How Do I Miss Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

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With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“It takes strength to make your way through grief, to grab hold of life and let it pull you forward.”~ Patti Davis

It is an everyday occurrence for couples who have happily survived 30 or 40 or 50 years of marriage. One spouse dies; the survivor begins a period of mourning that can easily last for years. The intensity of mourning is proportional to the number of years spent together. I am one of those people. My late wife is in my DNA and her DNA is the genetic good half of our three children. At some point I will likely stop grieving for her, but I will never stop missing her.

Nancy died on August 17, 2021. We were approaching our 46th wedding anniversary. She had suffered through a five year battle with pancreatic cancer and the cancer, as is almost always the case, won. By the time the end came, it had robbed her of her intellect and her consciousness and had disfigured her almost beyond recognition. her once-beautiful features distended, her limbs bent, her luxuriant hair a memory.

Two recent occurrences, which I will describe below, have shown me that missing one’s spouse is not a discrete state of being. It is comprised of a number of different types of memories, and there are different triggers for each. It is easier to identify the trigger, and give an example, than to try to categorize the different ways we miss our loved ones. I have identified around a dozen different ways the bereaved miss their spouses . Most of them are sensory, the remainder are tied to events, calendars and places.

Seven Sensory Triggers

Visual triggers usually come to us through photographs and videos. We see our loved one in happier days, when they were young and healthy and vibrant and completely alive. I have an Echo Show in my family room which scrolls through a thousand photographs. Each time she appears on the screen takes me back to the time when the picture was taken. Our sense of sight inflicts this punishment on us; the blind are spared this particular agony.

Auditory triggers for me come in a number of different flavors, the primary one being the songs we fell in love to and countless others that we loved during almost 50 years together. We had our first dance as a married couple to Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” I play the piano, and there are several songs I’m unable to play anymore without weeping. Birds grace us with their whistles and calls. My family and I believe Nancy visits us in the form of a female cardinal–“Where cardinals appear, angels are near.” Even the sound of the dryer door closing can do it. There are times when I wish I was deaf.

Gustatory triggers come to us through food. She was constantly amazed at how vivid my memories of certain flavors from my childhood were, and still are. A made-from-scratch birthday cake. My mother’s cream cheese and garlic party dip. The salad dressing at the restaurant where I parked cars in college. Now, of course, memories of her come to me in her apricot cake, her pumpkin chiffon pies, the delicate almond cookies she hated baking but loved giving away. Her tomato, corn and bean salad. Miss Giddy’s fried chicken (a name well-known only to members of her family). My daughters and I remind the grandkids of the recipes that Nanny used to make. She spent weeks making a family cookbook for granddaughter Lila, who cooks from it regularly.

Tactile triggers, fortunately, are rare. I held a gold chain I had given her years ago in my hand the other day. Gold has a peculiar, almost soft feel to it, and I remembered her wearing it most days. Going through her jewelry, separating the precious from the dross, I recognized the textures of a number of pieces, mostly costume jewelry, that she enjoyed wearing. I will always remember and miss the feel of her skin, holding hands during Mass, carrying her around in the water at the beach. She took most of these memories with her.

Olfactory triggers, as I discovered again just the other day, are powerful reminders of those we have loved and lost. She favored two Innis fragrances, Moonlight and Free. They have similar scents and both infuse her sweaters, in her dresser and her closet. I began crying the other day searching for something in her dresser, and have not yet been able to approach her closet, which needs to be cleared out. But doing so feels like I’m sending her to Goodwill and Dress for Success. Simply can’t do it yet. Our daughters are going to have to get involved in this.

Proprioceptive triggers are associated with proximity and movement, both of which our bodies can perceive. As I sat through Mass on Palm Sunday, I was overcome by the sense not of her presence but of her absence. 98% of the time I’ve ever spent in our church she had been right beside me. On that Sunday I could feel her absence and it was palpable and overwhelming. I have decided to join a different church, one that we rarely attended together. This was a truly powerful experience, one I hope never to have again.

Kinesthetic triggers are associated with keeping track of our bodies. They are what keep us, generally, from accidentally hitting our bed partners in our sleep. When we roll over, something helps us keep our limbs close to our own bodies. I would guess that in almost 46 years of marriage I might have kicked or clubbed her in my sleep perhaps half a dozen times, which is statistically significant.

Other Triggers

Holidays bring their own set of clear memories to bear. Why is it that happy memories generally make us sad? Christmas, Easter (Nancy’s favorite), Halloween, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, even birthdays, are easy to remember clearly. I have very few memories of gifts, much more of the people who were there, where we celebrated, things like that. For some bereaved spouses, holidays are their own special minefield, to the point that some widows and widowers are unable to celebrate certain holidays or anniversaries after a death.

Vacation and location triggers can hit us looking through photographs, maps and globes, seeing ads for river cruises we never got around to taking. Visiting a city where we used to live (Annapolis and Cincinnati, in our case.) A trip to the art museum, of which she was a faithful supporter. Summer concerts outdoors at Conner Prairie. All these things are fertile ground for taking a few private moments to miss her.

Historical and calendar memories. Celebrating the Bicentennial on the Mall at the Washington Monument in 1976. New Year’s Eve on Y2K. September 27th every year, the date of our wedding in 1975. Her birthday, the day she died, the day she found out she had a terminal illness (June 2). The birthdays of our daughters, remembering being there in 1977, again in 1980, and the last time in 1984.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to understand that the world we occupy after the death of a spouse may be full of family and laughter and joy, but that painful memories are lurking in the corners and crevices. For the newly bereaved, one must be aware that some rocks have snakes under them; we must be careful turning those rocks over. We will certainly have happy times in our new world, but the memories, and the things that trigger them, are numerous and often unexpected.

