They met when they were only 17. Two high school kids. One an only child who wanted more than anything to have a family beyond her threesome. The other, the oldest child of a family of five, looking to blaze his own path. They fell in love the only way they knew how at such a young age and were married in 1966 at the age of 19.
Both of my parents were in college at the time but once they were married they could only afford for one to continue. My father remained in school while my mother worked to put him through college. It’s funny now, even as I write this, realizing that so much of my mom’s pain was due to lost dreams or expectations of what her life should be like. She often told the story of being an only child, but her words were always laced with hurt and rejection. She would recount the numerous moves that her parents made and the new schools that she had to adjust to and the new friends she would have to make, and you could visibly see the anger rising up in her. And so once again she would sacrifice her college education with a tinge of resentment and another seed of animosity that would sprout and bloom and take deep root in her life. Roots that started as a young child and continued to grow.
And my dad, a young 19 year old finally living his dream. His home life was difficult growing up and he wanted more than anything to feel that unconditional love of a spouse and have a family of his own. He was fulfilling his dreams of being the first in his family to earn a college degree and also joined the Air Force. His adventures in the Air Force took him out of the boundaries of California for the first time, and after college they would leave both of their families and move from San Diego to Whichita, Kansas. And this is the back drop of a beautiful and devastating and life-giving and life-taking marriage that today is going on 50 years and is literally held together by the massive scar tissue from years of pain and wounds, and the healing that is found in forgiveness.
My parents twenties brought new adventures, namely the birth of three children, my brother Erik, my sister Jennifer and I. My brother and I were both born in Whichita, Kansas and my sister was born when we moved back to California for my father to pursue a career in social work. I believe these were the golden years for my parents. They both poured themselves into being the best parents they could be and they both had a family all their own. My father worked as a social worker at a home for abused children and continued his education receiving his Masters Degree. My mom stayed home with us and ran the household. I remember my younger years as quite carefree. Family Dinners around the table, bickering with my siblings, long summer nights playing outside, trips to visit my family in San Diego, camping in Yosemite. Life was good!
And life continued on, but as we got older, things slowly started to unravel. Those roots of resentment could not be contained. You know when you see those huge old trees that have such a large root system that the roots surround the base of the tree and push through the soil? And if it is near concrete the roots are so strong that the concrete begins to crack and buckle. And these roots begin to invade anything in its way. And so this is how life was in our home. Our house, our family dynamics, and communication was beginning to buckle under the pressure of resentment, and anger and unmet expectations.
In my teen years I also observed something for the first time, my parents marriage was not perfect. Shocker! But it was more than not perfect, it was broken.
And I will fast forward through the years packed with graduations from high school, college degrees, marriages, divorces, babies, violence, loss, pain, silence, depression, suicide. Light and dark, heart-warming and heart-breaking, beautiful and devastating. And my parents broken marriage was being shattered in a million pieces and there seemed to be no hope. How can you ever put a million pieces back together?
After over 40 years of marriage, and a life-time of hurt and anger, my parents separated. Their hearts had completely hardened toward one another and they could no longer stand to even be in the same house. My father moved to Indiana to live near us and my mother stayed in California. During this time my mother was also starting to show signs of memory loss. It started out with small stuff but over the next few years it would become apparent that something more was going on.
And so they lived apart but promised to never divorce. Their marriage was no longer about love, but rather it was about the commitment they had made to one another. It was about the covenant that they made through good and bad, sickness and health. And for years they lived in an abstract state of being married but hating one another. Being committed but not speaking. Honoring the vow to stay together but unable to honor the vow of love and respect. I watched my dad wrestle with his anger and resentment towards my mom and his unconditional love that he still had for her.
The phone calls from friends and family became more frequent. It was clear that my mother had dementia and that the disease was progressing to the point that she could no longer live alone. My father decided that he would move back to California and rent an apartment near my mother so he could keep an eye on her. While she was having a hard time remembering much of anything, she still remembered her disdain for my father.
They lived this way for a while. My father would mow her lawn or bring her dinner. Their anger would burst or they wouldn’t speak. He would find ways to check on her and she would complain. And as she deteriorated he kept showing up. And as he kept showing up those little shards of glass that had broken into a million pieces began to slowly be put back together. And as my dad said, “As the dementia progressed it poked tiny holes in her tough angry exterior and the light started to pour in and break down her walls and let the “real her” shine through.”
Then came the phone call I would never have believed. My joy-filled father announced that he and mom were back together. And they were happy. They laughed at one another’s jokes, they held hands, they sat on the patio and watched the sunset, they cuddled in bed, they traveled, they talked and shared dreams and fears. And they renewed their vows and found love. They chopped at the tree roots, not by going backward to point fingers or rehash the past, for my moms past was slowly disappearing and all she had was her future. They chopped up the roots by moving forward in forgiveness and joy and unconditional love. They had both found what their 19 year old selves had dreamed of. My mother had a family, a husband who was stable and would care for her and love her in places she was hardest to love. And she could no longer remember the resentment and pain and so each day she woke to a man who cared for her and loved her no matter what she had done. And my father, he found the love and marriage he was searching for. He now had a wife that adored him, that respected him, that depended on him. He had a wife he could laugh with and hold hands with and enjoy life with. And for a few years they lived this dream together and the darkness was overtaken by the light and prayers had been answered because indeed a divine miracle had taken place, a million shards of glass had been put together in a new way to create something beautiful.
Tomorrow my father does the hard work of letting go of my mom and transitioning to a new phase in life. The past year has been hard. Dementia has won and my mother no longer knows who any of us are. She is like a toddler, wearing diapers, throwing temper tantrums, begging to see her mommy and daddy. My father has honored each and every vow as he feeds her and bathes her and holds her, and yes, genuinely loves her. Tomorrow will be filled with so much emotion as he moves her to a memory care home where she will live out the rest of her life. Caring for her has become impossible and he knows that letting her go is what is best for her.
I’m so thankful for their last years together. I’m so thankful that at age 19 they took vows to one another that actually meant something. While I can’t say I’m thankful for all the pain quite yet, I am thankful for the healing, and I’m thankful that scar tissue is strong and tough and holds the wounds closed and the body intact. I’m thankful for the joy I was able to finally see in my parents marriage. I’m thankful that their dreams were finally realized in one another. I’m thankful that while most of their marriage romantic love had nothing to do with it, in the end it was that forgiving, grace-filled, sin-covering, keeps no record of wrongs, sacrificial, covenant, unconditional love that brought them back together. And I’m thankful for the example and legacy of my parents marriage. It was hard and brutal and filled with contempt, but it was steadfast and enduring and filled with unconditional love. And it reminds me in my own life and marriage that there will be pain and brokeness. That I will hurt my husband and he will hurt me. That there will be dark times and times that we don’t feel that romantic love. And in those hard times we can go back to our covenant with one another and remember that our love is steadfast and grace filled and unconditional. And in the darkest times I will always point to the miracle that God orchestrated in my parents marriage when He restored and beautifully put back together a million little pieces.