I learned so much from watching my father’s parents grow old together, then say goodbye.
Mary and Lloyd (Frenchie) seemed to live as distant roommates – married strangers. Looking back on their life, I don’t remember them displaying any physical signs that they loved each other – i’m not saying they didn’t, it was just hard to tell from my perspective. By the time I was a teenager, they had separate rooms in their tiny Biloxi, Mississippi home.
When I was in grad school we got the news that my grandmother had contracted a type of cancer that would take her life in short order. She was in her late 70’s at the time and very quickly began to show physical signs that things weren’t going well.
This had a strange affect on my Grandfather. All of a sudden he began to care for her, to attend to her, to pay attention in a way that I had never seen. He was now her caretaker, her caregiver, her best friend. We all took notice – it was a different dance for him, something we weren’t expecting.
In what seemed like such a short time, Grandma was admitted into the hospital and quickly slipped into a coma. The doctors told us she wouldn’t be waking up. I wasn’t there for this closing scene – my parents related it to me – but we were all dumb-struck.
Grandpa shuffled into her room, stood at the foot of her bed, grabbed her feet and said, looked at her sleeping eyes and said, “60 years was not enough.” I always imagined that he saw her as she was when they first met, only more beautiful. I was reminded of their seemingly un-physical relationship – I had never seen them touch each other. But Grandpa became a different man in the last days of his marriage. He was falling in love with her and mourning the “empty” spaces of their life together.
I’m not sure what drove my grandparents apart. I heard there was quite a bit of unresolved “stuff” in their marriage – things that they just couldn’t seem to shake – pretty common in a marriage. But however impossible those things might have been to overcome, they were quickly and thoroughly annihilated when Grandma got sick. Her impending death would be the end of the distance between them.
While I was deeply touched by the reconciliation that my grandparents were able to experience, I was also floored at how deeply bitterness had affected their life – so deeply that the only thing able to shake it off of them was the loss they suffered. I thought about the bitterness I’ve held to in my life – all the relationships I’ve abandoned – the life that I’ve missed.
Years later, I’ve done some unpacking about my failed relationships and the bitterness that destroyed them. Bitterness doesn’t kill love, it only covers it, so deeply sometimes that we become convinced that the love is gone, the friendship dead. I have a friend who recently kicked her husband out of the house, then divorced him, then moved on to find something better. Her husband had grown distant and despondent towards her, something that broke her heart over and over again. The bitterness between them, unchecked for 15 years or so, grew like a thick blanket, leaving her disconnected from the love she still has for him – completely convinced that she’s “over” him.
It would be great if it worked like that – if we could just wash our hands of the love that we’ve built (discovered?) and “move on.” But it doesn’t work that way, and if we ever run into something painful, heartbreaking, or difficult, for some reason we’ll be able to see through the bitterness we’ve so foolishly allowed to build up – then wail silently as we mourn what could have been. We’ll see the love that’s still somehow burning and feel like complete idiots that we were so deeply duped.
I’m now at a place where I take greater care with my relationships (I’m at least better than I was 10 years ago). When conflict comes, especially when I get my feelings hurt (something I hate admitting but also something that happens so much), I try real hard to silence the pride and voice what’s going on. On a good day I’m willing to take the risk that I’ll get laughed at, further hurt, or worse sit and listen to the other person offer an heartfelt apology then talk about me behind my back. There have been times when my friend and I have come to a deeper place through the conflict. Those times, and the resulting depth of relationship, are truly worth the risk.
My efforts in relationships are less contingent on the other person’s behavior than they used to be. They’re more contingent on the fact that I love and value these people, and that I love and value myself.
My wife is masterful at allowing me to voice my hurt and air my grievances. I’m careful to qualify that the hurt I feel in my marriage is more based on hurts that I suffered long ago before we met. But, thanx mainly to her mature understanding of things, we’ve been able to keep our blanket of bitterness ever so thin – at least thin enough to offer some evidence that there’s something under there – never so thick that we become ignorant of how we really feel about each other.
Relationships are designed to get better, not worse. I can always blame the other person when things are going bad, but relationships that you have to fight for are the best ones, the most valuable ones. I have a responsibility to do my part – to take risks, confront, apologize, pursue, pray, suffer on some occasions, maybe even get in a fist fight if that’s what it takes – so that I might enjoy the one thing in life that has no boundaries.
There are tight restrictions in this universe on how famous you can be, how much money you can have, material possessions, influence, etc. There are no boundaries whatsoever on how many friends you can have (if you’re not picky about what they look like, who they are, etc.). It’s as if something set the cosmos in a way that all but forces us to understand that great friendships are truly the greatest things.
The most wonderful times of my life have all revolved around great friends. When I’m on my death-bed I won’t be comforted by my accomplishments, my wealth, my influence, definitely not my fast fleeting looks. I’ll remember Chris and Brad and Paul and Josh. Elaine, my kids, my Brother, my Parents – all people who I went deep with, and all people who gave life to my world like nothing else.