No greater love…

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© Bruce Allen  October 26, 2021

In the days immediately preceding her death, our daughters and I were my wife Nancy’s constant companions, as one would expect. What one might not expect is that Nancy would have a friend who took this trauma willingly upon herself. One who came to our house and then to the hospice on W. 86th St., who would spend hour after hour caressing her, whispering to her, praying over her, holding her hand, during the worst days of the entire journey. During the days when the cancer had robbed her of her intellect, her sentience, and was in the process of disfiguring her, on its way to, finally, taking her, the train that was five years late at last pulling into the station. This, I suggest, is what they mean by agape love.

Many of you know who I’m talking about, Nancy and her friend, the Dynamic Duo of OLMC, the teachers, trainers, facilitators who made so many of the ministries work; I will simply call her Dee here in order to protect her privacy from people outside her wide arc of friends in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Dee is perhaps the holiest of all the people I’ve ever known who is willing to hang out with me. She and Nancy had a special relationship and a partnership that bloomed over several decades into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Nancy and Dee had complimentary skill sets and shared passions. They shared a passion for Mary, the Trinity and Christianity; Catholicism is up there somewhere, but these were the top two. Dee had two decades directing adult faith formation at a big Catholic parish north of Indianapolis. Nancy had trained as a corporate meeting facilitator, and together they put together some powerful presentations. People still talk about Nancy’s Myers-Briggs presentation at a marriage retreat a decade ago where she taped off the narthex and explained to everyone–all fifty couples–where the tension in their relationships arose. In about 15 minutes. Lights came on in people’s heads. She could do that.

When Nancy was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2016, she and Dee set off on numerous novenas and rosaries, healing masses, whatever. They kept right on working on little projects; Nancy was already working on several other projects with her friend Vee.

I have a clear memory of June 17, not only because it is our oldest’s birthday. Nancy and Dee were on a Zoom call that Dee was turning into a podcast. Nancy had her parts to contribute, and Dee hers. We were leaving on the long-awaited beach vacation, the last dance at Bethany, the next day. Nancy got all dressed up and made up and sharp-looking and sat at her computer actively doing her part, in great pain, as professional as usual. It was only afterwards that she confirmed to me that she had had to ‘dig deep’ to finish. She knew this would be her final project with Dee.

Dee was a regular visitor and texter during the time after we returned from Bethany in late June until Nancy’s passing. As July wore on we, the family, decided to limit her visitors, basically to Dee and a handful of others. In August, as things with Nancy became increasingly difficult, Dee was a constant presence, there to help, there to chat with Nancy while she was on morphine, another exercise of agape love, as the switch in Nancy’s brain had been turned from SEND to RECEIVE to OFF.

We had Nancy transported to inpatient hospice on Sunday, August 15th. Dee was there later that afternoon, after Nancy was ‘comfortably’ settled, to spend time with her. Nancy, at this point, was an hour-by-hour proposition. Dee was there on Monday the 16th for hours, talking with the family when she wasn’t keeping Nancy company. If you’re looking for a vision, picture Nancy with a humble path to Glory, and Dee out there with a broom clearing her way of dust and leaves.

We called hospice around 9:00am on Tuesday and were told that Nancy had just passed. Which I expect is not true, as we rushed over and she was waxen and cold; that doesn’t happen in an hour. Whatever. Dee, who had texted, comes in, sits at the bedside, says her final prayer over Nancy’s body, and turns to begin comforting us, the family, we who had just lost our north star.

And which continues to this day. I had dinner with Dee and her husband Jay the other night and they want to help me move forward in any way they can. With them, there is a holy element to almost everything and I need that these days.

Here’s what I started out to say. We, Nancy’s family, have all experienced trauma around her passing. Although it was a good as it could have possibly been, it was still gruesome to watch the disease’s final insults. But Dee willingly took on this trauma, made it her own, and lifted it up to God to make it endurable, to enable her to deliver Nancy’s eulogy without coming unglued. Unbidden, she took on her friend’s suffering in an effort to reduce ours. That is the next thing to laying down one’s life for a friend, the highest expression of human love there is. This is agape love at work. Dee was doing all these things out of love and love alone; there was no ulterior motive, no agenda. Just love.

Dee brought many elements to Nancy’s life that I couldn’t possibly bring, as I was so late to the party and so faint in my practice of the faith. Dee was and is immersed in her faith, and it just rubs off on everyone. I remember when she first corralled me to facilitate Bible Study, and later to lead the marriage enrichment ministry. I didn’t want either, but I couldn’t say no in the face of a woman who clearly encouraged the Holy Spirit to work through her to bring more people to her faith. She and Nancy could spend hours talking about scripture and the lessons to be learned therein; in effect, they were each other’s spiritual advisors.

So, in the midst of all these tears, we find reason to celebrate the Holy Spirit working through one of our friends to ease Nancy’s passing and the pain that follows for us. We pray, those of us who lean in that direction, that Nancy’s road to heaven was straight and short. If this entire heavenly construct is true, we should be celebrating Nancy dunking on St. Peter at the gates, reminding him that she’s from New Jersey. And we–her family–should remain grateful to Dee for our entire lives, for the selfless love she showed our mother and wife.

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.

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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Note: Nancy Gillespie died on August 17, 2021.

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 physical 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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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.

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Camden harbor from the schooner

Lobster boat edited

Lobsterman at work

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.

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