I walked into a room in the church basement where my parents had first met more than two decades before. I was trying a new Sunday school class designed for single adults between the ages of 18 and 22. I was 19. The first person to greet me was an abnormally tall man we’ll call R. R offered me a firm handshake and then introduced me to some of the other women in the class. I was polite in conversation and appreciated their warm welcome, but I couldn’t stop thinking about R. My hand tingled and burned from its earlier contact with his, and that’s not a physical response I was accustomed to having after a handshake. I had met more handsome men. I had met men who were charming and complimentary and even flirtatious—R had quickly passed me off to the females. I wasn’t looking for love—especially not here. I was taking the maximum load of hours allowed in a semester at my university the next fall, and I struggled enough with taking tests that I didn’t plan to allow for romantic distractions. But my attraction to R did not ask my permission before demanding my undivided attention. I have no idea what the lesson was about that day, and the only name I remember is his.
At the end of the lesson that I do not recall, the director of the class announced that there was a social gathering planned for after church at a local restaurant. She asked for a head count to reserve a table, and I casually glanced around to see if R’s hand was raised before I responded. It was, so I raised mine too. I realized how ridiculous my behavior was. Why was I so drawn to this man?
Two hours later, I arrived at the restaurant. A few of the women I had met earlier were already seated at the table. I took a seat in the middle with one of them to the left of me, two empty seats to my right, and four empty seats across the table. The empty chairs began to fill, but the two seats to my right remained available. Finally, R walked in with a friend. He pulled out the far seat and offered it to his companion; then R sat next to me. I quickly realized that R’s friend was intellectually disabled, and that R had driven him to the restaurant and was buying his meal. So far, he was perfect. We conversed the entire meal. I mostly just listened to him, hanging on every word. I learned that he was single and 27 years old—8 years older than I was. He spoke about his educational and career goals. He also shared with me his personal goals—his ambitions for spiritual growth and character development and his plans for how to achieve them. He was well-spoken (although quite long-winded) and intelligent. He was gentle and sincere. He was ambitious, yet selfless. The clincher for me was when he mentioned that he had acquired a massage therapy license so he would be skilled in massaging his future wife. I think I literally started perspiring. I had to be the woman those hands were made for.
I called my mom from the parking lot as I left the restaurant. “I just met the man I’m going to marry,” I told her as if I had a ring on my finger. She actually took me seriously—I had never said such a thing before. I had only casually dated and never been in love. “Well, at least give me a couple of years to save up for a wedding,” she said, knowing that I usually finish what I start.
R and I met again at another church-sponsored gathering the following Saturday. I brought my cousins with me to the lake property owned by the church for a day of volleyball and grilled hot dogs. My cousins knew about our impending marriage, because I had told them about R on the way. R did not know about it. When I arrived with my cousins, R had his shirt off and was playing sand volleyball. Damn. I had subconsciously labeled him as “average” on a physical attractiveness scale when I met him—and his height made him look so thin in clothes. I’m not sure if it was the well-built body I discovered underneath his shirt or the fact that I had become enamored with him at lunch the week before that gave me heart palpitations when I saw him, but…damn.
R and I spoke for a while at the event, and he spent quite a bit of time talking to my male cousin too. He told me he would be out of the state for the next ten days for his cousin’s wedding clear across the country, and I was disappointed that I wouldn’t see him for the next two Sundays. Before we left, he put his number in my phone and told me to feel free to call him some time. I gave him my number and said, “I don’t call men. You can call me.” I felt so dumb saying that to a 27-year-old man, but it was true. I was still a kid, and it was a rule I had made for myself. I knew that my heart was prone to attachment—I could see myself misinterpreting a friendship and pursuing something more, and I didn’t want to put him in that awkward situation. As soon as we got in the car, my cousin said, “He’s not into you at all. He’s a great guy and I see why you like him, but I don’t want you to get your heart broken.” “I never said he was into me,” I reminded him, “—just that I want to marry him. How he feels about me is completely up to him.” The ball was in his court—if he wanted more than a casual church friendship, he had my number and could initiate it himself.
He didn’t. I didn’t hear from him at all while he was out of the state for his cousin’s wedding. Not even a text message. Even my mom said, “I guess I won’t be paying for a wedding any time soon after all.” I kept my hopes up—surely I would hear from him after the busyness of travel calmed. But ten days passed, then twelve. At the end of thirteen days I decided to just forget about him. He clearly wasn’t interested, and my “I don’t call boys” rule had probably only served to remind him that I was a child, not the object of his romantic affection. C’est la vie.
