I was 16. The sun hung bright and felt impossibly near with its heat. The ground appeared to waver, distorting from steam whipping up off of scorched earth. I sat on the edge of the bed of a stranger’s red truck (Where I grew up, if a truck bed was opened at a gathering, it was an open invitation for anyone to sit and burn the back of their thighs), legs dangling, head tilted upward with eyes peering at clouds through the trees. The noise of high-voiced 6th graders filled the air, dampened only by the occasional booming sound of a soon-to-be-senior calling for order. I had just finished using another human as a wheelbarrow in a race and sweat clung to my body, dripping out of every pore. Breathing felt more like drinking water than inhaling air. Louisiana summer is like that.
My mind shifted effortlessly between the events of the day and the approaching last year of high school. I needed notebooks and pencils, shoes, and what was my schedule again?
He came sauntering down the path in front of me, his arms swinging casually, pace relaxed. As I came into his view, he paused briefly, assessing the situation.
He grinned and kept walking forward.
“This is what I have for you.”
The voice, heard only by me, was like audible peace. I grinned back at the familiar stranger, watching his hair flash gold in the streaming sunlight. He had broad shoulders, a long stride. He plopped down next to me. Full lips, bright blue eyes with amber circles around the pupils. They looked kind…and mischievous.
This is my most prominent memory of Jesse back when I knew of him but didn’t yet know him. It remains one of the only moments in my life when I have heard an audible voice of God. As I sat-unknowingly in the back of his truck-watching him walk toward me, at least one portion of my future was laid out in plain view. His name was Jesse, and he was to be my beloved.
While I’ve known I was marrying Jesse since that moment, we didn’t discuss marriage (or even seriously date) for another 10 months. On April 9th of the following year, Jesse was driving to my parent’s house to visit his “friend”, Ashley (me), when he heard God say, in his own audible voice moment,
“Open your eyes!”
And when he got to me, he did. He can show you the exact spot in our hometown where he heard the Lord speak to him. We’ve been together ever since that day, though we were very close friends from the day he found me sitting in the back of his truck in June of ’98. A few weeks ago marked 17 years since we started on an intentional path of doing life together. 17 years. I don’t have to tell you it’s been a bumpy ride. I assume, because you’re reading this, that you at least know what life has been for us since September, but life has never been smooth for us. We have grown up together, grown into adulthood and parenthood together. We have lived in multiple cities, had different jobs, various big shifts in life, 4 children. We have seen deaths and deliverances, despair and hope. No one who has walked alongside us will tell you that our path has been easy. We love fiercely in our own ways, and there has been no shortage of stubbornness from either of us. Strong personalities and stronger wills have simultaneously brought us to many hard places and protected us from them. I’m learning with increasing clarity through this most recent trial what a funny little thing the quest for true love is in our society, and how much I’ve unintentionally bought in to the version of that love that sees only the moments found on a hot Louisiana summer day as expressions of it. Often fickle, obligated, self-revolving, entitled, feelings-driven, never-wounding, all-seeing…love? Is it? Is that true love? If we’re really being honest with ourselves, when most of us spout off what we want of love, we’re saying we want those things to be given to us more than we want to give them away. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m more cynical than most. But I think the 20 year old version of me would have thought a lot harder about the commitment I was about to make on my wedding day had my understanding of love been what it is now:
“Love is patient (with your husband when he cannot remember your lives together because of trauma from brain surgeries) and kind (when anger rages inside at the loss and the grief and the fear); love does not envy (his lack of understanding of the loss and the grief you’re living) or boast (in the way you have taken over two lives and haven’t drowned from the weight); it is not arrogant or rude (when your brain injured husband is only angry with his primary caretaker: you). It does not insist on its own way (when nothing makes earthly sense and you think you can fix it by your own means), it is not irritable or resentful (toward others who live oblivious to the daily struggle that is your life); it does not rejoice at wrongdoing (even though it seems evil is glorified and goodness is the gateway to folly), but rejoices with the truth (especially in the suffering, especially in the darkness, especially in the despair). Love bears all things (even the depth of your beloved’s grief and loss when he cannot hold it himself), believes all things (even when he cannot grasp it himself), hopes all things (even when there isn’t a drop of hope in his demeanor to be found), endures all things (even cancer, even brain cancer, even loss of his self awareness and loss of everything you ever thought life would be). Love never ends (even when a brain tumor means it sometimes can’t be returned)…” taken from Corinthians 13
Everything I thought love was, everything I thought I needed in my relationship with my spouse, died with the words, “Your husband has brain cancer.” And praise God for that! Because this is better, guys. It’s better. I’d rather love Jesse with no return for the rest of my life than have a hundred years of marriage with him, dissecting every expression of love he gives me, always wondering about the depths of it. I don’t need that. I don’t want that. I want to pour everything I am into him every day I have with him so that he never has to wonder for a second whether or not he’s worth the sacrifice. After all, isn’t that the way Christ loves His church? Pouring himself out, even unto death, so that His beloved can have everything He is, all of His hope, His love, His mercy, His grace; and be everything He sees they can be, even the things they cannot see in themselves. Doesn’t Christ love with that unabated love? Didn’t He consider His beloved worth the sacrifice? Though the pain was great, the fulfillment of reconnecting with His bride was worth it, not because His bride did anything to express her love to Him but because He did everything to express His love to her.
Years from now, when all of this is long passed and our children are grown and considering marriage and want to know what it was like to live alongside brain cancer-when they want to know what marriage is really like, what it really costs and what it really gives-I hope to tell them this thing I’ve learned about that mythical true love we all pursue so endlessly in this life:
Truly loving someone for life is hard, beautiful, sometimes painful surrender and sacrifice, and love is never truer than when you love without the goal of having it returned.