It’s funny how some dates will forever stand out in your mind, no matter how many lifetimes or relationships ago. So is the case with July 6th, when I walked down the aisle to the man who I would call my family for the next 17 years.
When I glanced at the time on my iPhone and saw the date, which was 26 years ago today (gulp), all its wonder and heartache, came rushing back to me. J, which I affectionately called him, and I got married on the Oregon Coast. It was always our place and our dog, Pup’s, too. Every birthday and anniversary was spent here and a few long weekends a year. So when we stumbled upon St. Mary’s By the Sea on a long walk the weekend of his 23rd birthday in Rockaway Beach, we decided that would be the place we’d tie the knot. How could we resist the little chapel that sat along the shore?
We got engaged a few months later in Spokane, Washington in Manito Park’s Duncan Garden. Oly, my family’s Cocker Spaniel, was with me the moment that J got down on one knee. That moment kicked off a year of celebrations before the big day, which followed two of my older sisters getting married that summer. Both of us got very caught up in the idea of getting married—the wedding, that is, and all that came along with it.
There were showers, bachelorette parties, picking out my dress, cake, entertainment and flowers. Then there was the daily excitement of the UPS truck pulling up with wedding gifts. Sounds so damn silly now, not to mention very materialistic and a distant reflection of who I am today, but back then, we felt like royalty with all of the building excitement and attention. It became all about the wedding instead of an actual impending marriage.
The 24-year old would have told you that I loved J very much and that I was ready. Back then in the early 1990s, especially in my circle, it was pretty much expected that after college, you settled down and had a family. Knowing now how much you change in your 20s, I wonder what was our damn hurry. I had so much to still learn about relationships, myself and all that marriage entails.
The 50-year-old in me now knows that I spent a lot more time thinking about leaving my marriage than I ever did about actually getting married.
When you get engaged, what do people always want to talk about most? After first asking to see your ring, they want to know where the wedding will be, where are you spending your honeymoon, and when are you going to have kids.
In fact, it’s a lot like having kids. No one tells you how hard it can be at times and all the sacrifices that you’ll make. Like planning a wedding, many of us get as caught up in being pregnant and making that big announcement, rather than actually raising kids for the rest of our lives.
No one who’s already married or been married asks you about all the real stuff. No one says, “What will you two do if you’re aren’t able to have children? Will you adopt or have a time limit on how long you naturally try to conceive? How do you feel about prioritizing sex and making date nights? What happens if your spouse loses his job and goes into a long depression—how will you handle that? How will you deal with finances and agree to work out arguments?” And so on.
I know a lot of couples that had pre-martial counseling where you can talk about these situations that could come up in your marriage. I’m not sure why J and I didn’t. We never chose not to, and to be fair, at 24 years old, even if someone older and married had brought any of these life subjects up to me, who’s to say I would have listened? Or much less thought long and hard about it, like I do now, as a wiser woman who knows she could have handled things much better. Back then, though, I was too caught up in the idea of all of it.
Ours was a great friendship, first and foremost that began the night of the 1988 Presidential election. I returned from a party on the University of Portland campus to my dorm and found J sitting by himself watching TV in the third floor lounge. I asked him how Mike Dukakis was doing, to which he answered with a shrug, “Not good.”
That evening began a series of great chats we’d have in the TV lounge. J had just moved on campus for his senior year. His engineering scholarship paid only for his tuition, so he saved up every summer to finally live on campus, he said, “to meet a girl.” And that was me.
We couldn’t have been more different. He was an engineer, who was quiet and reserved, and loved "Star Trek" and video games. I was a writer, who was outgoing and chatty, and loved football and movies. Yet we always found many shared topics to chat about for hours. And we laughed a lot. The friendship turned into dinners and movies out and eventually we took day trips that evolved into weekend getaways to the Oregon Coast.
