October 1987. Joe graduating from Marine Boot Camp San Diego. We were just babies.
February 19, 1988 – “No daughter of mine is going to live like this,” came the booming voice of my father. Joe had just returned home from the Marines. He was sleeping on my couch when my dad entered through the hallway that connected my tiny apartment to the restaurant I waitressed at. He was popping in to ask me to join him for breakfast since my shift didn’t start until 9:00 am. I came crawling out of bed hearing the fury in my dad’s voice. “Joe, you either move in with some friends, or you two go to Reno and make this right! I’m leaving for the weekend and you better have this sorted out by the time I get back!” He left my apartment giving us the ultimatum. I was furious, ashamed, and stubborn enough to call him on his bluff.
I was eighteen for gosh sakes, had been on my own for nearly a year, and Joe was home from training and starting his time as a Marine Reservist. I think back on that day and it makes me giggle now, but boy was I boiling then. I felt so grown up and responsible. I was paying my $200 a month rent and living on my free meals from the two restaurants I worked at. I had a case of ramen in my cupboard and a jar of tips on top of the fridge, saving up for my wedding. I was living the dream.
Joe and I were high school sweethearts, we had planned on getting married, but not at 18. But somehow, this intrusion from my dad caused me to clench my fist in defiance. Joe peeked over the covers on the couch and said, “what do you want to do?” I said, “I guess we’re going to Reno.” So, we grabbed the jar of tips and headed to Nevada.
That was 31 years ago. It was one of the dumbest things I’ve done in my life. We have no wedding pictures. I didn’t wear a wedding dress; however, I was married in a size 5 pair of acid wash jeans and a white wool sweater. I felt it was important to mention the size and the acid wash. I remember a drunk minister sounding like the priest from the Princess Bride – “Mawwedge and wuv, twue wuv”. My sister was our witness, but more than likely was praying in the spirit that I would change my mind. Then there was the dread of going home and proving what a grown up I was with my $20 crap ring.
But that rebellious decision, as embarrassing and shameful as it was, had some pretty wonderful fruit. It saved my life, literally. I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. I went to the doctor for birth control and had to undergo lots of fun girl checks which led to finding the cancer. Then, I got mono those first few months of marriage and went on antibiotics. Which, I now know, counteracts the pill. I just keep winning. Thus, beginning the biggest adventure of all – parenting. And we couldn’t just stop with one. We had three babies in a matter of three years!
In the meantime, life got harder and harder. We were poorer than dirt and I was just as stubborn as the day we eloped. I guarded my life like a Mexican prison. No one was going to know I wasn’t happy, that Joe and I were struggling, and our marriage was crumbling. Nope, we lived a perfectly masked life.
Until one day when Joe was in one of his miserably angry moods, which I noticed started surfacing shortly after our first year of marriage. Our electricity was turned off (remember, we were poor), and we were eating grape jelly sandwiches. That’s when the stubborn girl in me rose up and said, “I’m done!” Once again, I took my future in my hands, packed my three little ones up and said “Sayonara!”
It was a 10-month separation, filled with plenty of regrets, hurt, and pride. I was raised that Christians did not get divorced. So, in order for me to leave a verbally abusive marriage, I had to leave Jesus too. But I will tell you, all I wanted was healing. However, I was reminded, by church people, that “hell was hot” and “I was ruining my reputation and testimony”. Plus, I was given a several page letter from my pastor on submission to my husband. Sing with me, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love” (Just a little sarcasm to lighten the mood).
I kept my life a secret all the more. I kept Joe’s rage problem and my anxiety hush-hush. But I kept my broken heart a mystery. My only goal in life was to love my three beautiful children the best way possible. I was a 23-year-old single mom with 3 babies. What a hot mess I was.
But that same father that gave me an ultimatum, who I wounded with my rebellion, was the one I ran to in my misery. He was the one who I wept with in a car with, not knowing what to do. He was the one who gave me a job and loved me back into healing. He and my mom were there to help put the pieces of my life back together. Isn’t that a great picture of our Heavenly Father?
On May 5, 1993 my divorce was final. Joe and I had been separated for seven months when the divorce was finalized. And on May 11, 1993 was when Jesus began the healing process of our relationship. You see, it started with this desperate prayer as I fell asleep on my couch in tears, (which was quite often); “Jesus, please put my family back together.” And then a scripture kept appearing to me; Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path. I knew what Jesus was saying to me – if He was going to heal my life, my marriage, and my family, then I could not lean on my own understanding. I had to trust Jesus with all of the mess: every bit of fear and anxiety and unforgiveness that lived in my soul. It was only a matter of days after that gutted prayer when God began the healing. And it started on Mother’s Day in 1993.
It began with a card, then a date, then a kiss, then counseling and forgiveness, lots and lots of forgiveness. Loving each other wasn’t a problem for us, but trusting each other with our hearts was. Joe had to confront his anger and forgive the one who had wounded him. His rage was a byproduct of a broken heart as child. And it just festered in him as the stress of our life accumulated. People would warn me that a leopard could not change his spots. Well, a leopard cannot, but Jesus can! He can change anger to peace, unforgiveness to grace, and He can remove the spots entirely. No spots or wrinkles are found in the one who has been redeemed. Leopards are turned into lambs with God’s mighty power and the blood of Jesus!
On February 20, 1994 Joe and I remarried. I was 4 months pregnant with our fourth child (I know, shameful). But here’s the thing, I had a second scare with cancer. I was told I couldn’t get pregnant due to the treatment. However, healing was flowing in every area of our lives.
Our life wasn’t immediately perfect. It wasn’t easy, but it was good. Our life wasn’t a fairytale, but it wasn’t a horror story either. It was a redemption story. It was sometimes messy, and other times frustrating. It was making a new life with the old memories and an old memories new forgiveness. We were a blended family. We were blending our old life with the first 3 babies, to our new life with a new baby and a new promise. The old is not obsolete nor do I want to forget it happened. It’s very much a part of who I am today. It is jam packed with wisdom, lovely moments of laughter, tears, birthdays, authentic and raw love, living on popcorn and potatoes, and it is stepping stones into our future.
Joe would often tease about having three children from his first marriage and one from his second, while I would just roll my eyes. People would look at our shopping cart full of little ones and smile in understanding. He is such a dork. God rebuilt us on our ruins. He restored the things the locust had devoured. He gave us beauty from ashes. And He gave us a garland of grace, spiraled around our family. He gave us a double portion for our shame, and He made our crooked places straight. We went through the fire, a little singed but not smelling of smoke. 31 years of our combined life; the good, the bad, and the ugly, but also the Grace, the Mercy and the Lovely. Today, 31 years ago I said yes to Joe, the one who has always had my heart. But also, today, 25 years ago, I said yes to Joe and Jesus. Our lives were rebuilt with hope.