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 Aish.com 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.