I went to New York City for a few pre-Christmas escapades last week and what I saw shocked me. Not because it was horrifyingly crowded with stiletto-clad fur coats stalking through the streets. Not because the entire city was mobbed with pushy window-shoppers who will literally shove you into a bus just to get to Macy's before the stalking stilettos behind them. Not because the electric bill for Times Square at Christmas could feed an entire third-world country for a month. No, I was shocked because I saw, for one of the first times, real love.
One day this semester, my professor asked us to describe what love is. After a few fairly vague answers, someone raised a hand and voiced an opinion that struck me: "Am I the only one here who thinks that love and marriage don't have anything to do with each other?"
I was floored, and then I realized that I'd been unknowingly nurturing the same opinion since the seventh grade.
I realized that the state of marriage in this country is looking more and more like the New York Yankees -- overly commercialized, drenched in scandal, mostly unsuccessful, and hated by everyone who's not obligated to pretend to like it. And I'm not talking about homosexual/heterosexual marriages separately. I'm talking about marriage as a whole, as an ideal that has been corrupted and contaminated until sometimes it resembles a floppy mockery devoid of meaning, as opposed to a noble tradition in which two people weld their lives because they love each other. In a world in which most marriages dissolve into a series of legal battles and emotionally wounded children, love and marriage really don't seem to have anything to do with one another.
But in the midst of New York City -- the city that never sleeps, the city of romance and riots, beauty and bars, carriages and clubs alike -- from among the throngs of street vendors and stilettos, I saw visible love.
It was in a tea shop on Seventh and 26th, where my companion and I were grabbing a drink just before our bus home. As we sat down, we looked over to our right to see an aged couple, the sight of which almost brought me to tears: the husband, who was in a wheelchair, was physically unable to properly eat his food so his wife, sitting close at his side, was alternately feeding him, and gently wiping his mouth, chin and fingers with a napkin as he ate. The sight itself was pleasant enough, but this was not what struck me. Even as she fed her aged ailing husband, she was smiling quietly the entire time.
I looked closer, and saw the tiny details I will never forget -- the way she looked at him, as adoringly as if he were a strong, young man; the way her hand never left his shoulder, patting his arm comfortingly and massaging his back; the way she dutifully steered his wheelchair clear of danger and smiled at the passerby who adjusted accordingly. She still loved him! Even in his age, infirmity and disability, she loved him and nursed him with a smile on her lips and her hand on his shoulder. It was one of the single most beautiful, most inspiring things I have ever seen.
After the couple departed, I started wondering: Why did they have such a powerful effect? After all, people should be used to seeing couples in love, right? We should be used to seeing married couples support one another, right?
But we're not. Somehow, we rarely see even aging couples who look happy with each other. Instead, we hear heartbreaking divorce stories from our closest friends, and watch divorce reality television, and hear more about wedding costs than success rates. Somehow, the state of marriage has devolved from a loving institution to a series of rhinestone-smothered weddings and a collections tin benefiting whom? No one except law firms and, I guess, dating sites for divorcees. And we're supposed to believe that love and marriage are at all related?
I remember recently asking the question, "Is it possible to be happy and married?"
I suppose I'd heard too many ugly complaints about nagging wives and neglectful husbands. And sometimes, I still wonder if those complaints really do characterize marriage as it currently exists. But sometimes, we find a gem to counter-balance the publicized horror stories. Sometimes, we find something in defense of love -- the sort of love that lasts a lifetime, that makes a woman smile as she nurses her struggling husband -- and we can remember that even though hook-up culture is enticing, it's not everything.
Though the childhood fairytales might have been beaten out of us, and we are no longer naive enough to believe in perfect relationships, we can still hope for a love that will take care of us when we can no longer take care of ourselves. Because it does exist -- you just have to know what it looks like, and be able to see it when it does.