My What-I-Am-Looking-for-in-a-Husband List started with just a few basic traits. Christian. Intelligent. Good with Kids. Sense of Humor. And Athletic. Sounds reasonable, right?
But as I moved through my twenties—marked in some way by too many men—the list expanded and morphed. Each failed relationship sent me back to the list with a bright red pen. Christian was amended to Growing in His Faith after one Christian boyfriend decided that drugs and who-knows-what-else were a good idea. Good Communicator was added and then highlighted after a particularly painful two years during which I never knew where I stood. Comfortable with My Disabled Parents became increasingly important with each awkward family introduction. Vocational Ministry rose in the ranks as I felt more and more led in that direction. And Handy around the House was entered as a footnote. Not required, but I did swoon a bit whenever something broke and a boy brought over his tools.
I met Peter one bright September Friday in 1998. I left my office at lunchtime and walked across campus to one of the three temporary dining halls (TDRs), set up while our main dining hall was undergoing an extensive renovation.
By that time, I had been a Bible College Communications Professor for a whole month. Long enough for the initial high to fade. But short enough that I still stumbled around—dumbfounded—wondering, “Who in their right mind thought I could do this?”
That afternoon I had this funny sense that I was going to see someone at lunch. I just didn’t know who. So I entered the first TDR and wandered among the tables, surveying the faces of students and fellow faculty, looking for someone familiar or just friendly. But—seeing no one I knew or felt compelled to approach—I kept on walking, right out the opposite door.
The two other TDRs existed down in the school’s intimidating tunnel system, but on this monumental day I decided to brave the labyrinth. I found the second TDR without too much trouble and peeked in the door. It was virtually empty. No obvious divine encounter waiting there. So I trudged back to my office, resigned to spending my lunch hour drinking faculty-lounge coffee and grading English Composition papers.
But as I unlocked my office door, I felt a stirring. Or a nudge. Or maybe it was a voice. Calling to me. “Go to the third TDR.”
Of course, I could only obey.
I grabbed a book for certain company and headed back underground. To the tunnels. And after bumping up against just a couple of dead ends, I found it. The third TDR. A bustling, makeshift cafeteria, full of folding tables and hungry strangers. Feeling awkward and alone, but determined to see this thing through, I followed the crowd to the salad bar line. And while I was dawdling over the dressings, a kind gentleman approached. Dr. Green was a graduate school professor, who was also new to campus. He remembered me from orientation.
“Are you eating with anyone?” he asked with a smile.
“No,” I answered.
“Would you like to join me and some of my graduate students?” he asked.
Well. Of course I would.
He led me to a long table, crowded with a dozen or so people roughly my age. They shifted and made space for me across from Dr. Green and told me all of their names. A “Peter” was seated not far away.
I spent most of that meal exchanging new professor stories with Dr. Green. Until, suddenly, my keen left ear overheard something remarkable. In his fabulous British accent, Peter told another graduate student that Minneapolis, Minnesota, was his favorite city in the United States. Now, I am a loyal Minnesotan. For a long time, my Illinois license plate read MNESO 10. I still cheer for the Vikings and the Twins. And I secretly love to shovel snow. But even so, Minneapolis seemed like an odd choice for #1. I had to know the story. So I asked.
And that was our first conversation.
Peter explained that his parents had lived in Minneapolis for a year while his dad did a teaching exchange. I explained that I grew up there. And we agreed on her best feature. The Lakes. He also asked me what I taught, and we discovered a shared love of literature and theater. And then, as I told him about the play I hoped to direct the following spring, he started smiling. One of those smirk-y sort of smiles. As if he had some secret joke. As if I had spinach stuck in my teeth. I blushed and faltered and scrambled to recall what stupid thing I must have said. Then he jumped in to rescue me.
“I’m sorry,” he said, all dimpled and brown-eyed and British, “but I just love your accent.”
I floated back to my office, grabbed my lesson plans, somehow found my Speech Communication class, and tried to form complete sentences. Later that afternoon, when I was packing up to go home, I pulled out my journal and jotted a few lines about that lunch. I finished with this: “I think I just met the man I am going to spend the rest of my life with.” Then I added, “I can’t believe I wrote that!”
Minutes later as I left my office building to catch a train, I looked across the lawn and there was—of all people—Peter. Sitting on a bench.
With. Another. Girl.
He waved. And smiled. And I waved back. Forcing a grin. Then I kicked myself all the way to the train.
A week or so after our first lunch meeting, the annual Missions Conference was held on campus. On the first night, I headed to the auditorium early, looking for a student whom I didn’t find. But when I climbed up to the balcony and scanned the rows of empty seats, who did I see? Peter, of course. Sitting all by himself. He invited me to join him. We lifted our voices together in praise songs and brushed elbows during the sermon. Then after the meeting he walked me to my car.
