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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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

Want More Love? Be More Lovable.

One of the consistent themes of this site is that a lasting, fulfilling and spiritually rewarding marriage is not about finding the right person, but about being the right person.  We have also embraced, since day one, Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which lays out the Church’s position on the importance/sanctity of physical Theology of the Bodyintimacy in a loving sacramental marriage.  Yet, it has become something of a running gag in American society that couples continue to have serious, relationship-threatening issues about sex, regardless of whether the marriage was blessed by a priest, or whether the couple is even married at all.

Focusing on married couples, it’s no big revelation to assert that sex is complicated. Ignoring for the moment (mostly male-specific) concerns such as frequency and variety, the reality for most couples is that both spouses work and must deal with work-related issues including fatigue, overnight travel, stress, shift work, and being connected to their jobs 24/7 by text and email.  Add a few kids, with their homework, social and extra-curricular activities.  Some couples must Busy-Parentscare for elderly parents or relatives. Money is often a source of conflict.  Throw in time spent with friends, the pursuit of separate hobbies and interests, housework, yard work and even time devoted to church ministries, and it’s a wonder most couples are having any sex at all.

Though there are no easy answers for much of this, there are a number of things spouses can do to improve the overall quality of their relationship and, by extension, their sex life.  Some of you may recall a book popular back in the 80’s called The Five Minute Salesman, the main premise of which was that in order to get what you (the salesman) want, you must help the customer get what he or she wants. Here are some examples we hope may be useful to you and your spouse:

  • We have occasionally expressed an idea here suggesting that rather than seeking a 50/50 sharing of marital responsibilities (which inevitably leads to some form of score-keeping) we, as spouses, should be willing to give 60% in exchange for 40%.  Going the extra mile, without seeking praise or recognition, will almost always enhance our esteem in the eyes of our spouse, in some cases making us appear more desirable.
  • Take the time to pay attention and learn what he or she likes.  This lies at the heart of Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languageswhich expounds on the idea that all of us have a love language we prefer when receiving love and another, possibly different, language we prefer when giving or showing love. Guys, if your wife’s preference for receiving love is words of affirmation or spending time together, a bunch of flowers from Kroger is unlikely to flip her switch.  Both of you need to figure out how the other likes to be shown love; if you can’t do it on your own, read the book together.  I’ve observed that many of us are not loved in the way we want.  If this describes the two of you, you can fix it.
  • Worship together.  If you share the same faith, attending church together is a high quality hour, feeding both your soul and your relationship.  If you attend different Stained Glasschurches, try to arrange your attendance so that neither of you must take your small children to church.  (If you want to do so, that’s different.)  Facilitating a peaceful hour apart is another act of love.  Finally, if one of you does not attend church on a regular basis, that spouse can volunteer to get up early and look after the children while your spouse goes to church.  In any case, there are plenty of ways to show you love your spouse connected to the observance of your faith.
  • Cook for each other, or cook together.  The drudgery of getting dinner on the table during the weekday scrum can be offset by serving her breakfast in bed on Saturday morning or cooking up something fun together when the opportunity arises.  Try a new dish.  One of you can chef while the other preps.  And you never know where a late dinner after the kids are asleep might lead.
  • Talk to each other.  Statistics suggest that the average married couple spends seven (7) minutes a day talking with each other.  If your busy lives make you feel like “ships passing in the night,” commit to finding 15 minutes a day, just the two of you, talking about stuff other than work, the kids or money.  Recall when you were courting how you could literally spend hours like this.  Now that you’re married, you need this time to maintain your connectedness.  Even if it means waking up 15 minutes earlier than normal, this is time well-spent.
  • Observe the power of random acts of kindness.  Taking her car out on Sunday afternoon for a fill-up and a wash means she can go to work on Monday with a shiny ride and a full tank.  If he’s been out of town for a few days and gets home later in the evening, a hot meal and a beer, served in some sexy pajamas, might fulfill his every (unspoken) wish.  The key here is to do whatever it is without being asked.  Complying with a request is one thing; showing kindness on your own initiative is something else.
  • TOE time refers to what we call the Touch of Eden.  During TOE time, spouses get naked, get in bed, and simply hold each other close, without any sexual agenda.  Spending 15 minutes like this helps spouses reconnect in an intimate way, without any pressure.  It is not meant to be a prelude to sex, but allows room for the agenda to be amended by majority vote.  Sorry guys–she holds the tiebreaker!
  • WP_20150421_001Pay attention to your personal hygiene.  When you find an opportunity for a physical encounter, make sure you are clean, that you smell good, that you’ve shaved, that your breath is, um, unobjectionable; in short, send the message that this is a special moment and that you want to make it as pleasant as possible for your partner. [These may not be universally shared.  I read recently of a note Napoleon sent to Josephine in which he wrote, “I will arrive on Saturday, Do not bathe.”  Different strokes…]  A little background music, some candlelight and his favorite scent can put an exclamation point on things.

