“Would you be my backup date for the med school Christmas party?”
Holding the receiver to my ear, I stood—half-indignant, half-relieved—in the tiny kitchen of my apartment. Back then, you were tethered to your phone’s location by a spiral cord: no chatting as you walked across campus or through the grocery store in the late 1980s. Fortunately for the person on the other end of the phone (my future husband, although thoughts of marriage were far from our minds), the primary emotion I felt at the moment was amusement.
See, he wasn’t just asking me to be his backup date for the party: he was asking me to be his backup, backup date—I was his third-string date, a bench warmer who would only be called upon in an extreme situation. Had anyone else asked me for this absurd favor, I’d have probably said no. But we were good friends. We’d been swapping confidences about our romantic failures that fall. And he was two and a half years younger than I was: I saw him more as a younger brother than a potential suitor—hence the relief that he wasn’t really asking me out on a date.
He had a good reason for making the request. For the past year and a half, he’d been part of a tight-knit group of medical students. The year before, they’d all gone out for a nice dinner before the medical school Christmas party. He was the only one of the group who didn’t have a “significant other”: two of his friends were married to older medical students, and the other two were in serious relationships. It was important to him to have a date to this pre-party event.
Naturally, he planned to parlay the medical school Christmas party into a dating opportunity. First, he was going to ask the girl he currently had a crush on. If she turned him down, he’d ask another girl he’d had his eye on for a while. If both girls turned him down, that was where I came in. Hmmm. What was I to say? Should I tell him he had his nerve and hang up, or say I’d go if his first two options failed?
I’ve already told a bit of our history in a previous post, so I won’t rehash that here. As for my husband’s history, the high school scene had been pure misery for him—socially, anyway; academically, he’d done well. In college, his social life had improved dramatically, especially in his junior year; he had dabbled in casual dating and tried his hand at slightly more serious dating. For the past year and a half, though, he’d been playing the field. Despite a confident exterior, he suffered from poor self-esteem where girls were concerned. It’s hard to shake off memories of your high school past, even five years after high school. While I have limited sympathy for guys because they seem to hold so much of the power in dating relationships, it isn’t easy for a guy to work up the courage to ask a girl out, only to face rejection.
I said yes. You knew I would, didn’t you? After all, I’m the girl who never said no to anyone who asked her out. At the time, I didn’t think anything would come of his request. Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and, suddenly, I got the call that I was up to bat. Sadly for my husband, both girls had turned him down (not everyone had my easygoing attitude towards dating, it seems). Yikes! On the positive side, I had the perfect dress to wear. Back then, my mom made beautiful clothes for me. Few things are sadder than having a new dress and nowhere to wear it. At last my lovely new burgundy dress with the puffed sleeves and scoop neck had a place to go.
Most of that evening is a blur: dinner at a Japanese steak house with my husband’s med school friends, who were funny and nice—and curious about the nature of our relationship but too polite to ask. Usually, I was tongue-tied on dates. Either the formality of the occasion or the unspoken expectations turned my brain to mush. But, on this particular evening, my husband and I were both relaxed. Neither of us was trying to impress the other. I’d go so far as to say we each felt safe with the other person. Even when we took to the dance floor, we had a great time: neither of us was a great dancer, but we had fun.
A few days after the party, my husband got the opportunity to do me a big favor: he drove me to the airport for—get this—a blind date in Pennsylvania. Yes, my single status had prompted well-meaning friends to fix me up with their single friends. This wasn’t my first blind date, but it was my first blind date in another state! Part of my justification in going was that I would get to spend a couple of days at the home of my married friend, a wonderful woman whom I’d known since childhood. By being his date, I would help her single friend, who needed an escort for his boss’s annual Christmas party. Since I didn’t have a dress that seemed appropriate, I got to buy one—a striking green dress that I accessorized with a scarf in Christmas colors.
As a thank-you to my husband for driving me to the airport, I had baked him chocolate chip cookies; after he took me to the airport, he was heading home for Christmas break. Later, he told me that a girl had never made him cookies before. Something about the cookies in conjunction with the wonderful time we’d had at the med school party pushed him over the brink: he switched me from third-string to first-string that day. Thoughtfully munching on the cookies I’d made him, he drove to his parents’ house in the mountains of North Carolina.
