Wedding Vows Revisited

 

Marriage Blog Art.pngWe were married in late September 1975 in a small Catholic church in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. It was one of those steamy Indian summer Saturday mornings that hang around, wearing out their welcome, before the brisk, crisp notes of fall arrive in October. The church doors were open, and the bright lights focused on the altar made it even warmer inside.

I clearly remember Gilda Radner’s Rosanne Rossanadanna bit on SNL back in the day, with sweatballs dripping off the end of my nose as I stood, petrified and melting, in front of God and the world and made a bunch of promises for “all the days of my life.” I don’t remember much about the actual promises, vows we wrote ourselves. I’m pretty sure the “…for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” parts made it in there.

(To lower stress for everyone, I think the standard set of “I do’s” should be changed to, “Lord, I surely hope so.” If things were to fall apart down the road, the person might feel simply disappointed rather than branded for life in the eyes of God.)

With very few twisted exceptions, I cannot imagine a couple entering into marriage, sacramental or otherwise, without a fervent hope that they truly mean the words they are saying. They hope they’re telling the truth. I suspect wedding vows almost always feel like the truth, but the truth, from ground zero, is often difficult to discern.

Standard wedding vows include the “richer and poorer” and “in sickness and in health” clauses for the purposes of form only. Surely, if a couple finds themselves rich and healthy, it makes some things easier. For the poor and sick, who spoke the same vow, things, in general, are far more difficult. This would presumably include staying married, which can be tremendously challenging with little kids in a high stress environment.

Although we cannot know if we are lying or truthing on our wedding day, we get to find out later in our lives. Looking back, for me, proves several things. Nancy was telling the truth during the richer and poorer part, in that, though we’ve never been rich, we’ve been poor, and she never showed any signs of it eating into our marriage. During times in my life when I’ve been sick, she has been there for me. And now, as it turns out, I, too, was telling the truth during the sickness and health part.

In 1975 I’m pretty sure I didn’t give that part much thought. My main concern, if memory serves, was that I would inevitably, inexorably, somehow, someday bungle things up and land us in divorce court, Catholic-style. As to how I might screw up, there were numerous ways, but which one wouldn’t matter–any would do. I was kind of a slouch, marrying up to a woman with high standards and strong moral fiber. My main worry, besides the stifling heat, was that I wouldn’t be able to hold up my end of the deal.

So, 40-some years later, the sickness part arrived.  Since then, I have confirmed to myself that I was telling the truth in 1975. I am ready, willing and able to respond regardless of what sickness brings. I cannot imagine it being otherwise. I haven’t yet been called upon to do much, but I’ve created space in my life I can devote to my caregiver role without advance notice. No one knows how to do the everyday things the way she likes them. No one knows how to manage the home the way she likes it. Our local middle daughter knows and does it all but has her own uber-busy kids and life and job to manage. I am generally the boots on the ground.

Fortunately, my “giving” love language is Acts of Service, which allows me to happily do the numerous small things involved in keeping prescriptions on hand, an empty nest provisioned and financially afloat. We are now both officially on Medicare and Social Security, enmeshed in the safety net of public policy, and doing everything her doctor tells her to do. We are coloring within the lines, and she is exceeding most expectations by being in such good shape at this time.  I would like to take credit for her robust health, but that would be absurd and dishonest. She attributes it to the power of prayer.

So, as it turns out, we were both speaking the truth in 1975 and have lived it, per the terms of our original agreement, in full. It continues to work well. It has allowed us to transition from employed and long-lived to retired and dealing with a serious disease. It has changed the conditions of our relationship, not the content. The content, the essence, comes from decades of struggle and delirium and determination, the fruit being our three daughters, their families, and the privilege of assuming the role of Nanny and PopPop. Fast Eddie was the original PopPop for our kids, and I am but a pale imitation for theirs. Nanny has no such pretenders.

2017 has been, for me, a year of examining feelings, feelings about oncology, feelings about God, feelings about the Church, feelings about myself. And although I rarely feel as if I can hear God speaking to me, I can say that living day-to-day is generally low stress as long as I don’t allow myself to think about Life in the Future. The lesson here, and I’m a slow study, is to ask only for our daily bread and let tomorrow take care of itself which, for me, is virtually impossible, since I have put myself in charge of having tomorrow’s bread on hand today. And some idea of what the next day’s bread will look like. Protein, veg, starch.

