By the time my parents marked their 20th wedding anniversary in 1984, they had weathered tornadoes, hurricanes, and several major moves. By the time I marked mine, my marriage was dead.
There’s no formula for success, no matter what anyone might tell you. No partner is perfect. No one can say who will tolerate pressure, and no one can predict what hurdles will end up falling your way. When nothing more can be done, when change is the only possible solution, the mere desire to honor a vow has to yield.
In 1987 I was young, far too young, to link my fortunes to those of another person. This decision would affect the remaining arc of my life. We met at 18 and married the week after graduating college. Together, we created three wonderful children. What broke us was youth, incompatibility, and emotional strain.
My parents experienced their own share of life’s trials. In the last days of 1984, that twentieth year, Dad suffered a heart attack at age 42. In his mid-40s, he underwent a coronary bypass. Together, Mom and Dad lost parents, siblings, and others beloved to them. They moved twice more, lost jobs, sought courtroom justice in vain. Throughout everything their love glued them together.
By no means do I candy-coat my parents’ long marriage. They wouldn’t be human if they hadn’t flaws, moments of weakness, and dark periods where they’ve come close to throwing in the towel. But Mom and Dad have an important something, a safety net if you will, that keeps them from falling into the abyss. That something, that special je ne sais quoi . . . well, quite possibly my marriage never actually had it. So, how does one identify that intangible element?
Anyone who’s lived a few decades begins to notice the way successful couples interact. They share secret glances, they transmit messages through a touch on the arm. They spar but repent, and make up when they can. Their eyes crinkle at fond memories, and they tolerate the same teasing they’ve endured many times. Though they’ll argue the details, they never tire of recounting the exploits of their youth.
And my parents were young—oh so young!—when they first got together. In fact, 55 years ago today, they went out on their first date. She was 16, he was 17. They had met some months earlier, when Mom was out with another guy, a friend of my dad’s. The guy said, “Do you mind if we stop and see my pal, who’s in the hospital in traction?” Mom shrugged and found herself sitting at the end of Dad’s bed, bored and impatient to get on with her date. A car had struck his motorcycle and crushed both his legs. He spent six months in hospital and the rest of that winter hobbling through high school on crutches. The first day he was crutch free, Dad asked for the car keys and called up that girl who’d sat on the end of his bed.
Mom wasn’t sure that she remembered this Kirk fellow, but he had a car, so that was cool. Her parents made her take a cousin along; the cousin chose a different show while Mom and Dad saw a Vincent Price horror flick called The Tingler. Thus began their on again/off again courtship that solidified in marriage in 1964. They weren’t always perfect, but I think my parents were perfect for each other. They overcame extreme youth and the vagaries of life. Love kept them together, even when the mortar joints grew dangerously thin.
After twenty years, my marriage’s joints thinned, too; alas, mine had corrupted past the point of repair. I may never know what caused our masonry to shatter. All I can say is the pressures and hurdles had grown too much to bear. Ultimately, I had no choice but to change my trajectory. It pained me that I could not match the longevity of my parents. I do think I tried in every possible way to sustain it. In retrospect, I did not fail; I merely failed to succeed at that particular endeavor. Perhaps marriage is not meant to be the paramount endeavor of my life. Over time, I have come to accept this.
And so I salute my parents on the 55th anniversary of their first date. May they never lose that key element of which Shakespeare wrote:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
To read more of Colleen’s letters, click here!