Happily for my husband and me, my blind date in Philadelphia turned out to be a bust—at least in some respects. I still got to see my dear friend, her husband, and their adorable children. During the actual date itself, I froze as usual, but the guy was nice enough. He was even nice when I missed my flight the next afternoon because I’d lingered too long over Sunday dinner with my friend. Well do I remember the awkwardness of having to spend the night at his parents’ house while waiting for another flight the next morning.
Now my husband and I entered on a lopsided phase of our relationship: for the first time, one of us (him) was interested in the other party (me) romantically. He didn’t spell it out in so many words, but we were both aware that the dynamic had changed. Still, we kept doing things together; we were practically best friends now. I remember vividly the night when I realized things were heading somewhere. Our church had hosted a “worldview weekend” for UNC and Duke students (Christian faith could bridge the gap between basketball rivals, apparently). That weekend it snowed, and the roads became dangerously slick. After one event, my husband walked me back to my apartment since driving wasn’t safe. The sidewalk was slick, too. More than once he held my hand to steady me as we inched our way down to my apartment complex at the bottom of Hillsborough Street. Once we were safely at my apartment, he gave me a hug good night—were we really on such affectionate terms, I wonder?—and it was if I’d touched an electric wire. Sparks flew. Nothing else happened that night, but . . . the stage was set for a showdown.
Here my memory is hazy: how did we come to be in a park on a Sunday afternoon in early spring, sitting on the swings and trying to see through a fog of emotion and physical attraction? No idea, but there we were, and I distinctly remember what I was wearing: a pink-and-white floral, drop-waist dress that my mother had made from a Laura Ashley pattern. Although I don’t recall how we wound up at the park having THE conversation—should we date or not?—I remember the outcome. We acknowledged that (aside from the age difference, which bothered me more than him) there were two major obstacles to our dating: the M words—music, for me, and missions, for him. My husband was planning to be a medical missionary. At the age of 12, I had gone forward on a call for missions at a Baptist camp, but I had no real plans to become a missionary. Meanwhile, music was very important in my life: I played the piano and violin and had sung in school and church choirs; all five of my siblings played at least two instruments. While my husband enjoyed listening to music, he didn’t sing or play an instrument: performing “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” at his one and only piano recital was the highlight of his musical career. What were we to do about the importance of missions to him and the importance of music to me?
First, we prayed about it. Next, we decided that, to aid us in getting to know one another, we would each choose three books that the other person had to read in the categories of fiction, Christian teaching, and biography. I chose Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Francis Schaeffer’s True Spirituality, and C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. He chose Hondo by Louis L’Amour, Walter D. Shepard’s Sent by the Sovereign, and Borden of Yale, Hudson Taylor’s biography of the missionary William Borden. Truthfully, we were a couple by the time we left that park hand in hand. No matter how much we discussed or analyzed our differences, we were destined to be a couple from henceforth and forevermore. While we didn’t notice them at the time, our similarities far outweighed our differences: we both had been raised in the South; our Christian faith was important to each of us—our very acquaintance was founded on our belonging to the same Protestant denomination. Intellectually, we were equals, even if I tended more towards the liberal arts and he leaned towards the sciences. We both loved history; while one of my college majors was history, his hobby is history, and he could almost certainly best me on any history test. We both enjoyed the outdoors and hiking; we laughed at the same jokes. Our church friends approved of and encouraged our decision to date one another exclusively.
