My first memory of my sister-in-law is the day I watched her die.
She was performing in Concordia University’s production of Jeckyll and Hyde, and though I was mostly attending in order to ogle the choreographer, I was elated to see Rachel’s performance. Not because she did a great job (though it’s likely she did), but because I got to watch as her character was annihilated on stage.
Gaining my trust was a bit of an uphill battle for the girl who would become the woman who would eventually marry my brother. Aaron had been smitten with Rachel from the start of RA training, but early into their relationship, I wasn’t so sure about it. I grew up on too many fairy tales and old movies and with a fairly unrealistic concept of love and relationships. (The Christian-ese of my culture may have been worse, with books like When God Writes Your Love Story and I Kissed Dating Goodbye promising perfect partnership to those who “wait on the Lord”)
Some couples are a natural fit—two peas in a pod who pursue the same passion or an attraction of opposites that completely seem to complement. Aaron and Rachel were not one of those couples. She wanted to be a missionary. Aaron had never left the country. She was strong-headed and private, slow to speak and long to process. Aaron was outgoing and public, quick to please and quicker to perform. Aaron and I grew up in a stereotypical Midwestern family with a champion career mom who was the queen of domesticity and a dedicated dad who carried a briefcase and worked in an office. Though he would never have said it at the time (and he would certainly not say it now), chances are good that Aaron at 19 was looking to marry someone like our mother, and though I love the woman madly, Rachel is nothing like my mother.
Still, the two of them continued their courtship through college and straight into graduate school (one in Omaha and the other in Saint Louis) and eventually, one evening in February, the big question was asked and an answer was given. People cried and took pictures and ate lots of dessert.
When Aaron and Rachel finally got married (after five years of dating and an 18-month engagement), I agreed to make the iMovie for their wedding. In the weeks—literally, weeks—that I spent splicing songs and scanning photos, I watched Aaron and Rachel grow up. I saw them go to preschool and don Halloween costumes, play sports, perform at recitals and participate in family vacations. I watched them graduate from high school, move on to college and eventually fall in love. I saw their relationship unfold through dorm room dances and long-distance phone calls, holidays together, birthdays apart and candle lit dinners prepared on a grad student budget. I was privy to their privacy, to intimate moments I hadn’t realized had happened.
Sometimes love is an easy fit. Sometimes it is a hard-fought battle. And then sometimes it grows into and around its conditions. There’s a lemon tree on my lower deck that reaches way up into the deck on the upper floor. The other day I was up there watering and noticed that one of the lemons had grown beneath the bottom of the railing, completely conforming to the shape of the post in a feat of dexterity I’d never seen in a citrus. That is the way that love needs to grow.
Less than three months after their honeymoon—shortly after they moved into their first tiny “love nest” of an apartment—Aaron and Rachel found out they were pregnant. It was a shock. A surprise. A disruption. It was a crisis as much as it was anything, and one that invariably wrapped them into one another.
I was thousands of miles away for most of the pregnancy, but I imagine some surmountable shifting took place, not just in their home, but also in their hearts as their lives were dismantled and put back together. I hear that it is normal in the first year of marriage to wrestle with your own selfishness as you make the difficult decision to choose your partner over yourself again and again, especially when you sense that he or she isn’t doing the same. I can only imagine what a task it must be to prepare for a third entrant into that competition—a completely dependent life form who also has needs to be met and who isn’t quite so considerate with the way in which she shares them.
Almost as if to evidence the new re-ordering of their lives, Aaron and Rachel spent their one-year anniversary celebrating the baptism of their three-week-old daughter. The five years of waiting to be a couple and questioning how they could love one another had been eclipsed by the challenge of becoming a family. Johanna was not planned into the equation, and yet she was encompassed in the love that had grown between her parents and was now growing around her. This is what it means to love—not to fit, but to grow. Not to be a match, but to become one.
It seems that my single friends and I are forever having this conversation about love and compatibility, about finding the “right” person and wondering why the pursuit is so doggedly hard. When I am alone, I am subconsciously building a vision of a perfect partner, and when I am in a relationship, I am continually assessing whether or not we’re a fit. But maybe it is not a question of fitting. Maybe it is a question of growing.
This past week Aaron and Rachel celebrated their seven-year anniversary. I think of the first time I saw them together nearly 12 years ago, of the many times I’ve seen them since and the people they’ve grown into alongside and because of each other. There was once a day that I could not quite figure how this woman and my brother would make it together. Now I find that I cannot imagine how either of them could do anything but.