The news hits hard. Friends of ours—coupled a few years longer than our 14—are calling it quits on their relationship. My husband Dave and I didn't see it coming. Apparently, neither did they. Or at least, not both of them. Less than a week ago we asked one of the men what he most wants from life. "To grow old with my partner," he said.
The news of these friends' impending breakup sends a chill down my spine, as if someone somewhere is walking across my grave. It reminds me that at some point my relationship with Dave will end. We will part ways by choice, chance, death or the thousand other ways relationships terminate. We know this.
I remember an article I read about the nature and duration of gay relationships. The author cited the results of a multiple choice survey question that showed newly-partnered couples were most apt to predict their relationship would last "forever." The longer the partners had been together—25 years, 30, even 40—the more likely they were to predict their relationship would last "another month." Perhaps with age comes the realization that nothing is sure, nothing lasts, everything changes whether we like it or not.
How to live in such a world?
The answer is perhaps scribed on a plaque that hangs on a wall of our home. The words are right there in front of my face, penned in a flowing calligraphic hand by my former wife. She copied them from a similar plaque in my parents' house. I can't read the words. They're in Finnish, language of my grandparents, but the translation is etched in my mind: "We have all we need. What we don't have, we don't need." Sage advice about how to make do.
I’ve taken these words to heart. I am notorious for wearing tennis shoes until I walk out the sides of them. To do farm work I slip into a pair of old black dress shoes, their soles strapped on with layer after layer of duct tape. We lay our table with cloths that were new 50 years ago. My husband spent this morning sewing patches onto one of them.
I harbored hopes that my first marriage could be patched together, that my wife and I could make it last as long as my parent's “'til-death-do-us-part” relationship. It was not to be. My wife needed a man who needed a woman, who could love her in ways meaningful to her, to join her in a union of opposites. I needed a man to companion, to brother, to twin with, to form a union of equals.
Even so, I continue to sit with the questions raised by the dissolution of the marriage. Was it best to call it quits? Was anything to be gained by making it last? How would life be different—hers, mine, our children's—had we stayed together? The fallout seems severe: my three sons, now young adults, have nothing to do with me, nor have they had since they were children.
But perhaps I overstate the case. I have found deep happiness in life since the marriage ended. Has my former wife since found something similar? Have our kids moved to a place of satisfaction and joy? How can I know? Will I ever know?
And why the importance placed on making it last—making anything last—in the first place? Isn’t the message of life that everything changes? That we are always in a state of becoming? That existence is one long lesson in letting go?
Maybe the deeper truth of the proverb—and I have no clue how to say it in Finnish—is that we do have all we need somewhere deep within. Deep down inside us resides the wisdom to know when to hold on, when to let go, when to take what is as it presents itself. We already possess the gumption, patience and discernment to navigate the river of life, the One-River that bears us all along on its ever-flowing, ever-changing, ever-the-same path to the Sea of—what? Being? Eternity? Nirvana? Truth?
This essay appeared in The Community Letter, October 2010