I write this week to celebrate what would have been my twenty-second wedding anniversary. On October 8, 1994, I married Jeff Todd Harris, and we had sixteen years as husband and wife. I have a very rare and beautiful treasure: a whole marriage, with a beginning, middle and end. Like any work of art, it should be examined, admired, and appreciated, but I also believe I have this treasure in order to share it. Sharing it with you doesn’t make it any less mine, but maybe the blessings I have gained can be multiplied to you in some small way.
I had one simple request for our wedding party the day of the ceremony. Whatever you do, I said, do not tell me that Jeff is late to the church. (All his life, Jeff was astoundingly late almost everywhere he went. He was an hour late for our first date. It was like his signature move.) I wanted to enjoy the day and not worry about his tardiness, so I asked everyone not to keep me informed of Jeff’s whereabouts. The deal we had was this: if he wasn’t at the altar with the minister when it was time for Dad to walk me down the aisle, the gig was up, no wedding. I was mostly kidding, but maybe not really.
Of course no one did as I asked. When I arrived at the church four people eagerly announced that Jeff beat me there. (I wasn’t the only one nervous that he would be late.) Of course I was thrilled, but that seemed too good to be true and sure enough it was. A half hour later Jeff’s mom informed me that Jeff had left the church and no one knew where he was. That’s ok, I assured her, he went to the Seven Eleven to get a Big Gulp (Coke, with lots of ice). He will be back. I was confidently bluffing and hoping he would be back on time.
When the bridal march started and church doors opened, Jeff was there with the minister just like he said he would be. Afterwards, on the limo ride to the reception, I teased him that I heard he’d got cold feet and left the church. “No way baby,” he said, “I was ready, but I was thirsty. I got a Big Gulp at the Seven Eleven and came right back to the church. Wouldn’t have missed it.” I knew my man pretty well after all.
I would love to tell you the next sixteen years were sheer wedded bliss, but you would know I was lying. Marriage doesn’t work like that. The wedding of Jeff and Anna was the joining of two imperfect, self-absorbed people. We both had weaknesses and wounds. Marriage is really, really hard (how’s that for an understatement?) and we struggled like married people do. We had some major issues, and when unforeseen challenges came along, we sometimes did more damage to our imperfect union.
In August of 2009 Jeff was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The doctors told us he probably had a year to live. We were completely convinced that God could heal him, so Jeff set about a severe course of chemotherapy. Everything about the diagnosis was a shock, but perhaps the most surreal aspect of that prognosis was the sudden clarity God gave us. A true case of “I was blind, but now I see…”
- That loving God and loving each other was all that really mattered. Really.
- That we had the extraordinary gift of an ordinary day- together.
- That snuggling on the couch with our pile of wiggly boys was heaven on earth.
It was as if God had given each of us a new pair of glasses, bringing focus and perspective.
For example: I had always worried about what retirement might look like for us. I wasn’t entirely sure we were all-day-every-day compatible. I had been with the guy for over twenty years and it took cancer to remind me who had been there all along; I LIKED HIM SO MUCH.
All of the sudden I was able to see those things that bothered me about Jeff in a new light. For instance, Jeff’s extreme tardiness was an ongoing and serious issue for us. In truth, it was a problem, but half the problem was my interpretation of his tendency to be late. I decided he was selfish and inconsiderate, disrespectful of my time and my needs. I could not (would not) acknowledge that his inability to keep track of time was part of his easygoing, in-the-moment self. If Jeff was with you, he was with you and he was never in a hurry to be anywhere else. I had fallen in love with his ability to be present, and in fact I needed to learn that from him. It took cancer to help me appreciate him in the way I had when we first married.
(I can’t tell you how sorry I am about that last line. Please don’t wait until something bad happens to ask God to help you see your spouse in the best possible light. Ask Him to help you see what He sees when He looks at your spouse. Ask for eyes to see.)
Cancer gave us a sense of urgency. We talked about everything that we had avoided or been too busy or too lazy or too afraid to confront. We listened to each other. We apologized, and we did things differently. We hid nothing because there was no time to waste. No more mind reading, no more assumptions, just simple, kind honesty. We promised each other that should he live we would never ever go back to the way we had been, not because it was so awful but because it was so much less than what we had become.
Before cancer, our evenings usually ran pretty much the same. I like to be in bed reading a book by 9:00; Jeff was just plugging in to ESPN about that time. So I would kiss him goodnight and head upstairs to our room, and he would come to bed after I was asleep. Many nights I would fret about how he wouldn’t watch TV in our room- he didn’t like that TV- and I would sort of wallow around in hurt feelings, too stubborn to change my habits. When Jeff got sick, I didn’t want to leave him downstairs alone. He took pain medicine at night and I didn’t want him climbing the stairs if he was wobbly, but it was really more than that. I wanted to be close in case he needed anything, but really, what I wanted was to be close.
So I would fall asleep on the couch next to his chair and wake to walk him up the stairs. One night when he gently shook me to tell me it was time for bed, I realized he had tears in his eyes. I shot up, afraid of what was wrong, but they were happy tears. He loved for me to be downstairs with him instead of upstairs in bed. All those years we had never discussed our separate bedtimes. He was too proud to ask me to stay with him, and I was too quick to assume he didn’t want to be with me.
Reading back over this post, I see that I may have been self-indulgent here. Maybe I wanted an excuse to talk about Jeff. He is one of my very favorite topics. More than talking about Jeff, though, I hope to encourage you through our experiences. I do not want anyone to ever suffer what our family did, but I do want everyone to have the kind of closeness we had during the fifteen months Jeff was sick. I realize that blessing was, in part, God’s grace for a difficult time. But God can give grace through the difficult times and the boring times and the angry times in any family and in any marriage. I pray that you will find His grace sufficient for you and your spouse at the best and the worst of times.
This is a two-part post. Prayers for marriage will be posted on Wednesday, and the second part will be posted next Sunday.