Living and loving in a totally committed relationship is a rare commodity in this era ruled largely by a throw-away mentality. To see two people who sustain each other in a marriage through many years of good and bad is fairly significant in itself, but to see two people who actually grow in kindness and love is awesome.
A long time ago when I needed a refuge from a turbulent adolescence, my girlfriend, Jeanette, asked if I would like to live with her family for a while. I always loved going to her house. It was so alive with laughter and had a warmth less connected to the ever-active oven than to something going on between her mom and dad. That something overflowed to the whole family.
To be a part of that was an incredible opportunity.
Mam and Sir, who are both gone now, were simple country folk of Scandinavian background and devoted to their family. Sir worked hard to provide food and shelter and Mam worked hard to provide heart. She loved to play, and I can remember dancing in the living room with her and Jeanette while Sir looked on and shook his head. “You girls,” he would say. “What am I going to do with you?”
I can also remember with great clarity how kind everyone was to each other in that family, doing things without being asked and without keeping score. There was a real generosity of spirit that made it okay if dinner was late on my day to cook because I spent the day at the horse barn. It was also okay for Jeanette to skip dishes if she had a big date. And if Mam came home from work tired, she knew someone would tell her to put her feet up and rest a while. Someone else would always pick up the slack in the kitchen.
After I married and started my own family, I often pulled from those memories to form a blueprint for relationship. The Sunday afternoon ‘naps’ that weren’t really naps at all. The complete awareness of each other that was reflected in a glance, a touch, a smile. The devotion that never wavered in the face of human weakness. And most of all, the pure joy of being together. It was so tangible I often thought I could reach out and touch it.
Over the years I stayed connected to this family, and we visited as often as possible even though we were separated by many miles and several states. During one visit I picked up on a subtle change in Mam’s child-like behavior. It wasn’t like she was playing anymore. I also noticed that she was asking me the same questions over and over again.
Afraid, yet needing to know, I looked at Sir.
That horrible reality of Alzheimer’s hit me like a physical blow, yet I couldn’t help but find some sweetness in the bitter moment. The response from the heart of this tough old farmer was beauty to behold. It was particularly poignant to see him reach out with a gnarled hand to let her know with a gentle touch that it was okay that she forgot again. It was a gesture so intimate and so filled with love I was almost embarrassed to have seen it.
Some years later, when Mam had progressed into a totally alien world and Sir was then facing his imminent death from cancer, I asked him to tell me the secret of their long and happy marriage. How did they stick together through so much? I didn’t need the information for myself. I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear it in his own words for an article I was writing about fidelity in marriage.
He pondered a bit, as all great farmer/philosophers do, then he shrugged. “It’s not so special,” he said. “No magic. No tricks. I guess it’s like when you get in a rowboat and set out across the lake. If you want to get to the other side, you both better be pulling on the oars.”