For Amanda: Impressions of a Love Story

Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .

–C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

When I met my wife, she had curly hair, tamed only inasmuch as a lion is tamed.  Her hair was so big, per Mean Girls, because it was full of secrets.  Aren’t we all?  She wore long, flowing dresses or bell-bottom jeans with a flower design and flip-flops.  She had a small stud ring in her nose that was easy to forget about until it caught the light.  When we first spoke, we were in the green room of an outdoor amphitheater in the early spring of 2010.  We were doing the read-through for a Shakespeare review entitled Shakespeareance.  She was the stage manager and I was an actor.  I had worked at this theater for years, but this was her first show with the company.  So I sat down next to her and asked, “what are you doing here?”  It came out a bit harsher than I intended.  So I stumbled awkwardly into a correction, “I don’t mean like ‘what the hell are you doing here?’, just what are you doing with the show.”  She smiled at me the way you smile at a slightly daft child (she worked, I would find out later, in child care) or, come to think of it, the way a stage manager smiles at an actor.  Her eyes were an indefinable shade of hazel mixed with green.  It wasn’t love at first sight, but I liked her.  We bonded over a shared love of the band needtobreathe and with a similar sense of humor.  We kept finding ourselves together during the run of the show.  I’m not sure why.  Or maybe I am.

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I think we found each other in our shared sadness.  That doesn’t make for a heartwarming or romantic story.  But there it is.  Neither of us had tragic circumstances; my life had been remarkably, unfairly lucky.  She was a child of divorce (albeit one that happened while she was in her late teens), but no great calamity haunted her.  Yet we felt in each other a mutual understanding of a nameless sadness, a haunting ache.  I would come to discover that she was only five years removed from an addiction to self-harm (safety pins, arms and legs), and later that year she invited me to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus saving her from its clutches.  Perhaps I knew I loved her even then.  I don’t know.  My name is Christopher, which means “Christ-bearer”, and her name is Amanda, which means “worthy of love”.  Neither of us felt that we lived up to our names, and maybe that is why we felt incomplete.  Everyone who does theater, who produces art of any kind, is looking for something.  Perhaps Amanda and I were just looking for each other.  She fell in love with my dark, dark brown eyes.  And I fell in love with the mystery of hers, with their colors that changed kaleidoscopically.  She always wondered how I knew that she was sad.  I saw it in her eyes.  I would ask how she was doing and she would say “wonderful” and I knew that bullshit because I’d spent my life peddling it.  I’m an actor, after all.  Just put on the damn mask and tell people you’re fine.  Nobody really cares.  But she did, and I did.  That’s the heart of every love story, I suppose.  Just finding someone who cares about you, the you that you don’t share with the world, and caring about them back.  When she would get emotional watching the scenes from Hamlet (a play about depression), I would rub her back.  I drove her home when her ankle was injured (her ankle was always injured).  And she listened to me as if what I had to say mattered.  There is no great narrative here, no sweeping love story.  Just two broken people sharing their brokenness.  When she cried, her eyes turned bright green.  And I would hold her head against my chest and close my eyes and wonder how shared sadness could feel so much like joy.

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Two of the unsung joys of life, in my humble opinion, are being backstage during a show and laying on the ground looking at the stars.  At the amphitheater, you could do both.  Amanda and I would lay side-by-side and gaze at the sky, as the incomparable words of Shakespeare drifted over from the stage.  And we would talk about everything and nothing.  Something about looking at the sky, with cool night air and the grass tickling my ears, opened me.  We talked about how we felt stuck and scared; we talked about what we loved and what we hated; we talked about the silly and the trivial.  And sometimes we just lay there in a silence that words could not express.  Ironically, one of the scenes that often played as we communed was Romeo & Juliet.  It only seems romantic in retrospect.  Even at the time, though, it felt holy.  It is not too over-dramatic to say that those moments probably saved my life.  Not that I was suicidal — I just was dead inside.  I had grown thick and effective calluses.  Those cool spring nights chipped away at my defenses.  Amanda was assaulting the fortress of my misery with her kindness.  Dear reader, I am here to tell you not to underestimate kindness.  Despair, fear, hatred, even death itself cannot stand against it.  After the show was over and we had gone our separate ways, she sent me an email:  “Dear Christopher, I miss your nose.  The end.  –Amanda” (she has a thing for big noses, and my prominent proboscus certainly qualifies).  I missed her, too.  Dammit, how inconvenient.  I was not looking for a relationship.  But, as the old saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.  We would reunite for another show in the fall, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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There are two pictures taken by a friend of ours at the same rehearsal.  One shows me looking at Amanda and the other vice-versa.  That we were already in love is patently obvious.  Yet we were oblivious.  I’m pretty sure our bodies knew before we did.  In early 2011, during the run of a show that she was not working, Amanda would come backstage to help make sure the suit I was wearing looked acceptable (I’m hopeless with costumes).  She would smooth the lapels of my jacket long after it was necessary, and I would touch her shoulder or back in thanks.  Other actors later told me that it looked like we couldn’t keep our hands off each other.  I guess we couldn’t.  To be clear, we weren’t dating and we hadn’t even kissed.  She was not far removed from breaking up with a long-term boyfriend and was “done with men”, and I hadn’t ever been in a serious relationship.  In almost exactly one year, we would be married.  I often tell people that God had to trick us into a relationship.  That is why this story is so impressionistic.  We officially got engaged that summer, but we knew that we would marry before that.  It just kind of happened.  When we announced our engagement, our friends were like “finally, you’re officially dat…wait, what now?”  I kissed her for the first time in the parking lot of the amphitheater after a rehearsal, then regretted it, then kissed her again.  Love is complicated.  They say that God draws straight with crooked lines.  Every love story is not a military march to the altar.  It is a dance, a dance that ebbs and flows and curlicues and pirouettes.  As I waited to enter the church on my wedding day, I felt a bit dizzy.  Little wonder.

