Coincidentally, the same day as Daniel’s baptism (May 18 ) was my parents 40th wedding anniversary.
A funny story this. My father, the oldest son out of five siblings, was the popular “wild boy” in his neighborhood, pretty much having dated every eligible and pretty girl in the neighborhood in his teens and early 20s. He wore leather, serenaded the ladies, emulated Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and was generally swooned over. My mother, the third to the youngest (out of nine children) and four years younger than he, went to daily mass, worked, and went to school.
Thus it came as a complete shock when they married. My mother’s family was against it, wary of my father’s reputation, and actually forbade her from seeing him. So my mother went to college to get a teacher’s degree, and my father joined the U.S. Navy. He left the Philippines in 1967 for training in Rhode Island (of all places). He did a tour of duty in the West Pacific, including Vietnam. In 1968, he came home for leave and saw my mother. On the last day of his leave, they were walking together when my father mentioned a friend of his was having a party and that a justice of the peace was a guest there. “Do you want to get married?”
They crashed the party, an impromptu wedding (and reception) happened, and — after the party — they were walking home. That’s when — and here’s where my mother would get very animated as she would relate this story — her older brother swerved to a stop in a taxicab, grabbed her, threw her in the cab, and rode home.
When her family found out that she had eloped, they kicked her out of the house. She moved in with her brand-new in-law’s… and her brand-new husband left her the next day. She wouldn’t see him again for nearly a year.
This rough beginning was a harbinger of things to come. My parents are in their 60s — my mother is 61, my father 65. All of those years had been based in hard work, for love isn’t a feeling. “Love,” to quote the pre-nuptial counselors that all couples who marry in the Catholic Church must listen to, “is a choice.” And every day, they made choices — some good. Some bad. But even with the bad choices — or just the bad sitatuations that were beyond their contral — they held on to their marriage… sometimes by edge of their fingertips. Especially one incident, which I witnessed.
My parents laugh about it now, as they see their withering bodies these days, their various health problems. But back in 1982, it was possibly world-destroying. My father — the happy-go-lucky wild boy that he was — was unfaithful to my mother when he was overseas. Many ports of call, many girlfriends. Even with four children, he continued his “wild boy” life during those shoreleaves. How my mother endured it — a traditional, conservative Catholic woman — says much about her faith in God, in the institution of marriage, and the support system of other Navy wives.
In 1982, the family was moving away from Guam, to the stateside location of Dallas TX. But first we touched down in Los Angeles Airport. And there, my mother broke down –in the middle of LAX. She cried quietly and mentioned a word I thought only happened to other people, to people on TV: divorce.
They didn’t know that I was watching, that I was listening. Perhaps they thought that I was still too young, being only ten-years old.
But I — having only learned a month ago that I was adopted — lost it. And it was this hysterical child, drawing strangers’ attentions, finally drawing my parents’ attention, who forced my parents to make a choice.
My father told me to wash my face in the women’s restroom, and I did. When I came back, my mother’s face was dry, my father’s face was no longer enraged. And they never — EVER — mentioned that word, ever again.
Last year, my father hugged me and said, “People make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. We’re human. But, God-willing, we become better people.”
I was too young to know, 26 years ago, that my father went to Confession, there in Los Angeles. That all the time that my siblings were being looked after by our Auntie Lydie — which was most of the time that we were in LA — my parents were rediscovering what it meant to be husband and wife, with the guidance of family, of friends, of the Catholic Church. God forgave him but, most importantly, my mother forgave him. And every day, since 1982, my parents have been choosing again and again to renew that moment of forgiveness.
It doesn’t mean that my parents’ marriage was now romantic and Edenic. Far from it. My father would still go away, stationed somewhere, leaving my mother with the lonely but necessary task of being a Navy wife and mother, working full-time and raising four kids. My parents often had arguments, sometimes ending up in fights or, even worse, awful silences. But they returned to each other, again and again. And, 40 years later, they look back — all of it, the hell and the not-so-much-hell and the moments of joy, they look back — and laugh.
Knowing their family medical histories, my parents know that they likely have another 20-30 years left. They have been married to each other for most of their lives. And, as my mother has told me, she will die, married to this man who gave her so much joy and so much pain. My father will die, married to this woman who often frustrates him to no end and constrained his youthful ambitions. And yet, they love each other.
40 years. And counting. 🙂