There’s way too many love songs / And I think they’ve got it all wrong
Cause life is not the mountain tops / It’s the walking in between — Ben Rector
The first time I saw Susan she was walking down the narrow halls of Decatur High School in North Alabama. Things were about to get very good—and later, very bad.
She wore a bright yellow short-sleeve dress, exposing her tan and freckled arms—one of which was wrapped with a leather band with a tassel hanging down. Her thick auburn hair fell in waves around her shoulders.
As she passed her girlfriends in the hall, she gave her ear-lobe a tug—the standard greeting of her sorority, ‘JUGS’ (for ‘Just Us Girls’). The very thing—a red-headed hippie chick in a southern sorority named ‘Jugs’. What was not to like about that? If I had my choice of the one girl in this high school I could be with, it would be her.
It was the start of the school year, and I was new. I just moved here from Reno—a city and area I loved and never wanted to leave, so I was angry and disappointed with this move. Could anything good happen in this tiny, sleepy, Southern town?
In a short time, I became great friends with Susan’s brother— who I badgered until he talked her into going out with me. As nervous as I was that first date, it must have gone well. We began dating, and I was in love.
Within two years we were married in our small Catholic Parish, and moved to Tuscaloosa, AL., where we were both full-time students at the University.
Soon after we were expecting. With her due date just five months away, Susan would ride her three-speed bike from campus to downtown Tuscaloosa to her part-time job. I would ride my bike to my student job at the student cafeteria.-
We lived in a small one bedroom apartment, with just enough room for a couch, a stereo, small metal kitchen table, and a full-size bed in the back. We loved our ‘married student’ life.
Two years later, we had another child, and then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. A friend asked me once if I was scared—I guess he meant of the responsibility. But I turned and simply said “scared of what?”. I believed I had nothing to be afraid of. I was raised to believe that God who would take care of us in every season and situation. No problem here!
Being Irish Catholic, alcohol was always around, and I started drinking early. I drank like some of my friends in high school, and all my friends in college. But, over time our ‘playing house’ got real, and my drinking took a prominent place in my days.
In the Southeast, frog legs are a delicacy. To prepare, you start with a live frog. You never throw the squirming frog in a pot of boiling water–it just hops out. You throw it in a lukewarm pot on low heat. Being a cold-blooded animal, the frog never realizes it is being boiled alive until it’s too late.
Like the frog in the pot, I was oblivious to what was happening. At some point, I had gone on drinking past the point that I could moderate or stop on my own. I tried countless methods that would last a few weeks at most. I made scores of promises to Susan that things would be different—that I would be different.
Over time, I resigned myself to this on- and- off drinking pattern. I became detached and distant from Susan and the kids, and eventually to my responsibilities. I would forget to pay bills until someone was knocking on the door. I would take risks. I got several ‘DUI’s’, when Susan would have to bail me out of jail.
Sometimes I would wake up in the early morning hours to the sound of Susan sobbing underneath the covers, and I knew why. She was scared to death of what would happen to her and the kids. It took some time to realize that for years she lived under the specter and terror of ‘What If?’–What if I were to die in a car wreck, or worse, kill an innocent person while driving drunk?
Finally, after years of my futile attempts to change, we separated— Susan hoping that would provide the needed motivation. It did not.
I moved into a cheap unfurnished student apartment with a mattress on the floor and a beanbag for a chair. I would come home from work to drink and cry until I passed out—then get up, go to work, and repeat.
One afternoon when I was already well into my drinking, I received a call from Susan. Without any commentary, she simply said “I want a divorce”. The words were spoken with such love and pity and sweetness that the sheer incongruity of it all made this seem like a movie—this cannot be real. It will end soon, and the credits will roll, and I will return to my life.
Yet, I knew she was not floating this out to me as an idea to get me to do something. This was a decision she had agonized over for months, maybe years—and she intended to go through with it.
As she spoke those words, I felt my chest tighten. I couldn’t get a full breath. I kept hearing those four words play themselves over, and over, and over again, “I want a divorce”.
For almost a year I was under the delusion that this was temporary. I tried every way I could to worm my way back into her life and into her home. Finally, a counsellor I was seeing—for by that time I was being treated for depression—said to me “Bob, this is not temporary. You are no longer married to Susan. Move on. She has!”
Gone now was my young man’s dream; A beautiful wife and adoring children, front yard surrounded by a picket fence, with the family charging out the front door at the end of my day to greet me as I returned from a hard but productive day at work.
The end of my drinking came with one more DUI, and then getting fired the next day. My employer gave me an undeserved severance package, payable on one condition—that I enter an inpatient treatment center for alcoholism.
At the end of the treatment program I was approached by my counselors. They unanimously recommended me for a long-term recovery home nearby. Somehow I felt a little pleasure in this. I finally found a way I can overachieve! The fact was, even after twenty-eight days of inpatient treatment, I was not yet ready to enter an unstructured world.
While living with twenty-four other addicts and alcoholics, I had a subtle and curious feeling of safety and security—something I had not felt in years. I soon was assigned a mentor and began following his suggestions, talking to him every day. I began to realize that while my external situation had not changed, nevertheless I was feeling hope where there was once only despair.