On day 14 after his departure, the call came. He had been planning to head to a water park with a group of friends, but he had been running errands after his long trip, and his to-do list had taken him into the afternoon. His friends were already at the park, which was 2 hours away. He said he would go if he could find a friend to go with him, and that’s why he was calling me. My heart soared. I couldn’t go, but I was thrilled that he had asked. I explained that my cousins were coming over for spaghetti and board games with me and my sister. “If you end up deciding it’s not worth it to drive two hours to the water park this late in the day, you’re welcome to join us tonight,” I offered. He played a classic card—“It sounds like fun,” he said, “but I’ve had a lot of offers already.” He ran through a list of people who were apparently begging to hang out with him if he chose to stay in town instead of going to the park—but I saw right through it. “OK, well let me know if you change your mind,” I said, knowing he would call back soon. He waited an acceptable amount of time for someone who is pretending that time with established friends is more of a priority than time with a new romantic interest, and then he called back. “Actually, I think I’d rather do board games than hang out with a big group of people tonight. What’s your address?”
He showed up a few hours later on his motorcycle. He met my parents and my sister for the first time, and he already knew my cousins from church. I was completely enthralled with him…but so was my sister. She was only 17 at the time, but she’s the one who got the looks in the family. My parents always introduced her as the pretty one, me as the smart one. The effects last to this day. At my BMI of 21, I’m realizing I’ll never feel thin enough. After two sets of braces, I’ll always critique my own smile. And although I’m the last person to care about physical attractiveness in someone else, I can promise you that surgical enhancement is in my future. I am moderately attractive. My sister is stunningly beautiful—and she knows it. I know that R noticed her beauty and her seductive touch. I kept my distance across the table and watched her hand touch his arm or his thigh at every possible opportunity. I heard the way she laughed at everything he said, and I saw her flirtatious smile every time she caught his eye. Despite that, the evening was fun—he didn’t respond to my sister’s advances. “Maybe we can all go to the water park some time before you go back to school,” he said before he left.
When he had driven off, I walked to my sister’s room and confronted her. It wasn’t catty sibling rivalry—I knew that making accusations would work against me. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it,” I began, “but could you keep a little more distance next time he comes over? I really like this guy, and you’re so much more beautiful than I am that I’m afraid he won’t notice me if you give him too many reasons to notice you.” She didn’t argue with my comparison of our beauty—like I said, she knows it. “Was I flirting?” she asked innocently. “—I had no idea! I definitely don’t want to sabotage anything, so I promise I’ll back off!”
She kept her promise. He came over many times over the next few weeks, and she always gave us time alone. I was also on the worship team with him at church. He played the cello and guitar, and we had weekly practices. Our friendship quickly deepened through these rehearsals, through evenings together, and through phone calls and text messages. One night he called me and asked for advice. An 18-year-old girl in his English class was clearly attracted to him, and he didn’t know how to handle it. He said, “I like her a lot as a friend, but I’m 27. An 18-year-old is way too young for me.” I knew I had to carefully choose my words. If I say that 18 is old enough, he might pick her instead of me. If I agree that 18 is too young, what about 19? Would he not allow our relationship to naturally deepen, fearing my youth? “I think it’s less about age and more about maturity,” I began. “She still lives at home with her parents. I don’t think an eighteen or nineteen year old is necessarily too young for you, but if I were you I wouldn’t date someone who had never lived away from home. At least go for a girl who has moved out of the house and had a year of college.” I’m not very subtle, and he heard my intentions. With my description of myself, I had given him the green light.
Over the coming days he came over more frequently and stayed later. Our conversations deepened, and I realized that he looked more like Jesus than anyone I had ever known. My favorite nights were when he brought his guitar and we worshiped together until the early hours of morning. One night he sat next to me on the couch while we watched a sappy movie—he was always willing to watch them with me, and I loved that about him. He had placed himself closer to me than he usually did, and our arms brushed against each other periodically until they finally came to rest with no space between them. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Is it okay with you that our arms are touching?” I smiled and nodded. “Good,” he continued, “because I kind of like it.”