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How did I know that Amanda was “the one”?  I didn’t.  You never know, like you know that 2 + 2 = 4.  But there were moments.  I was reading the famous passage in Matthew 1 about Joseph’s dream.  In verse 20, I read “do not be afraid to take Amanda home as your wife”.  I slammed the Bible closed and took a deep breath.  My heartbeat felt loud enough to wake the neighbors.  I carefully opened the Bible and read it again: “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife”.  My heartbeat began to slow, but the message had been sent.  On a family trip to Savannah, her face would not leave my mind, much as I often wanted it to.  I remember looking at the clock after one hour of talking with her on the phone and realizing that, in fact, three hours had passed. And once, when praying with Amanda to God for guidance, I heard clear as day “love Amanda”.  It was a word I would hear over and over again when I asked God for direction.  It’s still one of the few words from the Lord I feel confident about (later I would discover that she had heard the words “love Christopher”).  These words are as much a commandment in my life as any “thou shalt not” of scripture.

Of course, the command to love is not the command to marry.  So why get married?  Well, once I was engaged, I tried to answer that question with an essay (some things never change). Here is an excerpt:

It may seem to be unromantic to say I’m getting married because God told me to, but I really have no other explanation.  I was not planning on doing so as a little as a year ago.  But then I discovered that this beautiful, broken woman who I sometimes hung out with was my best friend.  I could talk to her about anything; I could not imagine my life without her.  She always seemed to show up just when I needed her and to say just what I needed to hear.  She actually wanted to pray with me.  And the people around me who I most love and trust loved her instinctively.  One day I realized, with a start, that I was really looking forward to spending eternity with her.  If that was the case, why shouldn’t I also spend time with her, too?  Increasingly, when I look into her eyes, I see Jesus looking back.  She brings me closer to God and challenges me to be a better man, to “live up to what I have already attained” (Philippians 3:16).  When I hug her, it feels like home.  The more I know about her, the more I want to know about her.  I want her, not just her body (though, yes, I want that, too, and how), but her.  She is just so there, so herself and no one else.  All of that doesn’t add up to a rational argument.  But there is more to life than reason….There is something about the way she looks at me, something about the way my heart leaps and my breath catches, a strange, warm feeling in my gut.  It’s a whisper from beyond the walls of this world.  No, more than a whisper, a chuckle.  It is the contented laughter of a God who is making all things new in the most unlikely ways.  After I got down on one knee and proposed, we prayed together and then lay down on the grass and laughed until we cried.  I could neither imagine nor contain such joy.  I don’t really know what happened that day, how God’s love broke through into this pain-stricken world.  But it is something worth battling to keep….Why am I getting married?  Because love is worth the fighting for.  Isn’t that reason enough?

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We were married six years ago on Saturday.  Amanda’s hair is curly again, although it’s much shorter and, currently, blue.  I say “again” because pregnancy with our first child caused her hair to straighten completely.  It’s now artificially returned to its natural state.  Such changes define a marriage.  We have two kids now (ages 1 and 3) and live in a different city.  We are older and perhaps wiser or at least more battle-hardened.  If we lay on our backs next to each other now we will most likely fall asleep.  Our days are spent working, doing dishes, changing diapers, wiping noses.  Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel, who helped bring down communism in his country, once spoke of the difficulty of turning the poetry of revolution into the prose of everyday life.  That is the task of a marriage.  Now that may sound like drudgery, but it is quite the opposite.  Notre Dame Cathedral took almost 200 years to build — someone who broke ground on the building did not live to see it completed.  Anything of lasting value takes perseverance and patience.  My wife and I are building an edifice that will, I hope, outlast our lifetime.  To participate in the eternal, sacramental reality of marriage is joyous and holy, even if it can be maddening and exhausting.

The cliché goes that you love your spouse more and more each day, but that’s not quite right.  I love Amanda completely, with everything I am, just as I did on my wedding day.  But marriage has taught me how to love more deeply, in ways I never could have imagined.  I have learned to love by loving and by being loved in return.  Amanda has made me a better person simply by loving me (and not killing me — that’s also important).  Scripture says, “we love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  Marriage is similar: I love because my wife loves me because I love her because….  It’s a cycle in which the beginning is a mystery and the end is eternal life.  It’s the closest we come on this earth to understanding the mystery of God Himself, the Holy Trinity, the Three-in-One.  When I am away from my wife for too long, it feels as if a part of me is missing because, of course, it is.  I am now, in a holy mystery, only completely myself if she is with me.  Just before we were engaged, I remember thinking that I was so glad I got to spend eternity with this girl.  How blessed that I get to spend this mortal life with her, too.

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Much has changed and will change, but so much remains the same.  Her eyes still blaze green when she cries.  She still wears those flowy, hippie dresses.  We still crack the same stupid inside jokes and then chuckle.  Her nose ring still catches me by surprise when the light hits it.  She is still the woman I married six years ago, and yet she is so much more.  She is compassionate and funny and creative and kind and fierce and stubborn and no bullshit and faithful and beautiful.  Nothing has changed; everything has changed.  She (if not her hair) is still full of secrets that I may never unlock.  But that is o.k.; it’s not my job to understand her.  It is my job to love her.  And, dear reader, I do love her, in all her profound, beautiful, maddening, sacred mystery.  The world is full of sadness and marriage is hard and it will break you.  But when we hold our sadness together it feels like joy and when we hold our brokenness together it looks like wholeness.  Thank you, O Lord, for the incomparable gift of this profound mystery.  And happy anniversary, my love.