A Summer Unlike Any Other

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© Bruce Allen                            August 31, 2021

I’ve always enjoyed winter weather. I tend to run hot, and in winter I’m usually comfortable, inside and outside the house. Don’t mind plowing the driveway, don’t mind slipping and sliding in the car. Don’t like all the salt, but what is one to do? Of the four seasons, winter has been my favorite for a long time.

Early spring and late fall have always been nice. The change of seasons is in full swing; one of the few good things about living in Indiana is that one does get a taste of all four seasons, summer being the longest and most oppressive. My snowblower is now four years old and has about 20 hours on it, most of those spent plowing the sidewalks on my dogwalking route.

Fall was always my second favorite–baseballs and footballs filling the air, cool, crisp days, out in the country the look of farm fields getting prepared for winter. Fall dropped in the ratings back in 2005 when our dog Amos needed to be put down. The effect when we lost Gracie was not nearly so pronounced, so February is still okay. But the Ben Hur Lampman poem about where to bury a dog was written for a dog like Amos. October lost some of its allure after he passed.

I’ve never really liked summers. I inherited a pronounced intolerance to heat and humidity from my dad, who suffered mightily in the hot months and whose idea of a nice day at the beach involved a gin and tonic, an air-conditioned living room, and a color TV. He did like to open the sliding glass doors of their condo at night and listen to the waves. But summer for me has been, for a long time, something to endure, something to get through. Probably not a coincidence that I’m writing this on the last day of August, two weeks to the day since Nancy died.

Two weeks since the brutal struggle of her last week on earth came to a merciful close. Two weeks that have found me still in shock, immobilized, unable to stop weeping, unable to say why I’m weeping other an insightful “just everything.” Unable to write these damned thank-you notes because my eyes fill with tears and I can’t see down through my bifocals. I can’t talk about it; I can only write about it with dry eyes.

Most of the time, the feeling is similar to back when she would take a week in Seattle and I would stay home with the dog. Those ‘staycations’ for me were a way to spend a few unsupervised days attending to my various vices–smoking cigars, bad food, lots of CNN–with no fear of discovery. Only I can’t shake the fear of being discovered, can’t stop listening. Then arrives one of those moments that cause me trouble, when I have to hit myself on the forehead to remind myself that she won’t be back. I realize now that I probably asked her a dozen questions a day. Those questions are going unasked and unanswered. Where are her pearls? Where is the bequest ledger of all things? How is it that I ended up having cheese and crackers and a brownie for dinner last night?

We have a friend who is gravely ill with cancer and I’m taking some egg custards over there in response to my WWND–she would have me make egg custards and then drive her over there with them. So I might as well do it myself. WWND intended to drive me to that conclusion in the first place. But our friend’s prognosis is poor and about to get worse, I fear, and I may not get another chance. I will probably end up spending plenty of time with her husband; they were married forever, and he will be a mess. Next up will be our old friends on the south side who have myriad health issues themselves.

I’m trying to find someone to serve outside of myself, and these friends seem to be the first logical choices. There will be others. Going with my daughter next week to visit one of Nancy’s collection of disabled people over at his group home on the west side.

Things were getting bad for Nancy this past spring, but she was determined to get her last Bethany trip done. So she toughed through the pain for months in exchange for one last week in the sand with her grand kids. Things went straight downhill once we returned. Six weeks later she was gone. A lost summer, a memorable summer, a gruesome summer for the girls and me.

So far this has been worse than I had anticipated. It’s a guy thing, and I should have recognized it as such early on–the tendency to underestimate the difficulty of pretty much everything. The extent to which I have underestimated the emotional toll this is taking on me is laughable; I am going to have to seek counseling if things don’t improve in a hurry. For now, I am hunkered down, trying to discern God’s will in all of this. It seems to be venturing close to my motto, “Be humble or get humbled.”

My new bank checks arrived yesterday. Her name no longer appears on them; our joint account is now a single account. It feels disloyal. Lord please deliver me from too many more summers like 2021.

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Nancy and two of our girls, late in the game. Still smiling.

Re-learning Life

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© Bruce Allen    August 27, 2021

I think I mentioned that my wife, Nancy Gillespie, died last Tuesday. We would have been married 46 years next month. Having watched her live with late stage pancreatic cancer for over five years, I knew how the story would end. I knew I would grieve her hard, having left a few things unsaid there late in the game. I correctly anticipated much of what is going on right now. One of the things I failed to anticipate was my sudden need to re-learn how to talk, perhaps how to think, now that she’s gone.

For the past 40 years or so, whenever I was away from work and was asked a question, I would almost always answer in the first person plural, saying “We did this, or we like that, or we went somewhere,” not thinking any thoughts that didn’t imply us, rather than just me. Lately, when asked a question, I have to hesitate, think for a second, before replying “I” something or other. It still feels like I’m cutting her out of the conversation, something I wouldn’t have considered doing before. Of course it’s dumb and stupid, but I need to re-train my brain. When discussing the girls, it’s always we.

