Growing Old(er) Together
My husband and I celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary last July. As far as commemorating the occasion, to be honest, we fell pretty short.
In fact, we both forgot. And this was hardly an isolated incident.
There have been years when the only time we “remembered” was when we played our phone messages and discovered several “Happy Anniversary” tributes from friends and family. Joyful, wistful ruminations about how much fun was had at our nuptuals and such.
So last summer, when we slipped the occasion yet again, we hung our heads in mock shame and whispered our usual mantra – “Please tell me you didn’t get me anything.”
It’s true, our wedding deserves better homage than we have given it. It was a wonderful occasion in every possible way. I was giddy, with not a flash of cold feet, and my husband called his “I do” loud and strong, like an Amen! at church. Our friend Dave wore his Marine Corps dress uniform in honor of my husband’s late father, a Greatest Generation Marine, eliciting wails and tears from all seven of my sisters-in law. The toasts from our loved ones got longer and funnier as our guests got drunker. There was a hand-stand contest in the women’s bathroom, several sing-a-longs, and a few Irish cry-a-thons. I’m pretty sure the bartender went home with one of our guests.
In the wee hours of the morning, we drove off into the sunrise feeling like we’d just had the best night of our lives. It was a glorious start to a love affair that would grow us up, bring three new humans into the world, and both validate and challenge every notion of what we thought marriage was going to be about.
Yet, while we have been truly remiss at celebrating milestones like anniversaries, we do pay attention.
As a couple, we’ve been together for twenty-one years. Roughly 3 1/2 years apart in age, we’ve grown up with the same movies, TV shows and music, and can reminisce together about having spent the latter part of the 1970s in “Six Million Dollar Man” slow motion, while anthem rock blared from our teen siblings’ radios. We share a love of literature (namely Czech) and can usually come to a compromise on tastes in furniture, vacation spots and pets. We have laughed with each other all through this journey.
And as the indignities of aging have begun to creep up, we laugh at each other, too. The creaky ankles, the gastrointestinal rejection of foods we’ve always enjoyed no problemo, becoming out of touch with popular culture. You know, that weird feeling when you look at the cover of a “People” magazine and have certainly heard of the celebrity who graces the cover, but are not acquainted with their body of work, or lack thereof. Furthermore, you don’t care.
I’m both humbled by and amazed at how successful our union has been so far, especially now that I know how easily things could have gone wrong. Like all of those times we moved and had to make real sacrifices for the other. Career sacrifices. Lifestyle choices. We took big risks in starting a business, chasing dreams, in adding more children into the mix. Things didn’t always work out the way we’d planned.
We’ve had to navigate our youngest child’s on-going medical woes, the fall-out that came from a birth defect that arrived in the form of a rare, cancerous tumor.
And we’ve marched on through this muddy, emotional backwater while friends – people who married with the same joy and hope in their hearts – broke apart over what appeared to be minor grievances. A series of tiny papercuts, instead of big events like extramarital affairs or long habits of knock-down drag-out fights. Although a few of our friends had those, too.
There, but for the grace of God, go we.
From what I’ve seen, the breakup of a marriage can be as simple as two people who have settled into living separate lives with few common interests. A slow drift, rather than a short, sharp shock. No cataclysmic event that punctuated years of anger, dissatisfaction and an erosion of trust. I’ve often wondered when exactly those lovers made the decision to just do their own thing, and if they had even the slightest inkling it would be the kiss of death for their marriage. A first cigarette that would turn into a two pack-a-day habit, and then ultimately, well, you know…
Little things can add up to either build up or chip away at a bond. And each, seemingly small decision can be the difference between growing together or apart.
It is an awesome responsibility, a marriage.
It’s why recently, when my husband developed a light snore that happened to coincide with a nasty streak of insomnia on my part – one that had been plaguing me like a swarm of locusts – I took a hard swallow and held firm. I told him that under no circumstances would we remedy the situation with separate bedrooms and conjugal visits, as he suggested.
“It would only be for a while,” he said. He was getting really tired of my nudging him every time he started to make his raspy noises and I don’t blame him. “And we can make it fun.” Wink-wink.
I thought about it briefly, and then said, “Nuh-uh.”
That night, I sucked it up and ignored his snoring, letting him have a good night’s sleep without the feel of my hand pushing him onto his side.
Because I’ve seen it happen before. Once you move into that other space, it’s too easy to like it there. Having the whole bed to yourself, with no extraneous noises and clanging midnight visits to the bathroom. No cold feet or sharp toenails.
And once that separate space has been established, it’s even easier to start taking other seperate spaces. Especially since that one worked out so well. You might start going out alone more, not watching that tv series your spouse likes so much, but that you find just meh. You might make love less frequently or stop altogether. “Making a date of it” requires planning, and planning is hard with three kids in the house.
I also think that without those little reminders of intimacy – the brush of a hand on your hip while you finish that last chapter of the book you’re obsessed by, a kiss on the shoulder, spooning – it’s more convenient to find comfort in your own cave. Do with less.
You might even think you like it better there.
Until that day when you recognize that you and your beloved have whittled away at what made you a couple, leaving you with little more than common space, common chores, and memories of the way laughter used to echo in the house.
That’s why, after seventeen and a half years of marriage, instead of making up a guest bedroom for victims or perpetrators of excessive snoring, we decided to go mattress shopping instead. We’ve had our mattress for as long as we’ve been wed and figured there have probably been some improvements in the slumber industry – one’s that might even help an insomniac get back to sleep, or lessen those gurgling sounds made by most middle-aged men.
And sure enough – mattresses have come a long way!
My husband and I plopped down on a “Plush” version that felt like heaven and had a price tag more akin to real estate than furniture. But we figured it would make up for all the anniversary presents we haven’t and won’t be giving each other.
And for seventeen more years, it’s worth it.