18 years ago this weekend, I married the most wonderful, caring, hard-working, beautiful woman. But as lovely as my wife is, and as much as I looked forward to our wedding, I had no idea what I was getting into. This became quickly evident to me.
Two weeks after we wed, my father-in-law passed away. We knew this was coming as he had been sick for quite a while. He fought just to make it to the wedding. But suddenly, I am two weeks into marriage and there is this massive family crisis. I had no idea what to do. No clue how to be a good husband, much less a good husband in the midst of pain and suffering.
I was suddenly part of a family dealing with a devastating loss. I was grieving with relatives I barely knew, many of whom I had only met for the first time two weeks before. I was an insider but not really. I was family, sort of. And more than anything I wanted to help my wife, but I was woefully inept.
The night before the memorial service we gathered at the funeral home for a visitation. Many family, friends and church people came to show their respect. I did the only thing I knew to do; I stood by my wife and held her hand. Many people came to us and offered a strange mix of congratulations and condolences. It was surreal.
But then, it went to a whole other level. A young couple came up to speak with us. I didn’t know them, but assumed my wife must (as it turned out she didn’t, to this day we have no idea who they were). They offered their sympathy and then the woman said something I will never forget. She said, “My father passed away almost ten years ago. And I just want you to know that after all this time it still hurts the same. It never gets better.” Then they walked away.
I was horrified. I probably should have felt some tinge of sympathy for the woman but all I could think about was my wife. How could anyone say such a thing? My wife stared straight ahead as the couple eased away. She began to shake and I gripped her hand as tightly as possible. I prepared myself for the devastated mourning about to be unleashed. And then she turned and looked at me, and laughed. Not a polite little giggle, but full on laughter. And I immediately began laughing with her. What else could you do?
We pulled away from the crowd and tried to compose ourselves. There was sadness in my wife’s eyes, but also a strange joy. We talked about how we felt sorry for the young woman, but also discussed how we couldn’t believe anyone could say such a thing at that moment. We laughed some more. We kissed. We laughed. We returned to the crowd, stronger and more truly married.
As I have reflected many times about the events surrounding that time in our lives, I always end up in the same place: the two of us laughing in a funeral home. I think in many ways that moment distills the essence of marriage.
Life is certainly not perfect. You don’t get to pick when tragedy happens. And even now, although I believe I am much better equipped, I still don’t know exactly what to do in the face of real pain. But in that moment I learned something so valuable, so precious, so life-giving that it has propelled me ever since. Marriage is about knowing you have someone you can laugh with in the face of death. It is about being able to be truly you, completely you, no matter if that seems inappropriate or counter to the situation. I may not have known what to do in those difficult days, but I had found someone who I could look in the eye and love and laugh with. No matter the situation. I had found something priceless. Not a good wife or great marriage. No, more valuable than those. I had found a best friend, a soul mate, a partner in crime for all eternity.