I need to re-train my brain on how to shop for groceries. Up until recently, I was charged with shopping with the interests of both of us in mind. Naturally, this was harder with her stuff, since it ran kind of far afield at times, causing me to do a lot of backtracking at Kroger. Now, when I pick up something that’s not on the list, I don’t have to be concerned about possibly screwing up. Worse yet are trips to Costco, where I have to break the habit of wondering whether she would like some cheap fleece or shirt or anything. No more cruising women’s fashions at the Costco.

I have to train my brain to develop a system for attacking the large and growing bushel of cards and notes, each of which needs a thank-you note. WWND. I’m thinking that while I’m at it I might as well use a database package–Google Contacts–to start a real address file. If there are 250 and I can do eight a day that’s a month, which I should be able to do.

I thought it was a good sign that I was able to sit through Mass last week. Couldn’t talk, not yet, but was able to stand there for 40 minutes. I do enjoy going to 7 am which was never going to work for Nancy again. I slept through Adoration this morning, as I went in asking Jesus to help me rest, that I’m not sleeping well. He said why should I, when the only time you talk to me is when you have problems? I said You do You.

It’s the mental stuff that flits around your subconscious that is the most disturbing. I find myself waiting for her, then recalling that she’s never coming back, which makes me sad. I would like to talk to her again, see how it’s going for her, get her to help me find my passport. Not that I’m going anywhere, just because of this Real ID Thing next year. I’m trying to imagine sitting by the fire on winter evenings, not having her there to share the heat. Like Joni Mitchell sang 50 years ago, “The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide…” Wondering what she’d like to hear on the piano. Wondering if it’s 5:00 somewhere. Wondering what’s the purpose of having a fire when it was always to keep HER warm.

It’s kind of funny to hear her friends tell me how much she told them she loved me, that I was her rock, that she had depended on me for years and I had never once failed her. But it seems like the things I love to do, or used to love to do–cooking, gardening, playing music, writing–she mostly tolerated, rather than enjoyed. She rarely asked me to do any of these things, unless it was routine weekday cooking. She almost never read any of my stuff, other than the one time I accidentally shared my entire Word file and she got to reading the very private journal about her journey located elsewhere on this computer and in the cloud. She always had advice about cooking and gardening. The music she could do nothing about. My writing she could ignore.

I suppose we slip into some bad habits after living together for almost 50 years. A premature death interrupts any intention of doing a few repairs. Perhaps it was just the rather natural and predictable case of our interests having grown in somewhat different directions. The foundational stuff would always be there; some of the decorating accessories clashed, a reminder that we each retained a measure of our own pre-marital selves, that we hadn’t merged personalities. Hell, we hadn’t even merged last names. Had cancer not visited us, I’m certain our marriage would have continued along its merry way. More time happy than unhappy. The thought of trying to find happiness with someone else laughable.

There are probably lots of spouses out there, trapped in loveless marriages, who wish their spouse would contract a dread disease. Neither of us was ever going to be one of them. For being 70 years old we were pretty damned happy. Glad to see each other every time we did. Kind and thoughtful. Helpful and considerate. We had moved beyond passion, to devotion. It could have gone on a long time. Praise God that our relationship was in good shape when she entered her rapid decline. She had been anointed and received last rites and absolution two days before she died; her soul was in good shape, too. In her words, all would be well.

But I’m still here. You can see straight through the hole in my soul. How on earth can these things they call “celebrations of life” be celebrations if the main celebrants are all dissolved in tears? There are a lot of us, people who are going to miss the hell out of Nancy Gillespie.

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Nanny and Q at Bethany Beach, June, 2021

RIP Nancy Porter Gillespie

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© Bruce Allen
 
March 19 1952–August 17 2021

‘Grateful No Matter What’

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Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness

Nancy Gillespie, 69, died peacefully at St. Vincent Hospice on August 17. She was born in Woodbury, New Jersey, and was preceded in death by her parents, Edward and Elizabeth (Harper) Gillespie. She is survived by a sister, Mary (Volk), Audubon, PA, brother Ed Gillespie, Glade Valley, NC, husband Bruce Allen, daughters Liz (Pearce), Seattle, WA, Ginger (Edwards), Carmel, IN and Cate (Collins), Chicago, IL and her six grandchildren, upon whom she doted. She will be greatly missed.

Nancy graduated from high school in Woodbury, NJ in 1970 and attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, graduating in 1974. She and Bruce were married in 1975. Daughter Liz was born in 1977, Ginger in 1980 and Cate in 1984. Nancy spent a dozen years as a full-time mom before re-entering the workforce in 1990. She worked at both Carmel High School and the Carmel Public Library and ended her career at OneAmerica as an Organizational Development leader.

