The flowers started arriving this weekend. Beautiful bouquets of white and pink roses, pink snaps and lacy baby breaths. The notes attached were from our children, thanking us, telling us how much they love us.
Happy 40th, Mom and Dad, the notes said.
Forty years. There were days, years, when it seemed impossible. Improbable. Years when I was dead certain a divorce was on the horizon. The hurts deep. The betrayals deeper, yet.
Marriage is hard work. Ask anyone who has tried it. There is no formula for success, I don’t care what the self-help books tell you. It’s part alchemy, part perseverance, part prayer, part just giving up some days.
Even now, 40 years into it, I can’t tell you what made ours last this long.
I have plenty of friends whose marriages failed. I don’t fault them or blame them. In many instances, I think they should have given up sooner. Not invested so many of their years into a one-sided affair.
Do not look at us, 40 years hence, and think we have a perfect marriage. The perfect family. We do not now, and we never did.
What we had and still have is an imperfect union that we continually work at. Sit with us on the porch Tim built and we can tell you in excruciating details the failures we faced, the failures we still struggle with.
For reasons I cannot begin to explain this imperfect union of ours works somehow.
It’s a mercy for which we are both so very grateful.
A few weeks ago, I sent the kids a text. “It is easy to remember as parents all the things we’ve done wrong,” I wrote. “Tell us three things we did well. What did we get right?”
I texted that note to all four kids. The first response came from our son. The one child who lives way off, in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. The lessons they remember best are as follows:
“Be kind. Consider those around you. Work your asses off, no matter what” Stephan said.
“Work hard. Treat others with kindness and squeeze the devil out of them even when they treat you like crap,” Konnie said. Only she didn’t use the word crap. LOL. That’s her mama cleaning up her language.
Shelby, the oldest daughter of the bunch, offered these thoughts: “You gave us a wider worldview through travel and experiences that exposed us to places outside of small town Eastern Oregon. We put a lot of miles on those minivans. And by eliminating television and surrounding us with books, you gave us not only a love of reading but also encouraged us to get outside and enjoy the natural world When you did something wrong you apologized. You taught us to always be the first to say ‘I’m sorry.’ To own our mistakes, and seek forgiveness when necessary.”
That last bit? On forgiveness? That may be the most important lesson any of us ever learn.
Ashley, the artist, the one who at age three threw our world into a maze of medical experts we never hoped to encounter, who tested our faith and drove us to our knees, literally, had this to offer: “You taught us faith in God is through a personal relationship with Jesus and allowed us to own that decision. You made Christmas magical and encouraged the spirit of Santa with the complete knowledge and understanding that Jesus was always the true reason for the season. You taught us the importance of community service and giving back to the community. To think about the greater good of society and not just ourselves. You taught us to remember to focus on the good things and to speak out loud the nice things we think and not just complain about the things we don’t like.”
Family came quick to us. Stephan born a year after we were married. Twins three years into it. And Konnie capping it off at our 5th year anniversary. Four kids in five years. It was a lot. There were days, even weeks, when our only conversations revolved around the mundane tasks of daily life.
“Did you fold the laundry?”
“Pick up some milk on your way home, please.”
“Did you send in the rent check?”
“Are we going to Mama’s for Christmas again?”
Creating a family is an evolutionary process. You don’t notice you are creating a thing of beauty until you step back later and look out over the landscape.
We celebrated our 40th anniversary not with $5, $20 wine, and a swanky motel room, but with another adventure. We drove out to the Ochoco Mountains, to see the Painted Hills.
Neither of us had ever been to the Painted Hills before. Forty years of marriage has been nothing less than an exploration of new territory, a mining for the deeper intimacies of life.
It was hard to believe, standing there on the overlook of the Painted Hills that this region was once a jungle, then a swamp, and now this, layers and layers of ever-changing sediment.
It is hard to envision this dry and dusty land as ever being a swamp.
Or a jungle.
Why is the Amazon still a jungle then? I asked. Why isn’t it like this?
Maybe it will be one day, Tim replied. Don’t forget this took millions of years to form.
That’s the thing about marriage, about life, you don’t always recognize the beauty of it until you stand on the edge of it 40 years hence and look back over it.
When you are tromping through the daily muck of life, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the glory that lies ahead.
Forty years hence, I don’t have any great secrets to share. Forming a more perfect union, whether in marriage, or in a government, requires a dedication to higher ideas.
Hope, or a unyielding belief, if you will, that we can be a better people, that we can rise above, that we can look ahead while reflecting upon the past, that at all times, we have a sense that we are in this together, for the good of us all.
We cannot form a more perfect union in isolation, in marriage or in government.
One person cannot carry a marriage.
One party cannot carry a country.
A marriage is a union.
A country is a union.
The formation of a union is an evolutionary process. But in order for that process to proceed, we have to protect all that is sacred -within us, and around us.
We must honor the sacred wherever we encounter it – in each other, in the land, and in the memories and stories that only we and the mountains share.
To all of you who have wished us well, prayed for us, cared for us, befriended us, nurtured us and our children over the years, much honor and love.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A Novel. Mercer University Press.