The day after our daughter’s wedding, our neighbor Helen dropped in for coffee. Helen had become a mentor to me as I observed the manner in which she faced life’s challenges with grace, dignity, and a consistent partnership with Roger. As Helen and I were recalling the details of the wedding, Helen commented:, “It was such a beautiful ceremony. And they are such a loving couple.”
“Yes it was a very nice wedding” I responded. “And they are indeed in love…but they are so young. And one’s love changes after you’ve been together for some length of time.”
Helen and Roger had been married fifty years at the time—almost double the years I had shared with Keith. I knew they had faced many challenges during those years: struggles to find the money to put Roger through medical school, the death of their first child shortly after birth, followed by a life-long challenge of coping with the mental illness of their next child. And, at a time when mixed race marriages were not well accepted, their only daughter had married an African American man. Now they were facing Roger’s incurable colon cancer.
“Oh Virginia,” Helen continued, as she placed her hand gently on my arm and looked at me directly; “You don’t get married, you become married.”
From that day on, ‘you become married’ became a touchstone phrase for Keith and me. A beautiful reminder that change is an ongoing, innate reality and necessity of marriage—as well as of life itself. The word ‘becoming’ suggests the need for a continual mindset of adopting, altering, modifying, adjusting, amending, and even at times, discarding, in order to better accept and adapt to the continual changes of life.
‘Becoming’ has helped Keith and me transition through the years. The word has reminded us to accept how life itself refines and redesigns us, often without our awareness. Many of the ‘becomings’ Keith and I experienced seemed a normal part of life; such as the arrival of our first baby and then a second, job changes, numerous relocations, and our commitment to continuing education. Yet each of our choices transfigured us in some way and continued the evolution of our ‘becoming’.
Years ago I saw a play, the title of which I have forgotten, but I remember well two lines which have stayed with me. In one of the final scenes a couple is sitting on a sofa in their living room, discussing their decision to divorce; reflecting with sadness how their marriage had deteriorated during their many years together and wondering how this had happened. There is a brief pause in their conversation before the wife turns toward her partner and discloses, “I’ve changed. I’ve changed a lot, over the years.” After a long pause, her husband responds with a hint of insight, as well as regret. “But you never told me you changed.”
Keith and I have learned that telling each other of our ‘becoming’ is as crucial to the well-being of our relationship as is the ‘becoming’ itself. We can’t assume that just because we’ve been married for a long time, we know when one of us has changed our mind about something of significance or even something that may seem trivial at the time (but is often not trivial to the one making the change.)
It was a long, slow, ‘becoming’ after Keith became impotent. Not only was his body permanently damaged, but so was his mental and emotional wellbeing. Keith’s penis no longer responded to my touch as it had before (and still doesn’t), thus, there was no physical sign to indicate Keith was aroused. Telling was crucial to understanding the change. And accepting was vital for us to ‘become’ lovers again.
Understanding the important combination of becoming and telling, has served us well as we’ve aged and experience physical and emotional changes. After my hysterectomy, my vaginal lubrication decreased and for a time I felt ‘less of a woman,’ as I pictured a dark void where my female organs had once been. I’ve developed some arthritis in my hips which causes me to be less limber and agile as I was in the past. And Keith is uncomfortable being on top of me during intercourse due to reflux. And for both of us, sexual drive has lessened.
We accept these changes as a natural process of aging. But we also have told each other of our sense of loss and grief; understanding that doing so is part of the process of the becoming and telling of our ever changing bodies, minds and attitudes.
Keith has a very dry sense of humor and often in the midst of some our most challenging times, will say, “Life is the greatest cause of change.”
And I would add: “Telling our significant other we changed is the greatest path to acceptance.”