Here’s what 65 years of marriage looks like

Therese Bussen

While divorces are still very common and the average age of young people marrying is older every year (for men, it’s almost 30; for women it’s about 27), true love still exists.

But it doesn’t look the way the world imagines it to be: Heart-pounding, butterfly-stomach, head-over-heels, warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s much deeper.

For Bill and Fran Chism, 89 and 91, who celebrate 65 years of marriage this year, it looks more like faithfulness — especially in the difficulties of life.

Four years ago, Fran broke her hip and her health quickly declined. Soon, she was diagnosed with dementia.

“We thought we were going to lose her a couple times in the hospital,” Bill said. “She had an upper chest infection…her memory was slipping away, and then she got shingles last September, and that just wiped out her memory.”

Bill put her in a memory care facility so she could have help being cared for; but even then, he was still with her most of the day, getting her up for breakfast and putting her to bed at night.

Just a month ago, Bill took Fran home to care for her on his own — even getting a knee replacement a year ago at the age of 88 so that he would be able to take care of his wife.

“[He] thought he wouldn’t be able to take care of her the way he’d need to with the pain and the problems with the knee,” said Dede Chism, Bill’s daughter-in-law.

So, despite the doctor pushing back due to his age, Bill convinced him to do the knee replacement. It wasn’t long before he was taking walks around the park again and caring for Fran.

Now, though her memory suffers, Fran is able to do most things on her own, and Bill cares for her every day in their quiet home.

 

Early days

Bill and Fran met in Downtown Denver at a dance, and initially, Fran wouldn’t marry him because he wasn’t Catholic. After talking to a priest about the issue, he decided to become Catholic after his term with the navy was over. World War II was just ending; he would later serve in the Korean war as well.

After that, Fran agreed, and they married in 1952 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. They drove from Colorado to San Francisco, Calif., where Bill would ship out only 10 months after marrying Fran.

They were also expecting their first son.

“I was shipping out and she was due, that was tough,” Bill said. “I told the doctor…I hope she can have the baby before I leave…sometimes if you give them castor oil, it’ll induce. She didn’t need it. We just got back and she started having pains. Took her [to the hospital] and was told, ‘Oh you better go back home, she’ll be here all night.’

“I no sooner left than she went into labor and she had a hard time with our first son, he was nine pounds, and she’s kinda small. So I wasn’t there when he was born, but I got the word after he was born that it’s all over now; they told me it wouldn’t happen till morning,” Bill said.

Bill and Fran Chism celebrate 65 years of marriage together this year. Married in 1952, they have three sons, five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

The couple went on to have three boys, five grandchildren and now have 11 great-grandchildren. It wasn’t until having a couple kids that Bill was able to join the Catholic Church, in 1960.

“It took a while to get around to it, and I took instructions,” Bill said. “She knew how to pray, I didn’t, I still have a little difficulty with it.”

The couple practiced their faith together in the form of praying every night before bed with one another.

 

‘I do means I do’

So what’s kept their marriage strong through all the “ups and downs” of life: Wars, sicknesses, deaths in the family?

“Commitment,” Bill said. “When we got married, we made a commitment. That’s what’s holding us together. With me, when I make a commitment, I stick with it.

“Oh, we’ve had our ups and downs. Not fights, but misunderstandings or arguments. But it wouldn’t be life if you didn’t,” he added.

According to Bill’s son, Ken Chism, the couple believes they’re just ordinary, simple people, and they are. But the simple example of true love in a marriage that’s weathered many joys and struggles in the family is an example that’s sorely needed today, Ken said.

“He said I don’t know why you want to hear from me, we’re just simple people,” Ken said. “The fact of the matter is, the simplest truth is that you don’t have to know all of the theology. What you need to know is God has called you, and with that ‘I do,’ that God’s grace and his love is enough.”

“[Bill] said, ‘When I said I do, I do,’” he continued. “The problem is so many people find ‘I don’ts’ to put in that, instead of always ‘I do.’ You can’t have anything that you’re not willing to do, or your relationship will fail. And that’s both [spouses]. Both have to have that attitude. So for me to watch what’s happened the last five years especially…you don’t know what you’ve got to live with. And he’s lived out the ‘I do’ like no one I’ve ever seen. And it’s very, very special to be able to watch that.”

You can’t have anything that you’re not willing to do, or your relationship will fail. And that’s both [spouses]. Both have to have that attitude.

Dede said that though Bill and Fran have weathered every decade where marriage looked so different, God has remained the foundation, which never changes.

“A marriage grounded in faith and Christ is a marriage that will succeed, regardless of what comes your way, because God succeeds,” she said. “And I would say that that one thing is the center of our marriage. Wars, sicknesses…you can survive anything because with God, all things are possible.”

 

Couples celebrating 25, 50 or 50+ years of marriage this year are invited to the annual Anniversary Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn. Bishop Jorge Rodriguez will be the celebrant, and cake and coffee reception will follow. For more information, contact Jennifer Sharn at 303-715-3252 or jennifer.sharn@archden.org.

COMING UP: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.