I was 21 and at last had a motorcycle. Back then you could ride anything up to 250cc with only a learner’s licence. I’d found the money and bought a new Honda CB175.
My CB175 was a beautiful gold colour, electric start, 4-stroke engine, five-speed gearbox, dual exhausts. It accelerated fast, and had power to spare for overtakes on open roads. Bikers would call it ‘naked’ (no screen) so I nearly froze on cold days, but otherwise it was a thrill to ride. I loved it.
Then I crashed it after just five days.
I’d set off mid evening to ride out into countryside to the west of Edinburgh. Traffic was light, the road was wide. Up ahead I saw a tight bend to the right. No problem. I eased off on the throttle, and pulled the left brake lever to slow down gently. Except that lever wasn’t the rear brake. On everything I’d ridden before it was, but on a grown up motorbike it’s the clutch lever. Suddenly, instead of the engine slowing the bike, I’d ‘released’ it and speeded up. I reached the bend going far too fast. Half way round I ran out of road and hit the kerb at about 40 mph.
The next thing I remember was hearing voices. They were coming from all around me, and I realised I must be lying on the ground. Someone said, ‘I don’t know what happened. He just hit the side of the road and went flying in the air’. I began to stir, and another bystander asked how I felt. I mumbled something about being all right, though I’d no idea if that was true. There were no shooting pains, so I staggered to my feet (a very bad thing to do without being assessed by a paramedic), removed my crash helmet, assured my small audience that I’d be okay, and gradually they drifted away.
Right then I was more concerned about the bike than myself. It was on the grass verge several yards away, looking sadly crumpled. The front wheel and the handlebars were seriously out of shape, so there was no way I could ride it. I pushed the bike to a safe place and caught a bus home.
My flat was up two sets of stairs, and every step hurt. Once inside, I got a good look at myself. No bones were broken, but my neck was stiff, my arms bruised and gently bleeding, skin scraped away on both legs with grit embedded in the wounds. Since I’d likely somersaulted through the air, that wasn’t too bad.
I’d no idea how to sort myself out, so I phoned a friend. She said she’d come immediately, and arrived with cotton wool and antiseptic. She filled a bowl with warm water and gently bathed the areas where the skin was broken and eased the road dirt out. That evening, more than ever before, I realised what a good friend she was and, actually, much more than a friend. I was grateful for her tender loving care. So grateful I married her and Alison has kept blessing me with her tender loving care for decades since. I’m not glad about the motorcycle crash, but very glad it helped me realise who my life companion should be.
I have crashed more motorcycles since, but I promise it’s not been to keep earning Alison’s care. So have there been foundational beliefs and principles that have sustained our relationship down the years?
I’ve identified six, but four of them will be next week’s blog (when I’ll also tell you what Alison and I have in common that is not only odd but perhaps makes us completely unique).
You may be surprised that ‘love’ isn’t in my list, even though it has been present daily in our marriage. It’s not listed because love is like a foundation on which you build, and the principles I’ll list rest on the foundation of love but, for want of a better phrase, they’re the next level up. Besides, if I was even to try to describe love I’d need space for at least another million words.
Also, I’m acutely aware that many don’t have a life companion. So, knowing what I’ll be writing about, if the rest of this blog could be unhelpful for you please feel free to stop now. I have no wish to cause anyone pain.
So, here are the first two things Alison and I have found super-important.
Years ago, I spent two weeks with a church in Santa Monica, near Los Angeles, and got to know the young adults there. One evening, after all the pizza had been eaten, we started talking about relationships and I was asked, ‘Alistair, what does “commitment” mean? We don’t understand it.’
I knew that none of the group were currently married (some had been), and many of them had lived through the divorce of their parents. Perhaps their backgrounds explained the question.
They were all dedicated movie watchers (we weren’t far from Hollywood), and many films included the romantic line ‘I have feelings for you…’ So I began with that concept of love, and explained that of course love involves feelings, but that can’t be all. Lasting love isn’t just a feeling but a decision. It’s the deep and serious decision to love someone through good times and bad times no matter what. I quoted a song by Don Francisco (a Christian musician) in which the dominant line is: Love is not a feeling it’s an act of your will.
In other words, I told them, to love someone is a choice, one of the toughest but most wonderful choices you can ever make. That’s what commitment means.
