Good things

I don’t think I’ve ever solicited advice from other parents on keeping a marriage healthy. It’s not that I don’t need any—it just doesn’t usually occur to me to ask for it. Maybe I don’t know an awful lot of parents I would value such advice from, or maybe I’m just too proud to think I need it. Sometimes I do need it, though. It would be great to know an older couple who could be role models for us, but such strong relationships are rare in this world.

Conversely, the unsolicited advice that usually comes in torrents on any other subject has failed to materialize when I tell people I have a nearly-one-year-old baby and another due in February. I have had people tell me that kids are what drive couples apart, but that’s not usually helpful. I can say from experience that the presence of a child tends to shine a high-powered spotlight on every flaw in a relationship, but that needn’t drive a couple apart.

I’m writing about this because I received some unsolicited advice from a long-time reader recently. I usually resent it when people presume to tell me how to be a good husband, but this message seemed full of concern, kindness, and hard-earned wisdom (she is the mother of four, and the first three came within 36 months of each other):

Babies can fill your life in a wonderful way, but please guard your marriage more than ever as you become consumed with wonder over the new lives God is entrusting to you. Your wife needs your love and thoughtful care and concern more than ever at this time-I know because I was pregnant once while caring for a one year old and once while caring for a baby and a two year old. Help her as much as you reasonably can and put her needs (especially for sleep) ahead of your needs for other things. She will be better able to meet your needs if you do this. Pamper her when you can. Now and then, instead of taking care of the baby for her, arrange for somebody else to take care of the baby (at their house) and bring home her favorite take-out and a great movie and give her an I-love-you-and-I-don’t-expect-anything-from-you backrub. Babies take a lot out of their moms physically (both before and after they are born). The more you care for her physical needs (read: sleep), the more she can care for yours. That’s the best advice I can give you. Like you wanted it. I just so remember how I felt and what I needed, I want your wife to get the advantages of our hindsight.

If any of you have other great advice like that, please share it.

Nana

My grandmother has never been a picture of health, especially over the past decade. There have been many days that looked to be her last, but she has always pulled through. When she went to into the hospital with abdominal pains this past Monday, I’m not sure why any of us thought this time would be any different. Her blood pressure dropped dangerously low on Wednesday, but the doctors continued administering pain medication and scheduled a number of tests for Wednesday. Still, for some reason we thought we should make the 90-minute trip to see her.

My mother, my wife, my son, and I piled into the car Wednesday night and drove to the hospital where my grandmother (I call her Nana, pronounced NAH-nuh) was staying, where my grandfather and aunt had been staying with her all day long. When we arrived and were allowed to enter the room—she was in a non-contagious unit, so Tater was allowed in—she was barely conscious. Tubes penetrated her arms, and some sort of medical contraption made its way into her body through her nose.

We spoke to her. She opened her eyes to see her nine-month-old great grandson smiling at her, and she smiled in return. She drifted back to sleep as nurses entered the room to perform a cryptically named and apparently grotesque-looking procedure, so we had to wait in the hall for about an hour. During that time, Grandad played with Tater. They both smiled and laughed and had a grand time. When we were finally allowed back into the room, Mrs. Happy, Tater, and I got to spend about fifteen minutes with her. She fought sleep so she could talk to us. She asked about specific issues in our lives and held my hand as I stood beside her bed. She was still in a great deal of pain, so we kissed her and left her to a blissful combination of sleep and morphine.

Wednesday morning, we received a phone call from my aunt saying that Nana had died during the night. By all accounts, she went peacefully and without pain, never having lost her wits. She had apparently been watching The History Channel when she passed (it was playing on her TV when we arrived at the hospital that morning, though out of respect I will refrain from any snarky comments about that).

