Towards the middle of last week, I couldn't shake the feeling that something important was approaching. The week had begun with a flurry of activity at work, which had occupied most of my attention. But I still had the sense that there was something else that I should be remembering. It wasn't until I was heading home from the office on Wednesday night while listening to a news report that I suddenly realized that the date was November 9th, my wedding anniversary.
I had met Elizabeth in my third year of law school, on the very first night of rehearsals for a theater group that I had just joined, the Savoy Company. It's the oldest group in the country that performs Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, and it has the added distinction of being a very social group. Its members often refer to it as a 'drinking club with a singing problem.' Over its 104 years, it has been the basis for dozens of marriages, which themselves have produced second and even third generation members. I saw Liz sitting in the soprano section-- petite, blonde, with striking green eyes and the most beautiful smile. After rehearsal, a bunch of us went to a nearby bar, and as the night went on, she seemed to laugh more and more as I began telling jokes and quoting scenes from my favorite movies. I walked her to her car and we wound up kissing for over an hour. We dated all through that season and were married the next year. Several members from Savoy were there to serenade us at the reception.
I have always had trouble remembering particular details like dates and appointments. I can quote entire scenes from movies that I saw in high school, but I can't remember something as simple as my mother's actual birthday. That used to bother her to no end. I remember trying to explain to Mom that there was no question that I loved her and appreciated her and that my actions throughout the year should be a sign of that instead of a $2 card from Hallmark. Her equally valid response was that, considering that she had to push an eight-pound baby out of her body in the course of ten hours of difficult labor, a $2 card from Hallmark once a year was really not asking a whole lot in return. Point to Mom...
It was too late to get flowers or do anything significant for my anniversary on Wednesday night. Rather than try to cobble together some half-hearted gesture that evening, I thought I would try to come up with something more meaningful for another day. I dug out our wedding album and found a picture of her bridal flowers, and went to a florist to order a similar bouquet for Friday. As she had arranged the white and pink roses, the florist explained that they were a type of perennial flower--one that can survive the harsh winter and continue to grow year after year. She handed the flowers to me, along with the original photograph that I had provided for reference. Looking through the pictures from the wedding had brought up alot of memories, and the photo of the bouquet had called one moment in particular to mind.
We had wanted to say our vows to each other during the ceremony on our own, without the prompting of the priest saying 'repeat after me.' We had practiced and practiced, but Liz would always get hung up on a word here or there. Her maid of honor wrote out all of the lines on a small piece of paper for her and tucked it into the bouquet as a sort of cue card just in case she needed it when the moment came. She looked absolutely beautiful that morning, and everything had moved along without a hitch. But when it came time for her to recite her vows, she faltered. The excitement and stress and nerves of the morning were finally taking their toll. She looked down at her bouquet, her eyes searching for the words, but her hands were shaking so much that she couldn't read the writing on the paper.
I reached out and closed both of my hands around hers and held them gently until they became still. She looked up at me and her eyes met mine. A smile that I can't describe spread across her face and her whole body relaxed. She took a breath, and without even looking down once, recited her vows in a voice that grew stronger with every word. I repeated my part of the vows back to her, and the sacrament of marriage was complete. The rest of the day is a blur but it was filled with happiness and joy.
On Friday the situation was reversed, and now I was the one standing there with those same flowers in my hands, searching to come up with the correct words to say. Sometimes I've found that it's better to just go with exactly how you feel right at the moment. "I'm sorry that I forgot the date, Liz. I hope you know how much that day truly means to me." There was no response. I hadn't been expecting one. Elizabeth had died three years after we were married, from a sudden reaction to a food allergy.
The day was cold and the November sky was covered beneath a blanket of grey clouds. The wind was blowing the pale leaves from the trees, which just a short time ago had been alive with color. I stood there beside her grave at the cemetery, thinking back on our lives together. She had been the first person who I knew had truly loved me for just being myself, and I loved her with all of my heart.
I thought back to that moment again on the altar, and tried to remember the words that I had said when it was my turn to recite them to her:
"I, Tom, take you Elizabeth, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward... "
Standing there, holding her hands in mine, I couldn't believe how lucky I was to have finally found someone who loved me so deeply.
"...in good times and in bad, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health."
We were both young and starting out from scratch, but we were filled with excitement about the good times that we knew lay before us, together. Neither one of us could have imagined just how short that time would actually be.
"I will love you, honor you, and cherish you--all the days of my life."
I knelt down and brushed away the dead leaves to clear a spot, and laid the bouquet against the tombstone. My finger traced her name along the cold marble. I stood up and said a few more things to her in private. In exchanging those words to each other on the altar that morning, we had been doing more than just expressing the love we had felt right at that moment. We were also making a promise to each other to keep that love alive within us every day going forward. I may not be able to remember a particular date from time to time, but that is one vow that I will never forget.