President Obama called NBA player Jason Collins last week to praise him for having the courage to publicly announce that he is gay. I wonder … had Mr. Obama been in power in 1996, would he have called my mom and dad too, and congratulated them for their own brand of courage?
1996 was the year that Mom and Dad would have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, but if Mr. Obama had been around to make that call on the actual day (February 15th) it would have been too late. My dad died one week shy of this remarkable milestone.
I say remarkable, because Mom and Dad had every intention of NOT being together at this point in life. Approximately 15 years earlier they decided they were pretty much done. For some reason, they stalled on a full-fledged divorce, and instead filed for a legal separation. (Which turned to have been misfiled, so bore no weight after all.)
My parents had a 20 year gap in age. (I love the horrified gasp that emits from my students every time I share this detail of my life with them.) It’s an intriguing story that I will save in full for another blog, but suffice it to say that at 16, my mom was looking for a way out of a sleepy little town and out of the ups and downs of a father who battled episodes of binge alcoholism. The handsome 35-year-old bachelor who moved in across the street seemed like the perfect answer, and eventually he and my grandparents agreed with her.
The next years brought four kids and a road that led first away and then back to the dull little town. They were challenging times, full of more bills than money, more projects started than finished, uncertainty, bickering. Finally, Mom grew fed up. “I’m moving out,” she announced to my dad. “The kids are raised. I want an adventure.” Routinely passive in most situations, Dad shrugged his shoulders and let her go.
Without a driver’s license or much confidence, Mom made it a whole mile away – to her old bedroom in my grandmother’s house. Grandma suffered from Parkinson’s disease, so having my Mom home again was excellent timing.
I was in college when this change took place. The confusion for friends who came home with me was always interesting. “I thought your parents were separated?” they’d ask.
“But they get along so well.”
That was the funny thing … they really did get along. Almost daily, Mom walked up to the house and had a cup of coffee with Dad, washed his clothes, worked in the garden. One of the hallmark of my parents’ relationship was that they did talk about things. I remember over the years, many mornings when I was awaken by their voices in the kitchen below my room as they sat, coffee cups in hand, discussing the weather, the news, the garden, happenings in town, the past, on and on and on.
“So why are they separated?” The befuddled friends would continue.
“I really don’t know,” I stammered. “I think my mom just needed to find herself. Plus, my dad isn’t very good about finishing most things he starts. My mom wants to live life; he’s slowed down and wants to stay home all the time.”
For the next dozen years she found herself, but not as she had planned. She found herself tending to Grandma, until the point where Grandma’s health was so deteriorated that it was making Mom sick too. Grandma moved to a near by nursing home and my mom rested … but not for long.
By this time, Dad grew gravely ill himself. Here’s the part where I believe my parents deserve that phone call for courage and dedication. Mom moved back home. Reality was not kind … the dreams of a truly romantic life were no more alive than when she moved to my grandmother’s, but I saw something stir in Mom that I don’t know how to put words to. “This is my commitment,” she said to me.
Honestly, I didn’t really understand, but what I watched was amazing and beautiful. My mom selflessly aided Dad through painful, challenging years of a body fighting through emphysema and congestive heart failure. I had never seen her more at peace with herself. She had given up many dreams, but there was something satisfying about stepping outside of her own pursuits and caring about this often frustrating man. I was so proud of her and could not stop the tears when she lovingly placed 40 red roses on my dad’s grave.
There were certainly a lot of imperfect moments and missing pieces, but my parents demonstrated to me what marriage is really about … for better … for worse. Therefore, it was a sweet surprise to learn that they had never been legally separated to begin with.
Marriage is hard; it’s messy. We haven’t done marriage very well in America since the infusion of the sexual revolution. A lot of people use that fact to support their desire to redefine marriage and family even further, but I think it’s extremely sad. Why so much effort to change marriage? Studies have shown over and over that traditional marriage is good for kids; it’s good for society. Why not throw our efforts into making marriages strong and vibrant in this country? Why not support, honor, and celebrate the couples who have given decades to staying in a marriage? Aren’t they the courageous ones?
I often think that we have it backwards when it comes to celebrating marriage. I think we should go back to the small, quiet ceremonies in tiny chapels, living rooms and back yards on wedding days. Then, when come the 10-year, 20-year, 30-year, etc. milestones, BRING ON THE PARTIES! Certainly these accomplishments are worthy of the fanfare.
It’s too late for President Obama to publicly acknowledge my mom and dad with that phone call, but I know so many others who have gone even more years. My friend Ann, for instance, is caring for parents who are in their 90’s. They have celebrated 67 years of married life together. 67 years! Both of them are suffering aggregated health issues. It’s heart-breaking really to hear of their stories of struggle, but it’s also endearing on the deepest levels of human emotions to know that this is where we as people are at our best … sacrificing for one another.
I don’t know much about Jason Collins or his personal decisions. I do know about an institution that when done right, has served societies well. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear stories of our President applauding those who are contributing with enduring marriages? These are truly courageous people! So, Mr. President, I invite you to take me up on this and call my friend’s parents … I’ll get you the number. I think you would be awed to hear their story and recognize their merit. God bless the truly courageous!