The ocean is a mossy green. Dusk announces itself with white splashing walls sprayed by consistent waves. The waters seem to know something they are unwilling to share. Or maybe it’s that the vacationers are choosing to ignore. The wind isn’t afraid to speak up, making it obvious that the night is anything but calm.
I’m back in the taxi ride from earlier today. The driver came to pick us up a little before nine, right after breakfast—even though my kids were already asking for lunch. I had to pick up an antibiotic for Madelynn. Her little body refuses to let go of the heat, confusing me if it’s too much sun or a fever or both.
I was wondering why I hadn’t just rented a car with all the errands illness requires. Talking on top of my thoughts, the driver layered my day with his story. He's been married twelve years, half of that time spent separated and the other half not really together but still under the same roof. Renting out his apartment is a better financial decision than fighting with two mortgages.
He holds his opinion when people tell him they are on their honeymoon. I guess I’m swinging on my post-marriage moon, so he feels freer to tell me what he really thinks.
We met him the very first day we were here, actually my mom did. She secured our ride from the airport to the hotel and chatted most of the way. Handing her a card, he promised to help us in any way he could.
Last week when we went to buy groceries he asked, “Who’s missing?” I played dumb. I told him my dad had to work, so my mom came alone with me and my kids. He repeated the question.
“Right, but who’s missing?”
"Missing?" I said.
He raised his eyebrows and waited.
“Oh, you mean my husband?” I asked.
Waving his hand in a circular motion, arm stretched out of the cab window, he signaled me to keep going.
“Well…my husband, Shawn, was killed three years ago. He was a police officer, killed in the line of duty.”
I marveled at how the words rolled off my tongue in the same way I explain I’m from Minnesota, that it’s cold where I live and that Jordan goes to a bi-lingual school and his sister, Maddi, can’t wait to go there too, but still has another year left of preschool.
I caught his glance in the rear view mirror and couldn’t tell if he was sorry he had asked or satisfied with my honesty. He just nodded as if it all made sense and that was the part that felt a bit like a betrayal, because there is nothing that makes sense about me being in Puerto Rico surrounded by couples trying to decide what to do with their free time and I with two young children, one of which has strep and the other a bad cough, trying to decide if I really like to travel or if I’m just trying to escape.
Somewhere between an eleven year old son and an almost two year old daughter, life’s demands and years of clashing communication created a wedge between them. He really couldn’t explain it. He told me they are different, that she tells him he could do better. Not in a self-pitying sort of way, more like a bitter remark made after an argument to make sure she has had the last word.
Maybe its jealousy of his business, taxiing a transient, adventurous minority—a population that makes believe one week is really life. No one really knows what awaits the husband and wife back home in Connecticut or the pressures consuming the college girls to fit in while on Spring Break and then long
Regardless of what she says, he described her as strong and set in her ways, rarely showing emotion.
Then came the saddest sentence I’ve ever heard to describe marriage, he switched to Spanish to make sure he explained himself clearly (not that I would understand Spanish better than English, but I don’t think he was telling me these details for my sake, he appeared to need to talk them out for himself.)
“When I come home it’s like no one knows I’ve entered…you’d never guess I’ve been gone all day…working hard, she doesn’t even look up.”
How does this happen? Too effortless I suppose. Painful marriages, restless relationships, discontent lives. When does the distance begin to make its home inside two people? Where is the shift from the attraction of engagement to the reality of being pronounced man and wife? Is it from day one? Is it right after the I do’s that a person wakes up and starts saying, I don’t.
The biggest misunderstanding I see with marriage is the notion of serving. A false illusion for happiness argues, "I want my marriage to serve me."
Contentment doesn't work that way, nor does getting what we want. It's a paradox. Just like having a baby is matched with labor pains, losing weight takes exertion, passing the bar exam requires studying, job promotions usually mean extra effort and making the basketball team takes practice.
I once read when Michael Jordan tried out for the high school basketball team he raced to the gym on the day the team list was posted. His name was not there. He was miserable. His misery changed his life. He went home and practiced every night for four to six hours–for a year. Move after move. Shot after shot.
The next year when he tried out, he made the team. He would go on to become one of the best basketball players of all time and his start began with relentless work.
The moment one person in the relationship says, "I will serve you" a secret well is opened. The problem is not many know the secret.
There is so much planning that goes into the wedding. Is it that no one plans what to do with all the days that follow? I guess we don't host receptions for coming home from work.
We arrived at the store and I almost forgot what I needed to buy. My mind lost in his house. I felt like I had been snooping around, peeking in on a wife I had never met who has her own version of their marriage and why it isn’t working.
I grabbed my purse and ran into the pharmacy to fill the prescription. The cab driver was kind enough to wait, making me wonder how long he will wait for her. How long before one of them says it is over.
Standing in line to pay, I searched for solutions. I wanted to fix his problem, just like so many people wanted to “fix” me after Shawn died. I remembered how the good intentions of others to make me “better” stirred up anger because I wasn’t convinced that tragedy gets better. It felt closer to an insult, like having someone tell you everything happens for a reason when you literally break your leg before a performance and now the under-study gets to perform your part and all the effort you put into memorizing and rehearsing will now be reserved for another play, that is if you are lucky enough to get cast again. It’s one of those situations where you aren’t looking for a reason, you just want to act the part you know.
I decided on our ten minute ride back to the resort, I would just listen. I wasn’t going to superimpose my answers because the truth was I really didn’t have any. But, even without responding, I found myself hoping he’d find a way to beat the emptiness. I hope he doesn’t give up on her.
Of course I was given limited information and I'm not advocating that people stay in abusive situations or tolerate affairs or live in unsafe relationships. Some marriages end in reasons beyond what can be controlled. I've known far too many people whose lives offered no other alternative than divorce and the struggle is equal if not more hurtful than losing a spouse through death from what I have witnessed.
It's just that his story provoked mixed emotions in me. I realized I wasn’t comparing his account with mine. I wasn’t lamenting over what I had lost in Shawn or even interested in telling him anything about the friendship I lost that day when one swift turn of a steering wheel changed my life forever and stopped Shawn’s life at the age of thirty-two.
No, instead I was reminded of how hard it is to sustain a relationship, let alone thrive. Daily irritations, differences in perspective, nuances and nuisances are all part of the package of loving someone else. And just like loss, there is nothing easy about love.
I could easily say, when I come home it’s like no one knows I’ve entered, no one looks up. But, that isn’t entirely true because in my new aloneness, I am very aware of myself, when I come and go, how I’m doing, what I find important. I look up. I really don't present myself with any other option. I pay attention. I notice. And I think this must be the first step to sharing life—valuing your own appearances and what you have to offer to the day, the space you occupy and the care you give to the people surrounding you.
Married or not, there has to be an element of loyalty somewhere in the heart that pledges against all circumstances to never give up. It’s not a courageous sort of commitment, more of an obligation—like voting or stopping at stop signs or paying the water bill. It’s a responsibility to take every step necessary, obey the rules.
If someone doesn’t notice you walking in the door, maybe you need to announce, “I’m here.”
I’m not trying to judge him and I don’t know her at all. I’ve just learned that whether or not there is a response, we need to make a promise to figure it out. Though, “figuring it out” is something that comes to each of us in different ways at different times. Maybe his talking about it was a start. Maybe my listening was equally a beginning for me.