It’s something I learned from my father. Mum died when she was 55, and years later Dad remarried. He and Anne enjoyed a good relationship, but then Anne had a stroke which left her almost unable to walk or do much. She plunged into a deep depression. For two years Dad did everything to care for her at home, but his health declined and his doctor told him Anne must go into care. Very reluctantly, Dad eventually agreed. But Anne became even more depressed and took out her frustration on Dad. Yet he visited every day. Anne was his wife, and, though every visit hurt, he cared and never stopped going, never stopped listening, never stopped being a faithful husband. When Anne died, Dad grieved deeply.
I saw and will never forget my Dad’s model of commitment. And it’s the no-matter-what-happens commitment to each other which has been a bedrock of our relationship.
I also learned something about dependency from my Dad during the one and only ‘relationship’ conversation I ever had with him.
Not long after my parents celebrated 25 years of marriage I asked Dad a question: ‘So, has the love you and Mum have for each other changed from when you were first married?’ My Dad was the strong, silent type when it concerned personal feelings, and, in any case, he couldn’t have had a ready answer to a question like that. So, there was silence. He was thinking.
Then he spoke. ‘When you’re first married, you’re new to each other. You know you love each other, but now you’re building a life together. The situation is different after 25 years. Yes, love is still there, but now your lives are tied together. You share everything important. Your Mum and I depend on each other for everything. Dependency is right at the heart of the relationship.’
My parents’ lives had become interwoven. I understand some people don’t think of that as ‘healthy’, but my Mum and Dad both found it important and satisfying. They didn’t think of themselves as two single people but as one intertwined couple.
And that’s why Dad felt tragically alone and helpless when Mum died four years later. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t boil a potato or scramble eggs. He’d lost the person with whom he shared everything, the one with whom he’d raised two sons, the one he’d talked to about small and big things, the one from whom he got advice, or with whom he shared anxieties and aspirations. My brother and I did all we could for Dad at that time. And he appreciated that. But he’d lost the person above all others on whom he depended.
Alison and I also know what it means to need each other. It’s not just a longing; it’s feeling your life depends on the other.
For me it was during dark months of depression. I saw no value in anything I’d done, and no future worth living for. I’d lie awake through the night terrified of facing another day. At the worst of moments I’d reach across the bed for Alison’s hand, and she’d take it and hold on to me. She was there. And she’d be there when morning came, and there through that next day, and the one after, and the one after… I depended on her and survived.
Alison’s dark months came after a terrible accident. Workers were installing super-heavy office furniture in our home in America. A heavy unit was dislodged, and fell on Alison’s back. She was rushed to hospital – scans showed broken vertebrae – fragments of bone were now dangerously near her spinal cord – eventually there had to be an operation. Alison was on the operating table for nine hours while they took bone from a rib, reshaped it in her back, and built a titanium cage to support it. For months Alison was disabled and in severe pain. Movement was greatly impaired. She needed help to walk, to climb stairs, to get to the bathroom. She couldn’t stand to shower herself so we bought a shower chair on which she sat while I sprayed water over her. And every day and every night the pain was intense, with no guarantee it would ever be better. I gave her as much practical help as I could, but maybe the greatest thing I gave was hope. Over and over I told her that this would pass, and a new normal would come by Christmas. She clung onto those words. And they came true. At Christmas she wasn’t free of pain or able to do all she wanted, but she was much better than before. It was the beginning of a new normal. Today that new normal is a good normal, which includes walking the dogs and spending hours tending to our garden. I couldn’t heal Alison’s body, but I could help her hope for better days ahead. She believed me – trusted me – depended on me – and we got there.
We keep getting there every day. Our lives are no more free of problems, puzzles and pains than anyone else’s. So we still hold hands, share our struggles, and draw strength from each other. Jesus said ‘the two will become one’ (Matthew 19:5) and we’ve found that as ‘one’ we’re stronger than the two we used to be. Dependency can be a good thing.
That’s enough for this blog!
I’ve four more bedrock principles for lasting relationships still to share. But, if I wrote only a sentence or two about each I couldn’t begin to do them justice. And, if I wrote as much as each deserved, this blog would be so long no-one would ever read it!
So, those principles will be at the heart of the next ‘Occasionally wise’ blog. Please join me when it’s posted. And, as promised, I’ll also tell you the oddest of things Alison and I have in common – and it’s not that the first four letters of our names are the same; it’s much stranger than that!