After retiring in 2016, Nancy continued to pursue her love of travel, visiting Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona, Mackinac Island, New York City, Seattle, New England and the Atlantic coast. During this same period she beat all the odds in a battle against Stage IV pancreatic cancer. She credited the combined prayers of her family, friends and complete strangers for her lengthy survival. She was an avid reader, loved her book club members, and stayed in close touch with old friends from Woodbury, Cincinnati, and Annapolis. She loved birds, especially hummingbirds and cardinals, and beaches.

Nancy was an active member of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parish for 37 years, volunteering for and leading a host of ministries over that time. A calling and eulogy will be held in the church narthex (14598 Oak Ridge Rd, Carmel) on Thursday, August 19, 2021, from 6 to 8 pm. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, August 20 beginning at 10 am. Interment will follow at Our Lady of Peace cemetery (9001 Haverstick Rd., Indianapolis). In lieu of flowers, the family requests your support of pancreatic cancer research through donations to The Lustgarten Foundation.

https://lustgarten.org/

Until Death Do Us Part.

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© Bruce Allen   August 10, 2021

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We spoke these words in our wedding vows on September 27, 1975, part of the large ritual to which I paid little attention at the time. I was 24, she was 23, we were in fine health, the entire world laid out in front of us. The “until death do us part” line was just another piece in a large production. My belief we would always be together implied, as I’ve discovered, that I would pre-decease her. In other words, we would always be together as long as both of us lived. Once one of us were to die, the surviving spouse would only be able to say “45 years” or “a good long time.” Death interferes.

Death is busy interfering with our marriage at this very moment. She is lying in our room, in a hospital bed, an opioid pump attached to her giving her regular jolts. Mentally, she is 95% gone; physically, about the same. She has end-stage pancreatic cancer after over five years of chemo. She has fought the hell out of it. But, ultimately, as it almost always does, cancer wins. It may win here today or tomorrow. Actually, it has already won, since she is so far gone, a husk of her former vibrant self. Our adult daughters take turns hugging and caressing and whispering to her, all to little avail. But it makes them feel better.

My own instinct is to remove myself, as much as I can, from the scene in the bedroom, as I generally sit down, glance at her, and start crying, thinking about how I’m going to miss her. I went to Costco for a few items yesterday, and usually I glance at women’s clothing to see if I can find anything for her. Dressed by Kirkland, as it were. As I walked past the apparel, it occurred to me that so many of the things I buy I do with with her in mind, that I haven’t grocery shopped just for myself in over 40 years other than the odd week when she’s been out of town. Triggers.

Removing myself from her room I see as beginning the process of breaking 50 year-old bonds that will break completely some time soon. The hospice nurse said while here yesterday that when death is imminent she will start visiting everyday. She will be here today and tomorrow. I’m not sure all of this pre-grieving will help anything when the time comes, but I have no choice.

Just for the record, I do not buy into all of the “celebration of life” stuff they surround funerals with these days. When have you ever been to a real celebration where the main celebrants are all collapsed in tears? How does one go about celebrating a life cut short, a life with so much left to give? How does one celebrate a God who looks at a marriage, decides to take one of the spouses, and then takes the wrong one?

Our six grand kids will get hollowed out by this experience one way or another. For the four older ones, this will be a readily-understandable, if psychologically unacceptable, experience they will feel in real time, their grief ultimately replaced by real memories. For the two young ones, the older sister is, at 6, too young to get it completely, but she gets it, and is kind of stuck in no-man’s land–grieving with everyone else but not fully clear on the details. For the three-year old, this will be something she will only come to grips with when she’s older, seeing photographs of herself with Nanny, hearing about the pictured events, developing kind of virtual memories, having missed out on the real ones because her hard drive and RAM are still being installed.

Our hearts, though powerful pumps, are fragile things. They are subject to breakage, both slight–a chip here, a gouge there–and major, such as what occurs when a lover dumps you or a spouse contracts a fatal illness. My own heart is holding up okay thus far until the words goodbye, forever, I love you, I’ll miss you, won your race, made it home, time to let go, put it in God’s hands, or any of a hundred other phrases pop into the air, or even just my head, and I start to melt down. Hearing Brad Paisley and Sheryl Crow singing two songs–When I Get Where I’m Going and Always on Your Side–gets me right here. We have been anticipating these days for five years, yet it is still such a shock when they finally arrive. Like a train that’s five years late.

So, we suffer with her, me and two of my daughters. Our eldest is stuck 2000 miles away, has been here twice recently, but may not be able to return until after The Flood, with her kids and her ex, who is also part of this family. She and her kids have already said goodbye to her mom and their Nanny. As hard as this is for me and my kids, it will be harder on their kids, as it is like Pearl Harbor for them, emotionally.

