“Hey, Mom, don’t be long! The babies will wake up soon and we don’t know what’s for supper!” But I was already gone, tears of desperate frustration flowing. Winding down our mountain road alone was not unusual; it was just me once again at the end of myself, anger bubbling up and spilling out.
I’m not coming back until I can function normally, without yelling or crying.
Ha! I almost laughed. Of course I would wind back up the hill and fix supper as usual!
It was not the four children who were the problem, challenging as two teens and two toddlers can be. No, after 18 years of marriage I was drowning in self-pity, self-doubt, loneliness and confusion. Neither my husband nor I felt loved by the other. How had we gotten here?
The Beginning- Miss Desperation Meets Dashing Desperate
In the beginning, “desperate” could effectively describe both Walt and me. Not desperate in getting dates. It was a different kind of desperate.
Walt, the third child of four, raised in a small town in North Carolina, was a social dynamo in school. He looked just like the little boy in “It’s a Wonderful Life” whose ear was hit. He loved to hunt, spending endless hours in the woods. During high school summers he helped his dad in the family pest control business. He married his long-time girlfriend, but there was no honeymoon; within weeks he realized that her unplanned pregnancy embittered her so deeply she would hardly be civil to him. So, in the depths of utter rejection, he decided to pursue his love of music. He put together a band and became a professional musician. The college and nightclub scene, glamor, drugs and alcohol became his new life. Back at home the few attempts they made to heal the marriage produced two more children, but no resolution. And so Walt’s career, partly by default, mostly by design, took top billing.
Disaster struck, however, when a letter arrived that began with one word, “Greeting.” His band on the verge of fame, the army drafted Walt for a two-year stint during Viet Nam. With his career gone, a worse downhill spiral ensued. But Walt had a praying mother. It is an amazing story of redemption. In the midst of suicidal thoughts, poverty and isolation, a co-worker witnessed to him about the Lord Jesus. And the Lord saved him. At 29 he became a new man, a changed man. And “desperate” to start over.
I was born in Canada, the eldest of three. According to my Mom, Jesus became my Savior at 5 years; I don’t remember not knowing Him. My father, who worked as a youth in the Belfast shipyards, survived WWII there, sailed to Canada at 24 to become a pastor/evangelist. He married my mother, a nurse, and after I was born, moved us back to Ireland where my sister and brother were born. So after several pastorates, when I had grown into an exuberant 12 year-old, the family finally settled in Wisconsin.
School activities marked every waking hour. My Christianity did keep me out of deep trouble, but all in all I was a lot like Charlie Brown– a wee bit wishy washy. After college I landed a teaching job in far away North Carolina, precisely in the town where Walt had been raised. But a busy life of church activities couldn’t stop the growing seeds of insecurity. In my mid-twenties I was thoroughly tired of singles apartments, “surfacy” dating, and having to scrounge for car insurance when my company dumped me for too many accidents. Thus in a sense I was also “desperate.” Desperate for the appearance of my handsome knight in shining armor. Surely he would sweep me onto his magnificent steed, ride into the romantic amber sunset, and heroically pay my car insurance!
And, voila, he arrived! Having moved back home after two full years of university, hard work, and discipling by the Christians there, he was “substance-free” —and adamant.
“We are a perfect match,” he said. He’d fallen in love with my smile, and I with his hope for our future. Absolutely, in my heart Caution whispered. But…We dated six months and married after a short engagement. Yes, we were Christians, but nonetheless carrying a boatload of expectations. He needed, expected, a wife who would accept and admire him, hold down a good job, cook his meals, keep house — all while he fiscally “caught up” with his peers. And he was behind, mind you. No high-maintenance chick for him. I, at 26, on the other hand, married to be cherished and cared for, to enjoy our babies on a checkered quilt under a shade tree. With Romance, lots of it!
Depression or Temper Tantrum- You Decide
In August of our first year he literally lunged out of the gate in his race to middle-class security. “Hey, Hon! I’ve bought a farm- a Christmas tree farm in Virginia!”
“Really? Today. You bought a farm.”
