Getting married in midlife means facing loss sooner than most couples.
It was a colleague, a 27-year-old whose sweet and hopeful wedding I’d attended just a few weeks earlier, who put it so directly. We were in the car, driving past the heart hospital, when I mentioned sitting in the courtyard while my husband had a procedure.
“For a couple who hasn’t been married all that long,” she said, “you’ve really been hammered with illness and death.”
I didn’t miss a beat.
“We have. We married in midlife.”
At our backyard wedding in 2008, I was 40 and Chris was six months shy of 50. We’d both been married before. My own marriage was a youthful one, and my divorce had left me single—and for the most part, happily so—for 17 years. Chris, on the other hand, was fresh out of a two-decade commitment when we met and the father of an adolescent daughter.
As hard as we fell for each other, I like to believe we had few illusions. We carried baggage and histories, our aging bodies and our unmet aspirations. (Sure, we carried wisdom, experience, and a trove of travel stories, too.) We knew that we wouldn’t be one of those fresh-faced couples pushing a baby carriage while a leashed retriever trotted beside us. Chris’s daughter was already in high school. I didn’t expect to have children. We were marrying at a time in life so associated with loss.
We didn’t know how soon those losses would come for us.
In our first year of marriage, Chris had open-heart surgery to repair a leaky mitral valve, coming home skinny and weak and facing a long, slow recovery in the unbearable heat of a Texas summer. Mere months after his surgery, I called him one afternoon curled on the floor of our bathroom and whispered, “Can you come home? I think I need to go to the emergency room.”
My diagnosis took more than a month, and for a time, I was hospitalized with a dangerously low blood count, awaiting a transfusion on Christmas Eve. Chris slept on a cot in my room. Eventually I went into surgery myself, and ended up at home propped on the same foam wedge we’d bought for Chris’s recovery just a few months earlier.
The following year, my father had a massive heart attack and after months of hospitalization and pain, he passed away. Not long after, Chris’s father, who had dealt with ongoing health problems, went into sharp decline. He died last month.
I don’t list these things as a badge of honor. All of us deal with illness and death in our lives, and far greater tragedies strike people every day. And I don’t pretend that these things can’t happen to younger people. They can and they do. But at midlife, we can’t pretend we’ll be buffered from profound loss. We know the odds.
A well-publicized study a few years ago found that across two million people and 80 countries, people were least happy in midlife. Unhappiness peaks in our mid-40s, whether we’re turning soil or trading stocks, whether we live in Topeka or Tanzania. Researchers can only speculate about why, but they suggest that midlife is when we realize we won’t meet all of our early goals and start to deal with mortality—our own and others’.
Finding love at this time doesn’t make you exempt from any of this. It leaves you asking how to make a life amid it.
One thing I discovered was that it did me no good to believe that all those hardships would make our marriage stronger. Well-meaning friends told me that so many times in the weeks leading up to Chris’s surgery that I felt oppressed by it. It made me feel that I should be gallant, that our days should be filled with meaningful conversations and quiet revelations.
In reality, in dealing with illness and later with death, we were just like anyone else: We simply did what had to be done. I picked up British mysteries at the video store and washed Chris’s incision with antibacterial soap. Chris spoke at my father’s memorial service despite having a wicked respiratory infection. Towels were washed, bills were paid. There were no heroics except of the everyday variety and precious few moments fit for television.
And if today we have a good marriage—one based on mutual respect and affection, one where each of us holds the other’s well-being as a highest value—did we have to go through these things to get here? I’m not so sure. Couldn’t a string of happy events have led to a strong marriage as well? Couldn’t we have gotten here through Thursday night two-stepping and too much sex and dinner parties where the wine glasses clinked into the evening?
I don’t know. I don’t get to back up and see what marriage we might have had without these early losses any more than I get to back up and see what marriage we might have had if we’d met when we were young, if we’d bought our first home together and lifted babies from bassinets. We can only live the life that we are given, and for us, it’s this one.
What I do know is that being in this marriage made these unavoidable losses of midlife easier to bear. When I found myself in pain so intense I thought I might pass out, I knew who to call. When Chris had to make an emergency trip to Florida to bring in hospice care for his father, I left work to take him to the airport. When each of us, one then the other, needed help navigating a shower with a white plastic seat in it, we had an arm to lean on.
And when I spent the day holding my own father’s hand in the hospital—a day he gave over to watching television with an intensity that said, “If I focus on Judge Judy and Alex Trebek and that blonde kid on American Idol, I won’t have to focus on how hard it is to breathe,” and I escorted his bed downstairs to the ICU where they admitted him with pneumonia, then drove the 90 miles home on a take-out taco and a Starbuck’s coffee, arriving at 11pm entirely spent—Chris was waiting for me. I fell into him, body and spirit. Maybe I could do that because we’d cleaned each other’s wounds and sat together in countless doctors’ waiting rooms. Maybe I could have anyway.
Here, four years into a midlife marriage, what matters is that I did.
Vivé Griffith is a writer and educator living in Austin, Texas, where she directs the Free Minds Project, offering free humanities classes to adults living on low incomes. She blogs inconsistently at vivegriffith.blogspot.com.