REAL LIFE RELATIONSHIPS: For two military airmen, love still in flight after 49 years

What does it take to remain together for decades? A lot more than wedding day vows.

Forty-nine years ago, as a low flying F-15E fighter jet rattled the base chapel’s leaded glass windows, the young military airman and airwoman looked into each other’s eyes and promised to love each other “for better or for worse.”

On the happiest day of our lives, those were simply words that we repeated — not something to which my husband Ronnie and I gave much thought.

As a little girl, I adored fairy tales though they were as far from my life as an inner-city kid with brown skin and braids as they could be could be. Now, I was about to embark upon my very own, or so I thought.

In my favorite tales, my prince would be tall, dark and handsome. I’m a talker, so my prince would need to be a great conversationalist, right?

Ronnie was handsome with his caramel complexion and beautiful hazel eyes, but he was not a talker. That he was extremely quiet came as quite a surprise. How had I missed that when we were dating? Oddly enough, this was not a deal breaker.

I am also a romantic. My husband, not so much. While my idea of romantic gestures leaned toward expensive perfume, flowers or lace camisoles, my new husband’s leaned toward kitchen appliances.

Our first Christmas together, he gave me a four-slice toaster that was professionally wrapped with a huge red bow. I reminded him that we had received three toasters as wedding gifts.

“But honey, this one is better. Why, you can toast four slices of bread at one time, instead of just two,” he said, thinking he was making things easier for me.

On my birthday, three days before Valentine’s Day, he gave me an electric can opener. On Valentine’s Day, he gave me a blender.

Bit by bit, my fairy tale started to lose its luster. What fairy tales don’t tell you is how challenging “from this day forward” can be, despite having found your soul mate.

Bypassing the so-called seven-year itch, it was around year 13 that an already quiet man became even more so. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t share what was going on. I even asked the hard question: Was there someone else?

After six months of his silence, I asked whether he thought whatever was going on would change any time soon. His answer broke my heart. I asked him to go to his commander and request that I be allowed to return back to the United States from Panama where we were then stationed.

Our marital time-out spanned more than two and a half years. I worked several jobs to make ends meet. It was the scariest time of my life, yet I proved to myself that I was resilient and strong.

Ronnie and I kept in touch. We were still in love and agreed to give our marriage a second chance. He retired from the military and we moved to Atlanta.

Six years later, “in sickness and in health” reared its ugly head.

Blip, blip, blip. The sound of the machines seemingly reverberated throughout my entire body.

Under the tangle of tubes and wires, and oblivious to everything around him, my husband slept.

“Myocardial infarction,” the doctor said, walking into the cardiac intensive care unit with my husband’s chart in his hand.

“A heart attack,” he clarified, noticing my confused expression. “How old is your husband?”

“He is 44,” I said, thinking that was way too young for something so serious to have happened to someone I adored.

That was the first of what turned out to be two heart attacks, a quadruple bypass and the insertion of a chest defibrillator over twenty-eight years of cardiac and other health issues.

Seemingly overnight, I became his health advocate.

In this role, I’ve recounted all his health issues, treatments and meds to every doctor, nurse and anyone else who has needed to know.

We were married without children, and we did not have any family in the area. Every time I have waited in the waiting room, I have felt like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole, afraid and alone.

After multiple hospitalizations, I would get him settled in the room across from the master bedroom and I would burrow myself into the mattress of our marital bed and let fall the tears I’d held at bay throughout the day.

It would soon hit me that our marriage had spanned more than 40 years.

What does it take to remain together for 10, 20 or even 49 years like we have?

Love should be a factor. Mutual respect for each other’s feelings is a no-brainer. Empathy. Understanding. Much like my husband and me, our marriage is also perfectly imperfect. Something, I wish I’d known at year 13. It might have minimized that fallout.

Though my husband never became the scintillating conversationalist I once fantasized, we have learned to communicate in a way that is uniquely ours.

Carol Gee, M.A. is author of the “Girlfriend” series of books. Her most recent is “Telling Stories, Sharing Confidences: Stories of Kindness, Humor, and Other Musings, for Uncertain Times.” She is also winner of Amazon’s Best Seller Campaign for the eBook.

Real Life Relationships is a monthly reader-contributed essay that explores the many ways in which we are connected and the all of the emotions those connections can bring into our lives. Interested in contributing? Email nedra.rhone@ajc.com with the subject line “Real Life Relationships.” Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/).