No surprise, then, that things progressed quickly. My roommate moved out at the end of May, and my new roommate wouldn’t arrive until August. That meant my husband and I had my apartment to ourselves on the rare occasions when he wasn’t doing a rotation that summer. Hmmm. My parents were far away, little realizing the danger their daughter was in. Thanks to his Christian principles and his upbringing as a gentleman, he kept things from escalating too much. Physical attraction is a very powerful force, as I discovered, and it played a role in our becoming closer. Within a month of our conversation in the park, he was driving home to Arkansas with me; I attended his brother’s college graduation, and he went with me to the wedding of a college friend. In August I left to vacation with my family and the family of my matchmaking friend from Pennsylvania. Inevitably, my boyfriend was a topic of conversation: we’d only been dating for a few months, but my friend, her mother, and my mother half-jokingly planned our wedding. I got back from the trip to discover that he had spelled out “SANDI, I LOVE YOU” in M&Ms on my bed (my new roommate had let him in while I was gone). Who could say no to a guy like that? Not me! (I wasn’t good at saying no, anyway.) That fall, he tentatively proposed marriage after a day trip to the NC Zoo. On my birthday, he made it official. The next summer, nearly five years after we had met, we were married in Chapel Hill.
Is there a moral to this story—other than the obvious warning to beware the power of sexual attraction, even when you’re with a “safe” guy? [My husband would say there are no safe guys. I’m still naive enough to hope he’s wrong.] Make sure the guy you’re going to marry likes Jane Austen? After all, you need someone who’s willing to watch those period dramas on PBS with you. Just kidding, although he did pass the Jane Austen test with flying colors; the jury is still out on whether he’s more of a Bingley or a Darcy. Not only did I enjoy the Louis L’Amour books—I’ve always liked Western movies—but my mother introduced him to The Virginian, the original Western and a book that he likes to quote. We both loved the fantasy worlds created by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis; perhaps he was fonder of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective and I of Dorothy Sayers’ detective, but we both liked mysteries. Our shared love of books has certainly enriched our marriage and caused us to buy more bookshelves than you typically find in an American household. Common interests will strengthen any relationship, but that goes without saying.
There’s no reason for any single person to heed my advice, but I’ll give it anyway. Think outside the box when it comes to dating. For years, I kept searching for this dreamy musician; ironically, a practical physician turned out to be the guy who fit me like a glove. I would describe our relationship as complementary: I’d like to think that our differences enable us to help one another, although it doesn’t always work out that way. No other marriage in the world looks quite like ours, and that’s okay; some couples have more overlapping interests or similarities. All couples will face challenges, which is why it’s so important not to choose a potential date—or mate—based solely on something as superficial as looks; as my mother often reminded me, looks are the one thing that you know will change in a person. [Here my husband objected, “I was pretty superficial in choosing who to date.” I pointed out that he had never gone out with any girl who didn’t share his religious convictions.] Go for personality, character, and trustworthiness—someone who has your back.
I realize there is not a happily-ever-after ending for everyone, nor is every person called to marriage. For us, marriage was the right answer for many reasons. I did, however, make the classic mistake of thinking that marriage to my Prince Charming was the end of the story. Wrong. It was the beginning of the story—and it wasn’t the story that either of us was expecting. As Sky Masterson tells Adelaide in the movie Guys and Dolls, “My daddy once told me: No matter who you get married to, you wake up married to somebody else. You take it the way the dice falls.” When I think of how few arguments my husband and I had during the time we were dating, it makes me laugh. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I seem like a veritable angel during those days of courtship. I am no angel. In this fallen world, you will not find a perfect mate, nor will you be a perfect mate. I am thankful that I married someone who understands the importance of forgiveness and the power of self-sacrificing love.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”–Psalm 127:1
The excerpt below is part of a longer passage from Philippians that was read at our wedding:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
This post is the fourth and final installment in an impromptu series of posts on dating, relationships, and marriage: The Dubious Practice of Dating was first, followed by Whatever Happened to Casual Dating? and Prelude to a Romance. After reading this final post, my husband said to me, “What if I had just walked across the room in 1985 and said, ‘I think you’re the person I’m supposed to marry. Will you marry me?'” My first thought was, “Boy, that would have saved a lot of trouble. And I wouldn’t have had to go to those concerts in Greensboro by myself.” My second thought was, “But then I wouldn’t have gotten to go to Selma, Alabama. And I wouldn’t have gotten to meet a lot of interesting guys or had some solo adventures.” He also agreed that the intervening years—when we knew one another but weren’t dating—had provided valuable cultural and character-building experiences. Trust the timing.