“Ch-ch-changes/ Pretty soon now you’re gonna get a little older.”
-- David Bowie
Every year our parish holds a renewal of marriage vows, followed by a dance. A single friend once remarked that it wasn’t nice to hold such an exclusionary event. What about the widowed, the divorced, the celibate, the lonely? I understood her point, but I also thought about the way the eyes of all those husbands and wives were shining at Mass, and the way they danced so closely afterward to the love songs. A night like that for the parish may be exclusionary, but a night like that for a marriage is necessary.
We married folk get caught up in the small annoyances, the schedules, the daily compromises, the details of leaky faucets, bad report cards, incontinent dogs, unexpected expenses. In the face of routine and familiarity, we must find ways to surprise and delight each other. Every now and then, my husband calls me during the day, his office to my office, to say he loves me. On some days, that call makes all the difference.
In the course of a marriage, we change and change again. We lose our wedding-day smoothness. The straight path from the magical honeymoon becomes bumpy or obscured. My shiny golden wedding band has scratches and dings from the hazards of daily wear. My face has creases and sharp angles, smile lines that remain after the smile fades, years of bliss and tragedy etched therein. My aging bones make ominous cracking sounds. It’s hard to remember being that buoyant girl in my wedding photos, the girl at whom one day my grandchildren will point and ask, “Who’s that?”
Once upon a time, my bridegroom and I dreamed of a life in the theater. We thought children were a long way down the road. We made love every day, sometimes more than once. We saw new movies and read groundbreaking books and attended art exhibits. We smoked cigarettes and shared bottles of wine and did not concern ourselves with our health or our weight or our mortality. We worked pizza jobs and janitor jobs and somehow made ends meet with our collective minimum wages, with never a nickel left over. We didn’t think a lot about God. We didn’t think we would ever be as old as our parents were then.
We have changed so much. We have become who we are.
We are middle-aged parents who worry, who exercise, who don’t smoke or drink, who own a house, who make a good living, who have no idea of what is cool, who pray a lot, who age, who fall into bed tired more often than not. We are older, wiser, more embattled, more careful.
And I wouldn’t have us any other way, because we are also closer to each other than I would have ever thought possible.
Change is inevitable. Change is our friend. Change pulls us apart. Change is what is left in the back pocket of life. All these statements are sometimes true. Life can change in a heartbeat, in a glance, in the time it takes for a car to skid or a virus to multiply. Other changes are so gradual as to be imperceptible. As the French say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Maybe the French are referring to cycles, to the way history tends to repeat itself, the way we make the same mistakes from which we thought we had learned our lessons, the way our daughters wear bellbottoms and Dr. Scholl’s sandals.
The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself.
Our marital roles have undergone changes as well. We who began as bride and groom became ardent lovers and, in time, the parents of a young family. We have been coaches, chauffeurs, nurses, tutors, fans, driving instructors, disciplinarians, bankers, ready ears. We are now parents at college orientation, seasoned lovers, kindred spirits, intimate friends. I remember watching my husband sleep with our firstborn baby snuggled on his chest, and marveling. He changed diapers. He took over the clipping of tiny crescent fingernails, of which I had a pathological fear. He was the storyteller, the pied piper, the monster in the closet. As he changed into a father, I fell in love with him all over again. I imagine that someday I’ll be falling in love, once again, with somebody’s grandfather.
A lasting marriage needs to be able to change course, to flow freely, to go with an unforeseen bend in life’s river, to take on the rapids and float in the calm shallows. In other words: we need to have faith. When this does not happen smoothly, we are in conflict. When this is not an organic process, our marriage falters and chugs into hurtful waters. When we are unbending, unyielding, we break. The ability to change is often what keeps us from bogging down, as is the ability to surprise.
That is why I tell my single friend that we need to indulge in those cherished evenings of marriage-vow renewal at our parish. We need to rediscover the deep and sometimes buried roots of our attraction. We need to celebrate romantic love. It is, after all, our calling. We get to see that our marriage has turned out to be a pretty good partnership so far: not without change, not without concession, not without strife, not without countless blessings. If a marriage reflects Christ’s relationship with his church, therein lies a tale.