“Yet another year,” the unhappy wife thinks to herself, “and we’re still struggling with this.”
Or perhaps this dismal thought isn’t kept inside and is snarled at the spouse as yet another argument unfolds.
Anniversaries can be a temptation to give up on hope altogether: If this many years haven’t made x and y and z better, what chance is there that another will? No chance at all, it appears. The past stretches backward, back to some point earlier on in the marriage, when things first started getting difficult. It slithers up to the anniversary day, a long road marked by the same recurring ruts. It is overshadowed only by the much longer road stretching forward, pockmarked by the same ruts promising to recur.
And yet, for couples who forge ahead, slopping through the ruts, it is likely that they will arrive to some anniversary of the future and find they’ve been graced with perspective.
Maybe they’ll have soaked up some of the wisdom that even the New York Times has figured out, in claiming that, in point of fact, we do indeed “marry the wrong person.” And that’s as it should be. As it has to be:
“Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘not overly wrong’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”
Widowhood as the Continuation of Marriage
Marriage is hard work, no doubt about it. Couples might even pass through seasons of hate. And it takes some time and a lot of effort before it’s possible to make disappointment in each other become more forgiving.
Life has to give some perspective.
I remember when I had clearly discerned a vocation to married life, I was struck one day by a short line from Vatican II. It describes widowhood as a “continuation of the marriage vocation” (Gaudium et spes, 48).
My dad had died just a few years before I stumbled across that line, so as I contemplated a vocation to married life, it wasn’t all sparkly diamonds and white lace. Widowhood had a concrete face for me, as I was witnessing my mom coping with her return to solitude, combined with aging, the prognosis of a debilitating disease, and above all, so many dashed expectations. The last of her large brood had just headed off to college, and only weeks later, her husband of so many decades had been taken from her by a sudden heart attack. She expected that they would grow old together, that he would care for her as Parkinson’s slowly took her away…but it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead, it’s my husband and I caring for her as Parkinson’s slowly takes her away. She is practically non-verbal now, and often deeply affected by dementia. But some weeks ago, both her voice and her cognition were amply at hand, and we had the chance for a mother-daughter chat. Aware, as I am, that one of these chats will be our last, I coaxed her to talk to me about Dad, about motherhood, about life.
I remembered this conversation recently as Pope Francis brought up a point he seems to feel strongly about, judging from the fact that he’s repeated it a few times.
“Youth need to hear the elderly, and the elderly need to hear youth…The elderly are waiting for a young person to go to them and get them to speak, get them to dream. And you young people need to receive those dreams from these men and women…This dialogue is a promise for your future; this dialogue is going to help you keep on going.”
My conversation with my elderly mother gave me just that sense of renewal, that impression that I could keep on going, even when it seemed tough.
“Were you and Dad well-suited?” I asked her that night. And she responded right away, “Oh pretty well.”
Then she paused.
“I suppose we could have been better. But we were pretty well-suited.”
The answer, and her confidence in it, left me in silence.
I was expecting her to say no. Because from my perspective as a daughter, I would not have described my parents as well-suited. I have many childhood memories of them arguing, sometimes with a passion that would make me afraid, sometimes with a pettiness that would make me, even as a child, exasperated. When they were in the thick of the marital vocation, they both felt their marriage was difficult. Dad confided to me once that it started coming apart very soon after they had wed. And I once found a journal-agenda of my mom’s, and on the line of her anniversary date, she had penned, “Worst day of my life.”
Yet, now that he’s been in the grave for almost 20 years and she is ever closer to her own end, “We were pretty well-suited,” she assured me.
It’s perspective. The perspective of age, of wisdom, of widowhood, of friendliness with death.
It’s a perspective to remember on an anniversary day, when the past and the future can join forces to smother hope.
Those struggling in their marriage might feel under a pall, impossibly weighed down by the decision to marry the “wrong” person. But when the kids have moved on, and one of them is gone, and death promises to call soon, when that solitary continuation of the marriage vocation is all that’s left of the sacrament, they might well look back at it all and say, “I suppose we could have been better. But we were pretty well-suited.”
And that’s the perspective we need…to help us keep on going.