Joel and I occasionally joke about traveling back in time to the day we met to interrupt that blind date with a slideshow of our future. We chortle as we imagine the disbelief if our younger selves had seen scenes from our married life in the years to come.
Some of the surprises would have been welcome. Who would have imagined that the guy with an aversion to attending shul would proudly build his own sukkah every year, or that the gal with the hyper-bland diet would learn to cook Indian and Thai food? Who would have dreamed that we could wallpaper together? Who would have thought Joel would revel in being covered with party hats at his preschooler’s birthday party, or that my favorite job title would be Mommy?
Other images would have been comical, such as when we frantically chased the cat around the house after she ran across the freshly-painted fireplace, leaving tiny white paw prints everywhere, or the synagogue retreat when Joel and I gave the yoga minyan a try and he burst out laughing. There also was an epic diaper change at Corner Bakery when I screeched at Joel to get into the Ladies Room with me to help change his daughter RIGHT NOW.
Then there are tableaux that would have been overwhelming, such as the two of us signing our first mortgage, or sitting in a daze beside our premature baby in the ISCU, or dropping that same baby off at college 18 years later.
And there also have been heartbreaking scenes we never would have imagined: family who became estranged from us, friends who dealt with catastrophic illnesses, classmates who divorced or died.
The truth is that life changes you, and it also changes what love looks like. True love is messy, just like life. You find it in the support you get during knee replacements and power outages and shivas, when you file taxes and receive parking tickets and get passed over for a dream job, while you wait for biopsy results and for the stock market to recover.
I couldn’t have told this to my 27-year-old self (if for no other reason than that she’d have been too distracted by her first encounter with hummus to listen), but the perfect moments in our married life rarely have involved candlelight, flowers or romance.
The first time I knew Joel was the real thing was a sweltering summer night when my car overheated and died in a Dominick’s parking lot. It was late, the neighborhood was iffy, and my Knight in Shining Armor actually wore a sweat-soaked undershirt when he arrived to help with my jumper cables. It was the first time I was in trouble that I didn’t call my Dad.
Years later, I saw true love when my husband was up to his ankles in sewage in our flooded basement. I felt it when he told our 5-year-old daughter that our beloved old cat had died, and a decade later when he sobbed in the waiting room during her ankle surgery. And I experienced it when he stood holding my hand in hospice, bearing unflinching witness as my father drew his last breath.
The thing is, Joel’s dad died when he was 10, and when we met he was terrified of sickness, hospitals and death. I figured that everyone has their limitations, and this was his. If you had told me, then, that one day he’d be my rock during my own father’s final illness and passing, I simply would not have believed it. I revered Soren Kierkegaard, who famously said that “love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”
Now I disagree. Sometimes love can do more than change people; it can strengthen and transform them into someone even more extraordinary. I might not have believed that in 1987, or been able to imagine what the future really would hold, but at least I did know enough to take a leap of faith—all the while holding Joel’s hand.