One of my dearest friends got married over the weekend, and I had a deluge of feelings about it. Of course, I’m happy for her. That goes without saying. But also, it was difficult and complex for me, and I had to wade through a lot of my own feelings about it, and I think I am still wading through them. One of the most frustrating aspects of grief is the way it seeps into every single moment of life and complicates everything. Weddings have their share of baggage for everyone, and I do not think for a moment that I am unique in having to navigate a labyrinth of emotion surrounding them. But compounding the issue is, of course, the reality that this year I had to start facing the realization that if I ever do get married, it will be without my mom.
Weddings have always been strange for me because I was never exposed to a healthy marriage until I was well into my adult life. And perhaps because of that, I have always deeply desired to be married… not to just anyone, but to the right person. Not that I believe there is one right person for everyone. Rather, as my mother used to say, it’s all in what you can handle. There are people with whom you can be compatible enough to make a life work. With any luck, you’ll find someone who also gives you butterflies and makes you weak in the knees, with whom you have super hot sex, and who is gorgeous. And when you find the right kind of person, a person with whom you can make a healthy and happy adult relationship work and for whom you have strong and compelling feelings, I imagine that things click into place.
Don’t get me wrong, relationships are work. But work shouldn’t be synonymous with struggle. If the relationship is a constant struggle, something is amiss. This has always been how I knew that a relationship isn’t going to work out, when I have felt like I was struggling and kicking just to stay afloat and mildly happy. Because of my upbringing, I sometimes called time of death on relationships prematurely because I was not emotionally intelligent enough to distinguish work from struggle.
It took me a lot of years to understand that it is okay and even normal to work at your relationship. It is mature to be comfortable not always getting your way. It is healthy and good to find someone whose own happiness is so important to you that you strive toward it. Maybe it’s not truly work, though, because when you find that person and you strive toward their happiness, it does not feel at all like striving. Is this a soul mate? Maybe. But if so, then we all have lots of possible soul mates, at least in my opinion.
I have been engaged twice. The first time, I was eighteen years old. We had been dating only a few months when my boyfriend drove me out to the Lindsay Park Yacht Club late in the evening when everything was closed down and the lights from Illinois twinkled across the vast expanse of the black Mississippi river. We had spent so many evenings together here, first as friends and eventually as a couple. On hot summer nights that faded into cool autumn evenings, we would walk quietly along the river, and climb the safety rail so that we could dangle our feet off the stone ledge above the dark water at night. Sometimes we would talk for hours, and other nights we would sit in silence and listen to the water in front of us and the breathing of the city behind us.
On this night, it was freezing cold and I had no idea why we were out here. We spent a lot of time in his car during this era, as both of us were semi-homeless. There are unique aspects of not having your own place to call home, and one of those is being cold often, hanging out in cars, or drafty coffee shops, and just generally being in and out of places and not staying put for very long. You grow to cherish sustained warmth. I was annoyed when he pulled the glove from my hand, and stunned when he slipped a ring onto it as he hurriedly and excitedly explained that he wanted to marry me someday, and he didn’t want this to feel like pressure (I was vehemently opposed to marriage at this point in my life, a bitter and resentful teenager skeptical of the whole institution).
The ring was all wrong, the timing of the engagement was wrong, and the relationship was doomed even then. He would later return that ring and get a different one, a ring with a lower setting that was more suitable to my multiple serving jobs. He would propose to me again in the freezing cold at Vanderveer Park, in the rose garden that was dead and bare in the late Iowa fall. Both times I would say yes, having no idea how to know what I wanted in life, for myself, let alone out of a relationship. Eventually I would all but destroy that poor boy, so uncertain was I how to be a decent human being, so unable was I to let someone love me fully and without reserve.
The second time I got engaged was five years later and I felt at that time like a new person, like a much healthier version of myself than I even knew was possible. I had gotten my GED, had started college, had landed a great job that I loved. I was living on my own, not in a car or on anyone’s couch or in anyone’s basement or on anyone’s living room floor. I was fighting with everything in me to live a life I could be proud of. I didn’t want to date him. We were friends and he had baggage, and I was just starting to feel okay on my own. When having a partner was no longer an economic necessity, it was a game changer for my dating life. I didn’t want to date anyone at this point. I had grown past being bitter about marriage, but had determined that maybe I would never be married because I couldn’t envision finding someone who could be compatible enough with me for it to work long term.
And then I got sick. It was terrifying, my mortality was dangled in front of me, and suddenly things came into focus in a way they hadn’t before. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to date stupid boys who played games and had skewed priorities and didn’t know what they wanted in life. I wanted to settle down. I wanted to build a life to be proud of, and I wanted to do it alongside someone who would work as hard as I would. Out of nowhere I saw with great clarity what I had been too dense to recognize before: here was this person in front of me with whom I had been sharing intimate moments for months, this person who had somehow become my best friend when I wasn’t looking, this person who understood pieces of me and my history that no one I had dated to that point had ever really gotten. He was ready and willing to roll up his sleeves alongside me and get down to business creating a meaningful life to share.
