A TRIBUTE TO MY HUSBAND,
originally written in 2002, updated in 2012
“For better, for worse, in sickness and in health.” Those very important words that Ron Miller and I said when we were still so wet behind the ears have stood the test for three and a half decades. Yes, on September 8 of this year, 2002, we will celebrate thrity-five years of keeping those vows. Thirty-five beautiful years, even in the midst of much sorrow.
The challenges have made us stronger. Yet I believe we could have gotten stronger without the challenges, just not in the same ways perhaps. We would not be the people that we are today--that's for sure. Who can say how things might have been different? Is it a question we need to even raise?
Multiple chronic illnesses have plagued us both, including breast cancer that invaded our lives in 1994 and again in 1996. Facing the strong possibility of my death and Ron's increased disability has shaped who we have become, both as individuals, and as a couple. Yet none of these compared to the sinister betrayal of so many who refused and continue to refuse to courageously confront the evil that we had stumbled upon and continue to discover in regard to collusion with sexual misconduct in the community of “faith.”
Here’s the rest of the story….the parts that few have known….much of which I was unable to write, even when I wrote How Little We Knew. It was just TOO painful.
The most challenging years to our relationship probably came between the years of 1986 and 1990—the years about which How Little We Knew was written. Well, actually, the years during which it was BEING written because the first draft was completed in 1989.
I still remember the look of shock on Ron Miller’s face when I told him that I could no longer fit the typical, expected mold for a wife of a Southern Baptist minister. I was quick to assure him that I was not telling him that he had to make a career change nor that I was entertaining any intentions of leaving him. I just wanted him to know that his life would be very difficult, and so would mine, if he chose to continue pastoring in the denomination that had so betrayed us. There was one primary reason: I would be unable to keep my mouth shut about what I knew of the corruption in the institution that good Baptist women were expected to “worship” and support (ie. The Foreign Mission Board, now known as the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention). I wouldn’t be at all those ladies’ meetings where “sweet mission stories” were told and offerings taken—offerings that I now knew helped support a king-sized Good Old Boy System.
While I didn’t know exactly what I intended to do, I felt certain I would need to spend the rest of my life speaking out because there was MUCH more at stake than what I’d personally encountered. Our case was only a symptom of the poorly disguised reasons that the denomination was falling apart. The reasons had much less to do with the spoken belief in inerrancy of the Bible and much more to do with the innate misogyny that was being threatened due to the growing unrest of many women who wanted to see changes. The changes they were yearning to see were based on beliefs in progressive revelation—beliefs that had been taught to many of us by courageous professors in earlier days of schooling in Southern Baptist institutions. By following such beliefs, women would begin to experience a sense of liberation unprecedented in the history of Southern Baptists.
Yes, what we’d experienced was just a microcosm of much bigger problems being experienced at every level of the denomination, problems that resulted in the firing of many, many highly-educated people in strategic places of the Convention because they refused to walk the fundamentalist walk.
So I had a calling that was just as strong as the calling I’d felt to go to Africa; and it would appear to many as an enigma, considering that I was married to a Southern Baptist minister. Later I would come to understand it as an enigma, though much less of one, to people in mainline circles.
This was all happening within a far more public arena. The Southern Baptist Convention actually died, as it has been known to be, in 1988. Ron was in San Antonio, with his sister and brother-in-law, when this happened in 1988 at the national convention. It was one of the saddest days of his life, he says, made even sadder because we had resigned under duress only months before and then his father had died only weeks before going to San Antonio. Grief on top of grief hit as he struggled to find a new path for his own life and career, especially after what I had said.
I was insistent that he could follow his heart, but I would not play my role. For a wife of a Southern Baptist minister not to play her well-defined role is considered heresy. Although there is today more freedom for minister’s wives than a half century ago, the chances for true individuation within fundamentalist circles, to the extent that I knew I’d have to have….well, that was (and still is) just unthinkable.
Fortunately, Ron understood what I was saying, despite his grief. In fact, he didn’t have much inclination to play the role himself. And he knew, if he did, that he was going to have to be much better equipped education-wise, in spite of the fact that he already had more education than the average Southern Baptist minister.
So, while I went to work in psychiatric nursing, becoming the primary support of the family for over two years, Ron looked for part-time work and went back to school, coming close to finishing his doctorate in pastoral counseling. During that process, we both developed skills that would help us immensely in the days ahead, especially in our work with the institutional church. All of this while we struggled to hammer out new identities in a world that wanted us to keep our old ones!! While doing our best to parent our two adolescent children who were reeling from their own trauma and losses. I would not go back to those days for anything. Truly, there is a sense of having been carried on the wings of the Spirit as we worked so hard to survive.