Some of the hardest moments in people’s lives are those where they must face their own mortality. People who died suddenly sometimes avoid this altogether. Most people don’t. Some, like my wife, confront it every day for years, a constant reminder that there will be some terrible days in one’s future. There wasn’t a single day in those five plus years when my wife didn’t want to live. Now, that the time has come for her to let go and rest on her laurels, she is having a hard time, her memories reduced mostly to muscle memory, the holding on having become strong and firm and terribly hard to let go of.

But she will, perhaps today. I just went in and sat with her. Put my hand on hers and got no response. She is still inside that body of hers somewhere, but she’s hard to reach and getting harder each day. My goal, as a writer, is to get my readers to laugh and cry in the same post. Which is why I’m ending this one with her final coherent words to me, after almost 46 years of civilized discourse. A few days ago she wanted to hold a small bowl of cut fruit I had made for her, and I wanted to hold it for her, to help her eat and avoid a spill. In the midst of this slight tussle, she looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t mess with me.”

I married her, in great part, because of her indomitable spirit, how she was impossible to intimidate. Small but powerful. I never wanted a life partner who would be subservient and “whatever you say” me to an early departure. I wanted a woman with some genuine intellectual horsepower and the willingness to speak her mind. And I had her, for almost 50 years. That girl is now gone, but I shall hold up my end of the deal and care for her remnant, until death do us part.

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We Expect Too Much From Our Romantic Partners

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From The Atlantic

How marriage has changed in recent years, and why staying married has gotten harder.

 

Tall, dark, handsome, funny, kind, great with kids, six-figure salary, a harsh but fair critic of my creative output … the list of things people want from their spouses and partners has grown substantially in recent decades. So argues Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University in his book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage.

As Finkel explains, it’s no longer enough for a modern marriage to simply provide a second pair of strong hands to help tend the homestead, or even just a nice-enough person who happens to be from the same neighborhood. Instead, people are increasingly seeking self-actualization within their marriages, expecting their partner to be all things to them. Unfortunately, that only seems to work if you’re an Olympic swimmer whose own husband is her brusque coach. Other couples might find that career-oriented criticism isn’t the best thing to hear from the father of your 4-year-old. Or, conversely, a violinist might simply have a hard time finding a skilled conductor—who also loves dogs and long walks on the beach—on Tinder.

I spoke with Finkel about how to balance this blend of expectations and challenges in a modern relationship. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: How has what we expect from our marriages changed since, say, 100 years ago?

Eli Finkel: The main change has been that we’ve added, on top of the expectation that we’re going to love and cherish our spouse, the expectation that our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves.

Khazan: As in our spouse should, just to give a random example, provide interesting feedback on our articles that we’re writing?

Finkel: That’s obviously a white-collar variation on the theme, but I think up and down the socioeconomic hierarchy, it isn’t totally crazy these days to hear somebody say something like, “He’s a wonderful man and a loving father and I like and respect him, but I feel really stagnant in the relationship. I feel like I’m not growing and I’m not willing to stay in a marriage where I feel stagnant for the next 30 years.”

Khazan: Why has that become something that we are just now concerned with? Why weren’t our great-grandparents concerned with that?

Finkel: The primary reason for this is cultural. In the 1960s, starting around that time, we rebelled as a society against the strict social rules of the 1950s. The idea that women were supposed to be nurturing but not particularly assertive. Men were supposed to be assertive but not particularly nurturing. There were relatively well-defined expectations for how people should behave, and in the 1960s, our society said, “To hell with that.”

Humanistic psychology got big. So these were ideas about human potential and the idea that we might strive to live a more authentic, true-to-the-self sort of life. Those ideas really emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, but they got big in the 1960s.

Khazan: You write about how this has actually been harder on lower-income Americans. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?

Finkel: People with college degrees are marrying more, their marriages are more satisfying, and they’re less likely to divorce. The debate surrounds [the question]: Why is it that people who have relatively little education and don’t earn very much money have marriages that, on average, are struggling more than those of us who have more education and more money?

There basically is no meaningful difference between the poorest members of our society and the wealthier members of our society in the instincts for what makes for a good marriage.

[However, lower-income people] have more stress in their lives, and so the things that they likely have to deal with, when they’re together, are stressful things and the extent to which the time they get together is free to focus on the relationship, to focus on interesting conversation, to focus on high-level goals is limited. It’s tainted by a sense of fatigue, by a sense of limited bandwidth because of dealing with everyday life.

Khazan: What is Mount Maslow? And can you try to reach the top of Mount Maslow and maintain a successful marriage?

Finkel: Most people depict Maslow’s hierarchy as a triangle, with physiological and safety needs at the bottom, love and belonging needs in the middle, and esteem and self-actualization needs at the top. It’s useful to reconceptualize Maslow’s hierarchy as a mountain.