I know what you’re thinking—it sounds like we’re in 3rd grade on the playground at recess. But I cherished his innocence. Plenty of men had taken so much more from me without asking, and he wanted to make sure I was okay with our arms touching. After the movie he pulled out his guitar and we sang worship songs in harmony and shared scripture with each other until 4 am. When he left that day, he hugged me for the first time, and I felt his lips almost imperceptibly brush against my hair. I get chills just writing about it, because it is one of my favorite affectionate gestures. Touching arms, tight embraces, and sensual kisses between two sets of lips are all mutual. But when a man’s lips rest on a woman’s hair, it says something that these other expressions of affection do not say. It’s an offering that cannot easily be reciprocated. It is love that doesn’t expect anything in return. It says, “You are mine.” I love having my hair played with, and I had said for years to my friends that the way for a man to find my heart is through my hair. When he held me tightly in his arms and kissed the top of my head after 6 hours of worshiping together, I knew that I loved him.
We had our DTR (define-the-relationship…duh) a few weeks later in the wave pool of the same water park he had invited me to before. He expressed his feelings for me in words for the first time, and told me that he wanted to date me with the intent of making me his wife someday. Since I had basically promised myself to him the day that I met him, I didn’t object. We were engaged 2 years later and married another 7 months after that. He proposed in the room where we met—just a few feet away from where my parents met. I was completely surprised, and the setting was perfect—roses, candlelight, a guitar, and a letter. After his proposal, he took me to the restaurant where I decided I wanted to marry him (the day I met him), and he had planned a surprise engagement party there at the same table where I first desired him. The wedding was perfect, too. I wrote about our vows once in a post I deleted—“I will be to you like a tree, firmly planted in streams of water, faithfully yielding its fruit in season, without fear in years of drought.”
Has this marriage been through drought? Yes, and we will go through it again. The marriage that my husband first spoke about eight years ago in a pool at a water park has certainly known thirst and famine. Why have I spent more than 2500 words telling you about how our love began?
I started this post on New Year’s Eve. For days of auld lang syne, I guess. On New Year’s Eve, we were only days away from celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary. I was trying to remind myself of all the reasons that I love my husband, because sometimes I choose not to see them. I have been unfair and unloving. I have hurt my husband deeply, sometimes with my words and more often with my silence. I’m sad to say that reaching six years of marriage was an accomplishment. Isn’t it supposed to be easy for at least the first decade? How did I end up like this? I started this post on New Year’s Eve and added to it on the days leading up to our anniversary. I think we fought all day the day before our anniversary and the morning that marked 6 years. I know it’s largely my fault—I’m still so broken about what has changed in the past few years, and it fuels fights that have nothing to do with whatever trivial thing sets them off. Some time in the late morning on our anniversary, we made up. We both acknowledged we had been wrong, and we didn’t want our stubbornness to ruin a special day. While I was blow-drying my hair later on (a forty minute process), I read over the things I had already written, and I noticed something—so much of what I wrote about hasn’t changed.
My husband is still a friend to those who face challenges he will never face. He is still driven toward worthy goals and the development of character. He is still intelligent and well-spoken, gentle and sincere. He gives me the best massages in the world—oh, those HANDS! He’s still a hottie with his shirt off, and he still tells me I’m beautiful so often that I might someday believe it. He still watches sappy movies with me, and he still kisses my hair every single day. His beliefs have changed. The man I married has not.
We spent the day of our anniversary surrounded by family we were visiting in the Pacific Northwest—no time to truly make up for the morning and the terrible day before. When we were finally alone at a restaurant that evening, I spent an entire two hours trying (tearfully) to put into words how sorry I am for resenting him for my own loss of faith and how much I love him for all the things that have never changed.
This is a memoir of days gone by—of days of auld lang syne. I look back on another year without faith, and as time passes, I’m losing any hope that I’ll ever return to it. But I also look back on a year with a man who has loved me in spite of knowing me. I look back on 8 years of a love that started growing in faith but developed into something organic that can be replanted in different soil and continue to develop roots and ultimately ascend—“I will be to you like a tree…” I also look forward to 6 more years of marriage with the man I love, and maybe even 60 more after that. Because I spent 2500+ words looking back, I am reminded of all the reasons that I can eagerly look forward.
Russell (yes, Russell of Russell & Pascal), please forgive me. Please keep me—if for no other reason than for days of auld lang syne. I can still be the woman you adored—be patient with me and help me adjust to new soil, to lay down new roots. Without fear in years of drought.
“We two have paddled in the stream from morning sun till dine.
But seas between us broad have roared since days of auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend,
And give me a hand of thine.
And we’ll take a right good-will draught for days of auld lang syne.
For days of auld lang syne, my dear
For days of auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
For days of auld lang syne.”
-Robert Burns, “Auld Lang Syne,” English translation
Image courtesy of Christianbed.com, via Wikimedia commons; source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/125992663@N02/14577850796/