I know how to shoot to kill, but I can’t shoot a gun out of a man’s hand. Civilians always think cops can do that, but only Annie Oakley could have pulled off that sort of trick. I know how to stay married, but I don’t how to keep passion burning in a long marriage, and maybe I also view those who say they can as I do Annie, rare, unlikely, and highly skilled.
Staying married for decades is like living with a roommate who plays his favorite music on an interminable random shuffle. When you first fall for him, you may love six out of the ten songs in his mix. Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones and you immediately love nine of his songs, or maybe like my husband and me, you only love a couple of each other’s songs, but you wait with great patience through the tunes you despise, because you remember a long time ago, he once played you a song so beautiful it made you cry.
When the annoying earworm you have grown to hate, maybe “The Long Run,” by The Eagles, comes up for the hundredth time in a month, you must remind yourself that the song you love is still in the mix, though you fear you may never hear it again. And honestly, I can’t guarantee you ever will. If you want to stay married, you may have to settle for the certainty that the song you once loved so much is still in the shuffle somewhere, and that thought alone will have to be enough to keep you listening.
My husband, Greg, is not my soul mate. He is not my best friend. But my husband is a true partner, and in my world that’s a rank above best friend. He is also one of the few people on the planet who has been willing to listen to my playlist for 27 years, and I have listened, with frequent complaint, to his.
We disagree on many things: politics, spirituality, financial planning. We have invested a good amount of time and money in couple’s therapy arguing such vital issues as whether or not plastic bags should be washed after each use. Yes, we were whining on the yacht. The money we spent on those sessions could have covered the purchase of a thousand cases of Ziploc bags, or fed a small African village. We wasted a good deal of our early years trying to make each other love our music. The thing about marriage, though, is that is doesn’t matter if you both love Elvis Costello, or kale, or Jesus, or Hilary Clinton. What matters is having each other’s back.
Greg and I met as youngish police officers when we worked the streets of San Francisco. One of the foundations of police training is covering your partner. We are taught to value saving our partner’s life above our own. This is a concept we readily embrace because it takes little imagination to picture living with the aftermath of being the cause of one’s partner’s death, or injury. Through the 29 years I was a cop, I seldom feared my own death, but the idea of my partner being hurt because of me was untenable. That training has been useful in marriage, as well.
My husband is an inherently cautious and quiet man. We had worked at the same station for months, but exchanged few words. He was one rank above me, a Sergeant/supervisor, and I was a patrolman, but not assigned to his squad. We had little reason to interact. I had, like everyone else, noticed his blue eyes, and his classic Irish looks, black hair, fair skin, not quite Clooney, but close enough. But having recently ended a long dramatic relationship, I wasn’t looking for another heartbreak.
Then Christmas Eve came, and as I stepped out of Central Station with nowhere to go, no family waiting, no plans of any sort, Sgt. Lynch stood just feet from me on Vallejo Street, patiently waiting- for what? His girlfriend? He walked over and handed me a yellow rose nestled with a pine bough, wrapped in crinkly white paper. “Merry Christmas, Karen.” I took the rose and sputtered thanks, too stunned to say more.
I had never before considered Greg as anything but a co-worker/supervisor. As days passed, I waited to hear something more from the strange silent man I had become newly obsessed with. I imagined he would eventually ask me out, maybe leave a note in my station mail cubby. But days, then weeks passed, and I found myself dumbstruck when our paths crossed in the hallways, unable to muster the small talk necessary to break the ice. I had created our secret imaginary sex life and I blushed when our paths crossed in the assembly room. Why had he given me the rose? Would he ever ask for a date?
The San Francisco Police Department had recently drafted new policy regarding sexual harassment. It was the mid-1980’s and administrators and lawyers were beginning to sketch out the rules of engagement for gender relationships in the work place. Maybe Greg was afraid of over-stepping by asking me out. Maybe if I were to give him a physical piece of evidence I had made the first move, or okay, second, if you counted the rose, he would have proof he had not harassed me. The next day I slipped a note in his cubby inviting him out for a drink. Twenty-seven years later, Greg still has that note. I don’t know if he saves the note out of sentimentality, or out of fear I might still make a grievance against him, but there it is, along with his first paycheck stub, and our kid’s birth certificates.
When you first listen through your partner’s playlist, the music is all new and interesting, even the songs you aren’t crazy about seem cool because you haven’t heard them before, or you’ve heard them, but they weren’t his songs, so they weren’t special before. For some couples it takes years before they know each other’s playlists by heart, and even longer before they start hating some of their partner’s songs. In our case, we disliked most of each other’s songs almost immediately. Yet, luckily, we liked a few of them so much it made up for the million times Neil Diamond sang “Forever in Blue Jeans.” There have been times when the despised song has infuriated me to the point I could pack, and slam, drive a thousand miles away, get a job in a diner, and change my name to Myrtle. But the thing that has kept me here listening to “Cat’s in the Cradle” is the way Greg has my back.
The first time I knew how surely he was covering me, how I could count on him for backup, was in our second year of marriage when my labor was induced with our first son. I had pre-eclampsia, which escalated to liver dysfunction, and I’m not being dramatic when I say it nearly killed me. Greg stayed in the hospital beside me for six days, a ceaseless advocate, asking the doctor and nurses about my treatment when I was too sick to care.
Over the decades we have seen each other through the deaths of our parents, the births of two children and the adoption of one, two battles with cancer-one for each of us, putting our oldest through a Mistletoe League college (all the cost of an Ivy League, without as much prestige), and a myriad of parental, professional and health challenges. Through it all, we have always had each other’s backs.
When I decided on a mid-life post cancer career change and became a writer, it was tantamount to running away to join the circus in Greg’s world. Yet, he never hesitated in encouraging me to pursue my dream, though it caused him to play every financial insecurity song on his playlist, and those are the ones I dislike the most. I let him play them though, without complaint. He was letting me play the “Bagdad Café” theme music, and only asking I listen to Mike and the Mechanics in return.
I often tell friends the secret to marriage longevity is to keep a calendar handy. When those days come when you feel like driving away, don’t do it. Look at a date six months in the future and mark the date with a “D” for divorce. When you get to that date, if you still feel like leaving, you can do it then. I have written many “D”s on my calendar over the years, mostly in the early years, and every time the date has rolled around I have forgotten what song made me so mad I put the D there.
“You can go the distance. We’ll find out in the long run. We can handle some resistance, if our love is a strong one.” –The Eagles.
Karen Lynch was a Homicide Investigator in San Francisco, and after 29 years of police work, and a bout with breast cancer, retired to become a full time writer. Her memoir, “Good Cop, Bad Daughter-memoirs of an unlikely police officer,” is the story of how being raised by a bi-polar mother, and a tribe of hippies provided the perfect training for police work. It was published by NBTT in February. Karen is a native San Franciscan, and proud Cal Bear. Her essay, “The Road to Kyra” won the national Notes & Words contest in 2012.