A few weeks ago, we went to a fall festival in the mountains of southwest Virginia. It was a laid-back affair without too many activities. So after the kids got their faces painted, and one tried her hand at a BB gun for the first time, we found ourselves in the pavilion listening to a band play 60s covers while the kids swarmed the adjacent playground.
The band was good, and by their second song, a half dozen boomer couples had made their way to the space between the stage and the front row, where they danced. It’s the kind of fast-slow dancing that I could never be capable of, but they all did it with class and finesse and absolutely no concern for who was watching. Seeing them dance moved me, and tears gathered in my eyes. I could almost imagine them as teenagers and young adults, desperately in love and living for times like this when they could be in each other’s arms.
It also reminded me of one of my favorite parts of some wedding receptions, when the DJ calls all the married couples to the floor and then progressively dismisses them based on how long they’ve been married. At the end of the song, you’re left with the longest-married couple alone on the dance floor, and if you’re lucky, the DJ will call the newlyweds back out and have the two couples switch partners.
Suddenly, watching these couples at the festival became more than witnessing the happily ever after that began when they met, or on their first date, or at their wedding. I’ve only been married for eight years, but even in that short amount of time, my perspective has definitely shifted.
Chances are, every single one of those couples, in the course of their marriage, has been to hell and back.
Which ones struggled to put food on the table for their families? Which ones had weathered the storm of job loss or relocation? Which ones tried and prayed for years to have a baby but didn’t? Which ones dealt with (or were currently dealing with) an estranged or delinquent child? Which were caring for mentally or terminally ill parents? Which ones had fought and beaten cancer or another illness? Which ones were still fighting, with little hope for the future? Which ones had faced infidelity? Which ones had battled addiction or substance abuse? Which were on their second or third marriage and still carried the pain of loss?
Chances are, every single one of those of those couples has been to the brink of divorce, possibly more than once.
As children, we naturally don’t have a lot of foresight or any way to comprehend “forever.” We’re also conditioned to believe that “the end” is when two people get together, and we focus more on the “happily” than the “ever after.” But that day at the festival, the fullness of marriage overwhelmed me in the span of a bubble gum pop song, and this was what made me cry.
Happily ever after may very well begin on a beautiful autumn wedding day, but the happiest part of ever after is not the bliss of marriage. It’s the confidence of knowing that whatever happens, when two people choose each other in the long run and make the choice to stay, there’s someone to stand by their side no matter what, through the beautiful and the ugly.
And when that old song comes on, the one during which they first made eye contact at a high school dance 47 years ago, they can come together and remember the entire spectrum of their experiences, holding each other close just as they did that first night.