So imagine that you’re trying to scale this major mountain, and you’re trying to meet your physiological and safety needs, and then when you have some success with that you move on to your love and belonging needs, and as you keep going up the mountain, you finally arrive at your self-actualization needs, and that’s where you’re focusing your attention.

As any mountain-climber knows, as you get to the top of a mountain the air gets thin, and so many people will bring supplemental oxygen. They try to make sure that while they’re up there at the top they have enough resources, literally in terms of things like oxygen and warm clothing, to make sure that they can actually enjoy the view from up there.

The analogy to marriage is for those of us who are trying to reach the peak, the summit of Mount Maslow where we can enjoy this extraordinary view. We can have this wonderful set of experiences with our spouse, a particularly satisfying marriage, but we can’t do it if we’re not spending the time and the emotional energy to understand each other and help promote each other’s personal growth.

The idea of the book is that the changing nature of our expectations of marriage have made more marriages fall short of expectations, and therefore disappoint us. But they have put within reach the fulfillment of a new set of goals that people weren’t even trying to achieve before. It’s the fulfillment of those goals that makes marriage particularly satisfying.

Khazan: Is it risky to have your closest partner also be your harshest critic, so that you can grow?

Finkel: My New York Times op-ed piece focused on the challenges of having a partner who’s simultaneously responsible for making us feel loved, and sexy, and competent, but also ambitious, and hungry, and aspirational. How do you make somebody feel safe, and loved, and beautiful without making him or her feel complacent? How do you make somebody feel energetic, and hungry, and eager to work hard without making them feel like you disapprove of the person they currently are?

The answer to that question is, it depends.

You can do it within a given marriage, but they should be aware that that is what they’re asking the partner to do. They should be aware that in some sense, the pursuit of those goals are incompatible and they need to be developing a way of connecting together that can make it possible.

For example, you might try to provide support that sounds more like this: “I’m just so proud of everything you’ve achieved, and I’m so proud that you’re never fully satisfied with it, and you’re just so impressive in how you constantly and relentlessly work toward improving yourself.” That can convey a sense that I approve of you, but I recognize what your aspirations are. Right?

[What’s more], there’s no reason why it has to be the same person who plays both of those roles. I would just urge everybody, think about what you’re looking for from this one relationship and decide, are these expectations realistic in light of who I am, who my partner is, what the dynamics that we have together are? If so, how are we going to achieve all of these things together? Or alternatively, how can we relinquish some of these roles that we play in each others’ lives, and outsource them to, say, another member of your social network?

Khazan: That’s the idea of having a diversified social portfolio, right? Can you explain how that would work?

Finkel: There’s a cool study by Elaine Cheung at Northwestern University, where she looked at the extent to which people look to a very small number of people to help them manage their emotions versus an array of different people, to manage different sorts of emotions. So, one person for cheering up sadness, another person for celebrating happiness, and so forth.

It turns out that people who have more diversified social portfolios, that is, a larger number of people that they go to for different sorts of emotions, those people tend to have overall higher-quality life. This is one of the arguments in favor of thinking seriously about looking to other people to help us, or asking less of this one partner.

I think most of us will be kind of shocked by how many expectations and needs we’ve piled on top of this one relationship. I’m not saying that people need to lower their expectations, but it is probably a bad plan to throw all of these expectations on the one relationship and then try to do it on the cheap. That is, to treat time with your spouse as something you try to fit in after you’ve attended to the kids, and after you’ve just finished this one last thing for work. Real, attentive time for our spouse is something that we often don’t schedule, or we schedule insufficient time for it.

Khazan: What is climbing down from the mountain? Should we try to do that?

Finkel: There’s the recalibration strategy, which is fixing an imbalance, not by increasing the investment in the marriage, but by decreasing the amount that we’re asking or demanding of the marriage.

There’s no shame at all in thinking of ways that you can ask less. That’s not settling, and that’s not making the marriage worse. It’s saying, look, “These are things I’ve been asking of the marriage that have been a little bit disappointing to me. These are things that I’m going to be able to get from the marriage but frankly, given what I understand about my partner, myself, and the way the two of us relate, it’s just going to be a lot of work to be able to achieve those things through the marriage.”

Khazan: So what is “going all-in,” and what are the risks and rewards of that?

Finkel: The question isn’t, “Are you asking too much?” The question is, “Are you asking the appropriate amount, in light of the nature of the relationship right now?” The idea of “going all-in” is, “Hell yes. I want to ask my spouse to help make me feel loved and give me an opportunity to love somebody else and also [be] somebody who’s going to help me grow into an ideal, authentic version of myself. And I’m going do the same for him or her. I recognize that that is a massive ask, and because I recognize that that’s a massive ask I’m going to make sure that we have sufficient time together. That when we’re together we’re paying sufficient attention to each other, that the time that we’re investing in the relationship is well-spent.”

