Showdown at the Sketchy Motel

Near the end of our first year of marriage, Bill and I told some friends we needed a mini-retreat just for the two of us, but we couldn’t afford it. We had some decisions to pray and talk about. I forget what they were, but they were important enough to merit a day in a state park cabin somewhere. Our well-meaning friends mistakenly concluded “get away” meant romance, so they scraped together some funds to make it happen. Early on a Friday afternoon we were alerted to the presence of a white cardboard jewelry box on our back porch.  Laid across the cotton inside the box was a motel key and under it an envelope with ten bucks for dinner out on the town. Our friends were poor graduate students like us, but they did the best they could.

I possess the uncanny ability to shift gears in the time it takes to turn the key in the door of a sleazy downtown Fort Worth, Texas, motel room. In my mind, just like that, our spiritual retreat turned into a steamy rendezvous. If Victoria’s Secret had existed back then, I would have skimmed some grocery money to up the ante on our first night in a motel since our honeymoon. Bill, on the other hand, has a need for what we now affectionately call “conditioning prior to change.” He doesn’t warm up to new plans overnight, which was less time than he had to adjust in this instance. So while I was packing candles, matches, bubble bath, and something indecently lacey in my bag, Bill was stuffing his books into his briefcase because he had a lot of homework that weekend.

Somehow I failed to notice the presence of the briefcase until the elevator ride to our room. Talk about getting our signals crossed.

Before I walk you into that ill-fated motel room, let me take you back two years to a conversation Bill and I had in the parking lot of the Dunkin Donuts on Buford Highway in Atlanta. That way, I’ll give the necessary background to adequately convey the colossal proportions of the argument we had in the dingy little Fort Worth motel room two years later.

I now believe most marriages have at least one tender spot, perhaps the marital version of the “thorn in the flesh,” a dark theme that plays hauntingly and recurrently beneath the melody. Our conversation in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot introduced us for the first time to our theme. It was just a peek, but it was unmistakable one.

We had been dating a few months, Bill had already told me he loved me, but I had no idea what he thought of how I looked. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I flat out asked him. I think I disclaimered it to death, but the bottom line was: “Do you think I’m ugly or pretty or somewhere in between?”

At that moment, he had no idea how much I needed this information. He reassured me in so many words, and he explained that he thought Christian girls didn’t want to be objectified like that. And I’d agree that we don’t, not by just anybody. But by our fiancés or husbands, oh yes. Am I right? I know it seems a little silly, but this conversation defined our theme: I needed an inordinate amount of affirmation and affection from Bill, and he, by nature and on principle, was somewhat stingy with it.

Our theme is a collision of our backgrounds and our emotional hardwiring. I grew up in a family that placed a high value on physical affection and verbal affirmation. The first time Bill came to visit, my mother accidentally patted him on the rear. (She meant to swat me, but Bill and I had just switched places. To her credit, she was almost as mortified as Bill was.) Overt affection is like a gene I can’t escape. It’s a wonder he stuck around. Bill grew up in a family that is the exact opposite. The only affection he ever experienced was from a crazy—not kidding—great aunt whose first act upon entering their home was to wipe her lipstick off with the back of her hand in anticipation of kissing you, and who insisted on pulling you onto her lap . . . at the baseball field when you’re in your little league uniform. All other expressions of love in his home were of the solid, service-rendering variety. No frills. So it’s no wonder he could not see that I might die from lack of affection and affirmation. No wonder my overtures and my questions made him feel awkward and even, I hate to think of it now, inadequate.

Bill and I know our “theme” inside out now. Most of the historic moments in our marriage center around some version of it. We are better at talking about it, getting past it, even celebrating it than ever now. We see it coming from a mile away. And we hardly ever freak out about it when it does. 

A Radical Decision

In the two years between the Dunkin Donuts conversation and the Fort Worth motel, we had become more familiar with our theme. But still, it took us by surprise every time. It’s like the same thief broke into our home over and over, breaking glass, stealing silver, scaring the living daylights out of us. We felt a little powerless against it.

Robert Frost said, “The best way around is always through.” That night in the downtown Fort Worth motel we went through our theme instead of around it for the first time. But not before getting stuck, big time, at the entrance. That night was one of only a handful of times in over thirty years that we went to bed still hurt and angry. I cried myself to sleep, replaying every word until I thought I’d retch. Bill slept. The final insult.  

We can’t remember the argument now, not one word of it. I just know it had something to do with what I packed and what he packed, with the expectations more than the lingerie and the textbooks. The conclusion I drew when we finally quit talking because our talking was only making things worse, was that I would never get what I needed from my husband. I would not leave, so I was stuck. He felt—and this pains me to say more than anything—that he would never be able to cross the great divide between us. It was the impasse of all impasses. Until the sun came up.

What happened next is now such a familiar part of our history, I forget how radical it was. We shared this story with a group of young couples in our home recently and watched as they gave each other knowing looks. Many of them recognized our theme song because a similar version of it played in the backgrounds of their own marriages. When we got to the part about going to bed without a solution, they interrupted us, knowing how well we mesh thirty-plus years later, and asked, “So, what did you do?”

