Last year, a friend phoned to tell me he was selling a vintage motorcycle I had long admired, and asked me if I wanted to buy it. I’ve learned not to make rash decisions, so I told him to give me a minute or two to think it over. After careful consideration, I decided to purchase it. When I hung up, it occurred to me that I had violated one of the few rules in my marriage, the one about purchases over $500 requiring spousal approval. Upon further reflection, I realized I had broken another rule, the one about spending money we didn’t have. Being a man of faith, I asked God to save my marriage by giving me $2,000 and, wouldn’t you know it, the next day a woman emailed asking if I would speak at a convention for, you guessed it, $2,000. As Myrtle Krebsbach from Lake Wobegon said, “If this don’t prove to you there’s an Almighty, I don’t know what in hell will.”
The next several days were busy and I couldn’t find a good time to tell my wife what I’d done, so I phoned her on my way to pick up the motorcycle with my buddy Rod, who also rides motorcycles, owns a motorcycle trailer, and is always eager to lend a helping hand.
“Rod and I are picking up my new motorcycle,” I told her.
“You’re doing what?” she said, just before the road dipped into a valley and we lost our connection. The important thing is, I had honored our agreement, so I picked up my 1979 Honda CB650 with a clear conscience. With such thoughtfulness, it’s no surprise that our marriage has flourished these many years.
Actually, I’m under no illusions about the reasons for our marital success, which have everything to do with my wife and little to do with me. My marriage is a perfect example of how one person—in our case, my wife—can offset the shortcomings of another. My mother always said it took two people to make a marriage, which I suppose is technically true since every marriage I’ve ever known consisted of two people. But it fails to explain how a marriage can thrive when the contributions of its participants are so lopsided. At least, I’m assuming my wife is happy. She hasn’t said otherwise, though she has occasionally gone off by herself for days at a time, causing me to wonder if she has another husband somewhere. If she does, I hope he cooks dinner for her, doesn’t fling his dirty clothes on the bedroom floor, or spend their retirement funds on motorcycles. She deserves that and more.
I met my wife on Monday, June 7, 1982. The next evening, we rode bicycles to the old Sugar Grove meetinghouse southwest of Plainfield, where we wandered among the tombstones discussing the dead people. Afterward, we sat on the meetinghouse porch, where I told her there were five kids in my family, that our dad sold bug spray, and our mom was a school principal. She said there were five kids in her family, too, that her parents were farmers, but her dad died of a stroke when she was 13, and her mom lived by herself on the farm in Southern Indiana.
Death has always fascinated me, not in the Stephen King–ish way where I catch and kill small animals to watch them die, but in an existential, spiritual kind of way. I’m curious how people not only navigate the passing of those they love, but how they face their own demise.
“What was it like when your father died?” I asked her.
“Quiet,” she said. “No one talked about it. Not my mom, not my teachers, not my friends.” She said this without rancor, a simple acknowledgment of Midwestern reticence.
I don’t know what caused me to fall in love with her at that moment, whether it was sympathy for her loss or admiration for her strength, or both, but something in me saw something lovely in her, and I remember thinking she was the kind of person I could marry without regret. The challenge, as always, was making her feel the same way about me, which I did by inviting her to the Dairy Queen the next evening, my treat. Walking home afterward, she offered me a bite of her Buster Bar, and I knew then we were going to marry. Why else would you share your Buster Bar with someone unless you loved them? This has been her custom ever since, to cheerfully extend to me the very best she has to offer.
Still, there were a few obstacles in the way, namely her college boyfriend. Luckily, he had gone home for the summer, leaving her vulnerable to a certain Quaker bachelor who knew quality when he saw it. While he was picking blueberries on the family farm, I was sitting on her front porch reciting sonnets and treating her to Buster Bars. By the time her boyfriend realized his standing was in jeopardy, our ship of romance had set sail.
When we wed, I didn’t yet realize how essential one’s marriage was to happiness, and can’t believe I landed the one person who not only tolerates my eccentricities but delights in them. The odds of that happening are staggering, considering there were 4.6 billion people in 1982. Roughly half of them were women, which reduced the pool to around 2.3 billion. Let’s assume most people marry someone within a two-year range of their own age, which reduced the number of potential wives to 127,777,777. Of that number, probably half of them were committed to someone else, so now we’re down to 63,888,888 women available for partnership. Over a million of them turned me down when I asked them on a date, before my wife consented to be seen with me in public. Like I said, we were meant to be.
On long car trips today, we reminisce about our early years, then play a game we call “If I Died, Would You …” Would you move? Would you travel somewhere new? Would you change jobs? Would you turn the dog over to a rescue center? Would you ever marry again and if so, who? It’s the last question that always stumps me, because I’m under no illusion I could find another woman who would agree to be my wife. But I tell my wife if she were to die, I would grieve, but that after a while I would pick myself up and go forth in the world in search of happiness, confident I would find it. But that’s a lie, and we both know it. The truth is, were my wife’s heart to stop before mine, mine would break in two, and my family would bury us together at the Sugar Grove cemetery where I first fell in love on a warm June evening in 1982.
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.