with these rings

We are here for a family wedding.

I recognize this as a sign that I am, indeed, in another phase of my life, having just turned 40 (or rather: 39 years, 12 months and 3 days) but the bride and groom seem so impossibly young to me that it makes me want to cry. They are giddy and high-pitched. They walk around all electricity and noise.

At the rehearsal last night, we listen as the minister walks through the ceremony. The vows are painfully traditional, invoking promises I have not heard for some time. She agrees to submit to her husband. They agree that where there are two people they shall now become one.

No, I think, that is not at all what it is. Not at all what you should want your marriage to be. I think again of Rilke: Solitude! Vow to stand guardian over each other’s solitude!

I imagine running down the aisle to them, throwing my arms wide, stopping the minister mid-sentence. No. Say this.

Say this: I promise to protect all that you are. To help you to become more deeply who you are meant to become. To bear witness to your journey, to ease your burdens along the way. To protect you – as fiercely as I must – from all that will attempt to prevent you from becoming more you – more beautifully uniquely you. In all your unpredictable imperfections. In all your flawed and stunning personhood. To love and tend what is luminous in you. To give comfort to you when you face your own darkness. To love you through all the baffling complexities that our lives will throw at us.

To embrace the paradox that we grow together only as we allow ourselves to grow separately.

They are beaming as they walk down the aisle holding hands, nearly skipping. I will perhaps keep my thoughts to myself.

I remember my mother saying this: “Every pot has a cover.” You will find that right person, she would say, and you will know. But what if my cover, I wanted to ask but never did, is very far away, and how will they know where to find me? I am not, after all, where I started out.

Last night, at dinner, when the groom got up to deliver his karaoke version of Thunder Road, I realized with a start: They are older than I was when I first married.

The way it happened was this: My mother was ill and her prognosis was not clear. There was chemotherapy. For a time, there was radiation. I left school to come home. I had just started dating B. Through all those long, lonely uncertain months that I was home, he came down, nearly every weekend, to be with me.

He went grocery shopping, ran errands for us. He made meals. He changed the batteries in our smoke detectors. He moved furniture, carried the unwieldy things.

He went to the hospital with us, walked beside my mother as she wheeled her IV stand down the hallways.

He brought the stories of what my friends were doing, back in Providence. About who had hooked up with the French actress’s son. And who had landed an internship in DC. About the films that were showing at the Avon and how he would wait to see them with me.

This is how the weeks passed, with B., this lifeline – in more ways than I could even have understood at the time. He was kind. He was generous. He let me fall asleep leaning against him, in the soft glow of the television light, its volume turned low, when the whole house was quiet.

I buried my mother on my 21st birthday, on October 12, 1992. By December of 1992, I was engaged.

B. and I married in February of 1994. I was 23.

During the rehearsal, we are sitting in the back of the church – way back behind the pews in a few chairs lined up against the wall, beneath windows that face out to the parking lot. The sky is dark although it is early evening. It is raining. 

I lean over to Z. and say, if you get married – and I emphasize the “if” – do it somewhere exotic and wonderful so that we have an excuse to go there. My friend’s daughter got married in Greece, I suggest. M. overhears this and pokes his head in, “But this is not something you need to be thinking about for at least fifteen years.“

He backs away from us toward the front to the church, to where W. has called him, but keeps his eyes fixed on Z. "Fifteen years!”

When it is finally time for W. to walk down the aisle carrying the white pillow, its prop rings tied to it with ribbon, it looks like it will all go smoothly until he stops, halfway down, and leans against the side of a pew.

M. is sitting there near the aisle, and prompts him. “Keep going, you need to keep going.” He does not move. I run up to him, coax him along. I give him a little push, truth be told. “Go, sweetie, you need to go.”

Still, nothing.

He shows no real expression on his face. He doesn’t seem to have any particular agenda. He has just decided, it seems, that he doesn’t choose to walk any further.

Finally, after what seems like hours, with the entire wedding party staring on and mouthing words of encouragement, he moves on down the aisle, taking his time, weaving back and forth and swinging his little white pillow.

Yesterday, I heard about another divorce. “Oh, it’s been in the works for some time,” my friend L. says when I say, “I didn’t see that coming.”

What a strange thing marriage is. From among all the people you know and meet and whose lives cross with yours, you are asked to choose one. And often you choose this person before you have any idea who you really are. Before they know who they are. And you throw yourselves at each other – your messy, incomplete selves.

And then you make your vows. And you are expected to be the whole world to each other – best friends, travel companions, intellectual partners, lovers, co-parent perhaps. Confidantes. Caregivers. Where there were two lives, now there should be one. What a difficult task we set ourselves. How ill-prepared we so often are to carry it.

What I wish we would say, as we stood facing each other in front of our family and friends; as we are all there dressed in our excessive finery, the flowers and ribbons strewn all around us, the soaring music. What I wish we could say is this: I promise that I will choose you anew every day. That each day, I will remember that to love you, as generously and kindly as I am able, is a choice. That marriage is a choice. I promise that I will choose you, re-commit to you and to the life we are about to build, every time that I need to. On the days when it is an easy promise to keep, and also on the days when it is not, it is that promise itself that I will hold up.

And it is that – more than the way you make my heart race today, more than the way we laugh easily when we walk and the sun is shining on us, more than how our bodies take our pleasures in each other – it is that act of promising and re-promising, I think – that will see us through what comes.