There’s always a void in your life after the death of someone you love; the unique part of you that surfaced only in that person’s presence dies with them. There is grief, confusion, fear, hope and, when you believe in Heaven, joy. Family comes together in ways they never would otherwise, and sometimes relatives reconnect or forge new connections in the process. For my part, I’m thankful to God that I was able to see Nana and say good-bye before she died. I’m glad Tater got to see her and bring her a measure of happiness in her last hours. I’m happy she was able to know about another little one we’re expecting in February (more on that later), and that it made her smile as well. One of my fondest memories of Nana will always be how from her hospital bed she lifted a shaky hand to point at my pregnant wife and with supreme effort whisper, “How is she feeling?”

Nana and Grandad were married for 59 years. Grandad handled the affair with bravery, grace, and good humor, though it was obvious to everyone how hard he took his bride’s passing. Toward the end, she was elderly, feeble, and sometimes cranky, but I’m sure he didn’t see that. He saw the young girl he married within a year of returning from war. I love the fact that in a time when many people see marriage as expendable, my Grandad will tell anyone that he spent 59 years living with his best friend, and that he doesn’t regret one second. I can certainly identify with that.

My vow

Mrs. Happy and I used traditional vows at our wedding. Now whenever we attend a wedding where the bride and groom exchange the traditional vows, we effectively renew our own. That’s why we chose to use words that have been spoken by millions of others in the past and hopefully millions more in the future. That’s why tradition is so powerful. That’s part of why I don’t like it when couples write their own vows. I also dislike that practice because most people don’t have the ability to succinctly express their feelings, so they tend to give flowery speeches that say nothing. Even when people know how to articulate what they feel, I don’t think feelings should even be mentioned in wedding vows—a vow is a promise and not a statement of emotion, and original vows also tend to leave out the promise.

Having said that, I should also say that I have never understood the practice of formally renewing wedding vows. I don’t disapprove, but no one has ever explained to me the reasons for it. People I respect have renewed their vows, several times in some cases, so I think there must be something to it; I just don’t know what. Still, it occurs to me that there may be some merit in periodically reminding my wife of what I promised her eight years ago. It also occurs to me that if I remind her in private, I don’t need to concern myself with tradition for the benefit of witnesses, which frees me to write something original.

I spoke traditional vows to my bride at our wedding. I’ve learned a lot about her, about myself, and about in the years since then, and this is now my vow to her:

I, Curt, promise you, Happy Bride, that I will love, honor, and cherish you for the rest of my life. I will do my best to provide for you, protect you, encourage you, equip you, and celebrate you in your beauty. I will treat your hardships as my own and comfort you in your troubles. I will make it my mission to deserve your devotion and be worthy of your respect. I will set an example for our children and work alongside you to raise them with love and discipline. I will grow with you, laugh with you, cry with you, dance with you, offend you, beg your forgiveness, bear your offenses, and always forgive you. I will love you with all of my soul, with all of my mind, and—as long as I have both breath and blood—with all of my body. I thank God now and forever that he has brought us together.

A tip for husbands

It’s been my experience that women enjoy finding little romantic notes from their husbands in unexpected places. I discovered a variation on that theme when MCF linked to Fodey.com in a post one day. The site has all sorts of little image generators that display a message you provide. If you enter a romantic message, then save the generated image, you can create an HTML file to display it and then set the file as your browser’s home page. Then when your wife opens the browser, she’ll see the message and, hopefully, get a small thrill from it.

If you want to do this but don’t know how to create an HTML file, e-mail me and I can send you a template with instructions.

Another open letter

Nearly two years ago, I published an open letter to newlyweds. Since Miss O’Hara, an outspoken proponent of marriage even when she was single, recently tied the knot, I thought I would reprint that letter as a reminder for everyone who may be taking the plunge this Spring season. I find, though, that I’ve learned quite a bit since then, so I’m reprinting the letter and adding a few nuggets that some may find useful.

