Saturday, October 18 was the most terrible day my wife and I have ever known. It started out as a lovely and very normal day. We went to a movie, then watched a baseball game with our son. At about nine, we went home. On the way, Anne suddenly said, “I have so many wonderful memories of my marriage.”
I was rather surprised–not that she had good memories of what has been a wonderful marriage for both of us, but because she said it. She’s a here and now person, not given to retrospection. I said that I was so glad to hear it, and I felt just the same.
We arrived home and she went into the bathroom. As I was entering the house, I heard her say, “Whitley, I need your help.” Her tone sounded as if she wanted me to lift something or perhaps reach something for her on a shelf.
But then I saw that she was buckling at the knees, and in an instant, thirty-five years of pure bliss turned into a night of absolute terror and suffering for both of us. It is now three weeks since that night, and we are still in the dark of the woods, still wondering if the shadows are going to catch us.
As I write this, Anne is suffering from pneumonia and is in and out of consciousness. There is so much that I don’t know about what will come next. Even the doctors cannot tell me what to expect. But when my girl is awake, she’s really awake, and that bright soul is dancing so easily in her pain and the terror of her situation that my heart is humbled to see it.
She cannot speak because of all the tubes, but today when I walked into the ICU, she flashed me the A-Ok sign. When I bent down to her, she raised her hand and gently stroked my head, smiling as best she could from behind her mouthful of breathing machinery.
We had gotten to the time in our marraige when just being together is a quiet delight. As you get older, every moment begins to seem precious. It’s why you see old couples who are deeply in love being so tender to each other. We know that part of the vow, “till death do us part,” has a most precious resonance, that has to do with the eternity of love and the sacredness of life’s journey.
I know that Annie has found peace in herself. I can see it in the beauty of her smile, feel it when her hand squeezes mine, see it in the many ways she expresses her sense of humor. We are both facing an unknown that we desperately want to come into focus: what will happen to her; what will become of our life together?
But those questions cannot be answered now, not by the doctors or by anybody. They must remain unfocused, as Annie’s body either regains its health or does not, and she either comes back fully or in some other state, or it turns out that this is when she travels on.
For a long time, I have felt the most acute agony in the face of these tormenting but unanswerable questions. I don’t mind if I am to be caregiver for my wife. To me, that would be a gift from God, a privilege that would bring a whole new kind of joy to my marriage. But what will Annie have to go through if she comes out of this diminished, and is conscious of it? How will she bear that suffering?
More than anything, I do not want this person who has been the object of my devotion for so long to experience a single moment of suffering, let alone a lifetime of it.
But it may happen that way. It’s not the most likely outcome, and neither is dying, but both are possible and there is absolutely no way to tell what is to come.
Of course, that’s always true in life, but at a time like this, our normal state of unknowing becomes a truly ferocious torture.
One comes to a question: what do I have to fall back on? What strength have I to bring to this? How can I help my wife? What now does it mean “to love, honor and cherish?”
At a time of extraordinary suffering and fear like this, when she needs anything she can get, what I want to give is everything I have to give. And yet, it’s not going to be enough. Nothing I can do can make her well. I can cast a little water on a raging fire, but I cannot put it out. I sing to her a little song that we used to sing, hand in hand, walking together through the streets of New York, when we were young: “The river is wide, I can’t cross over, nor have I the wings to fly; build me a boat that will carry two, and both shall go, my love and I.”
The river did not really seem so wide, then, not like it does now, a great darkness flowing, the stringent torrent of time and chance, its far shore glimmering with things unknown.
I have, from deep childhood, two words I learned at my mother’s knee: trust grace. ‘Whitley,’ I hear her saying, ‘trust grace.’ Not trust grace to make my wife whole again, or trust grace to give us a miracle or trust grace for any hoped-for outcome. Simply trust grace.
And that is, I am finding, enough. We are here in this world to experience time and chance. It’s not up to God to make our lives turn out one way or another. When bad things happen, it’s not God’s fault. It’s not anybody’s fault, in fact. Surprise is essential to the perfection of souls. Without it, we cannot be free enough to choose between sin and sanctity.
It’s the price we pay to be here, and I find that I’m glad for it. I do trust grace. I am surrendered to what may come. And so is my beloved. I can see it in the radiance of the smile that comes from behind the tubes. She knows what has happened to her. She knows her situation and the unsureness of her future. And her response is that smile, and I know why: somebody did build us a boat, and she’s in it. Come what may, she has grace.
I have joined her, finally, after these weeks of deepest anguish. Wherever our boat takes us is where we go. If we must part, then I will carry within me the joy of our marriage, and she will carry it to God. If she stays, then it will be, yet again, a new marriage, made of days so precious that I can barely imagine what they will be like.
How will it be to embrace her, whole again, after this? To walk again in the evening, quietly discussing our day, then to share our bed in the breezy night, to awaken again beside her, and see in her eyes the sparkle of life?
I can only say this, that great suffering is an alchemy, and the secret of the philosopher’s stone is that love is gold.
Our whole life together is, at this moment, compressed within me into a single, shining moment. I recall as if it was just a moment ago, our first meeting. We were both entirely alone in New York, and had filled out the forms of a computer dating service. A primitive one, to be sure.
I was a young advertising executive. We got each other’s names on a list. I phoned one or two of them, but had no luck. I was pretty low on the totem pole when it came to prospects–not a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, just a kid crunching numbers in a windowless office and living in a run down apartment on the dreary end of a dreary street.
She was a receptionist. I recall, as I walked into the office where she worked, I saw this extraordinary woman sitting there. She had huge, glorious eyes. She was stunning to me. And I thought, ‘hell, why can’t that be her?’ I said to her, ‘I’d like to see Miss Mattocks, please.’ She smiled and said, ‘I’m Anne.’
The most amazing sensation went through my body, a shock as if of some wonderful electricity and I thought, ‘oh please like me.’
Until October 18, we had not been more than two weeks apart, and only once for that long, not in thirty-five years. Of course our marriage has had its ups and downs. We’ve fought, but fights are part of good marriages. A marriage is a struggle, basically, to learn to really trust another person even though that person is flawed. The only way you can do it is to give all that you have and not keep score.
That is Annie’s way, and mine, too. She gives all she has to this marriage. I do the same. And now what we have is this great struggle. When she smiles up from her bed at me, I remember my mother’s words: trust grace. Don’t keep score, that’s not man’s place. Just trust grace and, whether things are good are bad in your eyes, you will belong to God’s goodness.
When I was five, mother began reading the bible to us. Not a person to do things by halves, she read every word of it from Genesis to Revelation, for half an hour a night every night until just before my eighth birthday, when she read, “even so, comes Lord Jesus,” the last words of Revelation. Then she closed the book and announced, “and that is the word of God.”
That word has been inside me ever since, as if it is somehow engraved upon my soul, and at such a time as this, I am so grateful for those bible nights. Like my mother, my wife takes a great interest in the bible. She has her own ideas about everything, but she trusts it deeply, and knows it well, and when it comes time, at the end of another hospital day, for our family to pray together, her smile returns as I lay one hand on her forehead and hold my son’s hand with the other, and ask God to receive our suffering.
And then, in the late night, I awaken, the shadows all around me, and think on this life, how each generation passes into memory, as we must, and Annie and I must, and I sense the presence of the kingdom, and am drawn closer to it as if on a great, sighing wave of surrender. Then I sleep again, and perhaps drift along the paths of the night to where my beloved lies in her hurting sleep, and kiss her with the secret kiss that souls share naked in the night.
And so it goes, two lovers in our little boat, sailing the storm, our song barely there but there, an echo in the wind.
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