Marriage and Marching Penguins
In a few short hours, my brother Otis will stand at the altar awaiting the arrival of his beloved Joy who will do what all brides do: put on her very best dress and saunter down the aisle, ignoring everyone else in the sanctuary, her eyes, heart, mind, and spirit focused on him alone. Surrounded by family and friends, they will renew their vows and celebrate 25 years of marriage. Their three (dare I say it?) adult children will participate in the ceremony. Love songs will be sung. Videos will be made. Photographs will be taken. And later, they will eat, laugh, tell stories, and look back with fondness and with sorrow over the quarter of a century that they have shared as husband and wife. Tomorrow morning they will have breakfast with those who have traveled in from far distances before they take off for a second honeymoon. Thousands of dollars spent, hundreds of miles traveled by so many, a few brief moments at the altar, and an addition 25 years will be toasted and anticipated.
For me, it hardly seems possible that so many years have passed since they were wed. I can still see my fourteen-year-old self in the mirror of Joy’s house, preening in my floor length powder blue bridesmaid’s gown, flowers in hand, limo outside waiting to take us to their wedding ceremony which was to be held at Brooklyn Tabernacle on Flatbush Avenue. I can still remember leaping in my brother’s arms a year later when he gave me the news that my first nephew, Kevin, had been born. Then along came Matthew who was born while I was a freshman at Williams. Raquel stopped the flow of sons early one July while I was on a summer missions trip in Oxford, England. No need for a wake-up call on this one, Gail: “Kevin is now 24. Matthew is 21, and Raquel is 19. You are getting old.” But no one cares about my age woes at the moment.
Today is about Otis and Joy whose life together, I am willing to wager, has outlasted most of the marriages that were consummated during the summer of 1980. Like every marriage, Otis and Joy’s has been bombarded with a constant barrage of difficulties. Raising children is not easy under any circumstances, but in the early days of parenthood, they made the decision that one of them would work nights and other days so that someone could be at home with and for the children. Otis was a police officer in the Bronx for many years before taking an early retirement due to medical complications and Joy is a nurse and nursing instructor. Our father died nearly four and a half years ago, and Joy’s mother passed away just a few months ago. Our immediate and extended family, like all families, has suffered the ravages of cancer, diabetes, divorce, absentee parenthood, alcohol abuse, estrangement, and death. There have been years when I seriously pondered changing my name and making up a family story with a much happier plot line. Thankfully, today I have something to celebrate with my brother, Otis. He and Joy made a commitment to one another 25 years ago, and they have remained true to that commitment.
Last week, I took the children to see “The March of the Penguins.” It is an engrossing documentary that follows a herd of penguins during the course of one year. They exit the water at the South Pole and make their wobbly way across 70 miles of ice to their ancestral breeding ground. The courting ritual, the gestation period of the egg, the hatching, raising, and feeding of the baby are told in minute detail. Being the true geek that I am, I sat in the darkened theater, notebook and pen in hand taking furious notes for the entirety the film. Holding my pocketbook journal up in front of my nose so I could see by the light reflected from the screen, I filled page after page with comments and questions about that amazing story of love, trust, instinct, hope, and determination. The wind, the snow, the bitter cold, the alternate abandonment of the hatchlings by their parents, the aggressiveness of predators, and the inimitable cuteness of those babies all taught the audience an unforgettable science lesson that felt a lot more like a spiritual lesson to me.
Here are a few of my notes from that afternoon: During the course of their annual trek, the route across the ice is replete with roadblocks. Ice is shifting and changing. How do they do it? How do they get to their destination? Penguins never travel alone. Those who do, don’t survive the trek. They walk, and when they are tired, they slide on their bellies. They join other groups of penguins coming from every part of the Arctic region and return to their birthplace. There they look for and find mates. The mother penguins balance their eggs on their claws and do a clumsy dance with their mates to transfer the egg over to dad for several months of safe keeping. Sadly some couples drop the eggs onto the ice and lose their babies. I hesitate to include more of my notes for fear of revealing too many movie details; I highly recommend that it be seen.
But let me include one more tidbit. Following the months of harsh storms, deep darkness, and near starvation, finally there is victory over winter. The desperate attempts of all the mother and father penguins to preserve the lives of their newborn are not in vain. Parents and little ones finally get to eat their fill. With surprisingly few exceptions, they protect themselves and each other against winter’s attack as well as that of their predators. Even though the family is not always physically together, there is the innate knowledge, the hope, and the determination that it will be reunited. Time together is cherished. Difficulties are faced with tenacity, with the help of the entire penguin group (yes, sometimes it does take a village!) and with thick fur. Doesn’t that sound like what families ought to be?
This evening, Otis in his penguin suit and Joy in her glittery gown, will be a shining example of the march of a different kind of penguin. Their delicate and clumsy dance of parenthood, the high personal and professional price they paid for setting their family unit about all else, and the absolute certainty that surrender was never an option – all these factors contributed to the victory they will celebrate together with two hundred beloved members of the village that has helped them not only survive but also emerge victorious from the long winter that marriage feels like so often. Congratulations to you both!