Last year when I wrote about my own fear of marriage, I was blown away by the response. But today, reading Sarah’s post, I now understand why the reaction was so strong. Because this fear and the way it manifests, it says so much about what marriage means and why it’s simultaneously so reckless and so rewarding to allow yourself to care for another person the way that marriage requires. But seeing someone else confront their fear makes it that much easier for me to confront my own.
I recently became engaged, and my fiancé Mark is truly the man of my dreams. Except at night, in my actual dreams. In those he’s kind of a jerk.
It is the day before our wedding and we have failed to make preparations. I find my beloved lounging by a hotel pool, taking a luxurious drag on a cigarette. Rage. “You should have told me you were a smoker before we got engaged!” I shout. “You’re stuck now,” Dream Mark replies, and saunters off with disdain. Upon his return, he grudgingly hands me a peace kitten, but you can tell he’s still really pissed. The wedding guests are cancelling left and right.
I catch Dream Mark smoking all the time now, and he’s always a real meanie about it when I find out.
Dream Mark tells me he’s leaving New Jersey for Portland, three thousand miles away. He’s got a sweet gig lined up, feeding wild dolphins for cash. I ask him, “Why can’t I go? I like dolphins.” He says I can’t follow him, then he hops on a Greyhound without looking back.
Please allow me to explain. You see, I’m terrified of marriage.
It’s not because my parents had a bad marriage. I wasn’t a kid who soured on the idea after endless nights of feuding between two adults who could no longer stand the sight of one another. I never survived a vicious divorce or witnessed an extramarital affair. On the contrary, my parents had a great marriage, and that’s maybe part of my problem.
It started about five years ago, when both Marks were still a ways in my future. I was living across the country and dating a nice enough fellow at the time. When this fellow and I met, I already had non-negotiable plans to head back home to Jersey. Any sensible person could see that this move would mark the natural ending to our brief relationship. Then one evening I came home from a night of white wine margaritas and handholding under stars to receive the (almost) Worst Phone Call of My Life. My father had lung cancer.
Suddenly, saying goodbye to said fellow no longer seemed like the logical thing to do. Suddenly I had a time limit; maybe even a deadline. I had to get married right now and make dad a grandpa before it was too late. I didn’t have enough time to find myself a Jersey boy, so I set myself to work luring Mr. Nice Enough to the Garden State.
Thus began a tedious and ultimately unfulfilling year of long-distance dating. A handful of half-hearted overtures were made toward relocating and starting a family, but nothing ever came of it. When (to no one’s surprise but my own) it finally sputtered out, I felt my heart turn a cold 180. Over the course of the year this heart had been punctured again and again by the rises and falls of hope for my father’s remission. It had ached to witness my mother’s pain as she sat by my father’s bedside. It had seen the beautiful, terrifying truth of what marriage really means and it had decided this was not for me.
This was when Mark came in. He was sweet and funny and an excellent listener (and, for the record, a non-smoker) and I was definitely not going to get attached. For the longest time he remained This Guy I’m Kind of Seeing. I introduced him to my family, but continued to deny that there was anything serious going on here. I rejected his first two offers to move in together, pretending to prefer the comfort of my moldy basement apartment.
Almost exactly two years after my father’s diagnosis, I received the Actual Worst Phone Call of My Life, blowing the original Worst Phone Call of My Life totally out of the water. Mark left work the moment he found out. He picked me up, ID tag and striped necktie still dangling from his neck, and drove the sixty miles to the hospital. He hung around the waiting room for a while just in case my family needed anything, and then quietly slipped out so we could to say goodbye to Dad. It wasn’t until then that I finally allowed myself to love him completely.
Before long, people started asking when we were going to get married. I’d remind them that I was dating a younger man who wasn’t ready to settle down just yet. This was half of the truth. The other half? Even as we marched forward and ever more deeply into love, I continued to view a ring on my finger as merely the first step toward the terrible and unavoidable death of my lover. (Mark takes offense to this. “What makes you think I’m going first?!” I have no real reason to think so. But he totally is.)
Although in fact Mark had a bit more growing up to do and I had a lot more freaking out to do, in my saner moments I knew that we belonged together. I began to suspect that he might one day propose, and I worried that my fears would cause me to push him away. When the dreaded/hoped-for moment finally arrived, it was every bit as memorable and joyous as it deserved to be. The ring is now firmly on my finger, and Mark continues to be in good health (and still a non-smoker). So far he hasn’t bolted for the bus—he doesn’t much care for dolphins anyway. My subconscious is working overtime to prepare me for the day when another man I love will leave me for someplace far away. In the meantime, I am discovering what it means to have found the person with whom I will spend a lifetime: I am simultaneously scared beyond belief and thrilled beyond dreams.
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