I love a good romance – both reading them and writing them.
But better than reading one is getting the chance to live one out in my real life.
Twenty-nine years ago today I married the man who has become the love of my life. The reason I say he has “become” the love of my life and not “was” the love of my life is because when we married we had only known each other a month! Not long enough to know anything about each other and certainly not long enough to know if we would be compatible for life.
In January of 1984 I shipped off for basic training in the U.S. Army. I had joined the previous summer and I recall when I was in the recruiting office saying I didn’t care where I was stationed as long as it wasn’t Fort Knox, Kentucky. (I had a sister who had lived in that area and had not been impressed.) After basic training I went to Fort Benjamin-Harrison in Indiana for my AIT training at the Defense Information School of Journalism. It was at the end of AIT that we got our duty station assignments. I remember the list was posted on the stairwell of our barracks and I literally sat down on the steps and cried when I saw where I had been assigned. Yep – Fort Knox.
I arrived at Ft. Knox in mid-June and basically cried for two weeks straight. I had “promised myself” to a guy I had met in AIT who got stationed overseas in Berlin. So, my first two weeks on Fort Knox mostly consisted of going to my job at the post newspaper – Inside the Turret (a reference to tanks) – and then returning to my barracks room to write letters to this guy in Berlin and cry my eyes out.
After two weeks my roommate took pity on me. It turned out we had a lot in common. She was a farm girl from Wisconsin, I was a farm girl from Michigan. She convinced me to leave our room and meet some of her friends.
It was a hot day in late June and they were playing Frisbee on the tennis courts. There was this guy there who could do some pretty fancy tricks, but when she introduced him to me, my first impression was, ‘this guy is weird’. He had spiked orange hair and wore an earring. Little did I know that a month later I would be saying “I do” to this same “weird” guy!
There were six or seven of us that all hung out as a group. I remember going to the fair on Fort Knox and pointing out cute girls to Mark. (After all, I was promised to another!) I don’t really know when things started to change, but I will never forget his proposal! We had all gone to the NCO club and Mark had gotten a little drunk. We were in the back of a taxi riding back to our barracks when he asked me to marry him! My response was, “You’re drunk, you don’t know what you’re saying.” Then he told me he did, too, know what he was saying and that he was going to call me in the morning to ask me again.
The next day I was sitting at my desk at the Turret when my phone rang and it was Mark. His words were, “I meant what I said last night.” I’m not really sure what I was thinking, but I said “Yes” to those two rather unromantic proposals! I’m not really sure why we got married in such a hurry. He picked the date of August 1 because he said that way he would always be able to remember it. We had to go through some pre-marital counseling with a Jewish rabbi. The only thing I remember about that was this one day we were walking to our counseling session and neither of us saluted a general’s Jeep as it sped past, so it quickly made a U-turn and the officer came back and reamed us both out.
I wrote a Dear John letter to the guy in Berlin. Then we had to call our families. This was long before cell phones. I recall us squeezing into a phone booth on base and each one calling our family in turn. He called his mom, I called my sister, Laura. (At the time I was not on speaking terms with my parents. I had not spoken to them in over a year. It was after my wedding that I finally held out an olive branch and we mended our fences.) I still remember standing there, squeezed into that phone booth saying to my sister, “I’ve broken up with Paul and I’m going to marry Mark.” Needless to say, everyone thought I was crazy. We were literally told our marriage wouldn’t last six months.
We got married at the Hardin County Courthouse in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. I had bought a $10 dress from this little department store called Rose’s. Mark got a haircut, so no spiky orange hair on our wedding day. He was only a month past his 20th birthday and I was just over 21 years old.
Our roommates were our witnesses and afterwards we had a little reception at our apartment with our group of friends. We had a tiny cake and champagne. I never really regretted not having a big wedding. To me, it’s the marriage that comes after the wedding that matters.
We set up housekeeping in a tiny one bedroom apartment in Radcliff, just outside the base. It was pretty rough going at times. We really didn’t know anything about each other and we both had a lot of learning and growing up to do. Mark drank too much and I wasn’t a drinker at all, so this caused most of our conflicts.
After only about six months of marriage, Mark decided he wanted to start a family. After I got pregnant, my Army life changed quite a lot. Back in the 80’s, it wasn’t like it is today in the military. Mark had finished his enlistment and had gotten out. I got orders for Italy and no matter what my NCO did, the orders could not be changed. I would have had to leave for Italy six weeks after the baby was born and since there was no on-post housing at the post I was being sent to, Mark and the baby would not be able to come until I had gotten everything settled over there. We made the decision that I would get out on a hardship discharge. That has been one of the biggest regrets of my life, but in the long run we both know it was for the best.
