A few nights ago, I was agonizing over a very difficult decision. Needing to find strength, I picked up a ring from my dresser and slipped it on my finger. I closed my fist as if I could draw its power through my flesh and into my quickly breaking heart.
When I was a small child, I played with this ring for hours. It is white gold, with five tiny diamonds embedded in five circles etched into the metal and linked together by a curved design. My tiny fingernails used to fit perfectly into the curved grooves, which kept my tactile sense happy as I listened to sermons I didn't understand or to older relatives recounting the precious bits of news gathered from rarely seen family members. I remember how it fit loosely on my mother's hand, never falling off because her knuckles were slightly twisty just as mine are today.
It's not a particularly pretty ring, I'll be honest. It's a wide, flat band, and the design is typical 1970's weirdness. But it means something; it signifies a successful marriage.
I'd like to think my father saw something special about it, which was why he gave it to my mother. That very well may be the case, seeing as how he had about as much fashion sense or taste as you'd expect from a man who grew up on a farm during the Great Depression. It could also be something he'd bought for one of his previous wives and had been rejected. I just don't know, and even if he was alive he wouldn't say a word except something along the lines of how it's just the beauty of the beast, or how it puts hair on your chest, or some other deflective phrase. But he did give it to my mother, in a private ceremony at home after only six weeks of dating. It was his fourth marriage, her second, and they had seven children between them.
What in God's name were they thinking?
As if that wasn't chaotic enough, I came along after a few years and gave them a whole lot more to worry about.
For thirty-five years that ring stayed on my mother's finger through thick and thin. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, until death did they part. She didn't take it off for anything. It was kind of gross. It stayed on while she squished together hamburger patties, as she rubbed lotion into her hands, while she changed my diapers, cleaned up vomit, washed dishes without gloves, held juicy slices of watermelon, and whatever else a person's hands go through when raising eight children.
It was on her hand during countless arguments, and during even more tender moments. The night he died, it was on the hand holding his as he left us.
My dad didn't wear a wedding ring. He was neurotic about a lot of things, but he seemed to have a fear of getting his finger ripped off. He was convinced that having a ring of metal around his finger would cause it to get caught in something and he'd lose that finger, or hell, his whole hand. I kind of suspect it was just because he was cheap. But a year or so before he died, he finally relented and got a wedding ring. My mother teased him about how it was so he wouldn't have 40 virgins waiting for him in heaven or something to that effect. He wore it faithfully, proudly, until they had to take it off in the hospital.
When my ex-husband was shopping for an engagement ring, he expressed frustration that a malleable metal should mean so much to a marriage. He was cheap, too. He didn't understand why that symbolism was so important. I never told him about my mother's ring. I ended up with a beautiful ring that meant nothing, and it took me a lot longer to get rid of it than you'd expect.
Recently a friend told me that it's pointless to get married if you're not going to have children, because marriage is supposed to protect them. While I smiled and nodded because I am a coward who hates confrontation, I disagree.
Despite having just ended my third engagement and already having one failed marriage under my belt, I absolutely still believe that marriage is first and foremost about love. And trust -- in each other and in God.
My parents didn't have a perfect marriage, because there's no such thing as one. If you honestly believe you have a perfect marriage, you need intense therapy immediately. And possibly the surgical removal of your head from somewhere lacking daylight. I can say that because I have had a perfect relationship for the past three years. No, I'm serious. It's been perfect. We get along beautifully and never fight, we're always supportive of each other, maintain our sense of humor, perform tasks that are both large and small to make the other one's life easier. It just couldn't be a nicer, more loving relationship. And yet that wasn't enough to get us down the aisle. So don't even pretend to have a perfect marriage because it just hasn't blown up yet.
No, I don't believe the point of getting married is to have children. That's why I support gay marriage, too -- I believe it's about love and partnership between two people.
I believe marriage is about putting each other first, finding compromise, and making equal sacrifices.
It's about getting through the fights and still being in love; coming home to a smile every day no matter what; laughing at 3am for reasons only the two of you understand; putting the toilet seat down because it makes her happy even if it makes no sense; being able to cry together; bringing each other little gifts for no reason; making his/her favorite beverage just to be nice.
It's also about holding each other up during those gut-wrenching times. Losing a child together; years of failed fertility treatments; the death of parents and family members; healing betrayals; forgiveness.
It's about loving someone through five years of illness while you watch them slowly fade away, and still being happy on those days when they recognize who you are. It's about having the strength to smile at them on their deathbed because you're just so happy they're alive to share one more moment together.
If a marriage can withstand the heartbreak of parenthood, then it can withstand the joys. When you can stop each other from killing your teenager who has been up on the roof playing guitar in the middle of the night, causing the neighbor to call the police; or find real comfort and solace in each other while your child is in the operating room; when your infant is screaming all night long from colic, you haven't slept for weeks -- yet you still have it in you to not throw every plate you own at the wall out of exasperation, then perhaps you can handle the intense joy of creating (or adopting) another human being. Perhaps that kind of love will protect the child. If you can look at your spouse who has just been pooped on by the new baby, laugh uproariously before cleaning it up for them as they try not to hurl, then perhaps it's a marriage strong enough to succeed.
It was not until my father was dying that I understood how much love my parents shared. Through all the years of moving around, financial highs and lows, eight children (so many teenagers!), and I'm sure many other things I'll never know about, they stood by each other steadfastly. They fought bitterly, and yet they still held hands in church like teenagers after thirty years together. They weren't together that long out of any sense of obligation or because they felt the need to stick by those vows. Both of them were bullheaded enough that if one wanted to leave, they would have. They weren't together for the kids, either.
They just truly did love each other that much.
When I saw my dad deep in the throes of dementia but still reaching for my mother as his anchor, his one constant source of stability in the midst of the horror of his tortured mind and body, and I saw the strength they still drew from each other even in those last days together... then it hit me just what that malleable metal is supposed to symbolize.
Then again, they got married after six weeks; what the hell did they know?
They knew when to take a chance. They knew when it was right. They knew how to trust each other.
While love and marriage isn't just about still being able to look at someone after twenty years and still feeling your heart stop and like your soul is tumbling down some invisible vortex when you look into their eyes, that's got to be there as well. At least, it does for me.
Perhaps my friend was at least partially right, though. I found strength from my parents to make a pretty gutsy and gut-wrenching move because I knew I couldn't take a chance. I knew it just wasn't quite right. I knew I had to trust myself. I found it by wearing the symbol of some of the deepest love I'll ever see in my lifetime. In that way, even two years after my father died, my parents' marriage is still protecting me.