Twelve years ago today, I put on a dress my mother sewed and stood in a church decorated with Christmas trees and white lights and walked down an aisle to meet my groom. He smiled when he saw me, and I remember wanting to drink in the moment, to freeze it like a photograph in my mind so I never forgot the way he looked or how I felt when I saw him.
We had dated less than two weeks before he asked me to marry him. He had not kissed me or told me he loved me, and he didn’t have a ring. But there was nothing to say but yes.
I had known there was only one answer long before he asked the question. Week after week, as we shared a van to a ministry at a church deep in the backstreets of Chicago, I watched and listened and tried hard to guard my heart from feeling more than it should about a man who was not mine.
He had not said one word to encourage my affections for him. He had not given me any indication that he thought of me at all. We had even gone out for coffee once, after having Easter dinner at a professor’s house. He had introduced me as someone who was planning to be a missionary. But he did not know that my plans had changed, and that God was asking me to do something even more audacious with my life.
“Actually,” I said, “I am thinking about going to seminary next…and writing…” It was the first time I had said it out loud. I waited for the disappointment I thought would come. After all, I was giving up missions for writing. There was something profoundly un-Jesus about that.
He stopped. His face betrayed his shock, but not disappointment.
We talked the whole way home. Something had shifted in his mind and left questions where certainty had been. We did not run out of conversation before we ran out of road, so he invited me out to coffee where we talked late into the night about everything from theology to ministry to the homes in which we grew up. He listened like the rest of the world had melted away. What’s more, he understood.
But that was all. The next day came and the day after and he did not call. I had let myself imagine something that was not there, I thought. Foolish, foolish girl.
Jeff’s birthday fell shortly after Easter that year, so I made him a card. I was not going to make him a card, and I certainly was not going to give him a card. But the more I thought about not giving him a card, the more the ideas came until the idea for the card was so clever and funny, it had to be given. It was the single most forward thing I had ever done in my life. We were not even friends, not really, not friends-who-make-cards-for-each-other kind of friends. As I reached out my hand to give it to him, my face burned with the realization. Those stupid clever words had conspired against me.
He smiled and laughed in all the right places. “This is so great!” he beamed. I went back to my dorm room and banged my head against the wall and promised myself I would never ever never ever never ever write a card for a man I was not dating. Ever.
The worst part was, it didn’t even work. The card had not been quite clever enough. Finals week came and the whirlwind that was Jeff’s graduation week. I had hoped he would call, ask me out to coffee again, but he didn’t. I did not even see him the entire week of graduation. Soon he would be leaving for the summer, I thought, and I would never see him again.
I chastised myself for thinking about it at all. “Guard your heart, Kristie,” I told myself again and again. But I could not help feeling like I had met someone who would forever change the standard, who would forever be the mark that all other men must meet.
Then one day, he called. I was so startled, I did not recognize his voice. He had never called. Ever. My floor was a mess with the inner workings of a senior project. It was finals week for those of us who were not graduating, and I was a caffeinated, sleep-deprived mess.
“This is Jeff,” he said.
“Jeff?” Jeff who?
“A bunch of us are going rollerblading. Wanna come?”
Ohmygoodness. It was that Jeff. THE Jeff.
I looked at my floor and the projects I had to do and considered the fact that I had never been rollerblading in my life. I would very likely kill myself or someone else if I ventured out onto the sidewalks of Chicago on wheels. “Sure,” I said with feigned confidence.
I was going to throw up.
Over the next few days, he found excuses to invite me along with the rollerblading crowd. I did not kill anyone. The biker I mowed over in the crosswalk appeared to be recovering nicely. Still, I could not keep up. This turned out to be a beautiful handicap. Time after time, we were left alone in that great big city. The more time I spent with him, the more I liked him, and the more I liked him, the harder it was to realize that he did not feel the same about me.
One night, he met me in the usual spot, but this time, he was all alone. “I thought we’d go out by ourselves tonight,” he said. I dared not hope it was because he liked me, or wanted to be with me, or had any feelings toward me at all. I dared not hope. But I did.
We skated along the moonlit shores of Lake Michigan and headed north to Lincoln Park. It was May and the air was warm. The sky was bright from the city lights and the lamps along the path that led to the zoo. I was sweating buckets like I always did when I combined physical exertion with a fear of imminent death. The back of my shirt was soaked and my bangs dripped.
“I’ve never seen anyone sweat like you,” Jeff observed. It was very kind of him to notice. If my face had not already been as red as a lobster, I might have blushed.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Let’s sit down here a minute.” He plopped in the grass and waited for me to plod my way over with as much grace as I could muster under the circumstances. Jeff picked a strand of grass and twirled it in his fingers. “You know what, Kristie Barnhill?” he asked. “I think you’re pretty great.”
“I think you’re pretty great too, Jeffrey Glover,” I said. It was a very unpoetic way to say everything I had been feeling. But it was all I could say, all I could think.
“I think you’re pretty great,” he repeated, and then he explained his philosophy of dating which ended with a softly spoken phrase, “I’d like to see if we’re compatible for marriage.”
I could not breathe. I managed to sputter something eloquent like, “Okay…” with the last of the oxygen left in my lungs. I stared at him with a dazed sort of look that must have been very attractive.
He took a scrap of paper out of his pocket on which he had scrawled a series of questions in handwriting so small, I could not read them in the dim light. He had a different view of marriage than most men his age, and it was so unromantic in its rightness, I was astounded.
It was not about feelings. In fact, Jeff later admitted that he didn’t feel particularly attracted to me at first, but that he had seen something in me that he thought might complement his strengths and weaknesses. He wanted to know if God had gifted each of us and formed our thoughts and emotions in such a way that we could better glorify Him together than apart.
There were questions that needed to be answered. Some of these he had answered by simple observation. He had been watching me, Jeff confessed, ever since he found out I was not going to the mission field. He had not known for sure if I was interested in him, but there was that card, that awkward little card that had communicated far more than I had intended.
Still, Jeff did not want to engage my heart too soon, because hearts are hard things to wrangle. So he had waited and watched and checked off as many answers to his questions as he could.
But now the time had come to ask the things that could not be determined by simple observation, and so he had to let me in on his little secret.
In less than two weeks of talking and praying, we knew the answer. It was reckless. Crazy. My parents has not even met him, had hardly even heard of him, but I was not a reckless person, by nature. I was not the kind of kid who did things like this, unless I was convinced it was of God.
It did not take long for the feelings to follow where God had led. I remember the first time Jeff said anything near a compliment. “Wow,” he said one night over coffee, “you have very pretty eyes.” He said it took him by surprise. Other men had said more to me after meeting me for the very first time. But when Jeff said it, I knew he meant it, and I have held the memory of that moment in my mind all these years. It was the day my fiance began to believe his bride was beautiful.
Jeff’s mother found a ring in a pawn shop and Jeff bought it. The jeweler said the diamond was clear and bright. In a jewelry box on her dresser, my mother had kept the ring my father had given her when he asked her to be his bride. I remember when she took it off after he died and how empty her hand looked without it. It seemed right, somehow, to take that ring and make it the foundation of mine.
Jeff’s mother had a ring too. It was missing some stones but the gold was good. All those rings were given to the jeweler, who took the ransomed thing and the heartbroken thing and the unwanted thing and turned them into a sign of a covenant. The gold from our mothers’ rings were melted together to make one. Two diamonds, redeemed, set with a third to make them complete.
It was the beginning of the most beautiful of days, the foundation of a marriage that has been the single greatest gift of God’s grace in my life.