On the way to the parking garage, he told me that he had been a missionary. For six years. In Pakistan and Japan. He even spoke some Japanese to prove it. (I couldn’t help myself. The List appeared in my head. Vocational Ministry. Check.) Not only that, but he had taught fifth graders at the missions school. (Good with Kids. Check.) Not only that, but he had coached their soccer team. (Athletic. Check.) Not only that, but he had come to the graduate school to understand more about the Bible and theology. (Intelligent. Check.) Not only that, but he said all of this with that adorable British accent. (Which hadn’t been on The List. But certainly should have.)
I can’t remember if the subject of The Other Girl came up naturally or if I had to raise the issue with characteristic finesse, but I learned that she was a fellow graduate student. A friend, as far as Peter was concerned, but one who had already expressed her interest in him beyond the realm of the friendly.
Over the next couple of weeks, I frequented that third TDR. Lingering with a student or a colleague until Peter would find me there and join our conversation. Eventually, inevitably, my dinner date would start to feel like a third wheel and would leave us on our own to shut the dining hall down. One Friday in late October, our conversation lasted beyond TDR closing time and all evening long. Finally, I explained that I ought to catch a train, and he offered to walk me to the station.
We didn’t hurry though. He was busy describing and quoting British comedies that I had never heard of and didn’t understand. Of course, I laughed anyhow. And I gave Sense of Humor a tentative check in my mind.
I missed my train that night. We arrived at the station just as it was pulling out. But like a gentleman, he waited with me a whole hour until the next one. To pass the time, he ordered a fish fillet sandwich. When he pronounced it “fill it” and I had to interpret for the McDonald’s employee, I momentarily wondered if he was as intelligent as I had first thought. But in spite of those couple of cultural blips, a romance was sparked, and from that night on, he walked me to the train. Almost every single day.
On one walk, in late October, we stopped for coffee. Neither of us was in a rush, so we found a tiny table in a Starbucks corner and talked. We were a month in, so I thought it was time to tell him about my parents. And cerebral palsy.
But I didn’t lead with that. Instead, I stalled and told him about my day. My teaching. And a sample informative speech outline I had written for my students, based on my experience skydiving. He was impressed. “You jumped out of a plane?”
I didn’t know until a long time later that this was a checklist moment for him. Adventurous. Check. Willing to Take Risks.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to share what was on my heart. To describe my family with all of their quirks. To explain their needs and limitations.
I couldn’t have imagined a better response. Peter looked deep in my eyes. He told me how he understood that if he ever married, he was marrying his wife’s family as well, whatever that involved. It was my turn to be impressed. And I gave Comfortable with My Parents a very hopeful check.
At this point I feel the need to clarify that I don’t necessarily advise this checklist approach to dating. It sounds a bit like shopping for a new car. Good gas mileage. Check. Standard transmission. Check. Air conditioning. Check. My latest must-have: Heated seats. Check.
Or maybe it’s like casting a play. The play of your life. The supporting actor role though—because you, of course, are the lead. You have the plot pretty much figured out. You know how you want the story to go. You can see the whole cast in your mind. The winsome spouse. Maybe a few adorable kids. Some cool people to play your extended family and friends. You can envision the set. A fabulous apartment or a cute little house. Perhaps you have even thought through the costumes and props.
But you’re not buying a car. You’re not even casting a play. You’re living a real-live life. Directed and produced by a real-live God. Who has his own ideas.
Like every dating relationship, ours progressed with exhilarating highs and painful lows. The Other Girl convinced Peter to break up with me just before Christmas by reminding him repeatedly that he wanted to focus on God. We reunited after the New Year and spent a month in focused prayer for our relationship, both believing by the end of January that God had indeed brought us together for good reason. That month I also held auditions for The Importance of Being Ernest and cast Peter as the lead.
As will happen, though, the more time we spent, the closer we got, the more we triggered each other’s fears and insecurities. For example, one evening we went to the theater, but when Peter told me, “You look nice tonight,” I could only hear the “tonight” and dissolved into tears. Or for example, in May Peter took me to England to meet his family, but when his mum and I gushed over The Kitley House as a potential wedding site, Peter clammed up and then protested too strongly, “I haven’t even proposed.”
During the summer of 1999, Peter took a position as the junior high leader at a church day camp. The church hired me as well, as one of Peter’s counselors. And so all day, every day—June, July, and August—we corralled and mentored dozens of sweet and squirrely kids. Bussing them to beaches and waterparks and museums and such. Leading them in games and Bible studies. Refereeing when they got out of control.
One Friday evening in August, at the end of a particularly difficult week, we were relaxing and recovering at Peter’s host home.
“It’s a beautiful night,” I said. “Let’s go for a run.”
