Grief Gab #9 and Another First - Our 25th Anniversary
Today would have been my 25th wedding anniversary to Joni Bentley. This is the first anniversary that we will not share together and I really miss her. For 25 years (nearly 27), Joni and I were practically inseparable. We started out as friends before we ever became romantic with each other and the love we shared grew every day. Not a day went by where I didn’t look forward to seeing her or spending time with her. She knew all my BS and loved me anyway - that’s true love. The Joni-shaped hole in my heart feels very empty now that she’s not here.
Last night I was talking with Belinda and articulated something that I have probably expressed in other words, and have certainly felt: experiencing pain over the loss of someone/something doesn’t mean you’re moving backwards. There IS no moving backwards with grief unless you’re retreating into an unhealthy medicating behavior. It feels like we’re moving backwards when we experience deep pain from grief because in everything else where we experience pain, that’s a part of the healing process that we move past.
Think about it: you break a bone, you have pain, it gets set, you heal, and done. But you break your heart? Uh-uh. It don’t work like that, Maynard. In fact, NOT allowing yourself to experience the pain when it happens actually delays your healing! But boy it sure feels like you’re going backwards when you’ve been doing fine then all of a sudden you’re bawling your eyes out.
Yes, I miss Joni terribly. What happened to her and those of us who love her was incredibly unfair. No other word for it. I wish she was still here so I could be spending this anniversary with her and you all could be congratulating me and her on making it so far.
But since that isn’t possible, I thought it would be fun to honor her by sharing how we met, how we got engaged, and how we got married. Not everyone knows the details, so I hope you enjoy. And, yeah, it’ll be long, but don’t worry - I’m going to break it into a few parts.
Part 1 - How I Met Your Mother
Joni and I met at Grace Church in Redmond, WA. We were 17, in high school, and through the clever machinations of my two good friends (acting under the influence of the Lord, of course) I ended up visiting and then becoming a regular at the amazing youth group at Grace. When I first arrived, I hadn’t dated anyone for a long time. God was doing amazing things in my heart and I was really only concerned about my relationship with Him. That doesn’t mean I still didn’t look at girls and consider whether or not I would date them. In my process of assessment, I saw Joni and thought “there is no way she’d date a guy like me”.
See, I was weird. Weird with a capital WEIRD. I went out of my way to be different and even cause other people to maybe feel uncomfortable because I was different. I showed up wearing the wildest pair of muscle pants you’ve ever seen (three cheers for Zubaz); high tops with huge tongues; a t-shirt that was coordinated with my pants because I still wanted to look put together even if I was going to look wild; short, spiky hair with a braided rat-tail in the back; and an earring in my left ear. Joni, on the other hand, was well put together. Jeans, button-up shirt, short hair (actually longer than mine at the time), and worshiping the Lord with all her heart while our youth pastor played guitar, hands raised and everything. She was too pure, too good for someone like me. “She’d never look twice at me,” I thought.
Little did I know that from the moment she saw me, she had a huge crush on me. I’m still uncertain if it was because of the crush that she made me feel so welcome to youth group every time I showed up. She was incredibly accepting of newcomers to the youth group (an invisible banner of Love & Acceptance, remember Grant?), so it could be that. The crush probably didn’t hurt.
Introduced through some youth events, my sister and Joni’s brother ended up dating. This was before Joni and I ever started dating and before I even knew she liked me. One hot summer day Joni’s family was going to Wild Waves, a water slide park here in Washington. Isaac invited my sister, and Joni said “Hey, ask if Josh wants to come too.” She did not expect me to say yes and was a tad mortified that I had! Joni was very much a traditionalist and wasn’t the type to ask a guy out - she would have waited. In fact, she was content to be single for the rest of her life if God called her to that. So when I said “yes”, her stomach dropped.
That trip to Wild Waves was so fun. I knew Joni’s parents (they were active in our church), but got to spend more time with them and I really liked them. I also got to meet her dad’s parents and absolutely fell in love with her grandma, Billye. She was from Texas and had that dry, witty sense of humor that my own Texas relatives (and relatives from the south) had. Joni and I walked around together and went on the slides and I will confess that I thought she looked great in her bathing suit.
I don’t remember how long after that event took place, one of the other youth kids through a party and most of the youth group was invited. Unfortunately at the party, someone got injured and Joni drove them to the ER because that’s the kind of person she was even then. After she left, one of the guys in the youth group started asking me how I felt about Joni. Questions like “What do you think about her?” and “Do you like her?” I quickly put together that Joni had confided in him that she liked me and he was testing the waters, possibly on her behalf, but just as likely on his own.
So I decided to ask her out on a date. Then another. Then we started going out regularly. To me this was the normal process of how dating and relationship building happened. But behind the scenes, something pretty amazing was happening. Joni had committed to never go out with anyone but the man she was going to marry. I’m not sure if she heard from God that I was The One at that time, but she kept saying yes! Also unbeknownst to me, before we ever met, she created a list of qualities for her future husband, both must-haves and nice-to-haves. I checked off every box. My list was pretty simple: someone who would love me just as I was.
After a few months, I remember driving home from hanging out with Joni and a thought, completely unbidden, hit me. I’m going to marry Joni. Like “duh”, of course I’m going to marry her. Then I had to stop myself. Wait a sec - where did that come from? I hadn’t been thinking about marriage, I hadn’t been praying about Joni and me, I was just dreamily driving home when WHAM!, there it was as plain as day - I was supposed to marry Joni.
...To Be Continued...
Thanks for reading.