When you live where we do, you get used to hearing tornado warnings on TV, usually in the spring. I’ve lost count of how many tornadoes have swept through our area with the accompanying hail storms, wind damage, and insurance claims. The weather man’s refrain is stuck in my head like an 80’s song. “Find your safe place. Go to an interior room with no windows. Cover your head.” For now, that place is our closet, where many times we have crammed in beneath the hanging pants with our sleepy children and uncooperative pets in the middle of the night.
Some friends of ours relocated here from out west, and they recounted their reaction the first time they heard the unfamiliar urgent warnings. As they should, they took it seriously and huddled in the bathtub together, hunkering down. “Cover your head,” the weather man said, so they earnestly scrambled to follow directions. They ended up making their children wear bike helmets while they each donned 5-gallon buckets from Home Depot. I always chuckle when I remember their story, imagining the newspaper photos and puzzled looks from the authorities if their house had been swept away and they’d been found that way, staggering out from the wreckage topped with buckets.
In the movie Unbroken, depicting the incredible life of Louis Zamperini, there’s a scene where he and two other men from his unit are stranded on a life raft in the middle of the ocean. As they’re floating along with the sharks, figuring their odds of survival are slim, one of his buddies says to Louis, “I’m glad it was you.” If your plane is going down and you’re faced with many lean days in the middle of nowhere, you hope you’re paired with someone decent, level-headed, and strong.
I think of myself as a realist, which is why when it comes to relationships I tend to discard Nicholas Sparks and other sappy fodder. In my experience, real life tends to be more like Louis’ lifeboat or the tornado closet. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in butterflies and a twinkle in the eye. Even, perhaps, in love at first sight. But pheromones and weak knees aren’t going to get you through the storms. And as anyone who’s been married more than a couple of years can tell you, butterflies have a short life span.
I always thought the traditional marriage vows should be more specific. Maybe if they were, fewer people would actually marry for superficial reasons. Instead of:
I, (name), take you (name), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part,
I, (name), take you (name), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, through infertility, miscarriages, and the loss of a child; through late nights worrying about a sick baby or a wayward young adult; through special needs and learning disabilities; through bankruptcy and job loss; through bad investments and mounting debt; through annoying habits, hair loss, and weight gain; through scary diagnoses, surgery, and recovery; through loss of grandparents, parents, and others; through bad decisions and character flaws; through dementia and cancer, stubbornness and selfishness. I pledge to love and cherish you, to be faithful to you no matter what, and to hold you up when you’re weak, scared, or too tired to go on. Forever and ever, Amen.
In the movies, they say, “You’re not the person I thought you were.” They say, “You’ve become someone else.” They say, “I’ve fallen out of love with you.” Unless they’re stuck in the ridiculous body of a 100-year-old sparkly vampire, of course the person you marry will change. Don’t you hope they will? If you’re not different at 50 than you were at 20, then you are stagnating. If life, loss, and parenthood doesn’t change you, then you’re more of a statue than a human being. Newsflash: real marriage is not like the movies. It doesn’t wrap up after an intense star-gazing courtship and end happily at the altar while the credits roll. That’s just the start. You’re fresh off the assembly line and have just hit the road. Once the warranty runs out, you can expect the new smell to wear thin and a couple of dings to appear on the bumpers. That doesn’t mean it’s all a big mistake or you’ve missed your destiny. It may just mean that you’re doing it right.
Gold, like that ring on your left hand, is a soft metal. It bends. It is easily hammered, forged, changed.
Long-lived, married love is not the butterflies, although they’re there in the distance. It’s often brilliant and easy, comfortable and true. It’s a choice you make every day to stay. To be faithful, to make an effort, to be available, to help each other grow. It’s something you cobble together, every day, day after day, by choice and sometimes by sheer force of will as you grit your teeth and bear down. And if you do that, over and over, day after day, then sometimes, in moments that may startle you, the butterflies revisit. They alight when you see your husband patiently helping with math homework or when he fills the car up with gas, when your wife rocks and sings to the baby, when you see him decked out in a great suit, or when she’s curled up asleep on the pillows. If all you’re after is a constant stream of giggles and stolen kisses, then you’re a string of affairs waiting to happen.
You can’t always predict the way a person will react to disappointment or tragedy. But watch the way they handle a traffic jam, plans that changed at the last minute, lost keys, or a phone call to Comcast. Witness their response to someone else’s sadness or bad news. Is there compassion? Patience? Empathy? Even-temperedness? If necessary, would you want to be in a lifeboat with them? If you heard the weatherman say “Hunker down, folks and find your safe place,” would it be with them?
Sometimes when we’re dating we may be so busy star-gazing and dreaming about the warm, sandy beach honeymoon and the picnics with flowers and wine, that we forget about the likelihood of hurricanes. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can be blindsided by a tsunami that devastates everything in its path and leaves us clinging to a tree for dear life. Sadly, some storms, with some people, just cannot be survived.
After being married only a few years, I once said to a group of women that your husband (spouse) kind of has to love you, they’re like family. A woman I’d just met corrected me sharply. “Oh, no, they don’t,” she said. “You were born into your family. Your spouse has a choice to make.” Her husband had recently left her. Take away lesson: for better or for worse, but never, never for granted.
At the end of our wedding ceremony, my husband and I walked down the aisle to “When I’m 64” by the Beatles. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64? We have quite a few more years before we hit that mark, but so far I’ve always been able to look over and say, “I’m glad it’s you” when the high winds have started to howl. Sometimes we may look silly stumbling along with buckets on our heads, but I’m grateful that we are each other’s safe place.