Sometimes sweetly painful memories just wash over me when I least expect them. Does that ever happen to you?

Tonight, I’m driving with my little family on a mini vacation to a friend’s ranch. Jared and I are holding hands (awww!), listening to old school Third Day songs, singing along, as the kids sleep in the back seat. There are big thunderheads all around us and a bright, almost-full moon is peaking in and out of the black clouds, lighting up the dark highway in front of us. I’m so thankful for where I am in life right now and I don’t want to forget these beautiful times.

But all I can think about in this moment is standing at my dad’s bedside as he gasped and told my mom in a broken voice that he was sorry. He didn’t have the strength to say very much but he wanted her to know that he was sorry. Sorry to leave her. I can still see his penitent eyes and the shape of his mouth as he struggled to form the words, “I’m sorry.”

He wasn’t sorry to go. Just sorry to leave her alone. And she said it was ok, that she understood it was his time to go. That he had fought a long hard battle. She knew his battle was just about through and he was going to be with his Lord. And he nodded and they kissed and I stood as an outsider to see what true love looks like.

My understanding of for better or for worse had been stretched and changed already as they walked the cancer journey together. “Better” is pretty easy to handle. But “worse”…?

There is deep, meaningful connection when a marriage struggles through youthful insensitivity and ramen noodles and petty fighting and raising children and sleepless nights and financial struggles and job changes and… When that marriage arrives at the other side of all those struggles, there is a true, abiding friendship that is more than the honeymoon happiness it started in. But none of those struggles are really the worst of the worse. I don’t mean to lessen their validity. But “worst” is cancer…or Alzheimer’s or scleroderma or Parkinson’s or… I know there are others.

Degenerative disease is wrenching and horrible and it leaves both husband and wife powerless, prostrate and vulnerable in a way that nothing else can. Neither spouse did anything to cause the pain and neither spouse can do anything to lessen it. They are united in their helplessness but they are also divided by their roles as patient and caretaker. For better or for worse, until death do us part is a beautiful thing. And a terrible thing when that parting comes too soon because, for the spouse who is left behind, the worst just continues. How do you ever get over that? How do you even try?

Tonight, my marriage is in the big middle of the best part of “better.” The joy of riding in the truck with a beloved spouse and three healthy, happy kids, watching the awesomeness of God’s creation, singing praise to the Creator is so overwhelming to me right now that I almost can’t take it in. I’m storing up the better in my heart and I’m going to carry it with me so that I can face the worse (pray not the worst) with grace and strength the way that my parents did.

One thing I know: both the better and the worse come to all couples and both are fleeting. My parents had LOTS of the better and the best but they got their fair share of the worst of the worse, too. If you feel like your marriage is stuck at one end of the spectrum or the other, just hang on. Your turn is coming for the better and for the worse. But it’s the faithfulness in the ebb and flow of the two that creates this beautiful thing called marriage.

PS: I promise, Jared, what you witnessed in the truck was joy overflowing from my heart. You thought you saw me doing the ugly cry and wiping my nose on my arm…but, sometimes, that’s just what overflowing joy looks like.