When my dad died on Labor Day 2012, he and my mom had just celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary a few weeks prior. To contemplate spending so long with one other person, faithful to one other person, committed to one other person, caring for and about one other person is beyond "possible" for many, beyond "likely" for most. Their 56+ years together weren't perfect but perfection is not the nature of life. Neither is perfection the nature of happiness with another person. Happiness is a fulfillment born of wanting for another more than wanting for self. Differences and challenges provide a tension that encourages growth, both separately, as individuals, and together, as an unique entity.
56 years is a rare achievement. Yet my (paternal) grandparents were married for 73 years before my grandfather preceded my grandmother in death by only days. Both were well into their 90s. I have no doubt that Mom and Dad would have challenged that longevity absent the unpredictable influence of fate; in this case, cancer. Dad and Mom didn't both survive that challenge together. But the love they share did.
So should I be surprised that as I wake today, I rise to celebrate my own 30-year commitment with one whom I have described as "the best person I've ever known"? When I consider our milestone, the years fly by like nanoseconds, punctuated by the bright flashes of opportunities, some victories, some insurmountable challenges that helped us to grow...together. Like every other couple, we have faced darkness and difficulty along with light and comfort. Unlike many, we withstood the ravages and grew closer to what has ultimately become "us". At every juncture, there were choices to be made. We did the best we could. We survived. We persevered. We thrived both because of and in spite of whatever circumstance had in store for us. In typical fashion for us, we spend today's milestone in separate hemispheres but we are far from separated.
Contrary to anything I would have ever believed possible or likely, we nurtured a young life in our home. What a responsibility. What a privilege. What a blessing. If ever you want to challenge your committed relationship, bring the responsibility of caring for another life into the mix. Parenting is the ultimate test and most important job that anyone will ever face in my estimation. If anything, maybe we tried too hard. I believe there was an expectation that we would fail. Looking back now, I think we did just fine.
"Thirty years" means that we likely have more days together behind us than we do ahead of us. That is a sobering realization. Advancing in life with the one you love is like sharing a bottle of fine wine. The exuberance and anticipation at the pop of the cork are replaced with savoring and appreciation as the bottom of the bottle becomes a clear inevitability.
Love. (Please take note that this lover of adjectives has allowed that simple, 4-letter noun to stand on its own merit, just as it should). Love, in all its guises, is humanity's prime directive. As pivotal as it is, love alone is not enough to sustain a successful relationship over time. One element is even more integral to success and it is a gift that the one selflessly bestows upon the other. If love is the cosmic force that draws two souls together, then respect is the universal superglue that bonds them.
Respect is the force that allows us to accept and even to defend the differences between ourselves and those we love. It is the recognition that two entities don't have to be (and maybe shouldn't be) clones of one another to form a lasting bond. In the end, our diversity is our greatest strength. It allows each of us to bring to bear our unique powers and make our bond together more impervious. Respect is that most critical of things, that most common of things: a simple choice.
On this special day, I'd like to conjure an indelible image from my childhood memories...
Mom, Dad, David and I often visited Dad's parents at their farm home. We usually went after supper but knew not to arrive too late. My grandparents retired with the Sun and the chickens, as most folks did whose lives were inextricably tethered to the land.
There, in the fleeting remnants of the day, we'd quietly arrive on their familiar front porch. My brother and I would sneak a peek through the lace curtains of the front room window to see what we almost always saw, what we had come to expect to see: Papa and Granna sitting closely together in their chairs, side-by-side in front of the dying embers in the fireplace, sometimes revisiting the events of the day, sometimes just basking in the glow of one another's company and the waning light and warmth of the fire.
An idyll of contentment.
From an early age, I knew what real happiness would look and feel like. I thought I recognized it on this day, thirty years ago.
I still do.