Whenever I meet a couple that has been married for more than 50 years I always ask them how they’ve done it. One man said, “We agreed whoever wants the divorce has to take everything in the garage.”
A 94-year-old woman whose husband was 96 at the time whispered to me, “We always sleep naked and I keep my hand on Ted’s butt!” It’s gross, but kind of beautiful too.
“There are only three words you need to stay married,” a crusty old man told me. “Yes, my empress.” Women seem to like that one a lot.
If ever a couple understood what it takes to stay married, Bob and Cindy were it. I met them deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Most of the year they live on a 40 foot boat surrounded by nothing but forest and water. There are no roads and it’s a hundred miles to the nearest neighbors. Occasionally, fisherman fly into the bay to spend the day halibut fishing on their boat.
Bob and Cindy never really know if they will have company on any given day. Often, the weather is too lousy for flying. Most of the time they’re alone, with nowhere to go but 40 feet of boat. Bob is tall and wiry. His skin is leathery and sunburned beneath his eyes; his hands scarred and rough as sandpaper. He smells like halibut and diesel. Cindy is pretty. She has thin, dirty blond hair streaked with gray. Sparkling blue eyes and a kind smile with lines of weather and age cut deep in her face. She smells like halibut and diesel too.
After an hour or so of uneventful fishing, I can’t help but ask Cindy and Bob the obvious question. “How do you guys make this work out here alone for months with only 40 feet of boat? How do you stay married?”
“Well, you have to be pretty good friends to begin with,” Cindy tells me. “Then, there’s just one simple thing you have to be able to do to stay on this boat and stay in love. Get over it. Whatever’s bothering you, whatever the other person said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do – get over it.”
I keep fishing and think about Cindy’s answer. Halibut fishing is boring most of the time. You drop a huge squid-baited hook about 150 feet down, just shy of the bottom. Then, you lift the hook a few feet and let it settle back down near the bottom again for hours – lift and settle, lift and settle, lift and settle, while the waves in the bay rock to the sea’s gentle rhythm. Like I said, it’s boring.
Until you hook a halibut. Halibut can run up to 150 or 200 pounds. You know you’re in for some fun when Bob or Cindy look at the bend in your rod and shout three beautiful words: “get the belt!”
The belt is a leather and Velcro contraption with a little pouch in front to hold the end of the rod. The belt gives you leverage and takes the load off your forearms and back. The belt means you’re in for an hour of pulling and sweating, give and take, until bob yells out the three words even more beautiful than “Get the belt.” Three words every halibut fisherman lives to hear: “It's a shooter.”
A “shooter” is fish so large you actually have to shoot it with a shotgun when it gets alongside the boat. If you don’t shoot it before you hoist it on board, it can literally break your bone and send you crashing to the deck with a smack of its tail. Shooters are rare and for me, not what fishing is really about. I like the monotony of it all. The calm. The way the light dances off the blue-gray water. The modest pursuit of quiet, connection and sway – lift and settle, lift and settle, lift and settle, lift and settle.
I think about how much marriage is like halibut fishing. There’s an occasional shooter – a wedding, a baby, a first home, a graduation or amazing vacation – but mostly it’s a lot of lift and settle, enjoying the more ordinary rhythm and tides of life. It’s the way my wife looks in her flannel pajamas at six in the morning. The way we can sit at dinner without having to talk and how much I want to call her every time I’m alone in the car. It’s emptying her post-mastectomy drains. It’s how good we have become at forgiving each other and the way I look at her after 33 years with a deep sense of satisfaction and say, “We’re old and married.”
Those of us who have managed to stay together for a decade or two or six remember the love it took to start our marriage – but we cherish even more the deeper, more seasoned love gently built through years of lift and settle in the same boat far from shore….