Thursday, April 10

Promise Your Presence

Dear Jacob,

Today your grandparents are celebrating their 49th year of marriage. It think they were 20 or 21 when they got married, younger than Dad and I were, which means they've been married about two and a half times as long as they ever lived as single people. This is pretty uncommon.  While divorce is currently on the decline -- thankfully -- there are still, for whatever reason, only 6% of marriages in America that make it to their 50th anniversary. So today is remarkable and marvelous.

I used to make them cakes when I was a kid. They would go out to dinner for their anniversary and my brother and I would stay home and while they were gone I'd take out a box mix, follow the directions and bake it.  The first time I ever did that, the cake was chocolate and I didn't have any frosting.  Of course, it never dawned on me that there was a way to actually make frosting. I carefully took the cake out of the pans, stacked the layers and dug through the cabinets for some stencils. When I laid them over the cake and shook powdered sugar designs across the top, it turned out just fine. I think my mom liked the gesture because the next year when they went to eat, she left a box mix out on the counter for me.

One day you'll have to sit down and ask your grandparents what their secret to a long life together is. I've never even asked them myself. I've just been the beneficiary of their commitment.  I have eyes; I can see what keeps them together.  I see that they honor one another, that he lets her lead when she's passionate about a thing and she lets him lead when life chaperones them into his place of interest and skill. Sometimes I'm wrong about their passions though. I grew up thinking Dad was a lawn guy and a tree guy.  But it turns out that Mom is less comfortable with long lawns than Dad is and Dad is also willing to cut down a perfectly good tree if it stops being as useful as it can be. I'm a mix between the two.  I love a fresh cut (short) lawn and I don't think there's ever a reason to cut down a tree.  I speak for the trees.  Leave. Them. Alone.

There's all kinds of great things about their marriage. I could get all technical and say that they brought in their own vulnerabilities that when faced with stressful events endured an adaptive process that contributed to both their marriage quality and stability.  Or I could just tell you what I see. They have fun together and I think that one of their strengths is the fact that they're just the best of friends. They do funny little spontaneous things and now that they're retired they're just so social, like I don't even know why they own a home because they're never there. They think the best of one another which, as you know, is a great indicator of love. And they share a faith that is long and vast and deep and open to that great word called forgiveness.

Grandma and Grandpa keep their arguments to themselves which means they don't let them get out of hand, don't call each other names and don't get heated and insulting. I remember a couple of times at the dinner table while I was growing up that my mom would say something and my dad would respond by saying, "Oh, TRISH!" which meant he was exasperated because I heard him do the same thing to my name plenty of times. It also felt like a bit of a signal between them that they would take that conversation to another time and place because the public argument simply stopped there.

I remember a few times when they'd be seriously discussing something and I'd yell out, "Stop fighting!" and they'd stop and look quizzically at me.  My mom would get a positive lilt in her voice and declare, "We're not fighting, we're just talking." She was right, of course, I just had to learn that a good deal of adult conversations involved sincere tones and tough decision-making. Of course, if you're curious and calculating and you want to see them get tense, have Grandma help Grandpa back up the trailer. That's pretty much your only chance to see any negativity come out between them.  Then again, you try backing up a camping trailer without running it askew the first time and tell me how much positive mojo you can muster.

I think that your grandparents have a good relationship now because they determined to do so way back in their beginning.  If you're going to love someone for over two thirds or even three quarters of your life, you're going to have to make a definite decision to do so and then stick with it. You can't know how you'll respond in every situation, but you have a lifetime to figure it out and you'll find that you just keep adding "Do's and Don'ts" to your relational checklist.  Dad and I have a few of those that we've learned over time.  Dad doesn't volunteer me for things at church and I don't hang out with him while he's fixing the car. Dad doesn't tell sexist jokes and I don't ever suggest that he take out the trash.  The toilet seat is a non-conversation for us.  Ask Dad why.

When Dad and I were engaged, he was rounding up groomsmen to be in our wedding which meant that he was reconnecting with some of the friends he'd grown up with. We each had six attendants standing with us at our wedding, largely in part because Dad wanted someone with him from every era of his life:  his brother Doug, his long-time best friend Phil, his college friend Jon, his high school friend Chris, his childhood friend Greg and his future friend, Uncle Scott. It was a nice gesture. Me, I'd have been fine with two or three friends, but your wedding day is about both of you not just the bride (tuck that away for the future, Son).

He called up Greg one day and found out that Greg was still in touch with Dad's old best friend, Scott. This was an interesting discovery for Dad. He and Scott had been friends for several years. I mean, if you wanted to find out stories about your dad, you'd need to track down Scott and ask him because he'd be equally culpable in all their near-criminal antics.  Yet, at one point Dad and Scott had a falling out and it was kind of a big deal.

Dad was dating a Girl whom I shall very nicely say, wasn't the best match for Dad.  However, Dad loved her and she was pretty though bossy (which I'm allowed to say as long as I say it nicely).  They went to church together and she cooked him steak in the microwave. So I can totally see why he dated her. Needless to say, Dad learned some things about healthy and unhealthy relationships while he was spending time with her. I don't know who broke up with who, but there came a time when they were decidedly no longer together. Pretty soon after that Scott came knocking on Dad's door and broke the first rule of The Brotherhood; he asked to date Dad's now-ex-girlfriend. That move was pretty much anathema in Dad's book of etiquette and it broke their friendship apart.  And then Scott married her quick-like and lascivious, which hurt Dad even more.

Fast forward about two years. Dad and I are engaged, planning a wedding, and he decides it's time to see about closing up this hole that's in his life from losing a best friend.  We bravely set up a triple date with Greg and his wife and Scott and the Girl. And, yes, we were very nice.

During the evening, she asked me my plans for our wedding ceremony and we compared notes on things like flowers and locations and the best places to buy dresses. It was very cordial and dare I say I was having a pleasant time.  But there were moments when she'd stop behaving and something would slip from her mouth, some criticism of her husband, some little comment that let me know the real Girl was trying hard not to let itself out.

I said something to your dad while we were mid way through our mini-golf game; something like "Thanks, Babe, " or "Yes, Sweetheart, " or another affectionate name and she actually guffawed. If she'd have had Coke in her mouth, it would have spewed out her nose. With a loud air of pretension she announced, "Oh my.  Just wait.  In six months, I promise you, you'll be calling him Butthead."  Your dad and I exchanged a glance and in that moment we declared to one another with the fire in our eyes that we would never, under threat of death or dismemberment, ever call one another Butthead.

You know what?  Twenty years later, we never have.

You have to make these choices ahead of time.  Choices to treat one another with respect and reverence. Choices about what kind of humor is appropriate, what hills you're willing to die on, what is forgivable and what is not (hint, everything is because Jesus shows us how). When you find that girl that you want to marry, you decide right then and there that divorce is not an option, that this is the person you're going to grow old with, lose your hearing with, sit next to when you get diagnosed with diabetes, build houses with, settle estates, experience baldness and survive raising adolescents with.  You decide to be glue.

When you vow your love to someone you are promising both present and future love. You're promising that you'll be attentive to and considerate of that person your wife will be busy about becoming during her 50 years by your side. You vow all your vulnerabilities to her care. You adapt because you choose to.  You forgive because it's her deepest need. And you disagree without disengaging.

Your job isn't to change her. It's to love her while she changes. Once you discover her never, ever stop.