We moved fast, probably too fast in hindsight. We were excited and we were sure of ourselves. While I stood on a stage singing a duet with a friend about getting married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout, a giant sign unrolled in front of me, asking me to marry him and the bar erupted with whistles and clapping. It was November, and we decided to wed in July. But instead of spending the 26th of the following July walking down the aisle as a nervous bride, I walked the pavement of a state park with his family and hundreds of strangers in an effort to raise awareness of mental health issues and to prevent suicide. Our relationship burned hot and fast, depression had swallowed him up, and I landed again in a space where the notion of a future with someone else seemed entirely out of reach.
Like I said, weddings are complex for me.
Do you meet more than one person in a lifetime whose happiness is so compelling that you are willing to pursue it for the rest of your existence? Clearly, yes. But does the brokenness of that first loss – whether through breakup, divorce, or death – somehow cheapen or lessen whatever comes after it?
My dear newlywed friend and I have been through a lot in the past few years. Our friendship started when she was going through a particularly awful breakup. I had just started working at a restaurant in town that would ultimately be responsible for changing my life here. When I had first seen her, she was put together, dressed up and smiling, celebrating her birthday. She was so put together, in fact, that I didn’t expect us to become friends. Her life changed dramatically with that breakup, and she was shattered. She could barely hold herself together for a full shift, and it was through this experience that I saw what a tight-knit group worked at this establishment. They all banded together and held her up and supported her and took care of her.
One day, she sat in the hallway, eyes red and swollen, head down, shoulders slumped. Though we didn’t know each other, it was distressing to see someone in so much pain, to witness someone so broken.
I know we don’t know each other, I said, and I hope you don’t think this is weird…
I sat next to her, resisting the urge to hug her the way my mom would’ve instructed me to do. When people are in pain, you hold them. When someone is hurting, you reach out to them. Physical contact, even just a hand on a shoulder, is such a salve.
…but I have some Xanax in my car… if, um… I mean, if you need some. I’m not a drug dealer or anything, I mean, they’re mine. I just, you seem really upset, so…
She laughed, wiped her tears, sat up straighter and told me she appreciated the offer, but she’d have to pass.
She smoothed her blonde hair, tugged at her black shirt, cleared her throat. I’m fine, she said, gesturing with her hands in front of her, pushing down the air with her palms flat and facing the floor. I would come to know this behavior as an indication that she was anything but fine. I would watch her struggle through another relationship fraught with unhappiness and heartache before she would eventually meet the man who would become her husband. She and I would struggle together with boyfriends who had similar issues with substance and socializing. We would bond over our deep unhappiness in our romantic lives with live-in boyfriends with whom we were totally incompatible. We would sob to each other, and determine that we would just have to be each other’s Person, and we would grieve the ending of those toxic relationships at about the same time.
When she met her now-husband, I had reservations. She and I had moved into our respective apartments at the same time and had promised each other and ourselves that we would stay single and avoid dating in favor of getting to know our selves. We were going to be healthier and less focused on dudes, and we were never going to get into another relationship again that was so obviously square-peg-round-hole. But she was sure she wanted to at least give it a shot with him, and friends support each other, and I had no choice but to trust her to live her own life the best way she saw fit.
I started dating Super Smart Dude shortly thereafter, and I was sure I was happy and healthy, and I wanted the same for her, but I wasn’t sold on her guy. Our friendship would take a hit when I wrote her a diatribe about how I thought she deserved better than the guy she was dating, how I thought she was always selling herself short when she had so much to give. Looking back, I was projecting so much of my own baggage onto her that the grain of truth in the message – that she is a brilliant and beautiful woman who had damn well better not settle – was lost in the sea of negativity. We mended our friendship, carefully and cautiously. She got engaged a few months later.
And then my mom would die while my dear friend was at a conference in Chicago. She would be distraught that she could not get away to come to the funeral, and her fiancé would volunteer to come in her place. He drove thirty-five minutes by himself to a town he doesn’t know, to a church he doesn’t attend, to walk through a room full of people he’d never met just to give me condolences.
There are people I’ve known closely for years who could not be bothered to attend my mother’s funeral, and here he was. He is an enormous man, towering over me even when I was taller than 6’0″ in my heels, yet he appeared timid. He was clearly pushing through his discomfort, doing what he believed to be the right thing. Our exchange was short and our words were few, but we communicated deeply with the look we shared as he filed through the line. He hugged me, greeted my sisters, and left.
In the dating process, we get hung up on a variety of factors like what job the person has, how annoying is their family, what kind of car do they drive, what are their friends like, do they enjoy the same movies and music as us, are they active or sedentary, how do they handle money, do they like cats or dogs, are they tall or thin or attractive or whatever enough? But what it comes down to when choosing with whom to spend the rest of your life is what drives that person’s character. What kind of grace do they exhibit in moments of darkness and turmoil? Do they step up and carry themselves with integrity and love? Are they selfless and mature?
There is no perfect person. There is no such thing as one single soul mate. But if a person is willing to grow and adapt and show kindness and compassion, if they are able to put aside their own discomfort or their own selfish desires, if they are able to be self-aware and perceptive, if they are willing to do the work, if your health and happiness is of the utmost importance to them… then perhaps they are the right kind of person. Turns out, he is the right kind of person for her. And I am convinced that they will have a long and beautiful life together.