Forty three years is a long time. That’s how long my parents, who celebrated their anniversary this week, have been married. I wonder – more in amusement than in awe – how two people can put up with each other for that long and be as content as they are.
They were practically neighbors, growing up in Los Banos back when it was still a small, safe community surrounded by farmland. But they didn’t meet until Mom worked at Jack’s Drive-In, a hamburger joint that no longer exists, and Dad, who had just returned from Vietnam, stopped in for a bite. Little did they know what they were in for and what curveballs life would throw at them.
I laugh when I recall memories of my older brother and me running around our neighborhood with friends. How my parents endured school suspensions and parent-teacher conferences without pulling their hair out is beyond me. Although he and I both “turned out” just fine by most standards, we were rowdy kids, causing a bit of a ruckus here and there. (Mostly due to his school yard fights, and my class-clown antics and misuse of artistic talent. We still chuckle at how we always hoped Dad would be the one to show up at school because he was a little softer. And how we’d let out a sigh of relief whenever we were in trouble and Mom would say, “Wait until your Dad gets home.”)
Our family moved several times when we were young, due to Dad’s various job offers. My brother was born in New York, I in California. We uprooted to five different cities by the time I was in middle school, when we finally settled into the home in Monterey County where Mom and Dad still remain.
When my brother joined the U.S. Army as a teen, Mom was scared, Dad proud. I was left behind to watch as they endured the initial pain of letting their firstborn move across the country to become a man. And three years later when he entered the police academy, the emotions returned.
They survived – as did I – when, at 17, I was hit head-on by a drunken driver. I vaguely remember them arriving at the scene just before I was taken away in the ambulance, Mom climbing in to hold my hand, Dad following behind in his truck.
After acceptance into my first-choice college – Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo – my excitement was tempered by the question in the back of my mind: “How in the world are they going to survive once I leave, too?” I got the answer each time I’d visit home and see that my bedroom was slowly transforming into Mom’s sewing room.
They were doing just fine.
When I was a senior in college, they faced perhaps the biggest test in their marriage: a cancer diagnosis. Dad was given a slim chance of survival when a cancer of unknown origin invaded his body. Following surgery, he began treatment.
I considered dropping out of school, returning home and offering emotional and financial support – an idea quickly shot down by Mom. Instead, I’d visit and help in whatever way I could. Sometimes I’d drive Dad to radiation treatment, and I’d watch stoicly from behind the window as the machine rotated around his body.
Years later, the oncologist and his staff continued to refer to Dad as “the miracle patient.”
What remains a miracle to me is that after 43 years, Mom and Dad still hold hands during walks. In those 43 years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an insult hurled or a voice raised in anger. Did they raise voices at my brother and me during those rough patches of our youth? They sure did. But never toward each other (in front of us, anyway).
Although there were opportunities for them to throw in the towel and call it quits, they never did. They’ve weathered sassy backtalk from smart-aleck kids, the painful loss of their parents and various health traumas, and come through with just a little extra wear and tear.
Their marriage has shown me what it means for two people to work together as a team, with love and mutual respect. And although it’s practically impossible that I will, at this point, ever experience four-plus decades of marriage, theirs set an amazing example.
Because 43 years is a long time.