“For better or worse.”
Single or married, you have heard these words before, a secret passcode that lets you in on the mystery of marriage. I remember saying those words myself. The rest, I don’t remember.
I vaguely recall what I promised my wife in my vows, however eloquently they were spoken. I don’t remember what my best man said, what sermon the pastor preached. Arm’s length away, they spoke loud and clear; still, the words are vague in my mind. Of all things memorable on that memorable day, the wedding day, the words most memorable are “for better or worse.”
Such lack of memory, I blame on my brain. The mental engine gets easily overheated when processing events of such epic proportions, events like weddings. I also blame the woman in white. Blinded by the bride’s beauty, the groom is speechless; the world around him plunges into silence.
My world did, anyway. I was at a loss for words, at a loss for meaning too.
Don’t get me wrong. I meant what I said, every word of it. But although my lips grasped the vows, my brain did not yet understand their meaning. The existential significance of the promises I made that day was hidden from me, concealed behind the glare of visual appearances. Marriage vows, spoken intentionally, were understood superficially.
At the moment, all I could think of was the world in front of me. Back then it was a “better” world, filled with the “better” parts: the you may kiss your bride part, the honeymoon part, the healthy part, and the happily ever after part. Back then, I also had a choice: better or worse.
Four years later, I didn’t.
When my wife and I lost our daughter, it was the “worst” day of our lives. The world plunged into silence, leaving us at a loss for words, at a loss for meaning. I cannot describe that overwhelming sense of despair, that subduing sense of hopelessness. It made the air heavy, difficult to breathe. There was nothing to make things any easier, or happier, or “better.” No amount of words, or hugs, or prayers was enough to ease the pain of loss.
Loss—the worst feeling of all.
The experience was disorienting, leaving us confused, out of touch with reality. Our brains were trying hard to process the feeling of absence but unsuccessful. Our bodies suspended, no solid ground under our feet. We were floating down the river of tragic circumstances, going with the flow, not knowing where it was taking us. We didn’t resist it either; I think we were too tired.
The feeling of loss put a strain on our relationship, an invisible pressure, yet one that could be tangibly felt whenever conflict arose and misunderstanding followed. We had to work extra hard to maintain intimacy, both emotional and physical. One day it felt better; the next, worse than the day before.
I was grieving on my own, hurting alone. Like a lone wolf, wounded in the battle, I retreated deep into the woods, to bleed, to lick my wounds. I would withdraw inside, back outside, then inside again.
I had a hard time communicating my feelings to my wife. Sometimes I didn’t want to; often, I didn’t know how to. Sharing emotions wasn’t my “thing”; it was too awkward, too painful—I had no desire to inflict any more pain than there was already.
It took some time, some sweat and tears, to begin to open up. With the help of words, I gave shape to that formless mess of thoughts and feelings inside. Those were the feelings of despair, the thoughts of shattered dreams, of unanswered questions. Those are the feelings that make you sick, ideas that make you feel depressed. The worst kinds of feelings.
Then one day I felt heard, understood. I felt felt. The next day, I didn’t–my wife was hurting too, some days worse than others. Both of us were hurting, bleeding, screaming.
Alone and together, we were at our worst.
But as the two of us listened, felt and held each other, the cloud of resentment slowly dissipated. And although the pain of loss didn’t go away, it was the pain that brought us closer to each other. It was the pain that knit us tighter than we were before.
Today we know the meaning of the vows, that promise of a lifetime: “for better or worse.” We had the chance to experience the better part and had the privilege to taste the other part. We were joined together, both through those sacred words and through the silence of our common loss. Together we were broken, together mended.
For better, not for worse.