I don't know the source of this picture. The caption some Facebook photo collector added says "this is what six decades of love looks like." Many of the commenters responded, "Aww, how cute," or "So romantic!" That is not what came to my mind.
I once was in the back of the church with some baby, and so I witnessed a couple who looked to be in their sixth decade of marriage as they hobbled in late. The old man was impeccably dressed as only a very old man can be, with a starched shirt collar standing up straighter than he could himself, his neck shrunken away so that his tie was knotted mostly around emptiness. All his power was concentrated on getting up the granite steps of the church -- and on enduring a constant stream of abuse from his wife, who toiled up behind him, muttering this litany toward the back of his head: "Selfish, selfish, never cared for me nor anyone, never a thought for anyone else, just go on your way, selfish, selfish, and you'll never change . . ."
And the expressions on their faces were exactly like the expressions on the faces of the old couple in the photo above. This man and wife I saw were bound together, in body and in soul -- not, apparently, in simple, loving cooperation, but like some hideous, decades-long three-legged race, where their union was nothing but pain and hindrance to each other. There are many kinds of devotion.
We hear a lot about young people heading into a marriage and seized with a sudden panic when they realize that they're binding themselves for a lifetime to someone they hardly know, hardly can know. What a risk! But what frightens me is not what I'm exposing myself to. What frightens me is that I will be exposed -- yes, even after fifteen years of marriage, at a point when my husband certainly knows me, and most certainly still loves me. Even after fifteen years, I'm afraid that for the next forty years, I will keep up a charade of being a good wife and mother, a decent person, someone who learns and improves throughout my life . . . until I am very old, and I no longer have the mental wherewithal to hide who I really am.
When my grandmother got Alzheimer's, she lost her words, she lost her good sense, she lost her ability to do anything. She even forgot how to swallow food. But one of the last things that lingered was her personality. She saw someone holding a peeled banana, and from the miscellaneous soup of vocabulary that her brain had become, there bobbed up a little expression of sympathy for the poor denuded fruit. "Poor thing!" she crooned. I showed up wearing jeans with a hole in the knee, and she followed me around, stooping and pawing at my leg, trying to piece the denim back together with her bare hands -- because that is what she did. She fixed things. She was fundamentally a sympathetic person, a healer, and this trait remained long after she was capable of actually being helpful.
What will come up to the surface when I'm no longer able to hide? This is the question that's been following me around this Lent, whispering in my ear like a malign old woman who knows me to the core and cannot stand what she knows. Selfish, selfish, and you'll never change.
I know this is not the voice of God. Yes, He knows us. Yes, He wants us to know ourselves. But on that long walk up the granite stairs, up to Golgatha, he does not come up behind, whispering, accusing, berating. He waits ahead, like a groom at the head of the church. Lent is like a little marriage, when we expose ourselves (hardly knowing what we are doing) to a largely unknown spouse. Every one of us walks up the aisle to the altar and lifts the veil to show our face to our beloved. And to our upturned face, He responds, "Thou art dust."
But that's only the beginning of Lent, just as a wedding is only the beginning of a marriage. Those forty days, those sixty years -- these are the hard uphill climb. The old couple's faces in the hospital are the faces of Good Friday, when who we are is exposed once and for all. On Good Friday, time has run out. The cross is in front of us, and we respond with everything that we are -- everything that we have become.
Who are you? Who are you becoming? Will you ever change?