If you and your spouse have some different suggestions, please share them.  God tells us that the marital bed is a sacred place, and we honor Him when we approach it as such.  In the 21st century, we may miss the spontaneity that accompanied such encounters when we were first married.  Maintaining a healthy physical relationship in a world spinning a million miles an hour takes commitment, planning and thoughtfulness. Being the right person for each other can only help.

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Marriage and Unconditional Love

eph-5-25-web-wRecently, while topic shopping, I came across a site called Marriage Builders.  It is the work of Dr. William Harley, who seems to be a one man corporation when it comes to writing about and discussing marriage.  He has a decidedly Christian bent to his work, although I’m guessing he’s not Catholic.  At any rate, having read a number of his articles, they are consistently well-reasoned and well-written.  I recommend you bookmark the site, as there is a wealth of material available to those interested in the subject of marriage.

After our Valentine’s Day Marriage on Tap event, one of the best ever, I was hunting for articles on the myths of marriage and, while having discovered several good ones and many not-so-good ones, I came across one of Dr. Harley’s articles on the subject of unconditional love in marriage.  Please follow the link, for the article contains some controversial thoughts with which many of you may disagree.

I recall a parish mission some years ago at which the speaker asked the audience to list Heveryone they loved in the order in which they loved them. Along with many of the attendees, I put my wife Nancy at the top of my list, followed by my kids and The Holy Trinity. Now, please don’t let my poor writing skills confuse you into thinking that hundreds of men put Nancy at the top of their lists; they put THEIR wives at the top.  🙂  The speaker went on to explain that we should ALL have God at the top of our lists, that God’s love for us is unconditional and therefore of a higher order than the love we feel for our spouses.

Dr. Harley’s article supports the notion that God loves us more than we love one another, but takes on the notion of its being unconditional.  Discussing this with Nancy, she flat out disagreed with him, arguing that God’s covenant is not a contract, citing several verses from scripture, and basically taking advantage of my lack of knowledge of the Bible.  She agreed with the author and with me that spousal love is not and should not be unconditional, that if I were to come home from work everyday and beat her senseless she should not continue to love me as she does.  Again, being better at this stuff than I am, she cited Thomas Aquinas, who famously argued that the nature of love is willing the good of the other for his own sake, which describes God’s love for us, in that God does not need us.  God gets nothing in return for loving us.  And this despite the fact that we may, using our free will, choose not to love God in return, which does nothing to diminish his love for us.  This, in turn, suggests that it is, unfortunately, possible to be loved by God and to also go to Hell.

cropped-lse-masthead6.jpgWhere was I?  Right, unconditional love in marriage, which seems to belong on one of the many lists of marriage myths that clutter up the internet.  Please pray on this and discuss it with your spouse.

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We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

Happy New Year, couples.  Yes, we’ve been in hiatus for months, dealing with a number of issues ranging from travel and health concerns to a relative lack of inspiration from many of our usual contributors.  Now that 2015 is upon us, I am hoping for some renewed energy and relying on The Holy Spirit to provide it to all of us, with a tip of the hat to Walt Kelly

UnhappyA recurring theme in this blog is that successful marriages are not about finding the right person as much as being the right person.  When things go wrong in our lives, it is not unusual to blame others–employers, spouses, friends, bad ju-ju, etc.  Yet, in most cases, we have only ourselves to blame, which is inconvenient in that it forces us to change our behaviors and/or our attitudes toward the things that comprise our lives.