We told them about the unilateral decision we made the next morning that changed everything, that changed us. We were surprised when most of them seemed shocked and said, “No way! Never! That wouldn’t work.” Clearly, we’d hit a nerve.

I think it started as Bill’s idea, but I readily agreed. For two entire months, I fasted from showing affection of any kind to Bill. I’d developed this ugly habit of oozing affection toward him in an effort to get it from him. It had to stop. He, by default, considered that for affection to exist between us at all, it would fall upon him to initiate it. I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about something more pervasive and, in many ways, more powerful. Any touch, any handholding, any embrace, any stroke of a finger across an arm, any sitting so close that our thighs touched, any pats on the shoulder even, these would cease to be a part of our life together unless Bill made the effort.

Because, you see, I was so quick to initiate what came naturally to me, I had never given him the chance.

Dying to Live

To go through our dark theme and emerge in the light on the other side, something had to die. According to Jesus, death is the first choice on the way to life. Something in our marriage had to die. Not wane, not get managed, not be circumvented. Die, as in dealt a final blow.

That’s what we did over thirty years ago in the downtown motel. We died. I died to my right to be loved the way I thought I needed or deserved. Bill died to his right to cherish me in his own way alone, to doing only what came naturally to him. Together, but each in our own necessary ways, we died.

How did it work out? If you’d interviewed the young us two months later, I’m pretty sure we would have glanced at each other, held hands more tightly and replied that death is worth it every time. But what about now? Sure, I still have times when my need for affection is a fraction greater than Bill’s capacity to give it. He still has moments when he is bewildered by my neediness. But the trajectory of our marriage was redirected that night. We died so we could live, and we do it over and over again. This is the reason those young couples gathered in our living room were so shocked by what they heard. Death, the ultimate action of grace, is a big risk.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take. And it has paid off, big time. Giving Bill grace in this area freed him to grow and lead and give. I am, almost always, a satisfied woman as a result. So satisfied that I wasn’t all that surprised by an entry I discovered not long ago in his journal from 1977, the year we met. Maybe he wasn’t very verbally affirming or affectionate back then, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t inside of him. A week after our first date, he wrote about my character and personality, and then he added, “and all in a pretty package, too.” His affection was in there all along, at the Dunkin Donuts, at the Fort Worth motel, and, I am sure of this because he does such a good job showing me, it is there now. I just had to die to make room for it. 

Our Wedding Picture

These days, people laugh when they see our wedding picture. And then they say mildly condescending things like, “You both look so young.” (Since we’re ancient now.) Or obligatory things like, “You look beautiful.” Or curious things like, “Where did you find brown tuxes? And those ties…? What’s up with your flowers?” Or honest things like, “Ha ha, that’s hilarious!”

{This picture, the one of us in a swift march outa there to the victorious and riotous sound of a pipe organ playing the Hallelujah chorus, that picture is my favorite. I look ecstatic and my husband looks satisfied. I think it may be the truest picture of us I’ve ever seen.}

I look at our wedding picture and I ask, “How did we—young, oddly-dressed, hippie-wanna-be, incredibly naïve us—get it so right? Surely we were not all that smart?” I look at my husband in his brown tux, specifically a brown cutaway with a very fussy striped cravat, and I wonder, “What did I see in him?” I don’t mean that there wasn’t anything to see, I mean that I did not have adequate wisdom to know exactly what I was seeing. How could I know what snagging him—him—was going to mean after we sailed down the aisle and even further down the road of life?

I couldn’t know it then, but that’s the glorious gamble of marriage. It can turn out a lot like a favorite wedding picture, a photograph that, for us, documents the thirty-five-year miracle God started on our wedding day. We got older than that picture, but because it happened slowly and simultaneously, we don’t mind all that much. Besides, if we squint just right (or take off our glasses) we can still see a part of the younger us when we look at each other now. Try it some day in your future, you’ll see.

The picture also records the mistakes of our wedding day, like the bouquet I told our florist could have almost anything in it except daisies or flowers dyed unnatural colors. What did I get? Daisies, dyed all kinds of fake colors found absolutely nowhere in nature. My bouquet looked radioactive. But the mistakes get eclipsed by the magic and meaning of your wedding day and they’re remembered later as funny jokes. Marriage, if you’ll let it, has plenty of magic and meaning in it to eclipse the many mistakes you’ll make and turn them into comedy.

And then there are the things you remember because they defined your day. We defied the stationer who told us he would not print our invitations unless we used the traditional wording in them. (Can you believe that?) We handed out little scrolls with a message in them to our guests . . . and this was “not done” back then. We asked the organist to blast out the Hallelujah chorus for our recessional in a classic overstatement that, again, was more than a little rebellious.

Remember, it was 35 years ago. Things were really different back then, and I can prove it. Just look at my wedding picture.


Love Like You’re Dying

My husband started dying six months before our wedding.

