The first time I saw my future husband was the first day of 11th grade. We had the same math class. I don’t really remember him from that day, but he remembers me, so I am told. We had mutual friends and ended up hanging out with the same group. At lunch, I would find myself drawn to the table where he was. I loved hearing him talk. He was smart and witty. He told stories in a way that drew me in. He made me laugh.
Our first date was a girl’s choice dance for Seminary. Girls would write on a card the names of four boys that they would like to go to the dance with, then a group of youth leaders would send the name of one girl to a boy from her list, and he would contact her and make arrangements to go to the dance together. Jeff was on my list, but was not first or second, he was third. He had friends on the youth council who knew that he liked me and they finagled the process so that he and I went to the dance together. That was in January. He did not ask me out again … until June. I had thought that he just wasn’t that into me. But in June, he showed up at my house to show me his new car. I didn’t even know it was a different car, I pretended to be impressed. Then he asked me out. We became a couple.
Our courtship was a whirlwind, we started steady dating in June, were engaged in October, and married in March. We were both 19 years old when we got married. We would sit in the car in the driveway of my house and listen to John Denver’s Greatest Hits. “Follow Me” became our song throughout our courtship. It was quoted on our wedding invitations and sung at our reception. It is our song.
We didn’t know then.
We both talked about having children right away (we wanted twelve). However, that didn’t happen for five years. Jeff was my pillar of strength during those times. His absolute faith in God and the priesthood blessings that he gave to me were a great comfort as I watched friends and family have children when I couldn’t. During those first childless years we had great adventures. We went on vacations as poor, young newlyweds would – car trips to the Grand Canyon and Four Corners, Las Vegas accompanied by Grandpa and Grandma, camping trips. One time we forget the tent poles, another time we didn’t have pots and pans. We always improvised and had a good story!
We moved a lot during our marriage – over 30 times in the 37 years we have been married. Most of the moves happened in those years before we had children, and then before they started school. But even then, most of our children went to school in three or four different districts throughout their schooling. It was always an adventure – a new place, new neighborhood, and new jobs. I loved it! We would look at apartments on date night and skimmed the want ads for fun. If we saw something we liked, we moved. If there was a better job opportunity, we moved. We learned and grew together. Our children did not have a hometown, but we did have a sense of family. Home is where the family is.
We still didn’t know.
Some things were hard, at times really hard. The marriage wasn’t what I expected it to be. We couldn’t set any goals together. I could only have goals for things that I knew I could accomplish on my own. I did not look forward to my birthday or our anniversary. Most of the time, I was disappointed. Sometimes I got a gift, sometimes I didn’t. One year Jeff spent my entire birthday working on our car while I did what I did everyday – watch the kids. To him, that was the gift, a working car. I wanted something personal or romantic.
We would double date with friends and I would watch them whisper, hold hands, and sneak a kiss. We didn’t do that, at all. After one such evening, I confronted Jeff. I told him how I felt when he didn’t take my hand, ever. He told me that it never even occurred to him to do that. I felt so unattractive and like I was not good enough. How good of a wife was I when my own husband wasn’t attracted to me? Didn’t think about holding my hand?
Jeff will frequently say that we have been married for so long because we both agreed on one thing – that it was his fault. He spent his life knowing that he was a disappointment, to his parents, to his teachers in school, and now to me. He is very intelligent, so much so that teachers and other leaders would tell him that he was manipulative. He didn’t graduate high school until after we were married. He tried to go to college several times, but it always ended the same way – with him dropping out before the end of the term. He has worked at over 20 different jobs since we married. Sometimes there were long periods of unemployment. He accepted that it was his fault.
I remember telling Jeff that I felt like we were on two separate highways, headed in the same direction, but never coming together.
We didn’t know then.
During the very hardest times, I call them the “black years”, we lived in Washington. Washington is the only place where we have lived where we had friends, couples which we both liked. That we could have long conversations with, together. I don’t think any of them knew about our struggles. It wasn’t really something that you could talk about. But those friends were some of God’s angels, tender mercies from him, an anchor that we could hang on to. There was always something to hang on to, and by hanging on, we started to come more together.
During that time I would listen to a popular radio talk show host. One thing that she said on her show was that “if you spend all your time focusing on what you don’t have, it is an insult to what you do have”. That rang true. The Holy Ghost helps a person recognize truth, wherever it comes from. I looked for the things that we had. At first I couldn’t see much – we worked crossword puzzles together, we could always have good telephone conversations, and we were good parents. Jeff watched our kids, he studied them, he knew them. We complemented each other’s parenting – I took care of the day to day, and he kept us focused on the long term. My tendency was more punitive, he kept me from being that. I loved him for that. I relied on him for that.
That same radio host also said that you should never leave a spouse until the children were grown up unless it was for one of the three A’s – addiction, abuse, or adultery. My husband was none of those. I remember vividly the day when I decided that the lack of affection, romance, and those things that a person expects in a marriage was not going to be a deal breaker. I was going to stay married at least until our youngest was grown. He was four years old at the time.
After that decision was made, I also decided that I didn’t want to be a bitter woman for the rest of my married life. I had friends that I was close to with no expectations of affection or romance, so why can’t I be friends with Jeff? I started to remember all the things I liked about him. I started living with him without expectations, and when I did that, I could again see the things that drew me to him in the first place – the wit, the humor, the stories that drew me in, he made me laugh. I went back to college. I learned and studied about human development and life. My horizons were broadened. I learned about myself. And, I fell in love with my husband, again.
We still didn’t know.
Four years ago our oldest son was diagnosed with autism. He was 22 years old at the time. Our youngest son, Michael, was then twelve. At one point, Michael told me that he thought he had autism. When I asked why he told me that because he liked the same things his brother liked. We did see some of the same tendencies, but he was much more verbal and communicative than his brother is. Last year, we started seeing more autistic tendencies in Michael and started talking about taking him in for a diagnosis. One day last January, while discussing Michael over dinner on date night, I made an off-hand comment to Jeff – “That is just like you and school.” At that moment, our life changed. All the things that have been so hard in our marriage are explained by Autism Spectrum Disorder. Jeff was officially diagnosed in Spring, Michael in Summer.
Now we know.
There are still hard times, sometimes very hard, especially for Jeff. But now I know. I know just how hard Jeff worked all those years to be the man that I needed. Sometimes it didn’t work, but he still tried, all the time. I also know how much he really loves me, even though he can’t show it the way that I wanted him to. I feel loved now because I recognize the love that he has for me. Our song, “Follow Me” by John Denver, has deeper meaning now that we have loved for so many years, through the good and the bad.
In the very darkest of times, a lot of things came together to put me in a place where I could hear a talk given at a women’s conference. The speaker quoted scripture (D&C 68:6): Wherefore, be of good cheer, and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you, and will stand by you; and ye shall bear record of me, even Jesus Christ, that I am the Son of living God, that I was, that I am, and that I am to come.” As I listened to that talk, I knew that Heavenly Father knows me, and loves me. I knew that I could do the things that I needed to do because my Savior, Jesus Christ, was with me. God knew that I needed that then. Today, I bear record to you that Christ lives and loves each one of us, with all of our imperfections and struggles.
Jeff often talks about how God gives everyone gifts and gaps. He gives us gifts so that we can help other people, and gaps so that we can grow and learn. Sometimes, for people with autism, it can be hard to see the gifts because the gaps take a lot of attention, but when you take time to look and learn, the gifts are marvelous.
We know now, and our love is stronger than it has ever been.