What ‘happily ever after’ means

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Next week the holiday of the heart arrives, a day celebrating love and the joy we humans find in loving each other. All things heart-shaped fill the stores and television advertisements push the purchase of cards, candy, flowers, jewelry and in one commercial, a new car.

It is Valentine’s Day — cupid’s day when we pause in our busyness to appreciate the wonder of romantic love. Oh how sweet that first rush of emotion when couples begin to find their way to each other. While we like to read and watch the stories of their romance unfolding, most of the stories end at, “and they lived happily ever after…” We do not see the days after those perfect moments of early blossoming love.

However, beyond the first chapter lies a lifetime of living together and that is where true, deep commitment comes to be or not to be. When the candy box is empty and the flowers fade, it is in the day-to-day stuff that love expresses itself and grows to be something truly beautiful.

The amazing ways one human can unconditional love another is a powerful thing to witness. I know because I see it in the two people who live next door to me, the couple that celebrated 67 years of marriage this past weekend.

My mother-in-law and father-in-law were barely past childhood when they took their vows and pledged to be together for all their lives. Times were not easy when they started writing their story, but they grew together and built a good life.

Along the way, they experienced the joy of the births of children and the deep heartbreak that comes when a child is lost. Through it all they held to each other, and gave their sons the gift of seeing two people sharing the ups and downs of life with both joy and sadness, but most of all with love.

Now as they write what is probably the final chapter of their love story, I see in my in-laws’ relationship what lasting love looks like and it is not what you see in the movies, at least not often.

Growing older has not been kind to my mother-in-law and she lives with health issues I cannot imagine being part of my daily existence. It is not easy to watch someone you love experience pain and lose much of her ability to do the things that she enjoyed doing. I watch from the outside and when I pop in for a visit, I see how hard it is. However, she and my father-in-law live inside the reality of those challenges every minute of every day.

And every day, love is right there expressing itself in the gentle way this man cares for this woman. It is there in the way he worries over whether she is eating properly. It shines in the care he takes as he dresses her, helps her turn over in bed, finds her favorite television programs.

Even though she can’t physically do things for her husband anymore, my mother-in-law frets over whether or not he is taking care of himself. She worries that taking care of her is too much for him. She still tries to look after him in her own way and I know if the situation were different, he would get the same devoted attention she gets from him.

Every now and then, I see a look pass between them that holds more love than the most touching scene in any romantic movie. It is a look between two people who know each other well, who have shared more than words can express. It is a look that says what the biggest, reddest heart-shaped Valentine’s Day card could never say.

In those moments, when the heart speaks through the eyes, I know what happily ever after really means.