The memes showing aged lovers, those who have survived marriage into their 80’s and can’t bear to be parted or die holding hands inspire us all. We know it isn’t easy but they look sweet gentle companionable, as if they never bickered over leaving the dishes dirty on the counter or forgetting to make the car payment. These couples give us hope and inspiration but little in the way of practical advice on getting through the really tough patches except just stick with it. Is that enough, staying together in this time of easy outs? When more memes exist of what we are owed and how we deserve happiness and fulfillment and we should take our moment in the sun? Surely those couples who have lasted so long never faced the pressures on marriage that happen everyday now, life was clearly easier for them. What did they survive? Only wars, the Great Depression, the entry of women into the workforce and the polling place, the addition of drugs into their children hands, loss of respect for authority, the changing role of the church in the home. Maybe they are survivors after all. Maybe lasting through all that marriage brings causes one to look sweet and gentle, smoothing away all the rough edges until nothing is left but our core, out soul.
Usually on this day, I write something sweet and gentle and loving about my marriage. Our anniversary is an opportunity to gaze at our history, look to the future. This year is too fragile though to look too far back, too far ahead. Year 17 will be lodged in our memories as the one that almost did us in. Surely those who have made it to year 50 experienced at least one of those. We spent the better part of the year not even liking each other, barely in touch with what we loved in each other. Anger, frustration, disappointment piled on and obscured any sweetness, kindness, gentleness until silence or the rapid-fire volley of hurtful words were exchanged and both us ended up wounded. No year 17 is not one to celebrate except that we survived it.
Two days before our anniversary, a fall caused a concussion, knocking my brain a bit loose. Coincidence? Quite possibly divine intervention to soften my responses, slow my words, quiet my soul as the big day approached. Sleeping at least 20 hours each day, I had little time to reflect on the year, to catalog the wrongs and instead was dependent on him bringing another glass of water, chilling the cloth for my forehead, delivering more medicine as I lay in bed and floated away again. Those first moments after the fall, I didn’t call a friend or even an ambulance, I called him and asked him to come home. That is 17 years, somewhere in there, where everything really hurts and the call you make is to the one you trust to save you.
Year 17 found us without income, without identity, without focus. While I was growing into my own, he was left to rediscover himself. Different seasons or maybe a long-distance relationship, we were trying to stay married while living in opposite experiences. He was depressed, I was excited. My life was full, his was empty. He needed me, I needed space. So how did we make it through? Whether by design or happenstance, not having enough money to run off to a lawyer certainly helped. The very strain for him kept me in place. Considering the ease with which one can file for divorce, is it any wonder it happens so frequently? So we sat in our misery and let it brew and fester until even our close friends noticed and began to intervene. Year 17 is where I found out that those who stood up with us as we took our vows were not those who would stand up for us when we needed reminding about the better while in the worse. But those promises were to God as well as each other and even though friends moved on and away, God has remained. God brought others into our lives to remind us that while year 17 really was awful, we could look at year 16 with joy, who would year 18 bring?
Marriage is hard, I tell Mama when she calls to talk about what happens in her home. She is only months into the partnership and jokes that she liked it better when they were dating, wonders what changed. To her we are those old people holding hands, she knows much of what we have survived, she wants advice. Not being able to afford divorce is often the best blessing I tell her. Having friends who tell you the truth, who seek out your hurts and want to know more, that is the wedding cake icing that will bring you back together. One close friend listened and offered space for hope. Another asked a question that blew the whole of my hurts wide open. Between the two, I began to see my husband again through the fog of disillusionment and disappointment that had clouded my response to him for over a year. He could hear me finally, a path emerged that could lead us to year 18.
I think about those old couples on the couch and wonder about how many socks she darned. They lived through a time when items were purchased once, for a lifetime. Can’t you see her with the sewing basket, angry at him as she stitches long into the evening, with each yank of the thread releasing her frustration? The intimacy of nurturing him, loving him by ensuring his feet were warm as he left in the morning, her anger gone, I can see that they had their rough years. He came home from work to find an appliance no longer working, something needed fixed again. Disappointment, fears, melt away as he pounds a hammer, yanks a wrench just a bit too roughly. Soon the washer is going again and he kisses his wife. Intimacy of coming back together and an outlet for those very real emotions, a means to release and then nurture each other, that is what we are missing in the disposable society of today. Hole in his socks, buy new ones. Newer, faster, bigger, better, buy the next version. We are not practicing staying and caring for what we have, each other.
We quietly celebrated year 17. He had to work, I had to sleep. Together though we know we have survived and are on our way to becoming those sweet gentle old people who hold hands and look like they have it all figured out. We delicately care for our marriage now, treating it with tenderness. It is fragile, maybe it always was. We have learned that allowing anyone to enter who does not support us together can have long lasting damaging results. We have learned that some infections take time to appear but by then may have impaired critical organs. We are learning that we are strong individuals who often live in different seasons but enjoy the company of the other at the end of the day. We are learning that a marriage cannot be taken for granted nor carry the weight of too many expectations or unspoken words. A marriage is a living breathing union between growing changing people who must nurture and care for it. Most importantly, we have learned that God truly was present and listened as we said those words so long ago. He is holding us to it and guiding us when we wander, lost lonely and afraid. Marriage indeed takes three.