Peter needed a bit of persuading. But eventually we went. We had done one lap around the subdivision and were starting around again, when Peter suddenly dropped to one knee on the street corner, and said quite simply, “Will you marry me?”
He didn’t make a romantic speech. He didn’t have a ring. He didn’t have flowers. He didn’t look his best. And I, too, was a tired and sweaty mess.
So my immediate response was certainly appropriate: “Are you serious?” This wasn’t how I had envisioned it when I drafted the script. And then, of course, I said, “Yes.”
Peter explained, after the fact, that he was so nervous about proposing that he just had to do it. Spontaneously. When he felt as if he could. He also explained that—in England—engagements are usually simple like that. No hiding the ring in a fill-it of fish. No hiring an orchestra to serenade. No hot air balloon rides to heaven and back. But he explained that he knew that night that we could make it work. That we were allies. Partners. Better together than we were apart.
So we started to plan for our shared life.
The wedding was to be in England at Christmas, so Peter’s mum acted as chief wedding coordinator. Meeting with photographers and florists and e-mailing me often with questions and quotes.
Peter and I focused on deciding where to live. I was still at Gert’s. And I still loved it. It was in downtown Wheaton. It was cheap. Yes, it was terribly run-down. But it was quirky, and I had made it cute. My two main qualifications for a home. I wanted to stay.
Peter wanted to move. The school where he would be teaching fifth grade was purchasing a home and a stable on a large piece of property in a suburb about an hour north. A bunker-like structure was built onto the backside of the barn, and they were offering that to us for a reasonable rent. It had the quirk-factor, for sure, but it wasn’t at all cute. It had two-foot thick concrete walls and small windows. It had been used as an office space, so it sported a drop ceiling, florescent lights, and industrial grade carpeting. Not to mention, you could hear the horses through the wall. Reluctantly, I agreed. Then the school’s property purchase fell through, and we were back to square one.
Peter lobbied next for a 1970s apartment halfway between his school and mine. The location made sense. And it was affordable. But it wasn’t cute. Or quirky. So I made quite a fuss. We spent the better part of one premarital counseling session duking this out, our pastor and his wife as the referees. Until Peter gave in.
So then, after our Christmas wedding, we squeezed and settled into married life. Upstairs at Gert’s. We unpacked our wedding china and piled it precariously on the sagging pantry shelves. The plates and bowls and saucers and cups rattled ominously every time a train went by.
And while we enjoyed Saturday morning newlywed brunch dates at the corner cafe and long newlywed walks in the nearby Cantigny flower gardens and spontaneous newlywed escapes to fancy bed and breakfasts all around the area, we also realized—with each little rattle—as most newlyweds do—that our Lists were even longer than we first let on.
Husband of Kelli wasn’t supposed to play computer games.
Wife of Peter was supposed to be able to dance.
Husband of Kelli was supposed to enter into home improvement projects with glee.
Wife of Peter was supposed to listen to him read for hours, and then debate him the finer points.
Husband of Kelli got more stuff done.
Wife of Peter wasn’t so uptight.
On our first anniversary, we decided to start a joint journal. A written record of our married life. Peter would write on the left hand pages, and I would write on the right.
We composed our first parallel entries at a bed and breakfast called the English Rose. I wrote about being married for one year, how sanctifying it had been, how much we had grown.
Peter wrote this.
It seems that in marriage the emotions constantly fluctuate, especially when we are in each other’s presence. Yet through these multifarious testings of our strength, we rely on God and we grow. I see how easy it would be to close off completely, harden the heart, pretend that all these things are happening independently of me. Yet I make the choices and I live with the consequences. As a bachelor I was able to deceive myself more easily. I love my wife, but that love is often under pressure. It is a mystery how it grows under pressure and blossoms. It is a further mystery how it is pruned once more so that it yields more fruit. Beyond this analogy a whole metamorphosis has taken place which gives birth to a love that makes what went before look like indifference.
It continues from there. I wrote on and off—on the right-hand side—for the next four years. Peter wrote much less and then stopped.
What is easy to see now, though I had no idea of it at the time, is that we were already drifting apart. Busy and buried in our own lives. Consumed with our own thoughts. Nursing our own wounds. Striving for our own goals. Reaching out to one another. Yes. Trying to bridge the gap. But acting so often in our own, parallel but too individual, plays.
Over the years Peter and I have been asked to put several young couples through their premarital counseling paces. In fact, one adorable young couple is coming over tomorrow night. We have our curriculum all laid out. We always talk about personality types and communication and conflict. Eventually, we’ll discuss finances and family and sex.
But if I had to boil it down. If I were asked to tell them one first and fundamental piece of advice, I think it would be this: Take the time and make every effort to see.
Not the caricature in your head. Not the cast member in your play. But the real-live person that you have been called to love.
I didn’t so often in those early years. And it might have made a difference.