What Four Decades of Marriage Does for You

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© Bruce Allen

This is a re-post from 2018 that I still like.

all you need is loveFour decades of marriage allows the two of you time to weave, with your kids and God’s grace, a family tartan of beliefs, values, standards and stories that will become part of their DNA and which they will, in turn, pass down to their kids.

It allows your relationship the opportunity to bloom, to struggle, and to emerge from struggle tempered, capable of withstanding decades of whatever the world throws at you. [It is during the almost-inevitable struggle stage, as kids arrive, that most marriages fail. To weather those storms requires commitment, which is bolstered by the fact that things tend to get easier as the children age and you can threaten to put them in iPad timeout.]

It allows you time to observe how your spouse likes things, things ranging from morning coffee to after-work drinks on the deck of a summer evening. Unless you’re a fool, you’ll do those things that way; it requires no extra effort.

It allows time to develop a sort of rhythm with your kids as they progress through school, a set of after-school routines that becomes standard and requires little discussion or negotiation. It allows them time to realize that the quality of their lives improves the closer they adhere to those routines. Studying, practice (sports and/or music), dinner together, free time, reading, prayer before bed, the whole deal. After a while they like it that way. Mostly.

It allows a steel bond to form between husband and wife that can withstand serious illness and show no signs of stress. Though the spouses themselves may experience stress, the relationship can shrug it off.

It allows time to influence the lives of grandchildren, should one be so blessed, and the luxury of having them around until bedtime, when it’s time to go bye-bye. Time to do grandparent things–coloring Easter eggs, decorating Christmas cookies, reading, playing on the floor. Getting one’s hair done by a four-year old.

It allows spouses to grow into an attitude where he or she is willing to give 60% in order to get 40% back. No 50/50 division of labor, no counting tasks​, no keeping score​. In a 50/50 relationship each spouse feels put out, as if he or she is doing more to support the family. In a 60/40 relationship each spouse expects to do more, and so it isn’t any big deal.

It allows time for traditions to evolve and get handed down. Our kids approach things like birthdays and holidays in the same basic way today they experienced them as kids. There are numerous variations of family or regional origin, all of which are good, all of which are variations on a theme.

cropped-sunset-lovers.jpgIt allows one time to, if necessary, drag one’s spouse to God. For which the spouse will ultimately be grateful.

It allows time for love to form in such a way that spouses learn to accept one another as imperfect people doing their best. To ascribe good intentions. To respect boundaries. To be happy to say, “You do you.”

Finally, it allows time for both of you to recognize and affirm that you spoke your wedding vows sincerely, believing every word at the time, and that you can gladly continue living them decades later. That you couldn’t imagine having lived without one another. That you did a fine job selecting a spouse.

These idyllic observations generally describe, somehow, our own family circumstances. Many people have far more complicated situations; I get that. People can only control things under their control. We have been greatly blessed. Beyond that, it’s important to keep praying and pray hard.

Marriage Blog Art

Stages – Love Over Time

© Bruce Allen

“To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.”

–Michael Chabon, “Moonglow”

This is a look at marital love through the years as a series of passages, the effect of which is, in the best marriages, cumulative. Think of these as Six Stages of Relationships That Work Over Decades, if that helps. I admit that this is mostly a ‘best-case’ scenario and may, in fact, be as good as it ever gets with couples who decide to become parents. It is not all roses and champagne. It would all be easier but much less meaningful without kids. (God, too, has an opinion on that subject.)

It is clear to me that these stages and the passages between them form the arc of a long-term Marriage with Children. It is equally clear to me that there are numerous impossible real-world situations that disrupt the smooth geometry of the arc described below. I’m not sure if this is how I think things are, or even how they ought to be, and I know that most relationships don’t get to touch all the bases. Perhaps this may be helpful to couples during the grueling Commitment stage, that there is light at the end of the tunnel if you can just keep the train on the tracks and get through the tunnel. Anyway, I hope some of this resonates with you, and that you can find God’s love somewhere in here.

  • Friendship – Maybe coffee later this week…

It is, for me, undeniable that a couple intent upon a long, meaningful relationship ought to be friends before they ever become lovers. Serious lovers. Research by John Gottman at The University of Washington suggests relationships built upon a foundation of friendship have a far greater chance of surviving difficult periods than couples whose relationship was founded upon a more casual and/or physical basis. Think about it—if you and your best buddy had a fight, you wouldn’t ‘break up’ over it. You would cool off and pick things up where they left off. As boys, being told by a girl that she wanted to be ‘friends’ was the kiss of death. As an adult—perhaps this marks the change—it is only good sense to see if you can BE friends with someone of the opposing gender without it being sexual.

