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.
I, too, have gained weight since our wedding day and don’t exercise as often as I should. I’d thought when I married that I’d get a Ph.D. and teach full time at a university and do my own nonacademic writing on the side. I do have a Ph.D. and have had teaching jobs, although I am not currently employed at a regular one with a regular paycheck. I don’t make much money as a freelance writer, and for this I feel guilty: I could be helping the family more if I earned more. But I have a contract for one book anthology and a sequel, and interest in my first novel from a publisher and an agent, and have been working steadily on a second. I have a flourishing freelance career, even if the work produces much less compensation than I’d like. And my husband is patient with me, excited for my gradual successes, and hopeful for my dreams of eventual publication.
For my most recent birthday, the man who is not the man I married surprised me with four dance lessons for us to take together. I’d thought it would be a chance to put on heels, a skirt, and lipstick and go a bit wild to salsa tunes, but many participants came in jeans and sweats, and most of the class was spent going over the steps without music. Moving backward, forward, and to the side, in proper pattern and sync, we needed to get all the moves together smoothly before we were ready for music. Mostly, we just shuffled around until the music went on at the end of class; after an hour of rehearsal, we danced to music for five minutes, gliding around, staying in step together, not crashing into any other couples. This seemed like a metaphor for our life together—many lovely moments of music and gliding, punctuating the dreariness and chores of the vast majority of everyday existence.
Though I am still a horrible dancer with a tin ear, I relished that gift of fluid movement in the dance class and those moments of gliding in step, quick-quick-slow, to the beat. The unexpected loveliness and grace that came in those moments, like having the piano music of my daughter practicing fill the house as I make dinner or clean up afterward, make me grateful to be with the man I did not marry.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the question of es muss sein—“it must be so”—appears in various keys. Must it be so? Or not? “Love lies beyond ‘Es muss sein!’ ” Kundera writes. There is no unilateral “must be” in love, I believe; remaining in a partnership, unexpected changes and all, is a choice that must be made deliberately and hopefully.
Our expectations, that a person will be a certain way or appear at a particular time, can create the most unhappiness for most of us. Once we accept that we can be happy with who our spouse is, and who we are, while still committing to change and improve (yes, I will start swimming more now that summer is here), we may find those feelings of disappointment fading away. I do know that my neighbors of my youth are still married and grandparents, despite their not being who they were under the huppah.
The parsha we were married on, Beha’alotekha (Numbers 8-12), contains the possibility of a second Passover; if one can’t bring the sacrifice on the 14th of Nisan one has another opening to bring it the next month, on the 14th of Iyar. Opportunities to achieve closeness and connection, the Torah seems to be saying, are never lost forever and may be postponed to a later date. The process of letting go of expectations, of enjoying what comes to me whether I expect it or not, is not natural for me. I don’t want to agonize about the ways in which my husband and I are not the people we were as bride and groom; part of maturity is the process of letting go, acknowledging my lack of control even from the time we met. Though my husband isn’t the man I married, nor I the woman he married, we can enjoy each other for who we are now, noisy CPAP machine and all. I didn’t think I’d meet my husband when I did, or that I would enjoy dancing with him so much, klutz that I still am. Nothing in life must be so: It is only our efforts to find and cherish what is lovely and unexpected, not worries about what a spouse must be, that will bring us joy. And hope that this acknowledgement of the need to let go of control over those we love prepares us to watch and wait as our eldest goes off on her own adventures in Jerusalem this fall.
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Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novel Questioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.