love simply needs a dude like me taking 30 seconds to find my wife by text or FaceTime. Sometimes love simply needs a great message written onto a roll of toilet paper. Simple love. A Mulu isn’t discriminatory. You can offer your parents, your friends, your girlfriend or boyfriend, your children, or your wife or husband a creative Mulu. Try your own Mulu, and the rest, try a Mulu2.
Life with a disability is hard, painful, time consuming, and well…hard. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed by the difficulty, and we settle there for awhile. Sometimes my family needs your mulus because we’re exhausted, spent…emotionally and physically spent. Sometimes I don’t have the hutzpah to plan a creative date, but I have a moment to plan a creative mulu. Sometimes the mulu turns into a creative date! We forget sometimes, don’t we? We forget that our relationships need us to be relational. Sometimes we forget that we’re not the sum of our religion, careers, housework, and children’s this or thats. And I can’t be more than just the disabled guy, right? wrong. All is nothing without relationship. My bride looks upon me with the kind of love that even eternity can’t provide room for. I want you to know what it’s like to live a life when a spouse is disabled. My family hates what happens to me sometimes. We’re heartbroken by what happens to our family because of it sometimes. I feel…I experience their emotion on the bad days. I feel…we’re comforted by the snuggles of my family who simply can’t wait to be together…because we’re better together…together or not at all. We’re a together-or-not-at-all family. I love my life. We’re thankful for our life.
I’ll give you some Mulu ideas. Remember, they can be whatever you can dream up. Some of you are just plain talented romantics. You’ll think of something AWESOME I’m sure. But do your best to keep them simple. When you get one, remember your Mulu2 response. Here they are:
- Mulu by text. Just “Mulu”
- Call someone, have a short conversation about whatever, and end with MULU. MULU offers a unique moment when the other is assured in a special way, that they are loved.
- Mulu note: I’m sure you have a busy day, but remember, no matter what you do today, mulu.
- A short Mulu poem taped to the dash of the car. e.g. “I’m glad I get to love, you. I’m honored to be your friend. My heart is ever with you, and that is ever true. Mulu.”