Dear newly married person,

I’d give you some sage words of advice, but I know from experience that unsolicited advice has no effect. I’ll just try to offer some encouragement instead. Marriage is a gift of God, and as is the case with all Godly gifts, this world we live in is overtly hostile to the idea, institution, and practice. Sometimes your new life will bring you nothing short of absolute bliss. Sometimes your heart will swell with such joy that you fear it may burst. Sometimes your heart will ache with the pain you cause and with the pain caused to you. Sometimes you will find sweet fellowship with others who cherish marriage, though sometimes you may feel that you’re the only one(s) trying to honor your commitments. Just know that you’re not alone, that others love marriage as much as you do and that marriage can be better than you ever imagined when you were single. You’ll cry tears of disappointment, anger, fear, happiness, affection, and gratefulness, just as we all do. Remember that in spite of numerous declarations you’ll hear to the contrary, marriage can be enriching, empowering, and full of love.

Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice after all. Never take your marriage or your spouse for granted. Revel in the bliss, grow through the heartache, laugh through everything, and always keep your focus on God.

Sincerely,

Curt

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • Before I got married, people told me that the first year is the hardest. That was not the case in our marriage—our first year was a fairy tale. Our second year was an idealized version of real life. Our third year brought a few difficulties that made our life pretty complex. What I’ve learned since is that problems don’t hurt your relationship as much as they reveal it.
  • I used to interpret the Biblical admonition “let not the sun go down upon your wrath” to mean “never go to bed until all arguments have been resolved.” I don’t think that anymore. Some things can’t be worked out in a few hours. When you’ve argued/discussed to the point of exhaustion, it’s better just to release any anger and go to sleep. Morning will provide a fresh perspective and a better environment for working out differences.
  • A husband needs both love and respect from his wife in order to be a good husband, but mainly he needs respect.
  • A wife needs both love and respect from her husband in order to be a good wife, but mainly she needs love.
  • Trust may be the most important part of a marriage. Without it, everything falls apart.
  • A sense of humor may be the most important part of a marriage. Without it, everything falls apart.
  • A shared faith may be the most important part of a marriage. Without it, everything falls apart.
  • Chance may bring two people together, but their own choices determine whether they stay together. Society does not determine whether a couple can honor a lifelong commitment. Statistics paint a bleak picture for the institution of marriage, but in matters of human will, statistics are irrelevant.

Mrs. Happy and I will celebrate our eighth anniversary next Tuesday. We’re still learning, and loving the process.

Another difference between men and women?

I’ve mentioned Tony Woodlief’s site, Sand in the Gears, on occasion. Tony doesn’t write very often, but when he writes it’s almost always great. I read his most recent post earlier today and laughed out loud. I don’t often laugh out loud, but this was really funny. I told Mrs. Happy about the post, and she gasped and said, “That’s AWFUL!!” And again ten minutes later: “That’s so horrible.”

I’m still laughing.

She’s still cringing.

I think we both agree with Tony’s sentiment, though, that “even when we think we are something special, the odds are against it.”

Infatuation

I started first at the age of six and with the highest of expectations. My fondest desire in life at the time was to read the Bible and the Sunday comics or, as I called them back then, the funny papers. Unlike Mrs. Happy, I had not figured out how to read by then. I could recite both the alphabet and a number of children’s books—and even turn the pages at the right time—but I had not figured out that written letters could translate to spoken sounds, which could translate to verbal communication. It didn’t take long. Once my teacher explained things, I was all over it. I sounded out every grouping of letters I could find anywhere I could find them. I felt a rush of pride and accomplishment every time I figured out a word I hadn’t seen before.

After I learned to read, I experienced other periods of excitement. I learned about exceptions to the phonetic rules (to this day, I believe they should be spelled thay). I learned about grammar. I expanded my vocabulary. I discovered storytelling techniques and literary devices. I read poetry. I’ve learned so much.

Do I still love to read? Absolutely. It’s one of my greatest joys. The mechanics of it have become second nature. I still sometimes get excited when I encounter a new word, but that doesn’t happen very often. Watch me read at the age of six, then watch me at 33 and you might think I’ve lost the excitement I once had. The fact is, I care more about a well-constructed sentence than I do word pronunciation. A cohesive paragraph that explains a rich character who contributes to an intricate storyline that expresses more than it actually says gives me even more satisfaction. Is my love of reading gone? No. It’s deeper than ever.

