Doug and Barbara Wyman, an Oak Park couple, renewed their wedding vows on Sunday, June 29 during the 9 a.m. Mass at Ascension Catholic Church, three days before their 65th wedding anniversary.
Fr. Larry McNally, Ascension’s pastor who presided at the ceremony, told the story. “Doug wheeled Barbara in her wheelchair to the front of the altar. They sat looking at each other. Barbara is in the state of dementia [she is in her tenth year of Alzheimer’s] but she did respond with a “yes” twice and an “I do” once. The congregation stood with their hands extended in blessing. Then Doug gave Barbara quite a kiss, not a little one but a big juicy one right on the lips. Those in attendance gave them both a prolonged standing ovation.”
Mary, who is number five in the birth order of Barbara and Doug’s nine children, said that the dramatic kiss was an everyday occurrence in the Wyman household as she was growing up. “When my father would come home from work,” she recalled, “he would take off his hat and take my mother in his arms, tilt her back and do that dramatic, movie star type kiss. He seemed to kiss her for a long time. They would both have a twinkle in their eyes.”
“When I asked my dad about how to achieve a long and rich marriage, he said, ‘you keep falling in love over and over.'”
Ann, the sixth of nine, added, “Even though my mother has moved toward more advanced Alzheimer’s, she still does have that sparkle in her eyes when he talks to her. And when I ask my dad how his day was, he answers, ‘Lovely, because I was able to spend another day with your mother!'”
When I heard the story, I was happy for Doug and Barbara. I’ve known them for a long time. But a few hours later, a deep sadness came over me. When I tried to figure out why, I realized that it was because what the Wymans had was what I had longed for my whole life—a Norman Rockwell marriage in a Norman Rockwell life.
Cynics dismiss many of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations as being sentimental or naïve. Real life isn’t like that, they contend. To paraphrase one pundit, “Life is a struggle and then you die.” When I told my men’s group about the sadness I felt after hearing about the Wymans’ marriage, we realized that six of the seven of us had gone through divorces, and the only one who hadn’t been divorced had his first wife die on him. We all had experienced many losses and disillusionments
Life often is a struggle. At times it was for the Wymans. The reason I call the Wymans’ 65 years together a Norman Rockwell marriage is not because those years were without struggle or easy. Rather, it’s because Doug and Barbara never let misfortune rob them of their ideals, nor did the struggles distract them from maintaining their primary relationship.
They never became cynical. I’m no art critic, but it seems to me that those who dismiss Rockwell’s illustrations as unrealistic miss the point. In the midst of some tough times for most Americans, he chose to lift up the vision of what life could and should be. If that is only half the truth, the cynics had better admit that their focus on the negative is also, at best, only half true as well.
While musing on my own unfulfilled longings, I happened to watch a documentary on Hubert Humphrey, the senator from Minnesota, a vice-president under LBJ—who treated him like dirt–and a candidate for President of the United States who lost to Richard Nixon by half a percent of the popular vote. Through all the ups and downs of his long political career, Humphrey remained an idealist, or better put, a realist/idealist.
There was something Norman Rockwellish that lived side by side in his character with savvy political realism. He had the capacity to tolerate the tension between longing for what should be and accepting what is. “Reality” for Humphrey went beyond acknowledging the pile of manure in his barnyard to envisioning the corn and soybeans he could grew with it as fertilizer.
Humphrey wasn’t ashamed to be a dreamer, even though he at times suffered in his attempt to attain what he longed for so badly. Surely, there is no merit in suffering for its own sake. That said, there a category of suffering which inevitably comes to those who maintain longings for what could be. It’s the pain of unrequited love or losing the World Cup in over time or working your heart out for a candidate and having him lose by half a percentage point.
I want to get rid of my illusions but I want to keep my dreams. The pain is worth it, I decided, because I don’t want to become a cynic nor do I want to sit on a pity pot and whine, “Nothing I do will make any difference anyway.” Cynics and whiners, after all, are taking the cowardly way out. Or, as one of the mugs for sale at Counter Coffee proclaims, “Falling down is part of life. Getting back up is living.”
Dreaming dreams and seeing visions is a powerful motivation for getting back up each time we fall, especially if we get tripped up in seeking to do good. The Wymans have never been blind to what some refer to as “real life.” In my view, their view of life is more real than that of the cynics.