“What was your favorite decade or your favorite year?” Grace asked, as she, her boyfriend Justin, Gabri, and Karen and I sat at a picnic table last night, near the Willamette River in Portland.
We had met for dinner together prior to an outside gig Justin was playing on trumpet with another good friend Stephanie, on keys, and Sam a bass player.
The five of us had picked up food truck favorites for dinner. Gabri had a gyro lamb sandwich, Grace had picked up smoked trout BLTs for her and Justin, Karen a club sandwich housed in a waffle and I enjoy a mixed meat Greek dinner.
Karen and I that day marked our 40th wedding anniversary and we gathered as part of the celebration. Forty! It seems an impossible number. We showed the kids a picture of us from our wedding day, and they said, “You look like babies!”
Forty years ago. It seems impossible. How could so much time have passed. We remember now and laugh how my best man and Karen’s matron of honor didn’t think our marriage would last. They spoke to us about their concerns the night before. We brushed them aside. We knew what we were doing. But actually, we didn’t. What they didn’t know was this: God had brought us together in order to use all of our foibles and challenges, our brokenness and hurts to make the other more whole and holy. It is wild how God could do that! This process has taken the decades and is ongoing. All in all, we have had a good dance together.
Grace’s question, “What was your favorite decade or your favorite year?” was intriguing. I answered my favorite year was 2016 when I took a three-month sabbatical, a time away which saved our marriage, we both would tell you. We had developed unhealthy relational patterns. Taking a break from one another helped us both. When we reunited in Ireland and then England for three weeks at the end of my time it was time we used to ask: How can we change how we live so we don’t enter those patterns again?
At dinner that night, Karen wasn’t able to name a year or decade, but spoke of eras of time.
Grace then asked, “How many times have you wanted to call it quits?”
That was easy. We both said, “Once. In December, 1984.”
We had then been married three years, were expecting our first daughter, and that winter we hit a deep, dark night in which we honestly asked “Will this work?” We left the house on a walk through the dark streets of Wilmore, KY, snow on the ground and frost in the air. We walked arm in arm, crying the whole way, dressed in our warmest, wool coats, believing we were destined to divorce.
On that walk, we spoke of how hard marriage was. We talked of how we had made vows to one another, promises. We had entered a covenant and made a commitment to one another. We decided perhaps commitment was enough to hold us together. We had left our apartment hopeless but somehow, neither of us can tell you exactly how this happened, by the time we returned, hope walked into our place with us. On that walk we believed love would catch up to us. It has.
The next day, after our conversation with our kids by the river, Karen and I took a drive to Hood River, walked through an orchard, enjoyed some great food and a beautiful day. As we were discussing the Grace’s questions and our favorite times, Karen said: “I think of the seasons of our lives as connected to raising the kids. It’s like we walked through the era of them as children, teens and now are relating to them as adults. Alongside that, there were the pivotal events in our marriage, when each of us grew significantly.” We named some of those pivotal events and both named that walk in Wilmore as one of them.
On my side, I said I think mostly in decades. But the moment I land on a favorite one, like the ’90s when we began such growth through tough areas of recovery, I think of other favorite times in other decades! Like the decade we just finished was also filled with even more growth and change.
As we walked through that beautiful orchard, we talked together about our thoughts, dreams and goals for the next decade of life. “What would we like to see happen? What would we yet like to do in life?” I asked.
It was amazing to dream into the future as we walked in the present beauty of the day and our relationship. Truly, because of the long journey we have walked, we love one another more today than 40 years ago. Even though there have been really tough seasons, even beyond our hard walk that dark night long ago, we now have something deeply sustaining and hope-filled.
I was speaking with a new acquaintance over coffee today and he said, out of the blue, “Marriage is hard work.” I agreed. But, I thought of the years we have had to walk alongside one another and know another truth: it is the most important and transformational work there is. I could never be who I am today without Karen. There is growth I’ve done because of her which has made me better in every way.
I hope you can say that too of your important and closest relationships.