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Our Most Romantic Year

Our Most Romantic Year

The worst year in our lives was also our best.


A friend once confided in me that she was unhappy in her new marriage. At work, she was getting promoted and scaling new professional heights. She looked forward to the new challenges and the dazzling opportunities around her. But her marriage already felt stale. Compared with the rest of her life, there was no “sense of mystery;” everything was mapped out. Romantically, she felt the best years of her life were already behind her.

Unsurprisingly, she and her husband divorced soon afterwards. I’ve lost touch with that friend, but her words have stayed with me.

They would surface at inopportune times. I remembered them the night my husband and I booked a babysitter and then spent our “date” buying groceries in the supermarket. (Our kids were really young then, and we were so sleep-deprived we just couldn’t face doing anything more fun.) I thought of my friend’s words when our favorite restaurant relocated to a suburban strip mall, and that boring location became our destination for big events like special birthdays and anniversaries.

Sometimes the words “no sense of mystery” swelled in my consciousness when my husband and I would finish each other’s sentences, when we would go whole weeks talking only about our kids, when we would spend our evenings playing family board games instead of going out the way we used to when we were first married. A while back, my husband read a review of a new, trendy music venue and suggested we go. “Are you kidding?” I blurted out, pointing out that we’re tired when we go to sleep much past the kids’ bedtimes.

“You’re right,” he said sheepishly. It seemed that our time of thrilling romance was all in the past.

Something really unromantic happened. My husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Having everything seemingly settled wasn’t all bad, I thought. I love my husband, after all. Even though I used to enjoy dating (the dressing up, the going to nice restaurants, the “sense of mystery”), I was far happier to have found the person I was looking for. Even my husband seemed resigned to a long, slow slide into the status quo. He mentioned to me he’d told a younger colleague – who was in the midst of lots of life changes – that changes stop piling up after a while, that life becomes less exciting, that slowing down is only to be expected.

Then, just as we were consigning ourselves to a boring version of middle age, something really unromantic happened. My husband noticed a lump and was diagnosed with cancer. This was a change indeed. Not the fun, going forward kind, but the kind that threatened to bring an end, God forbid, to everything.

Suddenly we were going out all the time, to doctors’ appointments and hospitals all around the city. We thought of our child-centric schedule as uninteresting, but now all I wanted was for my husband to be there as our kids grew up. We were sure there was no more mystery in our lives, but now we had nothing but mystery – an aching uncertainty about our future.

I regretted all the time I didn’t appreciate what we had – all the times I thought our life together had evolved into something boring, into a partnership that lacked the excitement and romance of our earlier years. In the midst of my husband’s health crisis, I was ready to do anything to get “boring” back.

My husband and I moved into emergency mode. We prayed. We pledged charity. We committed to doing more for others. We reached out to our community. We said we loved each other. We tried to appreciate everything our lives more: each other, our kids, our parents, our friends, our siblings.

More importantly, we started to wake up from our torpor. We stopped defining excitement and romance as the chance to go out and do something exciting, and started seeing it as something internal we could create. For the first time in years we asked ourselves what exactly we were living for. All the usual clichés applied – except they didn’t seem like clichés to us anymore. We’d been caught up in trivial details, and were suddenly reminded that only a few things really mattered in the scheme of things: our family, each other. Work, hobbies, possessions, our routines –we couldn’t believe we’d ever lavished so much time or attention on them.

In the midst of all this – when, thank God, my husband’s condition had stabilized, I participated in a marriage workshop led by writer Sara Yoheved Rigler. She was discussing the idea that we can always learn more about our spouse. A woman asked a question that was on the tip of my tongue: “After so many years of marriage, is that really true? Don’t I know all there is to know by now?”

The answer, which was a question, startled me: “If you were to ask your husband what the best year of his life has been, what would he answer?”

I thought I knew; the year we got married and had our first son. But maybe not. Perhaps it was one year when he was a child, happy and carefree. Maybe it was when he was in medical school…. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure any more. The next night, I asked him.

“This year,” he replied.

“This year?” I echoed. “The best year of your life is the year you’ve had cancer?”

He nodded. “Yeah, it’s been terrible, but everything else was pretty good.”