As Norah Ephron so perfectly captured in “When Harry Met Harry,” we were friends for a long time before we became lovers. And that friendship kept us together through many years of heartache and struggle when most couples probably would have given up a long time before. This observation is not meant to be a compliment about us. It’s more of a reflection on why I had such a hard time letting go, long after I—we—should have. But whenever I felt like I couldn’t stay any longer, I’d ask myself, “But how do you say goodbye to your family?”
After many years of fertility struggles and losing our baby, no reason to stay eventually became a reason to go. That didn’t make it any less heartbreaking to say goodbye to the man that I planned to have a family and future with and had made vows to.
I’ve always said that if you’re a couple who wants to have children but can’t, then you need to be a really strong couple. And that still stands after the kids are all grown up, and some couples aren’t happy with their relationships. I can’t tell you how many times a good guy or girlfriend has told me, “I don’t know what we’ll do together when the kids are gone.” Or “We have kids together, so what am I supposed to do?”
As much as I love children and still ache for my own, I would have gladly stayed in a marriage—a family of two if we had been a strong couple. If I wasn’t going to have children, I wanted to travel and go after other dreams and experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had kids. That’s how I felt the first few years that passed after we lost our child. Now I realize that what I really wanted and needed at that time was my husband to take over the lead and say, “Fuck all this, babe! Pregnancy is so overrated. Let’s just adopt or hell, let’s save up and go buy a baby! Our dream to have a family is not over.”
I had taken the lead in so many aspects of our relationship with the fertility treatments and getting pregnant topping the list. When the doctor told us that our baby was no longer alive at almost five months along, I literally said out loud through tears running down my face, “I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.”
That’s when I desperately wanted J to take over. When he didn’t, I realized that I was done with all of it.
Trust me when I say, I have no doubt that J’s list of what he wanted me to do and say then would have been equally just. I’m sure he wanted me to say, “Well, the silver lining to all of this is that we can actually start having sex again for other reasons than to conceive at the right time of the month. Or better yet, start having more sex, period.”
“I still love you, J, and want our little family of us.”
“I know that I’ve spent a lot of energy and focus on this part of our lives. Now it’s time to spend that on us and you.”
I could go on and on all these years later because I see his needs and perspective in a way that I couldn’t back then. My heart was broken, too.
We must love and give whole-heartedly in a way that a person feels free, acknowledged and loved for all they do right. We don’t marry ourselves, so why do we always think that our partner should say and do things like we do?
People always want to know after your divorce what happened, what made you decide to finally call it quits? Anyone who is married or has been knows that it’s never just one thing. Just as any woman will tell you that after years of trying, once she was finally done, she was all done.
The only thing I can say with sure certainty is that I’d be a lot better wife the second time around. I’ve told J this many times and have apologized for my part in the breakdown of our marriage. As Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
I haven’t seen J in almost eight years, which still kind of blows my mind. We text every once in awhile on birthdays and holidays and texted when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. He was the first one I heard from that day. On our anniversary, I texted him that he was on my mind and that I hoped he was happy. We texted for about 20 minutes and when we were done, I found these pics above—a little collage from that day 26 years ago at the Coast and our life with our babies, Pup and The Babe. Then I sent one more text, which read:
“I’m writing stories about my life at 50. You were a huge part of mine. So many lessons learned and things I would have done differently. Thank you for sharing those years with me and our babies, J.”
Today, I’m embracing my chosen family more and more. The people who I choose to have a seat at the table. Not everyone is meant to sit at our table for life, and chances are if you love hard, as I do, your heart will be broken more than once along the way. And some wounds, such as a loss of a child and your forever dream, will always leave a void that no one or other dream can fill. And that’s OK.
Our salvation lies not in the heartache of loss or in the people who no longer have a seat at our table. My salvation lies in all of my unanswered prayers and the people and pets who unexpectedly and effortlessly came into my life, and who I now call my chosen family. They have a seat for life and God willing for my baby girl, my dog, Belle, for as long as possible.