The Man I Married
My husband isn’t the same man he used to be. But that’s OK: I’m not the same woman he married, either.
When I had been married for a little over a year, a neighbor made a confession to me: “My husband is not the man I married.”
Young, naïve, and perplexed, I asked what she meant. “When he was on call one night and coming back late, he was in an auto accident,” she told me. “He’s been different since then. His personality changed totally.” I was surprised to hear this; they seemed happy, had two children and a beautiful townhouse filled with lovely art in a vibrant city. From my perspective as a graduate student married to a graduate student, living in three rented rooms filled with furniture from IKEA or things we had inherited from deceased relatives, her life looked pretty good. But clearly, there was an undercurrent of sadness and disappointment in her life that I could not yet fathom from my youthful perspective.
Now, as my own 23rd anniversary approaches on June 3, I can finally understand. My husband hasn’t suffered an unfortunate accident, had a sudden change of personality, or undergone an unforeseen emotional shift. But after 23 years, I know that my husband, too, is not the man I married. Then again, I’m not the woman he married, either.
When I met the man who has become my husband, it had been almost a year and a half—an eternity for a college student—since I’d had a boyfriend, or even a date. I desperately wanted to meet someone. But I was going to Israel in four short months for my junior year and had ultimately decided that I’d certainly meet someone of interest there, so I didn’t much care what happened to my dating life in the meantime. One Saturday afternoon in April, I went for a walk in Riverside Park with a friend, and we bumped into a guy playing Frisbee. He was in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Hebrew production of Yankim Arurim—Damn Yankees—with my friend. He was skinny and handsome, with a head full of thick, beautiful hair and gorgeous blue eyes. We talked, and, though he was friendly, he didn’t seem all that interested in me—which I found out later was because he liked my friend, who did not reciprocate his feelings in the slightest.
I tried again, remembering where he said he studied in the JTS library; I went looking for him one day at lunchtime, pretending my careful plan was a coincidence. We did have lunch, and enjoyed each other’s company, but once I told him I’d be leaving for Israel soon, any budding interest he might have had waned entirely. Somehow, I had the courage to call him with the (valid) excuse that I’d been asked by a Columbia student group to give a speech about havdalah—since he was a rabbinical student, I asked, maybe he could help me? He did, though I would have managed perfectly well on my own if I didn’t seek an excuse to call him. He came to hear my talk, and, when I was nervous walking from my dorm to the sundial in the middle of Columbia’s campus, he put his arm around me. Instantly, I felt comfortable.
We dated over the end of spring and summer, not planning for our relationship to become at all serious since I was leaving in the fall. Over the summer we grew closer and more serious, but decided it made the most sense to date other people since we would be separated for a year and it wouldn’t be fair to tie each other down when we had only known each other only a few months.
That year we were apart, he and I used to make tapes, actual cassette tapes (I am dating myself here), and mail them to each other. I would walk around Jerusalem in 1987 and ’88 with my now impossibly clunky-seeming Walkman and my future husband’s voice in my ears, telling me about his classes, things he was thinking about, and what was going on in his life. I remember walking up Aza Street to the Great Synagogue on King George to hear Avivah Zornberg give her classes on the Torah portion of the week. In a thoughtful gesture, he sent me Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being after I told him that Zornberg had referenced it in one of her classes, and it was hard to access English books in Israel in those pre-Amazon days.
A year after I returned from Israel, we got engaged.
He loved Billy Joel and the Beatles, and comedy recordings of all persuasions, a legacy from his Grandpa Dave who loved to tell jokes. He was a slight hypochondriac, and we joked about the bulging medicine kit he needed to bring even to travel for short periods. We loved to discuss current events and intellectual matters, Jewish texts and modern novels. He knew way more about Shakespeare than I—a future comp lit Ph.D.—did, and his religion major in college gave him a great deal of knowledge about the minutiae of almost any major religion that the rest of us have no clue about. That’s the man I stood with under the huppah.
Twenty-three years later, he still has all his hair, which is barely flecked with gray. (I can’t say the same for my increasingly salt-and-pepper locks.) And though he has gained a bit of weight and rarely wears the jeans I found so attractive when I met him, he is still devastatingly handsome to me.
He still loves Billy Joel and the Beatles and has some kind of satellite radio with all kinds of comedy to listen to as he drives to the homes of patients he sees as a hospice chaplain. He can still tell a joke extremely well to an appreciative audience; the late Grandpa Dave, of blessed memory, must be kvelling in absentia every time a good Jewish joke hits its mark. He knows even more about religions of all stripes, working regularly with a huge variety of patients of all religious backgrounds; whenever our kids have a question about other people’s religious practices they are referred to their Abba. We still both read and discuss current events and books we read, and helped each other prepare classes for the recent Tikkun Leil Shavuot. We generally have a discussion about some aspect of the week’s parsha, if only for me to suggest sermon topics or him to help me with a column I am writing. We spent a Shabbat together—sans offspring—to hear Avivah Zornberg speak in a nearby city last year and generally get to see a Shakespeare play, somewhere, every year.
But other things have changed unexpectedly. I never imagined the illnesses he’d face, and their gravity. He has a bad back and isn’t always able to do all kinds of physical things that were once simple tasks. This recent recession has hit us hard, and we’ve faced troubles over jobs and housing that now cause him insomnia, which is only exacerbated by the noisy CPAP machine he now needs to sleep. That medicine kit he used to have has grown larger, as has the number of physicians he consults regularly, to manage various medical issues.
He is certainly not the man I married. But unlike my neighbor from all those years ago, I don’t see this as a crisis. Because he’s not the only one who’s changed.
My bellydancing students—Russian immigrants, Hasidic women—showed me a new side of the borough