Five years ago, we stood up in front of a nearly empty church and said our vows. We wrote our own, of course, because we are writers. I wrote mine the night before, and I’ve forgotten them all. I only remember one line: “I will love you with the fierce and tender love of God.” Sometimes I have. Mostly I haven’t. I am learning. The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing five years ago as I stood up there with you and said the promises we had written.
Back at the beginning, before we wrote vows, we used to write letters. Here is one: a letter for our fifth anniversary, even though it’s two days late and posted for the Whole Wide Internet to see.
I knew that it would be difficult. No one was shy about that—not the older couples, not the married friends, not the pastor who did the counseling or the books we read. But how was it difficult? Like grit-your-teeth-every-minute hard? Or minor-inconvenience hard? I looked at seemingly happy couples that split up without any warning. How could we know if we were doing it right?
I was a perfectionist, always the kid that needed to get a 100 on her math tests. The hardest thing for me was the question, Are we doing it right? I looked at other couples at parties, at church, at weddings. I looked at Facebook photos of the Most Beautiful Hipster Couples in the World—guys in skinny jeans and girls in Zooey Deschanel dresses, posing for pictures in front of abandoned warehouses. I looked at couples backpacking the Canadian Rockies, at couples that gracefully slow-danced at weddings, at couples who prayed every morning and every evening, at couples who cooked elaborate meals together. These couples who appeared so gloriously happy, so doing-it-right. I looked at us, and I wished we were them.
One night in Year One, panicked and confused, I walked into a Barnes and Noble and read a Christian marriage book, leaning against the wall of the religion section. “What you do in your first year of marriage determines how your marriage will go,” the authors, a smiling blonde couple, said. “Be sure to develop good habits now!”
I went home, even more panicked and confused. And we didn’t study the Bible for an hour or have sex on the kitchen countertops or write each other love notes to put in each other’s lunchbox or anything that these books say are Absolutely Essential for Your Marriage. And I wondered, Are we doing it right?
Sometime in Year Three, we found ourselves sitting on the therapist’s couch, learning how to love each other, learning how to lean toward each other instead of away. I was in graduate school, growing more alive by the day, and you were in a dead-end job you hated. We asked questions, if unspoken ones: Why are you always seeking out someone more fun, trying to make me be someone I’m not? Why can’t you try harder, see the possibilities that are in front of you? Why are you always pulling away?
“You are doing a good thing,” she told us. “This is normal.” She told us that it is not easy to be married through depression, through the loss of a father, through job problems, through graduate school. And I cried, because I needed to hear that–that our little fledgling marriage, no older than a toddler, was not beyond repair. That this is hard work and that we would be fine.
She gave us “homework,” and though we giggled through it, we did it anyway. Seven-second hugs, date night, hello and goodbye kisses, “non-logistical talking.” We taught each other how to love better, just as we had taught each other how to keep the house clean enough, and how to make love, and how to not show up too early for parties or too late for church.
Somehow, as we kissed and talked, as we hugged long enough for our minds and bodies to register it, I stopped looking at everyone else. I stopped worrying about whether we were doing it right. I started looking at the life that we had built together.
I looked at autumn Saturdays snuggled together on the couch or at the bar at the Texas Roadhouse watching SEC football. At the lilies and Gerbera daisies you bought me for every holiday and birthday, because you paid attention when I told you that flowers don’t count as a gift, just an expensive card. At us dancing like deranged idiots in everyone’s formal wedding photos. At the eccentric board games we played in Starbucks, in Paneras, in our living room. At the games of fetch with the world’s strangest cat, at the little dance we developed to the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song (oh, yes), at the laughably pointless theological arguments, at the hospitality we tried to give and the churches we’ve been a part of. At our hands clasped together as we walk down the street, just as we did five years ago. I saw us as others would see us, and I delighted in it.
I started looking at you, you who say sometimes that you wish you weren’t so selfish, that you did things for other people. And, honestly, I always want to laugh at that ridiculous statement. I want to kiss that lie right off your lips. Because you have taught me love, dear. You are a master of show-don’t-tell, just like they taught us in the writing classes and the literature seminars we took.
You come into the room when all I can think is no job no job no job and say that you want to take me to the beach. You, hater of sand, hater of oceans.
When a friend’s brother dies, and I want to go to the funeral, I come to you and say that we can’t afford the plane ticket. Without hesitating you say, “Go. Some things are more important than money.” I kissed you then for having your priorities so straight, for speaking so true.
You come with me from rural church to rural church when I decide that I’m called to be a minister. Make conversation with a hundred grandmas and grandpas you don’t know. I overhear you say to your small group, “When I heard her speak, I just knew. She needed to be preaching.”
You edit my cover letters, talk me down from the ledge, make trips to the store to get those honey mustard and onion pretzels even though they smell disgusting, clean out the cat litter. You don’t write letters anymore, but maybe you don’t need to.
Sometime before now, before Year Five, I learned: There are wrongs, yes, in marriage. There are thoughtless words, selfishness, accusations. But there is no “right.” There is only love and the absence of it.
This is our life, none other’s. And maybe trying to have someone else’s life, someone else’s love will steal the life from ours. Maybe everybody that comes before, all those couples who walk beside are just fellow travelers, fellow explorers. But we are the ones that know the curve of the hills, the current of the rivers. This is our country, and we are the ones who journey through.
On our anniversary, on the first day of Year Five, we dressed up and went out for a fancy dinner we couldn’t afford. We sat in the dim restaurant surrounded by the Most Beautiful Hipsters in the World and the lights made out of old birdcages and appetizers served in Mason jars. It is our anniversary, I told the waitress, and she returned with two glasses of champagne.
“On the house,” she told us. “Five years. That deserves celebrating.”
She left us alone to toast, and we just looked at each other, as we have so many times over the years. We’re unsure of the right words, and maybe we know it doesn’t really matter. Maybe our life is the toast, our life is the vow, our life is the letter. “To five years,” we said.
To five years, my love. And to all the ones to come. I want to spend them with you.