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.