In early 1990, Ron became an American Baptist pastor. For the next eleven years, we walked a tightrope to balance out the multiple hats we both wore. I was fortunate, though, to have his support through all these years, support that has allowed me to continue developing my various careers—nursing, writing, and piano teaching. Many times Ron could have insisted that I needed to follow the expectations of others, rather than the divine calling that I felt, the calling to follow the desires of my heart. He did not. Instead he stood by me as I struggled intensely to find level spots in the rocky terrain.
He also spoke his own mind, often feeling ignored, in trying to effect change in the American Baptist Churches, USA, where collusion has its own unique flavor. He has known the discouragement, the challenge to faith, just as much as I. Yet he has not always been so free to speak it. He knows the grief and the courage it takes to stand up against those who don’t want to hear, the pain of being invisible when one is speaking, of being ignored.
What’s been most interesting to watch is the unusual ways we have grown to understand one another, even on those days when we didn’t seem to be understanding one another at all—and believe me, there have been many of those and, no doubt, will continue to be. As I understand it, that’s what marriage is all about.
Two years ago Ron fulfilled a dream that he’d had since before our marriage. He wanted to take me back to see Oregon, where he’d spent an unforgettable summer in 1966. While there, we visited an ancient tree, called The Octopus Tree. All eight of its branches were gnarled as they attempted to reach for the sun. The Octopus Tree reminded me so much of Ron.
Just a year before we met, Ron was in an accident that left him with a serious, chronic back injury. Like a trooper, he has fought on, struggling to keep as much quality of life as he can, despite increasing debilitation. In fact, last year (2001), he took a step that a lot of people erroneously refer to as “retirement.” Unable to be comfortable for more than a few minutes in any position, with sleep a major challenge, as well, Ron went on Disability. Yet he continues doing what his heart has always led him to do, looking for ways to be of service to others. On a local level, he volunteers at the school and the hospital. On a global level, he is doing what he can to support Friends of Malawi, an organization devoted to meeting the needs of AIDS orphans in Malawi.
Three years ago, in an attempt to find a way for him to keep going, we purchased a vintage house that we call “the cottage.” It’s located 45 miles from the city where we've made our home since 1990, near a beautiful little lake and state park, near enough for most people to walk easily. Ron, due his handicap, can’t make that walk; but he can drive home in five minutes, rest, and head back as many times a day as he wants. That place, we thought, would be a spot we could offer to survivors when we were not using it, a rest house. Little did we know that God seemed to have other plans (though we have had survivors utilize the place in the meantime).
When he went on Disability, Ron knew immediately that he wanted to spend most of his time there. So we declared it our primary residence. The catch was that I would need to still spend most of my week in the city to be near my students. How would this work for us, we wondered? Could our relationship tolerate the adjustments, the separations? Immediately we both agreed that it could. In fact, perhaps it would grow because of these things.
Once again, we gave one another freedom. I believe it’s something few men would be willing to even consider. Fortunately, Ron is “house-broke,” as my Dutch friend Olga would say. He cooks and cleans and washes well and very willingly.
So I just wanted to say: “Thanks, Ron Miller!" For standing by me, even when I still stumble to communicate effectively. For teaching me to speak the truth in love. For listening so patiently through the years. All of this so beautifully bears witness to the importance of those vows we took thirty-five years ago. Happy Anniversary, Dear.
January, 2012 UPDATE It's been almost ten years since I wrote the above tribute. Today, we are located in the wonderful city of Lawrence, KS, living fulltime under the same roof. We've been here only months, but feel quite at home among so many wonderful, progressive people in this city where we CHOSE to retire.
New challenges were nipping at our heels constantly over the past two years. Ron's quality of living continued to go down, requiring several hospitalizations to repair old injuries and install a pain pump to make him more comfortable. He remains so strong in many ways--no life-threatening illnesses. However, due to an additional diagnosis involving spinal cord injury, just discovered last summer, he has progressive paraplegia and is now in a motorized wheel chair.
Here in our new home, we continue looking together for ways to use our energies most efficiently in the hopes of becoming effective change agents in our new community that is already filled with many change agents, reaching out to make a difference in our own lives.
We have been learning together the many things required to allow him to become more independent.
This year, I've frequently told people: "We make our plans, and then life happens." This attitude that Ron shares with me keeps us looking forward, recognizing that our plans are always tentative while our love is never so.
Among our hopes and plans, Ron hopes to establish a vibrant support group for people who spend their lives on wheels. Together, we want to have a thriving, growing group of friends who feel welcome in our home. I will still teach and write as much as time allows me to do so without compromising our quality of life. We are fortunate to have this time and to have more than survived as a couple. Thanks again, Sweetheart.
All my love,
Dee Ann Miller