One spring day, Susan brought my youngest daughter to visit. She met my roommate in the courtyard—while I peered out the upstairs screen window. I listened as my roommate introduced himself; “Hi, I’m Pat—I’m Bob’s roommate.”, and with that, Susan immediately replied “Hello, I’m Susan, and I used to be!”
I worked in demolition while I finished my recovery program— (I see the irony in this only now as I write this down) , Every afternoon after work I would work on daily assignments my mentor gave. After nine months, it was time for me to move out. With nowhere particular to go, I moved out to Washington State to live with my father.
I got a job in a window manufacturing plant as a quality and safety manager, and got involved with men’s recovery, all the while keeping an eye on my ailing dad.
It was Christmas time, and with the prospect of being alone, without Susan and my children, I was feeling depressed and despondent. I was not drinking, but I was grieving.
One night while at a recovery meeting I noticed a man in a wheelchair. My friend pointed to him and whispered to me “He’s yours!” So, I went over to him, stuck my hand out and said, “Hi, my name is Bob. You looking for some help staying sober?”
It turns out he was the former mayor of a nearby city, who drank himself out of office. He was recently hit by a car while carrying a Christmas tree across the highway while drunk. This was a man I could relate to!
I started meeting with him in his tiny apartment several times a week. He too was estranged from his family, and yet he was getting better, and so was I.
One afternoon while visiting him, we heard a knock on the door. At the door stood his wife and three daughters, holding a large platter of hand-decorated Christmas cookies. I invited them in, and they began singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.”
I excused myself and let them alone to celebrate. As I made my way home, I felt only happiness for my new friend and his family. I felt the darkness and gloom of self-pity lift away, and I was feeling something very strange indeed—something I did not know to name. Could this be what joy feels like?
Bill Wilson, co-founder of alcoholics anonymous, wrote
“Showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing which makes life seem so worthwhile to us now. Cling to the thought that, in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have — the key to life and happiness for others. With it you can avert death and misery for them.”
It was that very moment that I realized my recovery, and with it my new-found relationship with God, had given me a sense of contentment I had long ago lost. I still lived with my Dad, I was still far from my children, and I still missed and loved Susan. But life was starting to fill up with meaning and purpose—a specific purpose I never would have considered until that moment.
Over the next months, my dad passed away, and my two youngest daughters came out to live with me at their request. I guess somehow Susan could tell something was different, or she would never have allowed it. Of all things—me, a single dad, and loving it! I made a bunch of mistakes as a single parent, but love does cover a multitude of goof-ups.
It was the middle of November when Susan called me and asked if it would be ok if she came out to see the girls over the Thanksgiving Holiday. I said “sure”.
While she was out here, we all went out to the movies. When we got home and I turned on the lights, I heard a big shout ‘Surprise!’ The living room was jam packed with family and friends. Susan and the girls had pulled off an early surprise birthday party for me.
As I opened the gag gifts—for someone over the hill—she handed me hers. I opened it and it was a large magnifying glass, (since I am so old I need one). Next, she handed me a birthday card. At the bottom of the card was a penciled note so tiny I needed my new present to read it. I took the magnifying glass, and read the note. It said “Will You Marry Me?”
Trying my best not to let everyone in the room know what I just read, I just nodded and winked.
I could not get my mind around what just happened. I knew my life would turn out OK. In fact, I had come to believe that everything was OK, just as it was today. I knew that I had a loving God that would not only see me through, but had set me on a path that goes somewhere. I just never would have guessed this was part of it.
Six months later we were re-married at St. Bernard’s Abbey in Cullman, AL, by Father Thomas O’Connor—a kind and gentle priest who in my bleakest time, when I felt all was lost, assured me that God still loved me, no matter what.
We were surrounded by my Benedictine monk friends, my mentors, and family. Susan and I re-affirmed our initial vows—believing that in God’s eyes, our marriage always remained true and valid (we simply took a four-year sabbatical).
It has been over fifteen years, and this story continues; the story of two separate but parallel lives, each winding through trails of joy and sadness, of mountain tops and deep valleys, with the love of God woven throughout—preserving the connection that holds these two lives together.
Does God ordain relationships? I don’t know, but ours feels so. Ours is the story of a relationship that began as an un-informed high-school romance, smashed down to the ground, built back up, and in that process, has been raised back up and transformed.
Contrary to modern attitudes towards marriage, and how I once believed, ours is not a 50/50 partnership where each party has its designated portion to give and part to play. Nor is it a dance, taking turns leading, following, approaching, pulling back, and occasionally stepping on toes.
There is no competition in love, and there is no scarcity of this or that to fend for. There is no ‘quid pro quo’.
We are having a romance of a different kind. Marital love, as any love, cannot be reduced to a simple emotion. It is nothing less than a full-on orientation towards another—an orientation towards your spouse that seeks only their best and is intent on seeing that best come to pass through openness, generosity, and with no expectation of recompense.
When I give it all, I find what needs I may have are always met by God in surprising and creative ways.
Today our relationship continues to unfold through the smallest acts and events— those tiny moments that make up our lives—concrete actions of giving, over and over again–acts of forgiveness, of patience, of understanding – of humor, generosity, lightheartedness, and trust.
Some lessons come at a very high cost—yet I would not change anything Susan and I have gone through if it meant not arriving where we are today.