Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter kept awake with me two nights in a row as the narrator, Hannah herself, told me the story of her life. My husband lay sick and feverish beside me, and I listened to the sound of his breathing as I read all night. Last winter, we spent too many hours in an emergency room when pneumonia struck him. We may be young and therefore seemingly safe, but after sitting with him through the hospital hours, tubes, machines, and every-breath-a-fight, I don't trust those lungs of his. And so, I listen to them.
When I read so late into the night, the book and my life tangle up in dreamy ways that don't necessarily happen in the daytime, when sunlight sets the words firmly on the page. At night, at 3am and 4am, those words seem less tied to the paper and take up a sound and a voice in my head.
Through those two long nights over Christmas, Hannah set out to tell me the story of her life in a soft, even voice with a Kentuckian limestone edge, but I heard the story of her marriages. Twice widowed, once by war and once by age, Hannah knows a thing or two about a partnership, things I'm just learning.
Lessons about marriage sound trite and obvious, but learning them is difficult and beautiful. Nothing belongs to one of us. Illness doesn't belong to one. Joy doesn't belong to one. Memories get jumbled between the two of us. And what one doesn't know about the other, one wants to, just to be able to feel that memory in the brush of an arm.
But more important than what we don't know and what we do know is the work we do together, the life we create that is bigger and more difficult and sadder and more fun than life without the other. The place in the world that Hannah and her second husband Nathan create says goodbye to most who enter it; but as those people leave, they leave better because of Hannah and Nathan's hard work. What a goal for a marriage: to create a metaphorical place that welcomes and loves those who both enter and leave.
After a few days of thermometers and never-changing-out-of-pajamas, my husband was up again and leaning against the wind of everyday life. I finished Hannah Coulter. The Christmas holidays ended, along with the vacation time that surrounds them. My husband and I have come out of this concentrated time of sickness and celebration, freetime and fever, sleep and sleeplessness a little different than when we entered it. We've made our place in the world a little bit better for others, yet we're not even close to done. We've got a lot of placebuilding to go.