The year we were in crisis. The year we kept saying “I love you.“ The year we lived life with zeal we hadn’t had before.

I thought about it. The year we were in crisis. The year we kept saying “I love you.“ The year we lived life with zeal we hadn’t had before. The year we valued every second. The year we stood by each other, tried to be strong for each other, connected more than ever. The year we made time for each other, and actually talked about our hopes and dreams. The year we had the chance to give to each other – not small favors, but big things too: endless doctors’ appointment, endless encouragement, moral support, company, empathy, reassurance, love.

We didn’t go out on dates. We didn’t have any fun. But we connected like never before.

I thought back to all the fun we used to have. Certainly, nice dinners, concerts, movies and the like helped us get to know each other when we first met. Enjoying events through the years together also helped us relax, reconnect, and strengthen our marriage.

Yet during the past year, as my husband and I were forced to share the burden of his illness, we somehow were able to connect deeper still. Some of our most tender moments occurred as we cheered each other up in doctor’s waiting rooms. I wouldn’t have chosen them, but our “hospital dates” deepened our bond in a very meaningful way.

The past year was the worst in our lives – and it was also our best.

February 16, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 17

(13) Tonna, February 20, 2013 6:12 AM

so true!

Your article was so very true! After losing my David back in December 2112...I can honestly say that I believe our most precious time together was the night and early hours in the morning before he passed. I was with him at the hospital, while his son, daughter, sister and his ex-wife had gone to rest at the hotel where they were staying nearby. It was just the two of us (though surrounded by doctors and nurses on the cardiac ward)...we were all alone in our own world. I had often told David that this time of the day was my most cherished time because it was as if we were the only two people in the world. This night, we truly were. Though unable to speak with his words...his face...his precious smile and beautiful eyes spoke volumes! We talked well into the night. I was recalling for him all of the stories of his life that he had told me over the past few years. His eyes would light up, he would smile...and I would ask him if he wanted a kiss? He "said" yes by blinking and giving me a big smile...I will hold in my heart for the rest of my life, the blessings of those many, many kisses and smiles...and love! My heart was so full those few hours...G-d blessed us both with the very precious gift of time alone together...I will be forever grateful for that gift! My David, may his memory be for a blessing, was the love of my life and my best friend...and though he had said those same words to me in the past...that night I was never more aware of that very truth. In those last hours we were beautifully living the the words from the Song of Songs..."I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine". For your article Ms. Miller...Baruch Hashem!

(12) Anonymous, February 19, 2013 9:45 PM

be careful...

Ok, this perspective may sound negative but it should be said. Articles like this (and there are many) were very damaging to me when my young husband fought cancer. To romanticize the experience and brag publicly about how it strengthened your relationship is to create an unfair and unrealistic standard for others to measure themselves against. There is a Torah idea of ayin hara- don't flaunt your blessings so that others shouldn't be jealous. The reality of illness and treatment for most people is that it strains a marriage, sometimes with long-term effects. At the very least normalize this, please, and don't hurt more marriages with this fantasy.

Yvette Alt Miller, February 20, 2013 1:04 PM

Thank you for this very important point. I've been fascinated by the comments here, in part because they describe courage and experiences that I cannot even imagine. Thank G-d, my husband and I have not yet had to experience an illness of the severity described here. I cannot even imagine how we would feel were we, G-d forbid, tested with even more serious illness. (You imply that this would not have been such an up-beat article, and it's very possible that would be so.) All I can describe is our own, very specific, experience. Everyone has a different set of challenges and everyone reacts to their circumstances in an individual way. It was my hope to share one insight that my husband and I gained, not to romanticize suffering.

Deb, February 23, 2013 8:10 PM

Strive to be like Leah

Living with constant envy of others breeds anger. People with no useful way to express that anger turn it back on themselves. Jealousy is the root of all human conflict. I am sorry for your loss. You are depressed, understandably. I will pray for your peace.

C.D.Urbach, March 1, 2013 4:48 PM

To "Deb"

Your words (addressed to #12 I'm guessing) sound condescending. And your added "I will pray for your peace" is no less so. Clearly, someone who has witnessed the deterioration of a marriage (making the cancer a double-crisis) is going to feel some measure of pain reading about how different things might have been. Even the author responded sympathetically.

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