Yesterday would have been my 21st wedding anniversary. The coming of age of a successful, happy marriage. Sadly, we only made it to the 12th – silk and fine linen. The first love of my life passed away eight years ago, never having lived to accept the gifts of lace, or ivory, or crystal that are meant to follow.
However, I am not filled with regret. I would imagine that grief can become all-consuming if the heart is not diverted by other loves and other passions, and so I am eternally grateful to have been blessed not once, but twice, by the love of a good man. Still, it is a strange position to be in, to have the knowledge that my current happy relationship would not have been possible without the death of the first. The best way I can respond is by celebrating what was, what I was left with, and what I have now.
Whenever reflecting on my first marriage I always feel compelled to correct a common assumption that it was miserable. Mark and I met exactly a year after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was 25, and I was still 17. We were friends who one day found themselves lovers, who then one day found themselves husband and wife. He never asked me to marry him – it was something we both took for granted. The first time I said ‘yes’ was when the ring was sliding on my finger. I remember how he squeezed my hand and lifted an eyebrow when the priest said ‘till death do you part’. Quite early on we had the discussion about how we were never going to grow old together; the deal to simply enjoy what we had, for as long as we had it, was already sealed.
Of course, there was a fair bit of misery. I certainly recall the helplessness of seeing Mark on the floor, shaking with uncontrolled seizures, of entering ICU after yet another craniotomy, of calling the ambulance when the effects of chemo were beyond what we could manage at home. I remember the despair of an artist whose right hand was paralyzed, the horror of him not being able to find words for self-expression, the confronting sight of skull deformity. The indignity of being bed bound at the end. And yet…
And yet, what I remember more is the smile on his face as I told him I was pregnant. The sight of him, in his favourite chair, eating crackers and cheese. Building Lego with the kids. Straightening up pictures which hung crookedly on the wall. Painting a mural in the toilet. Giving up, when we found the paint was wrong. Drawing cartoons on table napkins. Teasing the cat. And the almost daily mantra: ‘I love you’, ‘I love you’, ‘I love you’. How could I have been miserable? Why would I be regretful?
After he died, I was perfectly content to be single. Having entered the relationship whilst still in my teens, I quite enjoyed my new found independence. With two young children and a new career, I was keen for diversion, not commitment. Meeting David took me by surprise.
We married in Fiji, surrounded by palm trees, fragrant flowers and a small group of family and friends. While my best friend and I submitted ourselves to massages, manicures and hair fondling, David took the boys snorkeling and sent us top ups of wine. The minister asked whether he needed to wear shoes.
I had not organised the wedding band. They were a last minute stand in, a motley crew of local villagers blessed, as all Fijians seem to be, with golden vocal cords. They entertained us with an eclectic mix of old time rock and roll, 80’s ballads and love songs of the South Pacific, and the evening passed in a happy blur of kava and aged champagne.
Right towards the end, they played an old song, The Tennessee Waltz. The one that Mark and I loved and often had danced to, and it was an eerie feeling to find myself now dancing to it with David. Once finished, the men started to put away their instruments, but our party called for an encore and they kindly obliged. As the first strings of guitar broke the quiet of the night, my heart stopped a moment. It was a beautiful rendition of Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah. The song which Mark had asked for to be played at his funeral.
That evening, the 18th of April 2012, standing wrapped in my new husband’s arms, I felt a gentle kiss from heaven.
Yesterday would have been my 21st wedding anniversary. But tomorrow is my third. I cherish the yesterdays, but take delight in the tomorrows.