As many of you reading this surely know, I am engaged to be married to a lovely English woman named Jill whom I met three years ago while traveling in London. Since that time a lot of water literally has passed under the keel for both of us, as we acquired and patched up a simple old boat and sailed her by ourselves from France to the New World. Two of the last three years have been spent rubbing along together at sea and in various idyllic anchorages in the warm and sunny West Indies.
Following in the wake of Columbus, we made the wonderful discovery that we love each other, get on quite well, and would like to spend the rest of our lives together. Toward that end I have begun the long, slow march to British citizenship, and we have planned our march to the altar (as best anyone can make an altar of a rowing club on the Thames) for the 20th of October.
It was in service of our wedding plans that we met two months ago with our lovely and wise friend Linda Donnelly, the celebrant who will extract (one hopes) an emphatic “I Do” from each of us in the presence of more than a hundred friends and family. Linda is a much-sought-after wedding minister, and part of her charm is the personal touch she adds in saying something meaningful about the bond that holds two people together in the ageless institution of marriage. Quite naturally, then, during our planning meeting last summer she asked each of us to send her a short statement of what makes the other person unique compared to all the other lovers and partners we have ever known. At that time we we were due in three weeks to begin a 500-mile pilgrimage on foot along the ancient Camino de Santiago in northern Spain (where I sit as I write these words). Jill dutifully composed and sent her statement to Linda before we left. I, despite posing as the writer in the relationship, procrastinated with my assignment for months, rolling it over in my mind each day as I trudged mile after mile through mountains, little towns, lush vineyards and along the sun-baked, dusty paths of the Camino. It would have been easy enough to dash off something pithy and charming and sweet, but I hesitated, and I wasn’t sure why. Then, one day it hit me.
I was standing in a place famously known to Camino pilgrims as the Cruz de Ferro, the “iron cross.” Here at the highest point along the 500 miles of the Way of St. James from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, a tall cross stands atop a mound of small stones. The stones have been left there in the hundreds of thousands by pilgrims who carry them on the Camino to symbolize a particular burden, often some grief or sadness or self-doubt or anger, they wish to let go.
The stone I left behind at the Cruz de Ferro symbolized my deep, gnawing sadness over my only daughter Caroline, now 26, who has refused to see me or speak or write to me for nearly five years. In that time and in my absence she has graduated from college, married a fine young man, and brought into the world a grandson I have never met. Like so many daughters of so many angry and embittered ex-wives, she felt compelled to choose sides in the ugly aftermath of the divorce that ended my 26-year marriage to her mother twelve years ago. Caroline is my heart’s delight and the reason I climbed up to the iron cross, but my sadness and Caroline’s disappointment in me are not the point of this story.
As I laid my stone on the pile, I prayed for the grace to let go of my grief but vowed never to let go of Caroline. The reason for the difference, of course, is that a father’s love for his children does not depend on their love for him. Nor does it depend on them having pleasing personalities or admirable traits of character or the right opinions, qualities, attitudes, or allegiances. It doesn’t pale with time or rejection. Long before I watched each of them enter the world, before I first held their pink, curling hands and hurriedly counted all their fingers and toes, I loved my children unqualifiedly and unconditionally because they are a part of me and I am a part of them.
When I dropped Caroline’s stone on the pile, without aforethought I decided to pick up another to symbolize the new burden I was gladly undertaking for the rest of my life—namely, the promise to care for and comfort, love, honor and defend the woman standing beside me on that mound of rocks. The perfect stone appeared to me at once as if by providence. What made it perfect was not its shape but its many colors and its smoothness. In that moment I realized at last my answer to the wedding celebrant’s question.
It is certainly true that Jill is nothing like any other woman I have ever loved in ways almost too numerous to mention. She rides on an even keel. She goes with the flow. She’s plenty stubborn but never cross or curt. She’s more than a little game for adventure. She has a list a mile long of food she won’t eat, but she always wants half of whatever I’m having. Little things don’t upset her apple cart. She’s not overly into money and “stuff.” She tends to old friends like heirloom roses and grows new ones like daisies. She doesn’t see sexuality and femininity as mutually exclusive realms. But I don’t love her, nor did I resolve to marry her, because of these qualities. It is also certainly true that Jill loves me with more honest, genuine affection and devotion than every other women I have ever known, but neither is that the chief reason I want to marry her. I didn’t propose to her because she possessed new features or capabilities or improvements lacking in the women I had known before, as one might choose a new vacuum cleaner or lawn mower.
Jill and I came together in the usual way through the fireworks of mutual attraction, but it’s what happened afterward that really tells our tale. Like small stones rendered smooth from countless small abrasions, we rubbed along together through storms both material and ethereal and came out the other side so well accustomed to each other’s ways, so reliant on each other’s touch and reassurance and laughter and friendship, that the question of “what attracts” me to Jill now seems almost unanswerable. Her many wonderful qualities, like her physical beauty, are something I find lovely and fascinating but not essential. My bond with her is something at once obviously different from but in important ways very similar to the bond I feel for my children. It is not founded in merit or mutuality but in love—and true love, it seems, has rendered me incapable to engage in the cold, objective analysis of a beauty pageant where Jill is concerned. Jill wins my vote for the title of Miss Universe by acclamation because . . . because, well . . . because she’s the only woman in the universe as far as I can tell.
And a girl can’t get any more unique than that.