The following year our first child, a daughter, was born; then a year later our son. I traveled back and forth to the farm on weekends, helped Walt keep in touch with his first three children, and taught school. My career of choice had turned to motherhood, but I was doing both! One day we came home to a flooded kitchen after having left the windows open to a major storm. My well-meaning husband found me crumpled on the floor, laughing hysterically. As soon as he picked me up, the tears came, and he knew. Exhaustion. Not Romance.
When the farm house burned down and Walt sold the farm to an investor one would think his attentions would turn fully to our own local business. Wrong. Wholesale Christmas trees, real estate investing, plus pest management. By year 7 I had quit teaching school to homeschool our two little ones. And by then our biggest struggle had clearly emerged. Managing conflict. My outgoing personality seemed to clash with his leadership, creating an atmosphere of competition. As he hated conflict, my dire need for affection would bite my tongue rather than question or disagree. If I did, the chill was palpable. He felt attacked. I was afraid he would leave me. And there it was, a doormat/dictatorship in the making. Walt, full of his own fears, acting like a dictator, was a severely wounded, sensitive man; and I, playing the role of doormat, was a very angry, needy girl, on a roller coaster of disillusionment.
Over the next few years, even with a crazy schedule of entertaining, church activities, and homeschooling, my growing unhappiness brought out piles of marriage books. I was determined to win more affection and attention from my over-achieving, often depressed husband. But he just felt manipulated. Even with this tension, for years I had also wanted more children. Perhaps I thought this would draw us closer together. So when our second child was 9, he agreed. And, deja vu, two “latter babies” were born- a year apart. They did bring new joy to our home and we experienced a sweet, though brief, “honeymoon” period. When our 4th and last child, a daughter, was three weeks old, I was 42, Walt fulfilled one of his dreams and moved us from the city to a beautiful spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So pushing Rejection and Anger temporarily to the back burner, I began my quieter rural life.
Now walking for exercise had been routine for years, and after getting settled I was anxious to tackle those challenging hills. It wasn’t long until a young mom from church, Sharon, became my new walking partner. She also filled the bill as God’s instrument for my refining. Her candid, perceptive gait paced my emotionally unstable one. The mesmerizing crunch of autumn leaves combined with massive vistas were the backdrop for the outpouring out my woes. Her perspective, however, was as crisp and clear as the dazzling blue sky. Walt was the one getting the bad rap. Lovingly she would insist, “Sandi, there is nothing wrong with your marriage — or Walt. You need a new heart. Ask God to give you a new heart. One that lets Walt be Walt.”
How dare she? She did not understand. But God had engaged my stubborn will —and the fight was on. Oh, sure I prayed, “Lord, change me.” But I knew and God knew, the only right thing was for God to change him to meet my needs.
Over the next several years as our walks continued, God enrolled me in many new classrooms. Our construction business failed, Walt’s depression worsened, I found myself homeschooling a second pair of kids, my second set of course; and our eldest daughter got married. Then when Menopause made it’s official appearance I thought I could just hide out forever in “them thar hills”. But no, Walt’s career took a hairpin curve and we made another major family move — this time to bustling San Antonio. Yet, through all this my friend didn’t give up on me. Half a continent away, she remained resolute. God will win, one way or another. It was year 2001.
Now mean, menacing menopause was not a piece of cake. It put a spotlight on my pain, made settling into the new Texas surroundings harder. When our 2nd born son got married, I continued to wilt. Then what only happens to other folks happened. Their first baby, a boy, was born way too early, weighing in at one pound, 4 ounces. His tiny life hanging in tenuous uncertainty, I felt strangely detached. Even tho’ God did spare him, seeing my son and his incredible wife through it all, sadness lingered in my heart.
In those seemingly endless months of self-absorption I would often leave the family to close myself in my room and cry. Was this depression? Or a long, drawn out temper tantrum? The sermons I heard each week, the scripture I read pointed to selfishness and a need for repentance. But despite all of God’s patient dealing with me, I was stuck. Stuck in critical mode– critical of the way Walt lead, critical of the way he loved me. And he knew it. My need was actually sabotaging its object. Romance was slipping away.
