At the bottom of City Hall’s grand staircase we stand like a pair of leathered old geese in a gaggle of young and eager brides. In light, white, and layered gowns, they float past and up the marble steps to find a less-cluttered spot for recording the perfect, wedding-album kiss. Cameras flash. Laughter echoes in the light. Mothers flutter over daughters, fixing wisps of hair, adjusting billows of lace. Lights flash again. We blink, but stay put, not even tempted to ascend and test the wellness of John’s heart, the weakness of my hips. No selfie on the stairs for us.
Coming to City Hall for a marriage license is among other items on the day’s to-do list as we prepare for the real celebration now less than two weeks away. This particular task carries, surprisingly, less emotional impact than yesterday’s milestone, John’s first formal haircut in fifteen years (now, there was angst). It’s not that we’re ambivalent about getting married, I can assure you, or nonchalant about registering our relationship with the State. The fact that there’s no compelling practical reason for us to do either makes these actions all the more significant – we are marrying as a celebration of what already exists between us, not what is yet to come. Still, right now, amidst the drama that surrounds us, we feel a little silly, like we’ve walked into a dream other than our own.
Down a narrow hall beneath the stairs we wait our turn behind a bride in full regalia, Princess of Hope, her fiancé lounged beside her in a casual jacket and jeans that look brand new in spite of all the careful tears. They face a patient clerk behind a spartan counter, in a room of tired yellow walls, a soundless screen announcing numbers of those who’re next in line. I watch the couple sign their forms and silently wish them luck and happiness for all of the adventures that lie ahead - the good ones and the hard. Ours is a much less daunting commitment: John and I already know how much the other snores.
The Census Bureau reports that the median duration of marriages in the United States today is eight years. Wow, just eight years. We have been friends for 50 years and a couple for twelve, so we’ve already beaten the odds. We may or may not live long enough to double either number, but our chances of happiness for the duration are pretty good - the hard stuff is behind us, or most of it, at least. There is nothing left to prove in either our relationship or our lives. We will not have to juggle careers or take turns sitting up with sick children. We are each financially set and even better off together; we don’t have to worry about how to balance mortgage, food, and medicine, at least for now, and we know how to do that if need be. Our parents are gone and our children are middle-aged and very mid-careers; we have no one to care for but each other. And since we quickly forget the punch lines to jokes and the plots to novels, we have enough of both to get us over the finish line. While the end of life is certainly no picnic, if anybody has the means to face it, we do. Together. All this has given us the freedom NOT to marry, but to go on as we are. And by the same token, it gives us permission to say what the heck, and line up for a marriage license in City Hall.
The writer Deborah Eisenberg recently told the New York Times, “People always talk about how horrible old age is, but I couldn’t disagree more. I find [old] age is as intense as adolescence. You know you could hurtle off a cliff at any second. And because of that there’s a sense of destiny, of apprehending things, of love that isn’t available — or wasn’t available to me — earlier. You feel: I’ve survived this ordeal, and now I don’t have to worry. I know how my life has worked out. All the anxiety that I put into the hard questions has fallen away. I can take my satisfactions where they are.”
I agree. Life is short and getting shorter. And we are the luckiest people on earth. So, at an age where we can do anything we want, why not bet on love?
“Not sure we really belong here,” John jokes as we reach the counter, papers in hand, “we don’t really fit in.”
The clerk looks up and studies us, confused.
“We’re old.” He nods toward the couple that has paused again for pictures and then points to himself and me in turn.
The clerk looks a little relieved. “Oh, that. We get all kinds here. I’m sure you’re fine.” She returns to the papers and studies our dates of birth. “Do you want a souvenir license to hang on your wall?”
“No,” we laugh, “just tell us where to sign.”
After a celebratory lunch we drive through Golden Gate Park and stop at the fly casting ponds, a magical, hidden space where the sounds of the city disappear enough to reveal every snap as the anglers cast, and the whir of their lines gracefully snaking 90, 100, 110 feet across the water. Over and over again they cast. We settle on a bench to watch. The pools are clear and blue, surrounded by eucalyptus and shrub. The sun is bright. We are content. On the porch nearby, a man I would, a decade ago, have called ‘old’ and now consider a compatriot nods when I look his way and then leans forward in his wheelchair as if to will the anglers’ lines a few feet farther still. He smiles to himself when the arc of a cast is true.
This is our life now. John and I are at peace with ourselves and happy to be together reading, or laughing with our collective kids, or walking through the woods, or watching from across the decades young brides take their turn at dancing on the stairs, the grace of anglers trying to get it right. We’ve bet on love and grace today, and now we have the official papers to prove it.