Today, my husband and I have been married for 25 years. 9,132 days.
Any essay about marriage includes the words young and dumb, so I will get that out of the way now: I, at least, was both. I think I’m also required by the genre norms to say marriage takes work, so I’ll grant that as well, but without the paragraph about how the work is hard.
Because, really, I don’t know that marriage is hard: it may just be that life is hard, and life is long, and many of us live the same day over and over. There is struggle and sameness and routine, and none of those things are necessarily appealing. Same house, same job, same finances, same problems, same man–that’s a lot of ordinary in a society that wants extraordinary and special and unique and wow. And demands it all the time.
Society also wants happiness. Romance. Candles. Beach trips. Sunsets. We are conditioned to want these things. And if our husbands or wives don’t deliver them, we are programmed to find someone who will.
Greg and I aren’t that couple.
We teach at the same school. For the last several years, we’ve eaten lunch together every day, on our china. (The guy hates paper plates.) This year, we have different planning periods and lunches. There will be no lunchtime Youtube videos, no swapping of midday stories, no chaste good-bye kiss planted atop my forehead. We won’t see each other at all.
He realized this on the first day with students. That afternoon, I heard his truck in the garage, the slam of the door, and then he was in the kitchen, asking, “So, I’m not going to see you ALL DAY?“
I could hear the outrage and urgency in his voice. I chuckled, “That’s the most romantic thing I have heard you say in years.” (He advised me to write it down.)
What I wanted, what society told me to want–a romantic guy who adored me, surprised me with gifts, swept me away–is not what I got.
But when I think that, I recall that he didn’t get what he wanted, either. I am surly in the morning; I am a nervous worrier, and I grow weary and faint-hearted well before he does. Not on his wish list, either.
Earlier, this summer, we were on the sofa watching TV. I couldn’t get comfortable. I kept moving pillows, adjusting the lamp so it wouldn’t reflect on the screen. I looked at him and laughed, “You wouldn’t marry me again, would you?”
He made me stop laughing with a quick, “No.” Then he added, “But you wouldn’t marry me again, either.” He wasn’t being malicious. He was being honest.
After the miscarriages, the cancers, my broken leg, the financial worries, the continued health concerns, our granddaughter’s stillbirth–our blinders are off. We have been married twenty-five years: everything is obvious.
We wanted something else. We got this.
We expected something else. We got this.
We wanted a beautifully packaged life, and we got a jumbled stocking. Things are broken, things don’t work, but there are things we cherish, too.
What I love about us, our marriage, our family is that we respect the jagged edges. We see them. We don’t waste our time in denial and soft-pedaling. In addition to its trite mandate of “making every day count,” cancer does a stripping, a peeling away that is much more valuable. It creates an honesty where whole families can abide–a recognition that there may be no sunshine in sight, but there are companions beside you to ride through the storms ahead. As parents and as spouses, we manage to be those to each other.
It is easy to divorce, to go away; we saw that so many times in Seattle, the spouses who would leave, return to work, miss doctors’ rounds, make excuses. We saw boyfriends and fiancees just say, “No, I can’t do cancer” and leave their formerly beloved to go it alone. It would be easy to fight and finger-point and constantly live in hindsight.
We don’t do that. There’s not a past. There’s a Now. The bone marrow transplant created a Now of fatigue, eye pain, secondary cancer threats–but it gave my husband life. Poor financial planning created a Now of paycheck-to-paycheck living–but our needs are met. The severity of my leg break, combined with fibromyalgia, makes some days very hard–but many days aren’t.
We sat at supper Monday night, Greg, Abby, and I. I said I was working on a blog idea for our anniversary–“what you want versus what you get”–and they both understood. I named things I had wished for our future when I was 21 and naive. Greg listed what he had wanted at 25, on our wedding day. Those failed hopes. He rattled off the things we’ve gone through, noting neither of us would have chosen them. Then rhetorically, he said, “What choice do you have? What choice do you have?”
It seems so unromantic: to face our marriage as the only choice. This hard daily is our only option. Greg faces cataract surgery in September and major heart surgery in the next four years. Sometimes, we give up on the idea of ever finding relief, thinking this is our marriage, our lot.
But, I think, there is a lot of love expressed just by daily presence, by showing up, by being here again. By coming alongside for a surgery, for a fibromyalgia flare, for tears in the night. On our wedding day, we didn’t consider a future that included so much pain and heartbreak and worry. Our pictures from that day are so earnestly hopeful. There was so much we did not realize ahead.
One thing we did know in 1991 remains true today: our first choice of sidekick. Today, we can walk down the hallways at school and hear our students say to one another, “Goals!” They are so proud of our marriage. Our students don’t see romance, effusive joy, or grand gestures. They see a man who gives brings me lemonade; they witness my smile when he walks in my classroom unexpectedly; they laugh delightedly when we tease each other.
Our students see that we are friends who love each other, who are ever-present and remain.
They see the constancy, and at sixteen, they value that.
At 21 and 25, on a hot August day, we had the foresight to value that as well.
A tenacious friendship. There are no candles or moonlit walks. But, then again . . . there’s also nothing else.