Twenty-five years ago yesterday, I married my wife, Amy. When we were dating, we did a lot of envisioning. The feeling of romance is very much a feeling, among other things, for the future. We could envision the near future—the wedding, the moving in together, the search for a life together, for financial means to support ourselves, and the prospect of bringing children into the world. And then we projected ourselves quickly into the distant future. We sometimes talked about getting old together, hoping that we would still be close and affectionate even as an elderly couple. We are not there yet, of course, but if we are lucky close to at least halfway.
There is a lot I wish I could go back and tell my young self. As the youngest of three boys, I was never around any babies growing up. I envisioned the joy of parenting young toddlers, but I didn’t know how much sorrow the earliest stages of parenting can also cause, not through any fault of theirs, of course, but it was shocking to me just how many tears, how irregular the sleep, and how little preparation we humans face coming into this world. We are utterly helpless and dependent, and always experiencing things for the first time, always trying to assimilate and understand what is happening to our bodies and to the world. So I wish I could go back and tell myself as a young father to take a deep breath and to assist my young children with more patience and compassion. And to listen more carefully to Amy, and try to understand better just how transforming it was for her to bear children, to nurse them, and to care for them day in and day out. I was home a lot and did a lot of the work at that early stage of parenting, but I was never comfortable with myself. I felt like I might make a mess of things, and sometimes I did. Amy hoped for more from me, but she never gave up on me either. I so desperately wanted to be a great father for her sake. I still do. She was so good at it, but I could see how hard it was, and I worried that I would never match her goodness. I wish I could tell myself to be more content with my best efforts. To laugh more often at myself. And be content just watching her effectiveness. It certainly wasn’t a competition. I just didn’t want to be the weak link.
It was always better when we remembered to laugh. I wish I had taken note more often of the silly things that happened, things the children said and did, the funny mistakes we made. I wish I could have trusted more in what we were becoming and what the children were becoming too. They never stayed in any stage of development for very long, and now those stages are all gone. They are only memories and faded ones at that. Hold on to each day, I want to say to my younger self. There is plenty of time for change.
But part of me recognizes there is no point in being told this. In fact, many older parents did tell me this. But maybe I simply had to grow through it, maybe inner growth and change in perspective are the only way to peace. In all of our thinking about the future, it’s as if we bypassed middle age. I had no idea getting to my 40s and beyond would be so much fun. I wish someone had told me sooner that these are the golden years of life. I would rather be 49 than 24. I like myself better. I am more comfortable in my skin and with life generally. My children are my best friends. I am far more in love with the world than I ever was. I cry more easily at the sight of beautiful landscapes, beautiful art, beautiful music, and I love Amy more deeply, more firmly and confidently than I ever did. I am not a frantic lover, afraid of losing her, always trying to win her. I can feel the confidence of familiarity, the deep pleasure of shared memories, and even though we have aged and changed some, I feel peace in getting older with her. Rilke said: “Once it is recognized that even among the closest people there remain infinite distances, a wonderful coexistence can develop once they succeed in loving the vastness between them that affords them the possibility of seeing each other in their full gestalt before a vast sky!” Learning to see Amy this way made me realize that I finally understood her independence. I had finally stopped trying to possess her. I am only sorry that it took me so long. I never tire of looking at her. I like the touch of gray hair that is emerging beneath her bangs and the gentle wrinkles that show when she smiles. I like going to church with her, sitting on the pew week after week, singing next to her, knowing that what we are trying to do, we are trying to do together.
I love seeing her parent our now older children. I love watching her form friendships with her children as they reach adulthood. I think the female bond between mother and daughters is a remarkable thing. It does my soul good to be around it. I like that when my son calls on the phone, he asks for mom before he has barely greeted me and around the house he occasionally mistakenly calls me mom but never mistakenly calls Amy anything. I think my kids have figured out just how good they have it.
I don’t know what it is about marriage exactly, but something about it has done a kind of alchemical work in my heart. It is perhaps impossible to imagine what life would have been like without her, but when I look back and consider what 25 years of a partnership has meant, I can remember the growing pains, the mistaken anger, the repentance, the sweet moments of forgiveness, the shared laughter, and the tenderness, and I can see that my life is not a single, separate thing but grafted with hers. That is a frightening realization, of course, because it signals interdependency. It means I could get very hurt if I lost her somehow. But we are bound together in faith, in bonds of trust, and in eternal hope. And even though it is still work, marriage is sweet, annealing, and atoning work, the best and most important work I have ever tried to do.