“No, I mean: What in God’s name are you talking about?” That’s the clean version of what I said.
Alex explained that on the night of his bachelor party, he and a few other friends had gotten into a drunken argument with some locals in the only bar in town, apparently over a flip-flop. Someone, at some point, threw a punch, and it all went downhill from there.
He and four members of our wedding party had spent the night in jail. The others had just been put in the drunk tank, but my husband-of-a-day, claiming he was only trying to help by intervening when a friend was being hauled into the police car, had been arrested on multiple charges.
His best man had to collect A.T.M. cards from the guests to gather enough cash on a Saturday morning to post bail for him before the wedding. This was after he already had been frog-marched from the jail to the courthouse of the adorably quaint Appalachian mountain town in leg and arm shackles, chained to the other men being arraigned that morning, including his cellmate from the night before, who stood accused of attempted murder.
The cellmate had claimed self-defense.
“He kept explaining that he’d been hit with a hickory switch,” Alex said, “and it took me 10 minutes to figure out what he meant.” He seemed so delighted with the story that I began to think he might be kidding. Or at least exaggerating.
“Are you actually serious?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, turning to me with surprise. “Are you upset?”
“Why? I’ll have to pay a fine, but it’s not the end of the world.”
“You might go to jail in Virginia!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well, there was a chance I might not have made it to the ceremony, if the judge had decided not to grant bail. We didn’t want you to worry before the wedding.”
“We? Who is we?”
“Well, everyone else at the wedding. Everyone but you.”
Suddenly it all made sense. My older brother’s black eye. (He said he’d walked into a door.) The bruises around my younger brother’s neck. (He hadn’t even tried to make up an excuse.) My sister making me walk the long way to the hair salon on the morning of the wedding instead of the direct route past the courthouse. The fact that my bridesmaid’s husband and my sister-in-law, two people who didn’t really know each other, took off together with a lurch and a screech in my husband’s car when I waved at them on the way to the hairdresser.
Everyone had known but me.
It was too much. “Our marriage is based on a lie!” I yelled, and burst into tears.
It wasn’t a lie, of course. Not really. It was simply a lack of information. That’s an important distinction.
Back then I wasn’t yet a hospice chaplain, a job in which I spend much of my time listening to dying people’s secrets and revelations. If I had been, I would have known that not one of us ever has all the information when we get married.
The state of being married is coming to the realization that the person you have pledged your life to is, at heart, a mystery. There will always be things unknown to you.
Usually, these are the things we keep hidden, the secrets we don’t even share with the ones we love most.
At least half a dozen hospice patients have told me that their husbands were not the fathers of their children, and that they had never told anyone, including their spouse and child.
Once, it was the other way around. A husband told me that he knew his eldest child was not his, and had always known: The dates simply did not match up. He was out of the country for the war. It was not physically possible.
He loved his wife so much, though, and had always loved her and would have married her no matter what. But now, he wondered, why had she still not told him? Why, at this late hour, after all these decades of happiness and hardship together, had she still never confided in him?
And sometimes, there are things we choose not to see.
One old woman, timid and always trembling in her bed, always with the shades drawn and the light off, had no friends, no family, no one. She had moved across the country to this little town where no one knew her and she knew no one, and she wanted it that way.
Her husband, I learned, had been convicted of over 100 counts of sexual assault of children. The accusations and charges spread out across the 50 years of their marriage and even before. They had all been family members.
“I didn’t know,” she said. “I swear to you I had no idea. No one believes me. They say I must have known, must have had some idea. I swear to you — I swear to God — I didn’t know. I didn’t know him at all.”
In the end, as at the beginning, we are mysteries to each other.
The work of chaplaincy dabbles in mystery all the time. The mystery of God, the mystery of death, the mystery of life. What was it all for? What does it all mean?
Add love to that list of mysteries.
In chaplaincy, a mystery is not something that cannot be known. It’s the opposite. We say God and life and death are mysteries in theological language not because they are unknowable, but because there is so much to know that you can never know the depths of it; there is always more you can learn. They are Mysteries, with a capital M, because they are infinitely knowable. The more you learn, the more you want to know.
That’s really what falling in love is, isn’t it? Yearning to know more about a person, the amazement and delight as each layer is peeled back, the realization that you can never get enough of the one you love. Perhaps the death knell of love is not anger or even indifference; it’s losing the desire to know more about your partner.
So my marriage was not based on a lie. But like all marriages, it is a mystery. I could not know everything there was to know about Alex the day I married him, and he could not know everything about me. Neither of us could know what the future held. Neither of us could know, in that little red rental car, that I would have a baby two years later in the town in Iowa where we lived, far away from the town where we married.
We couldn’t know that I would develop drug-induced psychotic disorder from anesthesia during that birth. Couldn’t know that a psychiatrist would tell Alex that I would be disabled for the rest of my life from psychosis and that we would move back across the country to be closer to my family. Certainly could not have known that with the right help, I would get better in that new town of green hills and stone walls on Buzzards Bay, and that I would find a calling to work with the dying there.
Why, then, would any of us leap into marriage, knowing that the future is unknowable, knowing our spouse is a mystery we can never fully understand?
I suppose it’s faith. Belief that there is something deeply good in the mysterious heart of the infinitely knowable other. And hope that this goodness will be enough to face the future together. Sometimes that works out; sometimes it does not.
In the end, Alex didn’t go to jail for his bachelor party escapades. He paid a fine, just as he predicted. He still doesn’t understand why I cried all night the day after we got married.
I still believe there is something deeply good in him. I still don’t understand him at all.