Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?
It is mid-October 2003, and I ponder these questions as I watch a moth flail wildly against the porch light. I’m alone outside. Jane, my wife, is sleeping upstairs and she didn’t stir when I slipped out of bed. It is late; midnight has come and gone, and there’s a crispness in the air that holds the promise of an early winter. I’m wearing a heavy cotton robe, and though I imagined it would be thick enough to keep the chill at bay, I notice that my hands are trembling before I bury them in my pockets
Above me, the stars are specks of silver paint on a charcoal canvas. I see Orion and the Pleiades, Ursa Major and Corona Borealis, and think I should be inspired by the realization that I’m not only looking at the stars, but staring into the past as well. Constellations shine with light that was emitted aeons ago, and I wait for something to come to me, words that a poet might use to illuminate life’s mysteries. But there is nothing.
This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve never considered myself a sentimental man, and if you asked my wife, I’m sure she would agree. I do not lose myself in films or plays, I’ve never been a dreamer, and if I aspire to any form of mastery at all, it is one defined by rules of the Internal Revenue Service and codified by law. For the most part, my days and years as an estate lawyer have been spent in the company of those preparing for their own deaths, and I suppose that some might say that my life is less meaningful because of this. But even if they’re right, what can I do? I make no excuses for myself, nor have I ever, and by the end of my story, I hope you’ll view this quirk of my character with a forgiving eye.
Please don’t misunderstand. I may not be sentimental, but I’m not completely without emotion, and there are moments when I’m struck by a deep sense of wonder. It is usually simple things that I find strangely moving: standing among the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevadas, for instance, or watching ocean waves as they crash together off Cape Hatteras, sending salty plumes into the sky. Last week, I felt my throat tighten when I watched a young boy reach for his father’s hand as they strolled down the sidewalk. There are other things, too: I can sometimes lose track of time when staring at a sky filled with wind-whipped clouds, and when I hear thunder rumbling, I always draw near the window to watch for lightning. When the next brilliant flash illuminates the sky, I often find myself filled with longing, though I’m at a loss to tell you what it is that I feel my life is missing.
My name is Wilson Lewis, and this is the story of a wedding. It is also the story of my marriage, but despite the thirty years that Jane and I have spent together, I suppose I should begin by admitting that others know far more about marriage than I. A man can learn nothing by asking my advice. In the course of my marriage, I’ve been selfish and stubborn and as ignorant as a goldfish, and it pains me to realize this about myself. Yet, looking back, I believe that if I’ve done one thing right, it has been to love my wife throughout our years together. While this may strike some as a feat not worth mentioning, you should know that there was a time when I was certain that my wife didn’t feel the same way about me.
Of course, all marriages go through ups and downs, and I believe this is the natural consequence of couples that choose to stay together over the long haul. Between us, my wife and I have lived through the deaths of both of my parents and one of hers, and the illness of her father. We’ve moved four times, and though I’ve been successful in my profession, many sacrifices were made in order to secure this position. We have three children, and while neither of us would trade the experience of parenthood for the riches of Tutankhamen, the sleepless nights and frequent trips to the hospital when they were infants left both of us exhausted and often overwhelmed. It goes without saying that their teenage years were an experience I would rather not relive.
All of those events create their own stresses, and when two people live together, the stress flows both ways. This, I’ve come to believe, is both the blessing and the curse of marriage. It’s a blessing because there’s an outlet for the everyday strains of life; it’s a curse because the outlet is someone you care deeply about.
Why do I mention this? Because I want to underscore that throughout all these events, I never doubted my feelings for my wife. Sure, there were days when we avoided eye contact at the breakfast table, but still I never doubted us. It would be dishonest to say that I haven’t wondered what would have happened had I married someone else, but in all the years we spent together, I never once regretted the fact that I had chosen her and that she had chosen me as well. I thought our relationship was settled, but in the end, I realized that I was wrong. I learned that a little more than a year ago—fourteen months, to be exact—and it was that realization, more than anything, that set in motion all that was to come.
What happened then, you wonder?
Given my age, a person might suppose that it was some incident inspired by a midlife crisis. A sudden desire to change my life, perhaps, or maybe a crime of the heart. But it was neither of those things. No, my sin was a small one in the grand scheme of things, an incident that under different circumstances might have been the subject of a humorous anecdote in later years. But it hurt her, it hurt us, and thus it is here where I must begin my story.
It was August 23, 2002, and what I did was this: I rose and ate breakfast, then spent the day at the office, as is my custom. The events of my workday played no role in what came after; to be honest, I can’t remember anything about it other than to recall that it was nothing extraordinary. I arrived home at my regular hour and was pleasantly surprised to see Jane preparing my favorite meal in the kitchen. When she turned to greet me, I thought I saw her eyes flicker downward, looking to see if I was holding something other than my briefcase, but I was empty-handed. An hour later we ate dinner together, and afterward, as Jane began collecting the dishes from the table, I retrieved a few legal documents from my briefcase that I wished to review. Sitting in my office, I was perusing the first page when I noticed Jane standing in the doorway. She was drying her hands on a dish towel, and her face registered a disappointment that I had learned to recognize over the years, if not fully understand.
“Is there anything you want to say?” she asked after a moment.
I hesitated, aware there was more to her question than its innocence implied. I thought perhaps that she was referring to a new hairstyle, but I looked carefully and her hair seemed no different from usual. I’d tried over the years to notice such things. Still, I was at a loss, and as we stood before each other, I knew I had to offer something.