During and after my wife Carolyn’s recent death, people have expressed wonder and amazement at the depth of our commitment and love for each other. Looking around me, I am forced to agree. Carolyn and I often talked to each other about how rare our relationship seemed to be. Was it just a happy accident that we found each other? Or were we just doing something right that most people never figure out?
Since she left, I have had time to ponder the reasons for our love and caring for each other, and I’ll try to explain why I believe that two fundamental Buddhist principles may have something to do with It.
The first one is honesty. Oh, sure, everybody gives lip service to honesty, but how many really believe it?
When Carolyn first began showed the signs of dementia, and we confirmed that with medical professionals, we spent many hours holding each other and crying, as she had seen her own mother forget who she was, and didn’t want that for herself. She knew she was going that way, and was terrified of that prospect.
I promised her again, as I had done when we first committed ourselves to each other, that I would always be honest, that I would never lie, and she would always be able to trust anything I said. Sometimes the truth was hard, and sometimes we just held each other and cried, but honesty and trust always got us through the hard times together.
When I first found a place for Carolyn to live at Featherstone Assisted Living Home, she would ask, “When are we going back home?” Some would tell me a little white lie would be OK, just say pretty soon, or some noncommittal answer to avoid upsetting her. I couldn’t do that. I promised I wouldn’t. We had forty seven years of trust at stake. So we deal with it. Honestly.
I took her to her room and we sat down on the couch I had just bought her, and I told her, “We can’t go back home. We live in Durant now, where you were born and raised, and you have many friends and relatives here.”
She asked, “Why are we here? Why can’t we go home?”
I reminded her about our old home being 55 miles from the doctor, and 180 miles from the hospital. I also reminded her of the isolation of living in the Nevada desert, and how often she wished she had a neighbor to just talk to over coffee.
Then I sold her on her new home. “This is the best home we’ve ever had!” I don’t have to fix the plumbing, or the leaky roof, and she had maids to clean, and cooks to make the meals, people to do the washing, and aides to help her whenever she needed help. At last, she was living like a queen.
Best of all, she had nurses checking on her daily, doctors came whenever needed, and the hospital was just across the road.
It wasn’t hard to convince her, and I repeated the story several times over the first few weeks. She never lost trust in me, and later when visitors would come that she no longer recognized, I could introduce them to her, and even though she could not remember them, she trusted me and accepted them.
Later, when I am sure she forgot who I was, I could walk in, as I did every day and tell her, “Hey, Honey, it’s Don, your favorite husband!” She always grinned and kissed or hugged me. I never knew if she remembered me then or just trusted that it was me, but she always loved seeing me each morning.
All through our marriage, it was that trust that got us through the hard times.
Once, many years ago, a close family member and friend of ours started pressuring and harassing Carolyn when I was at work. It was a classic case of male power and will, and eventually became a rape situation. I am sure she had a #MeToo story to tell.
I came home one evening from work, and she asked to go down to the beach and watch the ocean waves. As we sat there, she told me she was afraid of what she had to say, afraid I would leave her, but had to tell me anyway.
She told me the whole story, and we held each other and cried for a long time. I told her that honesty was what I needed to hear, and now we could find a way to fix the problem. She was afraid I would cause a fight or worse, and she didn’t want me to confront the man. I told her I wasn’t raised in the Wild West, and there are other ways to deal with this. I asked what she wanted me to do.
She said, “I want to leave! I hate this place. I hate wondering when he is coming back for me!”
That was exactly what I wanted to hear, because I had come to hate the LA rat race, the traffic, the smog, and the whole attitude of living your whole life going somewhere you didn’t want to go every day, just to get a check so you can survive and pay the bills each month until you die.
We left the next morning. We camped out in National Parks and Forest Service campgrounds all the way across the Sierra Nevada, Utah, and into Colorado, where I finally found the job I had wanted all along, as a maintenance machinist/mechanic in a power plant in the most beautiful place in the country. It was as close to a mechanical engineer job as I could get without a degree.
We didn’t see the other guy until years later, when the family got together for Carolyn’s father’s funeral in Oklahoma. Eventually I forgave him, because Buddhism teaches that to not forgive only hurts yourself, and I think that’s true. But I never forgot, and we never lived close to him again.
The other principle, just as important I think, is living your life according to your own wants and needs. The other side of this is not living your life according to someone else’s wishes. This probably sounds counterintuitive to a successful marriage, but it’s not.
Marriage is not about sacrificing yourself on someone else’s altar. There is a bit of Zen here, I must warn you.
Some marriages are based on, “If you do this for me, I’ll do this for you!”
Or even worse, “If you don’t do this for me, I won’t do this for you!”
This is not marriage. This is a commercial transaction. We all know what they call commercial sex. There cannot be a quid pro quo to make a successful marriage. It just becomes a business relationship that way.
The key is each person finding the kind of love that says, “Nothing makes me happier than to see you happy.”
“Nothing excites me more than to see you ecstatically excited.”
There is no give and take here. It is all give.
“I want to make you happy. What can I do to make that happen?”
This kind of selfless love is only possible if you love your self. See, I told you. Zen. When you love yourself, only then can you give all of your self for the love of another, and still love yourself even more.
When your love increases as you give it away and make someone else happy, Nirvana is nearby!
As Carolyn got sicker, and I increased my care for her, she could give less and less back to me, and yet my love grew as I cared for her. It wasn’t hard to do. On the day she died I couldn’t have loved her more.