A question of civility

Once upon a time, we stood before the Rev. Henry L. Johnson in the basement of a county courthouse. It wasn’t what most folks would call a romantic dream wedding, but it did have its charms. We were in the basement because the office used by the clergy who volunteered to marry people at the courthouse was being repainted. Rev. Johnson, all 6 foot 7 inches of him, had marched us to the basement, found an office, ordered the occupant to clear his desk, and stared me in the eye. Although it was technically a civil ceremony, the reverend was determined to do his duty to God. So he fixed his best Morgan Freeman gaze on me and, in a loud gospel-tinged voice, demanded to know if I understood the importance of the moment.

He asked if I knew that love carried with it awesome responsibility. He asked if I not only understood that responsibility but if I was ready to accept it with all its implications. He asked if I was man enough to let my prospective wife be my strength. He asked if I was strong enough to show honor and respect. Pappaw used to shake his head and smile at me and say, “Son, your legs are long but you ain’t growed.” The Rev. Henry L. Johnson wanted to know if I “was growed.”

I was nearly 40 and getting married for the first time. I had waited for the right woman: one who could calm me down and slow me down; one whom I knew I could love, honor and cherish. I’d been around the block a few times, but the Rev. Johnson put me in my place and whipped me to attention. And after he did his pronouncing, the Rev. Johnson was bound and determined—basement or not, civil ceremony or not—that this was going to be a proper moment. So he marched us back upstairs to the clerk’s office, and when the elevator opened on the main floor of the busy courthouse, he started into “Here Comes the Bride” in that commanding gospel voice.

We stood before a judge the other day in a different courthouse, a little more than 17 years later. The love that was supposed to last forever had worn itself out somehow. It had gotten tired and taken for granted. Nobody had been mean, and nobody was really to blame—unless you count forgetting to pay attention to something that important as blame. And so there we stood before this judge, in front of a courtroom packed with people waiting to dispose of the detritus of life’s court call. Our case was slipped in between a guy pleading guilty to DUI and some kid busted for smoking some weed. The judge was perfunctory and in a hurry and had no intention of making anything about the moment special. He read the petition, asked if we agreed—and signed away the dreams of a lifetime.

Everything about the moment was civil. When she first came to me with the news that she was leaving, it was civil. There were some moments of shock but they were, for the most part, civil. The separation was civil, and this final moment was civil. As we walked back out to the parking lot and talked about the final thing we had in common, it struck me that the sadness of it all was the civility. The only moment that even approached emotion was when she said that she wouldn’t come visit the dogs anymore, because it was just too hard. I thought her voice caught there, but I let it go.

When she first broke the news to me that the weight of her unhappiness was more than talking would ever lighten, I wrote her a letter. I said that I loved her and that I had from the beginning. I asked her not to do this thing—to reconsider, to step back before it couldn’t be taken back. I asked her to make sure she would not have regrets. She didn’t answer.

I think she worked really hard to get to goodbye and that answering my letter, even to be angry or disappointed, would have just been too hard. So we went our own ways, and it was easier than it should have been.

When I drove away from the courthouse the other day, I thought about the sadness of it all. I thought about the sadness of happy moments turned not ugly but boring and blasé. I thought about the sadness of commitment and caring becoming worn out. I thought about that last catch in her voice, and I wondered if she too had regrets, now that it was done. I wondered if I should write her another letter and tell her about that sadness; tell her that even though we would forever wander separately that I would still think of her kindly. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry for any pain I had caused, for any unhappiness—even for the idea that I had let our cherished love become tired and worn out. Should I tell her that those 17 years meant something very much to me and that, in spite of the ending, I would not let bitterness color them?

I put aside the idea of writing that letter. What’s the point, I thought. If she has regrets, then why poke them or irritate them? And if she doesn’t, then would such a letter be just one last selfish act? And maybe that’s the biggest sadness of it all.

[Mark Jamison tends the mail and the people of Webster as postmaster.]

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