I direct your attention to a recent article published in Huffington Post (yes, them again) about a failed marriage, written by the now ex-wife.  In a nutshell, her ex lied to her, cheated on her, and finally abandoned the family.  Some time later, in therapy, she realized that her own foibles were at the root of much of what went wrong in the relationship.  I encourage you to read the article, but let me summarize what she refers to as the “four huge mistakes I made” that led to the breakdown of the marriage:

  1. I put my children first.  While it is a holy obligation to care for one’s kids, it is easy to allow them to become a place to escape to when difficulties arise in your relationship with your spouse.  This particular issue typically afflicts wives more than husbands, but men are not exempt, either.  This evokes the instructions we get while waiting for a plane to take off, that we are supposed to affix our own oxygen masks before taking care of the kids.
  2. I didn’t set (or enforce) boundaries with my parents.  While many of us are blessed with parents who live nearby and love interacting with and helping out with our kids, for some spouses this can become burdensome.  Our spouses married us; they didn’t marry our entire families.  For some spouses, when this occurs, it is a hard conversation to have, telling your spouse that you want/need some space from your inlaws.  That conversation, however, pales in difficulty to the one in which you tell him or her you’re moving out.
  3. I emasculated him.  The author’s reflections on this subject are straight out of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.  Talking smack about our spouses with our friends simply adds fuel to the fire, stoking our own rage and setting the stage for gossip which can work its way back to the spouse.  “I hear your wife said you’re lousy in the sack” is not something I want to hear while waiting on the first tee with my golfing buddies.  Reading Gottman’s book allows us to both recognize these deadly sins and offers concrete advice on how to work through them.
  4. I didn’t bother to learn to fight the right way.  The notion of “fighting fairly” is one that intrigues me and is, again, a subject to which John Gottman devotes a lot of attention.  All couples are going to disagree at times, and a number of these disagreements can escalate into fights.  Learning how to fight fairly–my wife Nancy is better at this than I am–provides opportunities to turn these arguments into understanding.  Keep in mind that, when it comes to arguing, your objective should not be to win; your objective should be to recognize the root causes of the fight and change behaviors in order to avoid them in the future.  We need to seek understanding rather than victory.  In the long run, winning is less desirable than creating win-win situations.

The title of this post is one of Pogo’s lasting contributions to western society.  When holding_handsdifficulties arise in our marriages, we are encouraged to reflect on how we have contributed to the problem, rather than taking the easy, shortsighted way out and simply blaming everything on our spouses.  It takes two to tango; the reason cliches are cliches is because they are generally true.  Let us pray the Serenity Prayer and look inside ourselves before berating our spouses for their shortcomings.  More often than not, the enemy is us.

Happiness, too, is often an act of will

Busy-ParentsMy friends and I have been doing a terrible job keeping up with this blog this summer.  No excuses.  As fall approaches, we hope to revive this site and bring some new energy to our ministry and our marriages.

Recently, our community was shaken by a murder-suicide that took the daughter of one of our most prominent and generous families.  Events like this, which drastically change the trajectories of numerous lives are, mercifully, pretty rare.  I pray virtually every day that God’s will for me and my family does not include a tragedy like this.  For the grieving family, most of what follows will seem like empty words; their solace will come from God and leaning into one another.  For others, I hope you can find some useful ideas below.

As we have pointed out numerous times on this site, love is an action, not a feeling. Feelings come and go, while the actions of our wills are up to us; we are in control of our wills.  Thus, we have the ability to be in control of our relationships.  Much the same can be said for happiness.  We have the ability to create our own happiness.  Heck, there are even exercises we can do to upgrade our own happiness.

In her book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, CBurrowsphoto #1author Sonja Lyubomirsky takes a clinical approach to examining the subject of happiness. This study is briefly summarized in one of my favorite blogs, The Generous Husband. As blogger Paul Byerly observes, this is an important subject, as happy, effective, successful people have better marriages.

A New Twist on Spring Cleaning

healthy habits happy homes

By Joe McGonigal

I am definitely ready to walk outside without layers of coats and sweaters!  But with the change in season comes the dreaded…spring cleaning.

Instead of figuring out how to dodge my upcoming “chores” I thought I would give some thought to sprucing up my relationship with Denise!  Check out this article in All Pro Dad…maybe your success with this list could eliminate some entries on your “honey-do” list!

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