When I moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, my life was planned: I would go to college, get published, get married at 25, have 3 children, and homeschool my children while living in the forests of Alaska. But life didn’t work out that way.
Twenty-one years later, with two college degrees, no children, and living in Wyoming, not Alaska, I finally got married.
And although there were some fairy-tale aspects of my wedding (the hummingbird that hovered over us as we said our vows, marrying where I always dreamed, in Sedona, Arizona, a man who wanted to marry me despite a cancer diagnosis six weeks before), getting there had been anything but a fairy tale.
My husband and I met on Homecoming Day in 1999. We were introduced by a mutual friend at a party that I wasn’t even supposed to attend. My date had stood me up, and so I found myself at the party instead of the football game.
Three years later, we were living together. Eight years later, he proposed. In between those years, we discussed marriage…well…we fought about marriage. I wanted to get married. He didn’t. I thought about leaving, but I couldn’t imagine life without him, and despite the occasional fights and the disappointing jewelry boxes that contained rings for my ears and not my fingers, I stuck with the man. I decided that being with him in a committed relationship without a ring or a piece of paper would be enough. In fact, I had convinced myself that we were already married.
To some degree, that was true: we owned a house together, we had pets, we didn’t go out with other people; we weren’t looking for anything better…we were in a committed relationship. But it wasn’t enough. Over and over again, we argued about that piece of paper, and I found it difficult to define marriage beyond the obvious property and fidelity. Instead, I focused on the ceremony itself. I would argue that we already had a marriage. “I just want a wedding,” I’d say, hoping this would convince him.
I had been planning my wedding for as long as I could remember. As a child, I dressed my stuffed animals in handkerchiefs and tissue paper, marched them up make-believe aisles, and hid them under the bed or in the closet for their honeymoon.
On the occasions we took the 45-minute drive from Flagstaff to Sedona, I dreamt of a big wedding in front of the beautiful red rocks and then gathering with my friends and family for a big celebration.
With every fight about getting married, that dream dwindled, and I would grieve its loss. But I wasn’t willing to find a new relationship. I wasn’t willing to say good-bye to this man I loved…this man whose life I shared. Instead, I conceded and finally said, “Marriage is just a piece of paper.”
When I finally let go of the fairy tale, it became reality. On top of the Big Horn Mountains on a cold, fall day in 2009, this man, who I thought would never propose, knelt in front of me and asked that question I’d been wanting to hear. Of course I said yes, and now, 4 ½ years later, the fairy tale vanquished, I still struggle to define marriage.
There is something to be said for planning a wedding, going through the hassle of the paperwork, the seating chart, juggling family dynamics and finances until that day when you stand in front of your family and friends and say those words: “in sickness and in health.” Saying those vows…all of them…makes a difference. It matters.
It’s learning to listen to each other as you struggle daily to remain true to your identity while also navigating through the day-to-day difficulties of life with and without your spouse.
It’s about coming home to someone who knows who you are and, yet, doesn’t understand you, but is willing to keep working at it.
It’s about compromise and communication and doing the work…and still…it’s about so much more than that.
It’s just…I don’t know…more than a “piece of paper,” and still difficult to define, but it’s worth the effort.