  • Desire – I’d like to…

It is a good and natural thing when friendship leads to desire, on its own schedule. If physical desire Cute-Romantic-Love-Couplebecomes part of the basic foundation of a relationship, friendship is the footing upon which it rests. Desire can occur instantly or develop over time. It is essential. It is also secondary to the friendship, upon which all else is built, and without which the difficult periods can become impossible to endure.

Desire comes in many shapes and sizes, but healthy desire is often encountered on whatever one thinks of as the road to Stage III, Love. This can take years to develop. Desire is cheap; love is rare. One’s marriage vows are meant to be taken seriously, and it takes time to do a meaningful assessment, to determine that what you feel is love and not some complicated form of lust.

  • Love – I take thee…

Love, to me, also takes years to really take root. It may show up at first sight, but most simple attractions never become more complex. It shows up, in I-want-to-marry-her strength, once friendship has been established and desire acknowledged. Not until one has had a chance to see how the other handles money, waiters, anger, pain and difficult conversations is there a chance this mutual attraction can become something that lasts, that helps define one and the other, that becomes the sun around which the rest of their lives revolves. It needs to be solid and strong, built on footings and foundation, to withstand the passage about to occur.

  • Commitment – I take them…

Parents and kidsWelcome to the next 20 years of your life. At least. The commitment to have children and to raise them mindfully is its own set of promises, above and beyond the promises you made to one another at your wedding. These promises, to willfully allow babysitting, changing and schlepping to replace golf, after-work drinks and MNF parties. This is the point at which spouses, as friends, must dig in together. It takes great determination, massive sleep deprivation, high standards and huge hearts to survive that period when the kids are little and the days are long and the years are short.

As the children age, some things become easier and some things become harder. But if your marriage has survived the initial barrage or barrages of passing from spouses to parents, the remaining challenges are likely to seem much more manageable. In a perfect world, anyway.

In the real world, there are minefields which didn’t exist when we were raising our kids, and it seems like there are more ways for kids to go wrong. We are told that, character-wise, the die is cast for children in their first two or three years. So, the mantra that helps get young parents through this trial is that the ‘human capital investments’ they make in their children, at their own expense and exhaustion now, will pay benefits for the kids for the rest of their lives. This trans-generational deferral of gratification and installation of values is what raising kids is all about. And you can’t do it without a real commitment to one another and to your children.

One day, God willing, the children are gone, to colleges or jobs or the military or whatever, and suddenly it’s just the two of you again. Empty nesters, with grown children at arm’s length via Facetime, etc., naturally come to focus more of their attention on their work and one another. This passage, from commitment to devotion, is, as with most things, an act of will. Some marriages break down when the children leave, if the kids were the only things holding the relationship together. Those that survive can move beyond commitment.

  • Devotion – I could never leave…

Relatively few couples make it this far. Divorce removes, like, half. There are family disputes andhappy older couplepremature deaths and any number of things that stand between being newlyweds and being an older couple devoted to one another. A couple that has seen much of what the world has to offer and has weathered the storms successfully. A couple with grown kids setting out to start families of their own, using their parents’ marriage as a template. This is a beautiful thing to see. For couples inclined to lean toward one another, this stage can reveal several layers of satisfaction. Retirement occurs somewhere in here. This can be one of the sweet spots in the entire marriage.

In some relationships passing from devotion to the next stage, people like me will trip over the fact that the word ‘cherish’ does not lend itself to being anything other than a verb, available mainly in present and past tenses. How does one make a noun from the word ‘cherish?’ The gerund is lame. I’ll just let it go.

  • Cherish – How does one even live alone?…

old-couple in loveAs we approach the last few innings of our lives, this has become the glue that holds things together once they start trying to fall apart. This is the stage at which the willingness to give 60% to receive 40% in return—another secret to successful marriages—becomes the willingness to give 100% in exchange for simply allowing the other to experience the fullness of life. Old couples who cherish one another are a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing for young children to see and be around. Even, or especially, if one or both is in poor health. A good lesson for children is that love and devotion have nothing to do with physical attractiveness. PopPop may be a fat, lame old wreck but Nanny still loves him.

Aged spouses, so fortunate in many respects, will typically bear a heavy burden as time passes and the inevitable occurs and one finds oneself living alone. This is the price one pays for having loved successfully. Our children will assure us that our dearly departed would have wanted us to be happy and spend time with people. They, in turn, must understand that the person we most enjoyed spending time with may no longer be speaking to us, as it were, and that some of us are reluctant to sub-optimize.

Widows and widowers are not to wallow, but must be permitted to spend their remaining time living on their own terms. Social interaction is good and worthwhile; it shouldn’t matter whether one seeks it out for social or medicinal purposes. Those of us with a tendency toward reclusion must not allow it to claim us. I admit to greatly admiring widows and widowers who can continue to attack life, much as my mother did.

