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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Someone to Lean On

by Mark Hummel

At eighty four and eighty five, as their bodies begin to betray them, they lean more heavily on one another.  Walking has grown laborious, confident footing increasingly uncertain, so each offers the other a steadying arm, convinced that together they can create stability.  Like dating teenagers, they hold hands as they walk.

The hands are thinner than they used to be, the veins more prominent and the age spots more numerous, but they have been holding hands a good long while now.  They have been married sixty four years.  They have been married longer than their average life expectancy would be were they born in Nepal or the Solomon Islands or nearly the whole of Africa.  Their fiftieth anniversary was fourteen years ago, that most recent era passed nearly reaching the mark where only 57% of US marriages last fifteen years.  They celebrated this fifty year milestone by taking their whole family to a favorite spot in Hawaii and daring them to keep up.  For their sixtieth anniversary, they took their children and spouses to Alaska.  They joke about the sort of trip necessary to properly celebrate a sixty-fifth year together.  Albert W. Leichliter and N. Jean Leichliter.  Al and Jean.  Jean and Al.  The names are offered in tandem by all who know them.  They are a couple.

I am their youngest child.  I have spent a lifetime observing them, a lifetime learning from them.  I attribute much of the success of my marriage, now in its 26th year, to watching and gleaning from their success.  My brother and his wife, as their marriage nears its thirtieth year, would say the same.  I would not speak in hyperbole when I state my belief that my parents belong together.  Each completes the other.

Staying married for sixty four years defines devotion and commitment.  Remaining in love for sixty four years is something else altogether.  When a couple remains steadfastly in love for sixty four years as they have, there is something to be learned from them.  My instruction arrives primarily by watching, for the longevity of their marriage is not something they talk about with regularity, and one quickly understands that sixty four years of marriage does not come as a great surprise to them—a thing expected, wanted, something worth working for.  If quizzed, they are more likely to express surprise at living so long, not at loving so long and so well.

The one lesson my mother consistently does pass along, has since I first expressed interest in a relationship and now extends as advice to her grandchildren, is to “always communicate.  Don’t ignore things.  Talk to each other no matter what, no matter if you think it is something hard to talk about.”  They still do.  When they travel to visit us, late in the night after everyone has gone to bed, I hear the hushed voices from their bedroom talking in that quiet space where couples secure themselves and the privacy of their married lives.  I have heard those hushed voices since childhood, the sound of two people putting away the day, sharing the concerns of parents and grandparents, planning the future and smiling over memories.  All their lives they have talked such, finding, among other things, the common ground wherein they can always provide a united front after consulting the other.

Their life together remains one where they seek each other’s consultation.  They do so because they respect one another.  While they are prone to the spats and sarcastic jokes familiar to anyone who lives closely for a long time—who has not or still does not tease their siblings or their teenage children relentlessly—such moments pass like brief rain showers.  I can say I have never, in forty eight years, heard either say anything ill about the other, have never encountered bitterness or a desire to be mean.  I know they argue at times—you can’t be human and not hold differing opinions—but they have learned how to let go of the arguments and never have they held differing positions against the other.  If anything, they find common ground, close ranks, and consult one another about how to move forward.

Recently, they made the decision to leave the house they have lived in for forty three years and move to an apartment where there are no stairs to negotiate and no lawn to mow or snow to scoop and where help is available should they need it.  This was no easy decision and no easy move, one that required sorting through belongings accumulated over a two lifetimes.  They made the decision together, each sacrificing a bit of what they might desire out of a stronger desire to ensure that the other was content and that the other’s needs were met.  I can only begin to imagine the stress and emotional discomfort, not to mention the shear exhaustion such a decision precipitated, yet they reached the decision together and faced the hurdles of it as a couple.  Can’t we all accomplish the impossible when we know the one we love is there alongside?  What better way to face what is difficult than in the presence of your best friend?

For watching them, it is evident they have remained friends along the way and desire one another’s company.  They remain active, as they always have, which is a likely explanation for the way in which they have always appeared ten or fifteen years younger than they are.  They do things together—travel, attend dance club, play cards with friends, go to the theater.  It is rare that they would so much as go to the grocery store without the other, for they enjoy one another.  They can still make the other smile and do so regularly.  They have found and capitalized on their common interests while still balancing their individual desires.  They have long maintained their individual friendships and service club commitments just as they once led separate work lives, for at the end of the day they knew they were returning to the person they wanted to spend their lives with.

Together they have traveled all over the world.  Now, in their elderly years, they still love to talk of the trips they have taken and the people they have met, often finishing one another’s stories or adding layers of detail.  Sometimes one’s story becomes the others at some point within the telling.  They speak of these travels with a fondness similar to how they speak of their family—their children and grandchildren who have been so central to their lives—and those who have passed as well, their parents and grandparents and siblings.  They share a long past and look upon it with fondness but don’t dwell there.  They have survived miscarriages and the deaths of parents.  They have come out the other side of illness.  They have endured difficult financial times.  They seem intuitive in their knowledge that active, productive marriages live in the present, informed by the past but not backward-turning.

As they grow older, when a moment of sadness comes over one of them, it is almost never because of their own ache or uncertainty or worry, but rather the worry over their spouse.  Like any of us who have loved truly, we can’t stand to see those we love in pain.  It is more acute than anything we might feel.  Such is the act of love.

As children concerned for their health, we frequently try and get our father to use a cane or walker.  He will, if pushed and if the immediate circumstances merit it.  Mostly my mother borrows his newly acquired walker to take the laundry down the hall.  Trips down the hall for laundry and weekly hair appointments for mom, a daily half hour on the exercise bike and regular trips to the Veteran’s Hospital across town for dad are about the only time they are apart now that they have reached their mid eighties and the milestone of a sixty four year marriage.  And since they are together, they’d rather take one another’s hand, take a hold of this one whom they have loved so well over a lifetime, buoyed by the warmth and the stability offered, the cherished certainty found in that grasp.
Al and Jean Leichliter (photo by Pam Leichliter)

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