To the extent we are discomfited by Nancy’s illness, we are comforted by being able to live day to day without pretense, almost always on the same page when it comes to her health. Trying to make things easier for one another. We are weathering a storm and have ridden out several other storms along the way. We are headed in the same direction.

As it turns out, when we spoke our wedding vows in 1975 we meant every word.  Who knew?

Couples struggling in their marriages might re-read their wedding vows, to see if they can remember how they felt when they originally spoke them. It might only take two minutes. It might take all night. Doing so might be balm on a series of relational wounds inflicted by life lived multi-tasking at 90 mph in the 21st century.

Doing so might remind us how we believed we were telling the truth back in the day.

May God shed His grace on you.

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When God Turns the Tables

Perhaps 15 years into our 42 year marriage, it became pretty clear that Nancy would outlive me. Women generally outlive men. She has always taken better care of herself than I have–better diet, more exercise, meditation, yoga, Sudoku. For me, this natural state of things was always premised on the virtual guarantee that I would, by predeceasing her, leave her to deal with the messy emotional and social fallout.   Similar, in many respects, to my point of view concerning the weddings of our daughters–they just seemed to happen on their own, and all I had to do was show up properly dressed with as few prepared remarks as possible.

Along with the diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer came this ridiculous possibility that I would outlive her. A scenario I had literally never considered. I recall having laughed out loud at my father, 14 years older than my mother and with his own cardiologist, who would occasionally wring his hands about what he was going to do when Mom was gone. His worries were, as expected, unfounded.  Mine, perhaps not.

[In fact, my concerns may be misplaced, just like my father’s were.  Nancy is doing remarkably well with chemo, her blood chemistry is all in the green, her weight has stayed up and she shows very little in the way of slowing down.  She doesn’t complain about her neuropathy the way she used to, especially during infusion week. My own health is “OK,” which is to say not perfect but not imminently dangerous.]

As an economist, I’m comfortable around statistics.  As a reformed gambler, I still figure the odds and go with what seems most likely. As (determined by StrengthFinders) someone who practices intellection, these statistics and odds and percentages bounce around in my brain.  I talk to Jesus about them in the Chapel. He reminds me we know not when nor where. I remind him of five year survival rates and the physical effects of long term exposure to chemotherapy.

Since Day One, Nancy has not wanted a prognosis attached to her condition, and has been more or less actively disinterested in her disease other than routine conversations with her oncologist. In this, her approach differs from mine, as I’ve always been more comfortable with a devil I know than one I don’t. But, as a spouse, I have recognized, out loud, that this is her journey, that I am beside her for care and support, that she will make these types of decisions–what and whether to talk about–and I will respect her choices.

old-couple in loveAnd so here is the point. The spouse with the serious illness gets to make these calls, all of them. How much to know and how much to leave unsaid. What to discuss and what not to discuss. The caregiver must willingly include these in the inventory of things about which you will want to talk less. If, as in my case, you find a need to discuss concerns you cannot comfortably share with your spouse, do what I do and talk to a counselor every now and again.

In the most recent ten years of our marriage, when we both worked, we had maybe 30 minutes in the evening to sit together and discuss the day’s events.  Now, we no longer have work, we have a few subjects that are off limits, and instead of 30 minutes we have more like 10 hours. Nancy has been more comfortable with these periods of sustained silence than have I, but I’m getting better. Spouses may want to prepare for these in advance, as they should not be misinterpreted as character flaws or a lack of bonhomie, as it were.

It has taken me awhile to understand God’s will in this radically-altered future of ours. This, what we are living, is God’s will. It is God’s will that Nancy carry on her lifelong interest in learning and teaching, and that she be allotted time to do so. It is God’s will that she can suffer in private and go out socially looking healthy and vibrant. It is God’s will that she have someone like me to hang around and take care of her. And it is God’s will that I have finally found a vocation, after decades of searching, that gives me a feeling of purpose and allows me to express my love language–acts of service–every day.

Life is not a bed of roses, and Christian marriage comes not without costs. But being married, at this stage in our lives, is a blessing beyond measure. If you are struggling in your marriage, it may help you appreciate each other by fast-forwarding the film 25 or 30 years, to an empty nest and a dread disease. For the sick spouse, you are unlikely to be able to purchase such loving care on the open market. For the caregiver, being in a position to uphold the marriage vows you made 40 years earlier is a great honor, likely held in high esteem by God. And no couples get there without weathering some serious storms along the way.cropped-lse-masthead6.jpg