Those of us that have gotten married have exchanged vows. While some may have written their own vows, some of us utilized the traditional vows. Many of us have repeated “until death do us part”as part of the ceremony. In that moment, on your wedding day, the beginning of your journey, it’s hard to imagine, as you are surrounded by your loved ones with your hearts so hopeful, that a day where “part” will ever come. In that moment, your vows may feel like they are just words, and while they are words stating your commitment, you’ve not yet felt their gravity.
I remember the day when I realized that these vows are not just words.
It was a warm morning in late July. As the sun was rising over the lake, my father was entering the last moments of his life on this earth. We surrounded him at his bedside – my sisters Kari and Stacy, his sisters, my aunts, Patty, Julie and Jane, and my mom. We spoke softly to him, we held hands and prayed, we told him we loved him, we cried quietly. We pointed out the sun coming up over the lake. We listened to the waves meet the shore, and to my baby girl making soft cooing noises in the next room, as my father was taking his last breaths. The paradox of the new life of his grand-baby at the beginning of it all, in the room next to him, as his life was ending, was not lost on any of us that day.
I was holding my father’s hand, and was at the top of the bed, close to his head. I leaned over and whispered to him “Thank you. We were so lucky to have you,” knowing that I had spoken my last words to my father. Knowing that he heard me. Knowing that he was still hanging on. Knowing what he was waiting for. I turned to my mother, his wife of over 35 years, the keeper of his heart, and said “Mom, he’s waiting for you to tell him that it’s OK”. My mom and I switched places. She leaned in and whispered quietly in his ear, fulfilling her final vow to him. She had loved, honored and cherished him, all the days of their lives, until death did they part. With her soft words, with her permission, with her telling him it was OK to let go, but not a moment before, he was gone.
It was the saddest moment of my life.
As a daughter, I was grieving the loss of my father. I was not done needing my dad. He was my champion, my biggest fan, my sounding board, my historian and keeper of all the facts and stories of my life. He was gone. But what became more striking to me was that my mother was a wife who lost her husband. Her partner, her champion, her biggest fan, the man whom she loved madly. From that moment on, I had a heightened awareness of the fact that I am also a wife, just like my mom. And that some day, I may have to fulfill that vow, that I will lose my husband, or he will lose me. The old adage that there are only two certainties in life “death and taxes” and the reality that one of us would outlive the other was a fact that I had not given much thought to previously.
That day, my wedding vows felt heavier. After witnessing my parent’s wedding vows come to an untimely conclusion, I have never viewed the words that I had spoken to my husband on our wedding day the same way again. I felt the weight of them, the weight of my promise, my commitment, my duty to my spouse like never before…”for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and heath…,” it’s real. Life and love and marriage can be messy, complicated. Hard. Even so, it was watching my parents that set in the reality and the reminder that time is precious and tomorrow is not promised that has stuck. My father didn’t get to retire. He didn’t get to sail the world with his wife as he dreamed they would do, or rock together on their lakefront deck into their twilight years the way he had envisioned. At 57 years old, his life ended much sooner than any of us could have expected or anticipated.
I think often of how I witnessed my mother fulfill her wedding vows, watching her love my father thru their own version of richer and poorer, sickness and health, and the trials and tribulations of over 3 decades of marriage, until death did they part and it has been among the most impactful things in my life to this day. And while my appreciation of this doesn’t stop the ups and downs of my life and marriage from ebbing and flowing, it has served as a reminder to cherish it. Fulfilling my vows to my husband is part of the sanctity of marriage, and with that comes a sense of dedication, deep (sometimes buried a bit) appreciation, all part of the blessing of being married to man who has been the great love of my life, the keeper of my heart. My vows to him are not only words spoken on our wedding day, even on hard days, they are something I stay connected to and I owe that to my parents, and the day when I witnessed “until death do us part” become more than just a vow.