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McNotes: When Words Fail in Marriage

05.22.16 10:17 PM – Andy McDonald
Author's note: I felt compelled to write this after hearing of the passing of Teresa Libby. Thinking of Gary.

Many years ago I had a coworker named Dave, a sun-baked, sixty-something public works engineer who was always smiling. He seemed to greet every new work day with a sense of purpose and anticipation. That was true even after Dave lost his wife to cancer. They had been married for nearly 40 years.

One morning a friend and I were getting coffee in the break room when Dave walked in, and, apropos of nothing, told us. “You know, I was stopped at a red light this morning on the way to work, and I just started crying. All of a sudden. I just couldn’t stop.”

It had been months since Dave’s wife passed away. He made the declaration with a gentle smile that reflected a sense of detached wonder, as if he was describing hitting a sudden patch of rough weather on the way to the office.
My friend and I, both of us about 25 years old, could think of absolutely nothing to say in response. My marriage was but three years old, and my friend was a happy bachelor. The magnitude of outliving one’s life partner, both tragic and somehow bitter sweet, was utterly lost on us both.

The longer I am married, the more I think about Dave. The more time passes, the more completely I comprehend the utter devastation of his loss. Yet in the day-to-day process of living one’s life, it’s easy to focus too narrowly on muddling through the week, the month, the year. You can forget what you stand to lose when the end of your marriage inevitably comes. And it will come, one way or another.

In thinking about Dave, I have wondered what he regretted. Did he have the chance to say everything he needed to say before his wife was gone? You can tell your wife she’s as beautiful to you now as she was when she was 21, and you can really mean it. The trouble is she’ll never believe you. After 30 years of marriage, she looks in the mirror and sees wrinkles near the corners of her eyes, while you look at those same wrinkles and view them as tiny testaments to promises kept, and each gray strand of hair a reminder of a lasting partnership that was forged at the altar decades ago.

You can smuggle roses into her workplace and write her love notes, your maudlin heart just bleeding onto the page, but everyday life is relentlessly intrusive, rendering such lovesick sentimentality superfluous and slightly ridiculous. Of course this all has to end, she concedes casually and without alarm. All marriages end. But not today. Now what do you want for dinner? Misty Irish sentimentality meets Scandinavian fortitude and pragmatism.

In the end, your words and deeds are lost in the shuffle of just living, and despite your fondest hopes and intentions, it always seems you somehow fail to adequately convey the high compliment that being with her all these years has never grown old. Rather, it has instilled in you a yearning for never wanting your journey with her to end, even though you both know it must.

Many years have passed since those summer days among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down among the fields of gold
You'll remember me when the west wind moves upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky when we walked in fields of gold

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