It really bothered Mark that he wasn’t able to buy me an engagement ring. It wasn’t that important to me – I had a wedding band and that was enough – but he told me after we married that he was going to get me a diamond one day. I still remember when he said it – we were sitting in the bleachers at one of our friends’ softball games when he made that promise. A year later, on our first anniversary, he presented me with a tiny diamond ring. That ring has meant the world to me ever since! Yes, in the years that followed he bought me two bigger, more expensive diamond rings, but I still wear my little diamond chip on the ring finger of my right hand. He used to give me a hard time about it, until I told him how this ring represents his promise kept and that I will not take it off until I die!
When I got out of the Army, we moved to Fairfax, Virginia, where Mark was from, and moved in with his parents until after our bouncing baby boy, Travis James, was born.
Then we sub-let an apartment from a friend of his mom’s. I was not made for life in the city, and life outside the D.C. beltway was expensive and stressful. It was a mere two months after Travis was born that I experienced my first panic attack. I was in a Safeway supermarket, in the juice aisle, when the attack hit. I can remember it all very clearly. Of course, I had no idea what was happening. I also had no idea this attack was only the first of many and that anxiety disorder would become my “new normal” for the next 17 years.
Poor Mark! We hadn’t even been married two years. He was 21 years old, a new dad, and now he had a wife who could barely leave the apartment. Later that year we moved to Florida. I had family there who said they could get Mark and job and the cost of living was cheaper. I ended up being very sick the whole 3 years we lived there and my panic disorder got even worse. Of course, I had no idea I had panic disorder. We had no medical insurance, so no family doctor. I just thought I was going crazy. Mark probably thought so, too. Life in Florida was very difficult financially, as well, and we struggled to make ends meet. There was a time we pretty much lived on ramen noodles and chicken. It was a pretty miserable existence, but we were so dumb we never thought to apply for any kind of welfare or food stamps, we just did the best we could.
November of 1989 we moved back to my hometown in Michigan. That was quite a trip. We had sold almost everything we had. We rented a small U-Haul for our few belongings. Travis was not quite four years old, Katy just under two, and I was 7 months pregnant with Nathan. All of us jammed into the front seat of that U-Haul truck for a thousand miles.
After Nathan was born, I struggled with postpartum depression. I had three little ones four years old and under. We lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. Mark worked hard to provide for us and decided to go back to school. With my panic disorder, I constantly felt like my life was out of control. Eventually I spiraled into anorexia. When I got down to 86 pounds, I was hospitalized. There was Mark, 26 years old with three little kids and a crazy wife in the hospital for two weeks. But through it all, he never once gave up on me. He never once walked away. As far as I know, he never even considered leaving me. He really does deserve a medal for that!
Hitting that low point was the best thing that happened to me. I was finally able to get the help that I needed. Not long after, Mark finally got a good paying job and health insurance. We got a family doctor and I was able to get medication for my panic attacks. (Eventually the Lord saw fit to heal me and I’ve been panic free now for almost 10 years.)
Mark and I had both been raised going camping. As our finances improved, we were able to start doing more “fun” things. We bought a tent and took the kids camping. Eventually we progressed to a pop-up camper and then bought our cabin in the northwoods. Mark has always been an extremely hard worker, sometimes to the point of being a workaholic. Having a way to get away from work was a saving grace in our marriage.
I really consider our marriage to be a miracle. We married so young and didn’t even know each other. We both brought a lot of baggage with us. We became parents too soon and really had no idea what we were doing. But here we are – 29 years later and more in love than we were all those years ago. Mark stuck with me through my panic attacks and eating disorder and bad temper and I stuck with him through his drinking and drug use and working too much. I go to church and he doesn’t but we are both equally committed to our relationship. We’ve successfully raised three children to adulthood and now that we are almost empty nesters, we find we still like each other and prefer one another’s company over all others.
I love to tell people about marriage. It’s always fun to tell people that we only knew each other two weeks when Mark proposed and that we got married two weeks later. And now, here we are, still together, still in love, our marriage stronger than ever. I think back to that person who told us we wouldn’t last six months. Maybe it’s because Mark and I are both so competitive that we unconsciously decided to prove them wrong.
Whatever the reason, we got the last laugh.