This is why I frown when people say “no one stays in love forever” or “love doesn’t last” or, more subtly, “being in love doesn’t last.” It’s true that a romantic relationship has an initial excitement that doesn’t last. The rewards don’t end with that initial excitement. In fact, to stop there is like learning to sound out words but never learning to understand what they communicate. So much joy is possible.

All you need is love… and… um…

When we first moved to New York from Texas in 2000, my wife attended a nice
graduate school in a bad neighborhood. We had only one car, and one night I
was supposed
to pick her up after a class
that ended at 8:00 p.m. It was wintertime, so 8:00 p.m. was well past sundown
and she gave me strict instructions not be be late. I don’t always keep track
of time very well, so I developed a fool-proof plan: Watch 45 minutes of Who
Wants To Be
a Millionaire
, then leave home and be waiting for her when she left class.
Being
the absolute dork I sometimes am, I failed to take into account that WWTBAM begins
at 8:00 in New York and not 7:00 as it does in Texas. Mrs. Happy stood in
the
cold darkness of a bad neighborhood for 45 minutes, alone and afraid, waiting
for me to pick her up.

A few months later, before either of us had grown accustomed to life in the
big city, a friend of ours came to visit. He and I spent the day in Manhattan,
planning to meet up with my dearest after she got off work. She could have
arrived at Penn Station at either 4:20 or 5:20, depending on how quickly she
could catch a train after quitting time, and she was going to call our friend’s
cell phone and let us know when to meet her, so I thought. At 5:30, we realized
we had not heard from her so we went to Penn Station to see if she was there.
She had been there since 4:20 not knowing what to do with herself, alone and
a little afraid. She angrily told us that she would only have called if she
caught the later train
since
she had to rush to catch the early one. That made sense when I thought about
it.

A few months later, she was working at a school in a not-so-nice neighborhood.
One day she accidentally left the headlights on in her car and the battery
ran down. She was the last person to leave, so no one was around to give her
battery a boost. She called me at work and I rushed out the door. Night was
falling, and I knew from experience that she would not like being alone in
a bad neighborhood at night. I had visited this particular school a couple
of times, but I have no sense of direction and spent more than an hour trying
to find it, while she sat in her car alone and afraid watching the sky darken.

I apologized after each of these incidents. I truly felt bad for leaving my
wife in the lurch. I was just glad no real harm came to her. As we discussed
it later, though, she said, "Well, I guess this is just a character flaw you
have and I’m going to have to learn to live with it." Once that comment sunk
in, it disintegrated my self-esteem. These three separate incidents involved
three entirely unrelated mistakes on my part that all resulted in her feeling
alone and afraid. So my "flaw" was that I couldn’t be depended upon to keep
her safe. One of the most important things in my life is being a good husband,
which I’m absolutely not if my wife considers me undependable. Hurt feelings
on both our parts festered over the following weeks and culminated in a tear-inducing,
angry
argument
over
a
box
of Kleenex.

I thought of this as I read the first chapter of Love & Respect by Dr. Emerson
Eggerichs. So far, I’ve read only one chapter, but I wholeheartedly agree with
it. His points are basically these:

  • Women have a fundamental need for love from their husbands.
  • Men have a fundamental need for respect from their wives.
  • If a wife doesn’t feel loved, she reacts without respect.
  • If a husband doesn’t feel respected, he reacts without love.
  • Spouses must break that cycle, so that…
    • a wife respects even an unworthy husband
    • a husband loves even an unlovely wife

That’s what happened with us. When I failed to pick my wife up from school,
meet her at the train station, and revive her car in a timely manner, she felt
unloved. How hard is it, she thought, to look at a clock, use some common sense,
and find a school you’ve visited before? She didn’t think it consciously, but
deep down she probably felt like I must not love her as much as she loved me,
for she would never have made such stupid mistakes. When she commented on my
"character flaw," I inferred a foundational lack of respect. I didn’t know
how to deal with her if she had no respect for me.

