"I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was - I was far away from home.... I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost."
— Jack Kerouac (On the Road)
I was recently looking at a photo of Ger and myself, from 2005. They were part of engagement photos that my aunt took for us in her backyard, nestled in the coulee where I grew up. I was 21, and he was 22. Both of us were still in college, though I graduated in December that year and we were married less than a month later. We are both smiling and looking at each other.
We had gone through the requisite pre-marriage counseling with the church, a few sessions where we met with the Catholic priest and the nun (not exactly experts on marriage) and then we were paired with a couple in their 50s for marriage counseling sessions in their home, following a discussion workbook provided by the church. Even at the time, we felt like the couple was an odd choice for leading the sessions with us, as they had been married later in life and had no children. Yet there we were, trying to glean tips from them on marriage, with their lives so different from ours.
While likely nothing could ever really prepare us, nothing "hard" ever came to my mind as we looked forward to our lives together. My life growing up had been a sequence of the expected in a stable two-parent household with three children. Ger had faced far more adversity in a large immigrant family, but certainly a childhood that could not be repeated in our own lives with the next generation.
Looking at the photos of "young us" I thought: We had no idea. Nothing could have prepared us, really, but when you are young and engaged, you only think about moving through the milestones of life, like buying a house and having children. You repeat the words "in sickness and in health, until death do us part" but you don't imagine your life including the death of your child, mental health struggles, and crying harder than you thought possible. That photo is like a figment of the past, fleeting and unreal.
All of the things that we worried about then simply did not matter in the long haul. We used to joke with people about how little we fought (boy, did that change). Reality was that we had little to fight about, because there were no hard things and no difficult decisions.
Ger said to me recently "Sometimes it feels like it keeps getting harder." I replied "Of course it does. We keep experiencing things we have never experienced before, and each time, we have to figure out how to navigate it."
I would like to think that we have had our fill of the hard things. We have had two of our children die during pregnancy, and we dealt with mental health issues that threatened to dismantle what we knew. But in reality, I am scared. It is like waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I picture a decade from now and something happening to one of our older children. Or cancer. Or a serious financial blow. We are not immune and wondering what else we could face throws me back to those long days and sleepless nights of a few years ago. Wondering how I could handle more, and is there a limit to what I can handle.
If I could speak to Younger Us, I would say, in a voice with as much conviction as I could muster: "It is going to get 1,000 times harder than you thought possible. But you will survive."