In order to look back on decades of marriage, you need to embark on one. I once knew a woman who believed that marriage was an experiment, one she wanted to "see through to the end." I've often described getting married as: "Two people holding hands - and jumping off a cliff." Maybe that makes sense by itself. But I mean that you embark on the unknown. You hold hands because you are doing this together. You're not gonna let go. And you don't know what you're in for.
In order to appreciate the joys of a lifetime conversation, with that one person, there's a lot of pain and suffering ahead: You don't know at the time you decide to marry how many conversations will be painful ones. Ones where you're trying to work out how to keep holding hands, what gets in the way of that, what really matters to glue those hands together, how to cope with what life throws at you or what mistakes you've made, singly or together. And how to patch things up and find out what that means.
We've been talking a lot lately, at ages 70 and nearly 76, of how much we appreciate all the time we've had together. How much we appreciate the time we have now. How much we appreciate looking back at our common memories, our shared history, the people we've known, places we've seen, what we have accomplished, what we regret. How much we enjoy talking about the world, politics, ideas, the beauty of nature, characters of people. It seems like we have something rare and special ... I'm sure that statement is like the "rare and special" feeling of falling in love: It's not just us, of course, but we are aware of this as having meaning that is special for us.
I wonder if "conversation" isn't the essence of marriage. A conversation that brings so many joys and even sorrows, fear and even anger. But one that endures and grows richer because so complex. And maybe that is what people do not understand when they fear that "marriage" will somehow be diluted or polluted if open to everyone. Do they not understand or experience marriage as we do?
When I was in college, people later told me, they would despair of me going on dates, because I would return and assess the date based on whether or not "we had a good conversation." When that, in fact, was my whole reason for going to college! To have interesting conversations. To read and think and talk about things. To stretch yourself from inside and outside. In conversation with other people. I have no idea what other people were looking for in a date. So maybe I'm off-base in what marriage really is.
But the joy of having someone to talk to! Someone who, increasingly, knows you through and through. Who forgives you and even laughs over your foibles. Someone you can be with, without needing to say a word, but who is also there, no matter the hour, to discuss something that's on your mind or in your soul. Someone your intellectual and experiential equal, who's coming from a different perspective but (mostly) shares your same values.
I think there's also another aspect in our growing appreciation of each other and our marriage of many years. And that is the element of time. The awareness that we do not have endless time ahead of us, as one used to feel. The sense of a finiteness to our togetherness. The preciousness of what we used to take for granted. The time and each other and the conversation. And the anticipatory sadness and grief of that conversation - one day - coming to an end. And not being able to discuss the aftermath of that end. With the one person, the only person, who would truly understand.