Almost five years ago, Johanna and I planted a small garden on our apartment’s porch. It was a sunny, drafty, three-season porch – perfect for summer plants. Despite Johanna’s rapidly worsening health, we managed to plant an assortment of herbs in small pots and carrots in a large, handmade planter. Throughout the summer, we had a perpetual problem. Our yellow carrot planter remained empty. The young carrot shoots never got bigger than a few inches before wilting and dying, leaving their decaying stems strewn across the dirt. This wouldn’t have been such a big problem, except that our carrot planter was by far the largest part of our porch garden. Mid-summer, I let the soil dry completely and tried to replant carrot seeds. This attempt failed too, and the soil lay empty for the rest of the season. Each time Johanna and I came home or left the house, we saw the empty planter. It was a glaring blank spot amidst the greenery.
If Johanna’s and my marriage were a summer garden, the most noticeable and painful blank spot would be the loss of being able to physically share life together. As Johanna’s health wilted, we were brought to the unthinkable place where physical intimacy was no longer possible. The closeness we had once hoped for and expected became out of reach. Even from the beginning of our marriage, physical intimacy became more and more destructive to Johanna’s body. Within the first year, we weren’t even able to kiss each other without Johanna coughing and feeling worse. We joked about it then, thinking this disease would pass and that our lives would quickly return to normal, but we could never have imagined where it would lead.
The rapid decline of Johanna’s health heralded a very different kind of physical touch. Instead of our touch being a source of joy and a celebration of our love, it became a risky necessity. Instead of walking hand-in-hand with her, I carried her in my arms to the Emergency Room as her body endured an anaphylactic attack. Instead of embracing her, I put my hands under her shoulders, preparing to support her weight when she lost consciousness. Instead of feeling her head lean casually on my shoulder, I lifted her neck and administered medicines to her frail body. All the while, I had to take care to minimize my interactions with her, as my touch or even presence could trigger an allergic reaction. Even now, as I care for Johanna, these realities permeate and dictate our interactions. Johanna’s illness heralded the physical touch of crisis and survival.
Now I am used to this kind of touch being our reality. It just feels normal. I’m used to walking through an airlock with a mask, donning new clothes, and washing my hands. I’m used to watching everywhere I go and everything I eat to ensure that I am as safe as possible when I help Johanna. It has been this way for so long that I don’t know what it would be like the other way around. Yet, I long to be near Johanna again, enjoying her company on the couch, walking hand in hand and being near to her. I long for the time when I can touch her without fear of hurting her. When I think about all of this, all that we are no longer able to do together, I am crushed. I feel like a limb has been severed, like part of me has disappeared. When I am out shopping for Johanna’s food, I often stop and marvel that there are people who don’t need to worry about physical intimacy harming their loved ones.
This loss in my marriage serves as a giant fissure that breaks open my escapist tendencies to pretend everything is okay. Everything is not okay, not even close. Like the glaringly empty carrot planter that stood at the entry of our old apartment, so the glaring lack of physical intimacy is constantly before me. Touch is an essential part of marriage. It transcends physical boundaries and has its own language. It shows and communicates care. Touch is about presence. Its absence is a constant reminder that things aren’t as they should be.
Thinking about these realities is sobering. Some days I desire to thoroughly distract myself from them, so I can forget how lonely and isolated I feel. Other days I have to fight the wiles of the world around and within me. The dual worlds which tell me my life isn’t complete without the comforts of physical intimacy. That this is an essential need I have the right to seek and fill. In lieu of my painful realities, I have to be more careful about everything. I have to guard what I think about, watch, and listen to.
Looking at my marriage mainly in terms of sexual fulfillment, the world would tell me to find a way to meet my needs. Yet, God keeps pointing Johanna and I to a different way. While the loss of physical intimacy is a deep trial and blank spot we grieve every day, God has helped us see that intimacy is about much more than touch. It’s about being present emotionally and intellectually; about sharing the presence of God through prayer, studying His word, and growing together. It’s about realizing that we weren’t made to fully satisfy the other. The temptation in marriage is to become the source of each other’s strength, comfort, and love. Now we have a physical barrier that tangibly reminds us of our need for God.
Despite this blank spot, God has done what we never could have. I don’t know quite how to describe it, or how to put it into words, but God has brought us closer together over the past four years than when physical intimacy was possible. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. Neither did it depend on either of us, but as Psalms 124 declares, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side!” The loss has been deeply painful, but meditating on how the Lord is fighting for us has given me tremendous hope. I need not depend on my love or Johanna’s love to sustain either one of us. I need not muster the strength from within to endure physical separation from my wife. I need not run after other things to meet my physical desires. God has taught me that if He takes a good gift away, He will fill the gap that’s left. As He has brought us closer to himself and each other, God hasn’t let the lack of physical intimacy rob the joy of our marriage. Instead, in the aching and longing for what we can’t now share, He has given us His strength to persevere and His love to make us flourish.