Now, I would like to tell you that everything changed with the news of breast cancer in 2003. That this turned me around. But if I did, I would be lying. Yes, the cancer was fairly advanced with lymph nodes involved; there was surgery, chemo, radiation, and reconstruction. But, since detachment now felt at home in my heart and in my marriage I had chosen safety over vulnerability, Walt’s deep agony couldn’t touch me. He was terrified he would lose me, but he seemed unreachable. Were we really in trouble? Should we have ever gotten married? So many questions, so much doubt. Fear gripped me. Why was I here, and why would I get well? I was really quite sick, but it was way more than physical. Then one day after a particularly difficult part of chemo, we decided to go to a Christian counselor. After listening to my litany of complaints, my anger and loneliness, he said something I thought was the coldest, most uncounselor-like thing I had ever heard.
“Sandi, stop. When these moods hit you, you must call a friend immediately, and don’t go to that place. How will you get well if you insist on your pity parties?”
I was so furious my bald head was about to explode. But I went home and called my friend in the mountains. Listening quietly she said, “Hmmmm….ditto.” Of course, I knew she’d say that.
Okay, Lord, you win. You must be all I need.
The Ongoing End
I began to get well. First, I had to deal with addiction to my favorite drug, Tears.
This took excruciating practice. I vigorously fought my moods. Some days I marked as “Turning Points,” but whether they were or not, most days showed a little progress. I asked and expected God to fill me with a new acceptance for exactly the man Walt was–trying to remember and thank Him specifically for the miracles we had witnessed in our married life. And so, reading my Bible, often aloud, I inched out of my pit. I came to see that if I was embarrassed by my past thinking I was on the right track. When I reverted back to it, I was veering off. Walt says often that when he first met Christ, “everything was opposite from before. What was up was now down, and what was good was now bad.” Getting my thinking right is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and it is an ongoing battle. And getting physically well was God’s poetic justice. He must not have been through with me yet.
So, of course, “life” continued with setbacks. We had just started a business in Texas so had no insurance. And there were more surgeries, more business troubles, setting off more debilitating financial losses. But there were also more blessings– many beautiful grandchildren, renewed health, daily energy– all amid grateful days. Gratefulness, as a discipline, became my new friend. But mainly and miraculously, I no longer saw Walt as the problem. Our marriage was validated. Love could grow.
Accepting him with all his imperfections, joking with him, thinking up playful things to do together brought a newness. As his fears, insecurities, guilt, and depression began to lift, a new person emerged. With a new desire to lead, warmth characterized him. Lying next to me in bed, his fitful breathing smoothed out.
How, while escaping down that mountain road so long ago, had I failed to grasp the truth? God loved me! Only by realizing God’s love could I accept Walt’s love. And he did love me. Oh, the sadness of wasted years. Years of pursuing, hiding, pursuing, hiding. But now….how much more, the glory of a pleasant today, and heading into a bright future.
As you might guess Walt likes to be at home alone together. Sometimes he’ll come over to my desk and quietly wait until I leave my computer to cuddle down beside him. Then he will look into my eyes and say, “Thank you, Honey, for not giving up on me, on us. Where would we be if you had?” Then I tell him, it was really he and the Lord who didn’t give up!
God’s work in my emotions is an on-going process. Even with an empty nest in this autumn season of our lives, I can revert to my old thinking patterns in the twinkling of a millisecond; and I can react to Walt’s fears even quicker. However, as I keep going back to God’s truth, I have peace. He says His grace is sufficient for me and He will meet all my needs. I choose to believe Him.
And Romance? After 36 years shouldn’t it be too late? Oh, no. Romance is and always has been a matter of daily forgiveness and diligent work —at any age. It is never too late. Then of course there’s the matter of order. For true success “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, then all these (other) things will be added to you.”
What about that Desperation? That is oh, so thankfully a distant memory. Did I really yell and cry in those earlier days? Yes, for a long time. And there are still witnesses out there to prove it. They do come over often with their broods — 11 grandchildren– and they don’t hold it against me. But take this memo: their babies are probably napping right now, so I wouldn’t call and ask them.