‘People have divorced for less,” I snapped at my husband of 25 years. This was the year we were supposed to visit Paris to celebrate our anniversary. Instead, we hardly liked each other. Forget loving each other enough to walk hand in hand through the romantic city of Paris, with the Eiffel Tower winking at us.
Battle lines emerged on the lonely plains of money and intimacy. Not enough of either. So little of both that we lost his business to bankruptcy, lost our home of 23 years, lost our friends, our faith community, and our love for each other. We felt broken and alone on the battlefield, yet we couldn’t reach across the line to offer comfort. Fiery spears of anger and blame frequently hit our intended targets.
But this is not a divorce story. Because we didn’t divorce. We rented places to live — together — over the course of five years while we rebuilt our internal home. We assembled an income from three jobs each and two other per diem gigs. He sold newspaper ads, worked in a package store, and ran a chairlift at a local ski mountain. I pulled 12-hour night shifts at a nursing job.
We dragged ourselves to counseling and learned how to communicate in ways the other could hear. He needed touch. I needed talk. We dug so deep that at times I felt my feet burned by the core of the earth itself. Frequently over those five years, I secretly mapped out how I could live independently. I could walk away. I could support myself.
Then his heart broke. One of the valves imploded, leading to congestive heart failure and an urgent repair. I stood at his bedside after the surgery, crisp white sheets draped around his waist, beeping monitors, a ventilator, a bulky white bandage hiding the staples tracking down his exposed chest. Not in a moment of compassion for his weakness, but in a moment of the truth of “in sickness and health,” I made the decision to banish thoughts of living independently. We were a unit. We were better together, and I suddenly wanted to stay. I chose to stay.
I have always been the “medical one” in our marriage, the designated child or dog vomit-cleaner-upper, but he couldn’t pass off the mess of his heart. With the strength that comes only from known adversity, his attitude was, “What’s one more trauma?” In his mind, we were always together, facing a new unknown. He says the surgery felt like a physical manifestation of repairing our collective broken hearts. He sensed that it could make us whole again.
After he was home and healing, we had a life-changing conversation. So much hurt, so much had been lost, but we shared a new understanding that life is precarious and short. Our conversation focused on how to live now. How would we live today, live forward, live responsibly, yet live the life we dreamed of — someday? I said, “Let’s not be one of those couples that retires at 65 and then six months later the husband or wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer or dies while bicycling.”
We talked about what we love together, what we do well together. Was there one activity — beyond the obvious — that restores our sense of well-being, connecting us at a heart level?
For us, it is anything in or near water: boating, swimming, sunbathing, walking our dogs on the beach, snowshoeing. As our bank accounts and jobs stabilized, we discovered a lake in Southern New Hampshire where we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives, even while working, of necessity, well into our 60s. We changed jobs and bought a house within walking distance of a lake.
The house needs repairs. That’s OK, because we know restoration takes patience and time. Last summer, we quietly took note of 35 years together. No Paris, no fireworks, no big celebration. Just a cloudless day, lounging on our boat, anchored in a cove on the lake, the sun warming our backs.Elizabeth Hoekstra is a writer in Sunapee, New Hampshire. Send comments to connections@ globe.com. Send comments to email@example.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday.Sign up here.