* * *

We’ve listened to countless country and/or rock and roll songs over the years, bemoaning, often in the first person, those stricken with unrequited love. We have clichés about having loved and lost. Shakespeare probably had a hundred catchy couplets on the subject. Rarely, however, do we hear about or discuss those people who have loved and won, only to ultimately lose their best friend and lover after, say, 50 years together. This sense of loss, this epitome of pain is refined and expensive and available only to a select few. It does not lend itself to pop music.

It is generally not interesting to young, euphoric, indestructible couples. It is hard to explain and difficult for young people, trying to get through year six, to relate to easily—the crazy idea of being 70 years old and still together. It seems like the most satisfying relationships result, in the end, in the most thorough loss. It is of much higher quality than the pain of a marriage that ended in, say, year ten, which itself can be indelible. It becomes the point of inflection for one’s entire adult life, the life with, and the life after. For practicing Christians, it parallels one’s spiritual life, decades spent living God’s word, daring to hope for life ever after.

We are reminded, as our former pastor taught me, that God sent his Son to the world to save it from sin, not from suffering. As Catholics, we are left to ponder the great ironies of Christianity. The meek shall inherit the earth. The last shall be first. The richest sacramental marriages ensure the most exquisite mourning. If you love someone you must let them go.

‘Love is a rose

but you better not pick it

It only grows when it’s on the vine.

A handful of thorns and

you’ll know you’ve missed it

You lose your love

when you say the word “mine”.’ – Neil Young, “Love is a Rose”

We’re probably better off listening to rock and roll. Or holiday music. Rock and roll holiday music, that’s the ticket. That, and seeking to understand God’s will in our marriages. I hope He blesses you with peace of mind, united resolve, and loving hearts during this busy season.

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Long Marriages: The Burnishing of Love

© Bruce Allen               October 10, 2018

Relationships, over time, seem to become burnished, the colors changed and smoothed off around the edges. It is the evolving nature of the marriage relationship itself over time which produces this new appearance, this patina of age. It is accompanied at times by some sense of loss, but, in the best cases, maintains acceptance, understanding, kindness and friendship. It is what happens over 40 or 50 years, as lust grows into love which grows into commitment which grows into devotion. It is, in fact, something of a best-case solution to this whole marriage thing; it is rare—perhaps 3-4% of marriages get to the devotion stage—and therefore I consider it valuable. As is the sacrament that produced it and the foundational love that lives on.

A husband like me, whose go-to behavior (according to Strength Finders) is intellection, must try every day not to allow devotion to slip into The Unthinkable. My wife’s illness is with her every day; she’s with me virtually every day. As long as we Are Here Now things are good. Given her remarkable chemo results, it has gotten easier for me not to wander down the rabbit hole. This is clearly not the case for the majority of people with this disease or their caregivers.

When she first received the diagnosis, my wife and our oldest daughter sat down to build a CaringBridge site, which needed a title, which begat the wrist bands from Emily Taylor. My wife simply said it. “Healing, Hope & Courage.” It is, for the bulk of cancer patients, the chronology of one’s mentality, in three distinct phases, each jarringly giving way to the other over a painfully short period of time. The first two are accompanied by a rugged regimen of chemotherapy and its attendant side effects for six to 12 months. No one daring to connect the dots out loud. My wife determined to leave it in God’s hands.

Due, in my opinion, to the combined effects of chemotherapy, prayer, Losartan and quinine, my wife maintains the upper hand in her counter-attack against cancer. Winter will be hard on her, due to her neuropathy and sensitivity to sub-freezing temperatures. But we expect to get through it with relative ease. When the days are short and Christmas is a recent memory we can look forward to lighting the fire and being grateful for having survived another holiday season, both literally and figuratively, in the proverbial bosom of our family.

It is important for patients to have stuff to look forward to, things to keep on the calendar, things to keep them engaged and relevant. For us, it is a trip to Chicago, another to Seattle, before the mayhem of Thanksgiving and Christmas consumes us and all those around us for two months. My wife likes the bedlam caused by a bunch of grandcousins racing through the house more than I do, but it is great to have them all here. Our daughters, as expected, continue completely supportive of my wife, consistently committed. There are now six grandchildren who love themselves some Nanny and enjoy her company immensely. Even the older ones, whom one would expect to start becoming jaded. Remarkable testament to the modeling of good behaviors by their moms and dads.

We recently celebrated our 43rd anniversary on a short trip to New England. The weather wasn’t entirely cooperative and one of the primary destinations was kind of disappointing. I was a little put out, but Nancy found it easy to enjoy pretty much everything. Our 44th won’t be spent in Maine, but we look forward to spending it somewhere. It is only fitting that the photos from the schooner, in which memories of 2018 reside, be burnished, too.

Camden

Camden harbor from the schooner

Lobster boat edited

Lobsterman at work