Intimacy Amidst Crisis

Little white lights wrapped the trees in the dark church courtyard, the warm night air feels soothing after the chill in the sanctuary where we had just heard the message on 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. My husband is on other side of the courtyard surrounded by a group of men. I glance over at him as I nervously rub my hands together. I try to fight back the tears.  

I sit in a circle of women, all at the same stage in life, all with kids under the age of four, and I feel completely alone. Although there are things that I can relate to in what they are sharing, there is so much in my heart that I know they could never understand.


I wouldn't have expected the topic of sex to bring me to tears, but it didn't take long before I was biting my lip and blinking rapidly, my mind working overtime to keep my heart from breaking. Think about something else. What was she saying, oh yes, it's so hard to be in the mood to be intimate when your kids are at this stage where they need so much from you.


I blinked back bitter tears. Yes, all kids need so much from their mom's all the time, yes, all moms feel touched out sometimes, but they don't understand, none of them understand. My daughter is two years old and has to be carried everywhere because she can't even crawl yet, can't even sit up on her own yet. She seems to only sleep if she’s nursing, waking up with nearly every attempt to put her down on her own.


I listen to them share the struggles of being intimate with their husbands while raising young kids and I can't help but think I have those same struggles and more, but on top of all that I have to deal with the most insurmountable obstacle to intimacy I have ever faced - the fear of an uncertain future. The insecurity and vulnerability that comes from knowing my husband is fighting a deadly disease.


I sit quietly, not saying a word, because I have nothing to add to this conversation. My mind starts thinking back to the words that Jason, the pastor, spoke just a few minutes before. I think of the story he shared about a mentor of his who told him that he loved his wife’s wrinkles and stretch marks because they were monuments to the many years and life struggles that they had faced together. My heart cries out, “I want to grow old with Bryan! He’s the one I want to have see (and love) my wrinkles and sagging boobs. He is the only one who could feel a connection to my stretch marks because they are a result of birthing his children.” Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. My brain repeats.


I have looked forward to growing old with Bryan ever since our wedding day. Looked forward to watching him become the old man he already is inside. Looked forward to him telling me that he loves my wrinkles because they remind him of all the wonderful years we've spent together. Looked forward to dancing at our fiftieth wedding anniversary.


Just focus on the current conversation, I tell myself again.


The leader asks a question about what things we used to do while dating and newly married to encourage intimacy that we no longer do now. Someone makes a joke about showering regularly and we all laugh. I laugh, but my heart isn’t really in it.


I am thinking again about something Jason said, something about a study, a secular study, that showed that middle-aged protestant married women have the most satisfying sex lives. I hear in my head the sarcastic voice that only my internal dialogue can really pull off, “Great! There’s a high probability I’ll be widowed during that time, so I’ll just get to miss out on the most satisfying session of my sex life.” I don’t feel like crying now. I kind of feel like yelling. Hitting something!


It isn’t fair.


Someone is sharing now about the importance of putting your husband first, making him a priority over everything else. Someone else pipes in with how this makes the kids feel more secure. How many times have I had this conversation with friends. Putting your spouse first is a core of what I believe about marriage. I understand this thought, this conversation. In fact, I understand it better now than I ever have before.


But, I can’t understand my complicated feelings about sex right now. I can’t understand or even explain how much more vulnerable sex makes me feel now than it did before Bryan’s diagnosis.


And they wouldn't understand. They couldn't understand. I know I wouldn’t have been able to understand before experiencing it. I am not sure I can even explain it.


And I'm so glad that they can't understand. Glad, for their sake, that none of them know what it feels like to face the potential loss of their marriage.


I think of my friend who's marriage teetered on the edge of divorce for years. Perhaps she could understand a little - for in different ways we face the same insecurity. Different, sure, but similar. I have lost confidence in the surety of my marriage. I have lost confidence that we will be together for years and decades to come. And in loosing that confidence I have lost some of the security necessary in order to be truly and completely vulnerable.


Without the certainty of a sure future together sex has lost something for me. With death hanging over our heads being completely open feels too risky.


And I struggle. I struggle with all the normal obstacles to intimacy that arise with having children. But, I also struggle to stay open. To keep sharing my feelings with Bryan even though so many of those feelings now feel unsafe and unfair to share. To keep being intimate with him even when I feel insecure and our future feels uncertain. I struggle with both wanting more intimacy and wanting to hide myself away and protect myself.


And it all just makes me want to cry.


I miss him. I miss the certainty that we used to share. I miss the openness.


And yet I know that he’s still here. I know that I should be taking advantage of the fact that he is still by my side, still feeling healthy, despite the evidence to the contrary. There is a part of me that feels desperate not to lose him, desperate to have as much of him as I can while I can, that longs to spend hours in bed alone with him, skin upon skin, flesh upon flesh. And yet, there is another part of me that has already pulled away. Without a certain future, it’s just too risky.


The group breaks up and Bryan and I find each other again. We sit on a bench watching the others leave and my tears finally come.


It's not fair. I feel so alone. No one understands. I didn't want this. I wanted to grow old together.


I want to go back to the way it was. The way it was for all of our marriage up to this point, the way it was when we couldn't keep our hands off each other, when we shared everything and were completely open and vulnerable with each other. But I don't know how.


Cancer stands in the way and it is a mountain. It is an insurmountable, impenetrable, unmovable mountain before me.


Bryan wraps his arm around me and pulls me close. With tears streaming down my face we share a tender kiss.


Rejoicing in the journey,

Bethany Stedman