For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health… The following is an excerpt from my book manuscript. When Robin and I looked at each other more than 29 years ago and said those words, we had no idea just how far they would be tested.
On a rainy Saturday in June of 1984, Robin and I began our married life together. I remember the day well. The Attleboro, Massachusetts church was not as full as we had hoped because New England was in the midst of one of the rainiest Spring seasons on record. That meant areas were flooded and streets were washed out all over the place. Many on our guest list simply could not make it.
My best man, Butch, and I sat sequestered in a tiny room at the front of the sanctuary watching the minutes tick off the clock off while we waited for my bride to arrive. There were no cell phones back then; no text messages. Waiting, uninformed, was our only option. Dressed in my tuxedo tails and wearing stiff, black rental shoes, each minute dragged. Five minutes late … ten minutes … I took my coat off hoping to prevent armpit stains. The piano player’s face wore a concerned look. Our minister came in with a grin and said, “No sign of her yet.”
Sheesh. Butch kept his eye on the audience through a small, square window and gave me updates trying to get me to laugh. “Wow, what a great mustache! Hey, her husband’s isn’t bad either. Wait, bride side getting restless, I think there’s going to be a rumble. My money’s on bride’s side … not a tie in the bunch.”
Of course, he was exaggerating to try to get a laugh out of me. It was not working. At 15 minutes late he took another tact, “face it man, she came to her senses. She’s not coming..” When he saw that one land with a thud he quickly assured me that she’d arrive at any minute. My bladder started adding another worry. I was at that am-I-just-nervous-or-do-I–really-have-to-go stage when our minister, Chet Hart, one of my mentors, came through the door grinning. “She’s here! Let’s roll.
Robin and I still disagree on how late she was. She claims ten minutes but to me it felt like ten days. My groomsmen packed into the room with Butch and I so we could line up just as rehearsed. We heard our music cue. My heart was racing with nervous excitement while we headed in a slow and steady line to our positions at the front of the church.
“You crying yet?” Butch whispered.
“Shut up,” I whispered back knowing that I felt tears coming.
“It’s okay,” he said, “Women love sensitive guys.”
Butch was my best man because he and I shared one sense of humor. Best friends know each other’s thoughts without words. He knew I needed a laugh to hold myself together. I cracked a smile just as the doors at the back opened and Robin’s first bridesmaid began her walk.
I laughed watching my nephew and niece, the ring bearer and flower girl, make their walk. My nephew’s eyes darted around the crowd. He was in surveillance mode thanks to Butch.
The night before, at the rehearsal, our ring bearer discovered that the rings on his pillow were fakes. He was not at all happy about that. In his seven year old mind, fake rings meant that he was no more than a showpiece with a meaningless role. Like most boys his age, Jason was all about spies and cops and robbers. Butch came to the rescue by telling him he was the most important person there because he was the decoy. His job was to run fast if anyone tried to steal his rings. The groomsmen would spring into action, protect the real rings and take the crook down. Butch let him hold my ring for a minute so he could see how shiny it was.
Knowing the back story made me chuckle at Jason’s paranoid, measured pace. Stephanie walked at his side thrilled to be looking pretty with all the big girls. I didn’t know then that years later I would see Steph’s beautiful grown-up smile walking toward me once again in a similar setting as the bride at her own wedding with me officiating.
And, then, in the most beautiful gown I had ever seen, Robin appeared in the doorway with her brother in his military dress uniform at her side. I remember that my knees grew weak for a second and my eyesight blurred through tears. Butch pulled me back to holding myself together with, “Wow, you are definitely marrying out of your league, buddy.” I smiled. He was so right. I had no idea what a strong, gentle, incredible woman I was marrying that day.
We stood looking each other in the eye and said the words so many say but eventually abandon. We promised to love each other in the good, the bad, the times of plenty and the times of want. We vowed to stay with each other in sickness and health until death did we part. We had no idea what we would face together? Who does?
Our lives together have included most of the normal bumps of life. We’ve endured job changes, moves and times when money pressures tried to suffocate us and drive us apart. We had to learn how to fight fair and love well. We had times we would drift apart and times when infatuating affection would return to embarrass our children. We were like most every other couple navigating life until the word “transplant” came onto the scene and thrust us into the world of the chronically ill.
For better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and in health … when we repeated those words we had little idea just how difficult a road we would walk after our children had grown. No one focuses on the hard side of wedding vows.
When my health declined and my liver shriveled up more and more with each passing week, I apologized to my sweet wife numerous times for what I was putting her through. Each time she brushed it aside and reminded me of her love. When I lost control of my bodily functions, she cleaned me. When I could not shower, she bathed me. And when I could not stand on my own strength, my tiny, little wife would grab my hands and lean back with all her weight and muscle to hoist me to my feet.
This summer I am officiating five weddings. I will smile at beautiful brides and handsome grooms looking at me nervously while friends and family look on with their knowing smiles. I will ask them if they will vow to love each other in sickness and in health. I will simultaneously pray that God will grant them the depth of love and commitment He infused into my marriage.
And then, when I watch them walk away as Mr. and Mrs., I will beg God for mercy and ask that he protect them from ever having to experience what Robin and I have been through these last two years.
When the guests are gone, I will wrap my arms around my incredible, strong and gentle wife and thank her again for loving me the way she does. She’ll smile and brush it off like it’s no big deal. Our fingers will find their natural homes in each others hand and we’ll walk to the exit with no more words.
In sickness and in health.
We both know those vows are a very big deal.