Thank You for Loving Me Over the Long Haul

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I’ve seen a whole lot of Valentine’s Day celebrations in my long life. Some of them have been memorable; most of them were over before they made an impact. A few were golden. Those shiny ones are fun to recall—when love was new and we were young. Sweet cards and notes, saved over the years, remembered gifts of flowers, candy, jewelry, dinners out. Oh, yeah. Those were fun.

In all honesty, many of them were hurried, with both of us barely remembering to pick up a card at the last minute, then hastily scribbling a few kind words. Most of them were unremarkable in every way, to be blunt. It’s never been a “big” holiday for me, even though I do put up a decorative item or two when February rolls around.

This year, it feels decidedly different. I’ve been part of a women’s group for over three decades, one that meets sporadically to celebrate birthdays. We range in age from about 65 to 87—which means we started gathering when we were in our late 30s and early 40s. That’s a long time to celebrate being together and the connection we feel is one of value to us all.

This year, I’m noticing something new around the circle, something hard. The last gathering I was able to attend was one month ago, for my own 75thbirthday. And all around the circle, I noticed the same story emerging, with slightly different details:

One friend lost her husband a few years ago, and his absence remains painful. The eldest of our group and her ailing husband recently moved downstairs in their two-storey home because neither of them can navigate the stairs any more. One friend’s partner has a long-term neurological disease. Another was facing major surgery, yet another was still in recovery from a serious foot injury over a year ago. My own had recently been diagnosed with pneumonia and a heart irregularity. Soon after our meeting, yet another friend’s husband was in a terrifying bicycle accident.

We are all either carrying concern for our life partner or deeply missing one. That’s where we are on this journey. We are facing into hard and painful realities, trying to do it with courage and a bit of humor, helping one another to stay the course well. It is not easy, nor is it a lot of fun. When you’ve built your life with one loved person, the prospect of losing that person is hard to navigate. In fact, it can be downright terrifying!

That’s not something we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, is it? When love is young and life is new, hearts and flowers are wonderful reminders of all that is good in the world. But what does love look like when hearts and flowers are nowhere near enough? How do we keep love alive when our bodies age, our spirits sag, and our minds betray us?

Most of us don’t like to talk about these things. In truth, we do everything we can to avoid talking about them, shunting older people into communities of their own and choosing not to look at the struggle that is an inevitable part of the aging process.

There is a lot that’s lovely, good and rewarding about the privilege of getting old. Don’t get me wrong. Love over time is burnished, sturdy, even muscular—willing to do the hard work of care and companionship, of making tough decisions and living with the consequences. Watching your children become parents, or enjoying the adult companionship of nieces and nephews is pure gift. Yes, there is richness in old age. I’m here to testify to that truth.

But I gotta say that sometimes I wish there was a section of cards for those of us over the age of 60, with messages like, “Thank you for loving me over the long haul. Let’s go for another decade!” or “Yes, we’re wrinkled, and yes we’re creaky, but look at what we’ve got!”

I’m also here to testify that love over time is a remarkable thing. It’s not perfect because the people involved aren’t perfect. But it is rich and textured, filled with great stories and shared experiences. It is layered and woven together like a complex tapestry, with rich color and a wild variety of scenery and people. It is marked by success and failure, by bumpy roads and smooth highways, by souvenirs of all kinds, tangible and ephemeral. And it is worth it. Oh, yes, it is so worth it.

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