We did eventually sort things out. Still, this book intrigues me. I’ll share
thoughts as I go along.

Courtship is now in session

A couple of years ago, I read a self-congratulatory article (I have since
either lost
or
discarded the URL) written
by
a
man
gushing over the fact that his daughter had gotten married in exactly the right
way. She stayed in his house under his protection for as long as she was single,
which I think was about 18 years or so. A boy she knew and liked became interested
in
her, and he expressed his interest to the father. The father and the boy had
many conversations, and eventually arranged a wedding. They told the girl what
they were doing, and she giggled with delight, but they didn’t tell her when
the wedding would be. On the day of the wedding, the father woke his daughter
and told her, "Get ready, honey. You’re getting married today." She literally
squealed with glee. After the ceremony, the father accompanied the newlyweds
to their new house. He walked with them to their bedroom. As they knelt down
at the foot of their bed to pray together, the father left, closing the door
behind him, quite pleased that he knew exactly the right way for a young girl
to marry and that he had made it happen for his daughter.

He didn’t say it outright, but I got the feeling that he would disapprove
of the young couple having sex until after the birth of their first child.

The ladies (a mother and her three grown daughters) at Girltalk discussed
the idea of courtship recently (when you have time, read all
of their courtship posts
starting at the bottom) and drew
some fire
in
the Crosswalk forums. Since forums are for people who don’t have blogs ( :)
), I thought I’d finally weigh in on the issue.

One of the few things I learned in the college classroom was this: Most arguments
stem from a disagreement about
definitions. I once argued with a roommate for 90 minutes when he told me he
believed in predestination. I adamantly argued against it. I told him it was
bad theology. I wondered how he could function in life if he believed something
like that. (I’ve mellowed with age.) Eventually I realized that the idea he
called predestination was
an idea I called foreknowledge, which I had no problem with. We held
identical beliefs that we argued about for 90 minutes because were working
from different definitions.

Getting back to my original subject, I think for most people the word courtship tends
to conjure images of a controlling father handing his daughter over to a controlling
husband
and imagining that she’s excited about it, like the smugly satisfied father
I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I don’t think that’s how the Girltalkers
define it. In their first
post on the subject
, the mother of the family explains
that she and her husband educated their daughters early on about what to look
for in a man:

1. Genuine passion for God.
2. Authentic humility.
3. Love for the local church.
4. Biblical convictions about manhood and womanhood.

I think these are all essential traits for a Christian woman to seek in
a husband. The parents also told the girls to consider:

-Do you fully respect this man the way a wife is called to respect her husband?
-Can you eagerly submit to him as the church submits to Christ?
-Do you have faith to follow this man no matter where he may lead?
-Can you love this man with a tender, affectionate love?

Again, these are essential questions for a Christian woman to consider.

When I read the daughters’ love stories, I did not get the sense that they
had overbearing parents who imposed themselves on their nearly-grown children.
I got the idea that the girls loved and respected their parents and actively
sought their counsel. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I hope my
children will feel the same way about me. And if I have a daughter, I intend
to interrogate every single boy who wants to be near her and instill a fear
of God—if not me—in every one of them as well. If I have a son, I intend to
teach him how to treat a woman as if she were God’s own daughter. If I have
one of each, I’ll do both.

In retrospect, I think the evolution of my relationship with Mrs. Happy was
a kind of courtship. We certainly didn’t date in the modern sense. We got to
know each other gradually, under
fairly
neutral
and
controlled
circumstances,
and
our
love grew out of our friendship, quite unintentionally. All the while, I tried
dating other girls. It never worked for me. It always felt forced even
with girls I really
liked.
At times,
I even
asked
advice of my parents about different girls. They both persistently tried to
steer me toward the eventual Mrs. Happy no matter which girl I asked them about.
That’s
not
why
I married
her, but it did give me a little more confidence in my decision. Dating worked
for friends of mine who married before I did and are still happy. The Girltalkers’
courtships obviously worked for them. As long as people are happily married,
maybe it doesn’t really matter how they got there.