I didn’t fully understand the power of vows until I renewed them. I was 23 when I first declared my vows to my husband, much to the chagrin of the Catholic church — coming from the pages of Kahil Gibran instead of the bible. When my husband recited his words, I heard loving poetic prose filled with promise and possibility that had resonance for both of us. The vows were modern, progressive and new like our union. But they were also empty, waiting to be filled with what might be. The years that followed commenced our narrative.
At ten years, my husband found himself on location working in Las Vegas. On a whim, we decided that I would fly down to renew our nuptials at one of those cheesy chapels. With the challenges of marriage, my dad’s passing, and the birth of our son, it felt like the thing to do. His assistant was a burnt-out ex-cab driver from NYC. He had a rough ride when it came to life and moved to Vegas for a fresh start marrying a towering amazon woman, barely twenty. Adorable and hugely sentimental she was to be my witness while he would become my husbands best man.
Because we didn’t bring our original marriage license, we had to register at the Clark County Marriage License Bureau. We stood in line in jeans, Converse and t-shirts, amongst those in formal wedding attire while others sported cutoffs and cowboy boots realizing this was making it real again. Once registered, we went to the ‘The Little Church of the West’ and booked a time for our renewals later that day. The assistant at the chapel whipped out a long notepad similar to what older pizza parlours had, thin or thick crust, peppers or onions. Instead of toppings, we could tick off video recording, music, bouquet even photos while we put a deposit down for the ceremony. When we returned, a preacher in an iridescent shark coloured suit married us. The words spoken were simple; our professed pledge now growing rich in history. He commented on the energy and commitment of our words, unaware that we were already married. I struggled to speak, my throat feeling like a golf ball was lodged deep within it. Legacy had commenced filling the vessel of vows that originally sat empty.
At twenty years, all our parents had passed. We had more children, and the challenges of marriage were significant. Our life was a whirlwind of trying to keep it all together. Not sure whether we’d even make it to twenty, once we did, we decided to celebrate and renew our vows once again, this time at home.
I went to our local parish to meet a priest that was referred to us to oversee the occasion. I was told he was radical and had a history of working with those that struggled with addictions and were homeless. Compassion was precisely what I wanted in an officiate. Once we met, instead of acknowledging the love behind our intention, I was severely scolded. This supposedly liberal, open-minded and compassionate man of the cloth was none of those things and flat out refused to partake in anything that was not performed in a church. I was confused, reminding him we were already married and that God is everywhere, including our backyard. Our disagreement had no chance for absolution as his rigidity was incongruent to our belief system. Seeing the Catholic church was given the first kick at the can and declined the gig, I found a lovely and compassionate gay lawyer who dealt with immigration issues. She was articulate, bright, empathic and ended up serving as the Justice of the Peace presiding over the event. The polar opposite of what the church dictated.
We created a Tuscany themed environment on the day of the event. Our guests appeared as though they came through central casting. All elegantly appointed, wafting of fragrance, holding glasses of chilled champagne. Our tiny urban backyard transformed, spilling with light through the dense foliage of draping mature maples.
Two decades had now filled our original oath to such a degree that the consonants of a single sounding word were like a sentence. We both struggled when we spoke our vows. Our offspring were serving as our witnesses as we quietly wept listening to what each had lovingly written. It was then that I noticed more men crying in attendance than women. Though these were our vows, those present had uttered the same generously infused sounds at their wedding. Since then, many had seen their wives through breast cancer; their husband’s through illness, some had drifted apart others divorced. Though the renewal of vows was designed for us, it was a though everyone participated. There were no borders to the words spoken. Our officiates words were stunningly beautiful, enveloping the essence of love. There was no denying that God/The Universe/Life was present throughout our small backyard ceremony.
At thirty years, we were at yet another place in life. The kids were grown and moved out, careers steering in different directions and middle age fully upon us. We couldn’t get it together in our anniversary month of June. Not wanting the year to end without renewing our vows, we did it close to Christmas. We took a hard pass on the church and had a dear friend who was a Superior Court judge overseeing the ceremony. She had the intellect of someone from Mensa, the body of a stripper, the face of a model and a razor-sharp tongue with wit and humour that would have won over Robin Williams. She was beautiful and directive, and a wonderful metaphor for all the varied aspects of our marriage.
We planned for it to happen at our annual Christmas party. Not desiring gifts or cards, we kept it a secret from our guests. A third of the way into the evening, the good judge announced the renewal of the nuptials and we sprung into action. Everyone gathered in the living room while the Beach Boy’s ‘God Only Knows’ played. One of our kids face-timed the event from the west coast while the other two were in attendance. Our closest friends, some of whom were at our first wedding, were bearing witness yet again. I sobbed, however, this time, my husband wept more. The words uttered were enormous and substantial, in their meaning. The vessel from which the memories had accumulated was overflowing in life experiences — filled with a life of love, struggle, laughter and tension. The vows were rich in wisdom and maturity. For those in attendance, the promises came out gently, solidly, and ethereally washed over everyone.
With each renewal, we were newlyweds once again. Feeling young and filled with promise as we commenced the next chapter from a new juncture with new beginnings while washing away whatever previous turmoil existed. There was no denying the freshness that came with each decade of renewal. The vows echoing growth and pain were intensely romantic and soulfully challenging, bringing us to a profound love each time.
I celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary this year and unlike in previous decades, I cannot assume that I will have the same opportunity that preceded me. The concept that time is fleeting has never been more evident. Each of those renewals has served as a tremendous gift that I could not have fathomed — providing us with a moment to stop and reflect on a chapter of life that we had banked, defined and encapsulated. Revealing it’s essence through the expression of our vows. Should we be blessed to make it to forty, then perhaps at that point we’ll consider renewing every five years.
The rebirth that comes from affirming and feeling the vibrations and sounds of the vows is transformational to the always delicate structure of a marital union. To dare to let their meaning and history wash over us is to open the doors to a tsunami of emotion and to acknowledge the good, the awful and the tough as we quietly mark time. That narrative guides us to an expansiveness within ourselves and our union declaring our purpose in a partnership through the precious lens of love. Only then, through the repetition of reflecting and reciting, do we get to experience a life lived through vows.