In 1993, when my husband and I got engaged, Bill was 23 and I was 24. At the time, I squinted in confusion whenever the priest, in our pre-marriage conversations, would call us “kids.” I had been a voting adult for fully six years, I thought to myself, and of legal drinking age for three. Where was he getting kids? Now, 15 years (and four children) into marriage — having been an adult for more of my life than not — I recognize what the kindly older Jesuit was saying.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
Love is patient and kind;
Our commitment to marry was the biggest decision of our lives, yet we were bringing very little to it in the way of adult life experience. I won’t say we had no idea what we were getting into — even in our 20s, Bill and I recognized that marriage was a profound sacrament. Our wedding rings were braided white gold bands, symbolizing our belief that our marriage would be a relationship of three — the two of us, plus God. But part of the nature of being young is an inability to look very far ahead. Approaching our wedding, one of my biggest questions was what it would be like to be introduced as a “wife” rather than as a girlfriend or fiancée. I had no idea that a much more life-altering question was what would it be like to be called “mom.”
Looking back on my husband’s and my younger selves, I feel an odd sense of fondness — almost as if I am looking at different people. I love this earnest young couple, and I find myself amazed at their bravery and faith in taking the leap into marriage. Yet, looking at them — at us — I also feel a desire to advise them and protect them. After all, I know what’s coming their way, and they do not. I know the love they now feel for one another will grow in depth and breadth, but I also know of the pain that life will toss their way. And so, unable to sit down with them over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, I will communicate to them in the only way I know how. I will write a letter to the 1993 version of Annemarie and Bill. I think they’ll appreciate it.
[i]Dear Bill and Annemarie (1993 version),
Congratulations on your recent wedding. I’m sitting here with a cup of tea, 15 years in your future, writing to you. Perhaps you’ll find this letter waiting for you when you get home from your honeymoon.
I know you don’t get letters from the future every day, and I’m sure it is startling to think of yourselves as 40 years old and 15 years into marriage. (Sometimes, it’s startling to us, too, and we’re the ones living it.) Take heart in knowing that the world has passed well into the 21st century, and you are still married — that your marriage is stronger than you could have imagined and has taken you to places you could not have predicted. Know, too, that your 15 years together is indeed something to celebrate. Four of the 12 couples whose weddings you attended during that first year of your own marriage have already divorced.
I have to say, as young as you are, the two of you decided something very smart at the kitchen table of your first apartment. I remember it well. Over a dinner of canned tomato soup and microwaved baked potatoes, you resolved that no matter what argument might come up in your marriage, you would never verbally call into question the marriage itself. You acknowledged that in your marriage, there would come times of anger and hurt, but you put the questioning of the marriage out of bounds. Fifteen years into the future, the 2009 version of Bill and I thank you for this rule. It has served as our safety net in every quarrel or time of trouble. The marriage is the constant — it is the reason to solve the disagreement. The disagreement or fight has never become a reason to question coming together in the first place.
Young Bill and Annemarie, right now I know you’re thinking of marriage as a one-day sacrament, like Baptism or Confirmation. Let me tell you that you have that all wrong — instead, marriage is a sacrament much more similar to the Eucharist. It is a sacrament you must return to again and again in order to be nourished.
The wedding is the one-time event. Much as you love that wedding dress, Annemarie, you’ll never wear it again. You’ll both forget to take the top of your wedding cake out of the freezer to eat on your first anniversary. But the vows, those will get constant use. Returning to the sacrament means that during difficult times you’ll lean on the vows — Bill, you’ll lose your job shortly after your third anniversary. When life tosses you an unfairness like this, you need to remember to take the vows with you into the moment and figure out how to best be a married, unified couple. Bill’s sudden job loss will force you both to look hard at the “in good times and in bad” section of the vows. You will learn to navigate disappointment within the marriage without allowing the disappointment to consume the relationship itself.
I’m going to ruin the surprise here, but eight months into your marriage, Annemarie is going to find herself unexpectedly pregnant. I know you two were planning a few years of childless time to see the world and volunteer, but God’s plan is different from your own. Annemarie will take the pregnancy test while Bill is mowing the lawn, and she’ll shout to him from the front porch. Bill, you’ll come in and stare at the test in disbelief.
In that moment, your life as a couple will change beyond what you can imagine right now. After Jacob will come one more biological son, and your love for those two boys will turn your attention to the many abused and neglected children who are part of the U.S. foster care system. While now, early in marriage, you have an awareness of such children, you do not yet see them as your responsibility. The gift of your sons, however, will stir something within you.
Homilies at church will challenge you to reach out to those beyond your own family. Every gospel will become a question to you of how exactly you are living as disciples. At first, you will be afraid of foster care — of the issues and struggles it could bring into your family. But then you will remember that the initial positive line on the pregnancy test scared you, too, and you will go forward.
Thank you for taking that leap and listening to God’s call. I think you’ll agree with me someday that being foster parents is both the most difficult and the most rewarding part of your marriage. You’ll find the miracle of Jamie’s adoption will be no less spectacular than either of the boys’ births. And the story still won’t be over. The uncertainty of Teenasia’s situation, after six years in and out of the foster care system, is our struggle in 2009. How I wish a silver anniversary 2018 Annemarie would write to me here in 2009 and tell me how it all worked out. Even in the mucky mess of the Milwaukee child welfare system, though, we have seen God’s hand. He is protecting Teenasia, and for that we are grateful.
Bill and Annemarie, I know you are busy — lots of wedding thank-you notes to write and gifts to put away — so I’ll close now. The main advice I have for you is to embrace both uncertainty and change in your marriage. Enter into the unknown and allow God to lead. Do not base your decisions on fear, but rather on faith. God chose each of you specifically for the other. Cherish that. Five years from now, you will not be the same people you are today. Get to know that new spouse of yours. Fall in love all over again. Bill, you aren’t a teacher now, but you will be soon. To me, that’s a bonus. Life is too short to live with the same person for 50 years — that’s why it’s wonderful that we change. It keeps things fresh and new. I wish you all the best in the next 15 years. You’re doing a good job. Keep leaning on the vows you made, keep your sense of humor, and keep listening to the whisper of God.
Best wishes as you begin this great adventure,
(the 2009 version)[/i] CD