Dying, yes, in the way of all flesh. As in the way a newborn begins to age after its first breath. The way the sticker price on a new car plummets as soon as you drive it off the lot. The way tender green leaves turn, toughen, and fall. Dying in that universal human way. But dying also more visibly than the average 23-year-old typically does. Dying more surely than any freshly graduated, almost newly married, virile and viable sample of humankind ever should.

Sometimes I wonder if the journey, the real one of our life together, began the night I met Bill at the gate of the Nashville airport and saw the white square of gauze taped to his neck.

The white square hid the hole where the lump had been. Bill’s glossy black hair that was to fall out in a few months brushed the bandage under his ear. Here’s the short list of what that bandage foretold:

Twenty pounds of strength that radiation would chase off of his body in the weeks to come. A neck that would never again suggest “football player.” Inches off the vertical leap he would mourn on the basketball court when he finally got back out there. A voice that crackled with a smoker’s static for the rest of his life. A long season of nausea and an even longer season of fatigue. Losses that most men have decades to experience gradually, that most of them don’t even notice until they reach middle age. The white square of gauze was the billboard that announced, “Cancer: This is Really Happening.”

We embraced in the airport and walked to the car in a holy wake. We cried together a few days later after reading up on his particular disease in the encyclopedia. (An old encyclopedia that filled our young heads with misinformed dread.) We spoke of a funeral and a shorter engagement and how disappointed we were at the prospect of losing time and each other. Already, dying made life together other a sacrament. It made the petty fractures between us seem very small. Dying changed us.

Jesus said not to fear the person—or I would add the disease—that can kill you. Because these things “can only kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God…” (Matthew 10:28 NLT) So what is left when the fear of death is stumbled upon and somewhat subdued? A soul. And a healthy fear of God.

That was the gift left on the doorstep of our marriage. We were souls more than we were bodies. And we had this handy view of God as the one who could fill the former and do whatever he wanted with the latter. That doesn’t mean we began our marriage like two disembodied wraiths, floating over the threshold of our new home with no thought for the corporeal thrills of a setting up house with shiny wedding gifts, a shared last name, and hand-me-down furniture, including my great-grandparent’s re-finished marriage bed.

I still don’t get how this works, but diving headfirst into Jesus’ truth about life—that we lose it when we cling to it, and we find it when we let it go—can transfigure even the smallest “this life” things we experience. The hairs on our heads—what could be less soul-related?—are numbered and valued. Which I take to mean our stuff and our concerns matter too. Because we matter.

I didn’t know any of this then. I just knew we had escaped death—Bill’s death and my pain if he’d died—only to emerge thankful to God and more soul-aware than we might have been otherwise. We started our life together with the kind of spiritual relief that most people don’t fully feel until they are old enough to have dodged a hail of bullets. To use an overly and misused word, we were in awe. Something about that awe—maybe because it was from and toward God himself?—gave us a rich soil in which to grow our little marriage seedling. As if we were farming inside a terrarium.

What Almost Dying Does

It’s amazing what almost dying can do for a relationship. It can age a young marriage. In many ways, it did ours. We learned earlier than most that loving mightily is only possible in the shadow of dying. Loving is what our hearts long to do. Dying is what none of us can escape. The truth is, loving well is only possible when we die. Not just physical death someday, but daily death to myself. How else can I get out of the way and let Christ live through me?

And almost dying can make an old marriage young. My parents were exhibiting a touch of the crankiness that comes with aging when my Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. In the 18 months that followed, the cord between them that had become just a tad crooked straightened out into this lovely line of marital bliss—I’m not exaggerating, ask anyone who knows them—until my Daddy finally left this earth. The prescience of death gave them an anti-aging inoculation against the ills of long, later-life marriage. This serum didn’t just fend off cantankerousness, it all but eradicated it.

I’m not saying almost dying can make you nicer to each other. And I admit actually dying is very different from almost dying followed by the reprieve of living. But proximity to death does implant a reminder that today could be the last day. If this word is my last, this gift, this meal, this moment, this purchase, this decision, this embrace, this restriction, this permission, this touch, this kiss, then I’d want to make it memorable. Or important. Or at least nice.

But is having a nice marriage the end goal? We not only didn’t want one of those when we started out, we were afraid of settling for one. I’m guessing you feel the same way. You’d rather to raise the bar, not lower it. You know married love can be, as Job said, “stronger than death.” And you don’t want that strength to weaken or fade.

You also know what it feels like, if only for a ghost of a moment, for the plane that just took off with your love on board to crash in your imagination. To entertain, late at night all alone, the “what if” of disaster. To sense the eventuality of every living thing—death—becoming the now.

For some reason, learning that “human existence is as frail as a breath” (Psalm 39:11, NLT), for us, led to a keen understanding that we were “travelers passing through.” Once I knew it and he knew it, we could know it together.  (I’ve discovered this: If I don’t grasp truth as me, we won’t as us.) Because life is a temporary state, marriage is a temporary state, too.

Which can make for a miraculous now.