He’s an unusual counselor. Unlike the polished Dr. Phil, his greasy hair is slicked back over his balding head and comes down just above his shoulders. Instead of an office with a couch, he has a taxi cab— and I’m in it.
“What brings you to New York?” his loud and rough voice makes the question feel intrusive, I feel compelled to reply.
“I was visiting my fiancé,” I respond noncommittally. After bidding a weepy “good-bye” to my husband-to-be I’m not feeling conversational, yet he persists.
“Ahh… so it’s a long distance relationship,” he states knowingly. Something reassuring in his tone makes me look over at him. Most of all I can see is his tattoo covered arms peeking out beneath a filthy white shirt.
I wait and he continues, “You know, I’ve been married 42 years now, and I tell ya’! Relationships are hard.”
I’m impressed. 42 years is a long time. I say so.
“Yeah I met Ginny when we was 18. Married ‘er before heading out to Vietnam. We spent a few nights together in a hotel and then I left the country. When I returned I was a goddam husband and father!”
“That’s an adjustment!” I forget about my tears for a bit.
“Yup, I came home from war to see my first child be born and then headed back to Vietnam right after! When I came back I became a cop and Ginny (that’s short for “Virginia”, but I never her call her that, unless I’m mad a’course!) became a school teacher. We had three kids, and they’re damn good kids too. Got six grandbabies now! Yeah it’s all a bit of a white-picket-fence story…”
“Most people don’t make it that long. Honestly, some of my friends have told me they don’t believe in marriage anymore. That I’m too young,” I confide in him.
“That’s because they don’ even try!” he slaps his hand down on the wheel. “If I could tell kids anything about marriage these days I’d say you gotta talk it out. Whatever it is, however you feel, just sit down and talk about it. After 42 years I’ve learned to come into those conversations saying ‘What can I do for you baby?’ When she says ‘jump’ I jump! That woman knows me better than any human being alive. She knows my likes and dislikes, my fears– she’s my goddam best friend.”
I listen, and he continues.
“I give her a hard time and tell her she’s a pain sometimes, but she knows I don’ mean it. I love that woman. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without her. But you know, we came from a different generation, where when you married someone, you stayed married no matter what! People just don’t think like that these days.”
I agreed with him, relationships are no walk in the park. Just that weekend, my fiancé and I had bickered over how to get to Central Park; who was being less helpful navigating our way around the New York; he had scolded me (rightfully!) for being whiny; I had been cross and irritated; he was difficult; and we were short with each other a random points throughout the week.
And yet despite it all, the day we said “goodbye” I struggled to hold back tears and dug my fingernails possessively into his arm as if somehow that would keep us longer in our last few moments together.
Increasingly, our times together are a glorious cocktail of love and elation mixed with raw vulnerability and the worst sides of our characters…
“It’s about give and take!” My thoughts are interrupted by another slap on the steering wheel. He pushes his stringy hair from his face. “People think they gotta give nothing! But it’s not like that. I take my wife shoppin’. And I don’ complain, whine or hurry her along. I just go with her. And she comes with me to my football and baseball games– I know she don’ wanna!”
I am all ears now.
“But ya’ know what? That’s what relationships are about. Asking yourself what you can give, not what can ya get?”
It strikes me Jesus says similar things about marriage, and love in general. Did not he himself do this very thing? Gave up his own rights to tend to our desperate need for a Savior? Isn’t that the very definition of love: to lay oneself down for the ultimate good of the other? Maybe the more we learn to give up our selfish pride and abandon our “right” to happiness in pursuit of Jesus, the more joy we encounter in the loss.
“She’s stubborn and strong-willed like me,” he continues. “But mostly she’s just wonderful and loving. Marriage is a wonderful institution.”
It’s no wonder God uses marriage as a way to teach us the painful surrender of ourselves. There’s a beauty in the pain that ultimately harvests joy and a deeper appreciation for this person you’ve stuck through life and hell with.
I play with my engagement ring thoughtfully and smile.
We arrive at Newark. I’m sorry to leave this marriage counseling session, but happy to have had it.
I realize now I don’t know his name. The whole conversation he never mentioned it– though he mentioned Ginny’s non-stop. Perhaps that’s the biggest wonder of all, that we lose our desperate need to make ourselves known altogether. There is rest in making much of the One who fully knows and loves us and spares no cost to claim us.