When a ring is not about a ring
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’ said Gimli. ‘Maybe,’ said Elrond, ‘but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’ ‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’ said Gimli. ‘Or break it," said Elrond.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
It was along Avenue Maipu, which runs perpendicular to the main pier in the port city of Ushuaia, at the southernmost tip of Argentina, where I lost my wedding ring.
My wife, Linda, and I walked west to east, against the one-way traffic, as the tankers and cruise ships drifted across the Beagle Channel to the right of us, headed for Antarctica and the edge of the world. The smell of exhaust suspended momentarily before dissipating into the fresh sea air, a seeming reminder of how unnatural it was for a city like this to exist in the land that Magellan named “Tierra del Fuego” (Land of Fire). The sun had risen late, close to 9:30 in the morning - we had ventured here in those indeterminate weeks between fall and winter, when a chill took hold that cut through our layers of clothing and lingered in the insides of our beings.
A pack of dogs, huskies maybe, cantered by; in the moment I slipped off my glove to reach for my camera, the ring, loose from the cold, must have fallen, the soft clink of metal hitting the pavement drowned out by the tires rolling across the roadway. I could only surmise this from examining photos taken before and after.
By the time I realized it was lost, we were already hundreds of miles to the northwest, having journeyed to the shadows of the snow-capped peaks of Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy, where salmon-hued clouds would emerge out of the darkness in the early morning and gusts of wind would loosen the grip of our feet from the uneven earth beneath us. We had come here halfway through Linda’s first pregnancy, the final leg of a last hurrah to childless life, one that had driven us from our home in California first to Rio de Janeiro, with its pale crescent of Copacabana, and then on to Iguazu Falls, the rainbows appearing wherever the foamy mist rose up from the violent collision of water and rock.
For several days I had not noticed that the ring was missing - the dulled, flat platinum band, four millimeters thick, size seven and a half, had not left my hand since I wed Linda on a sweltering June day two years earlier, the scorching sun making me feel as if I might melt like wax. The ring had become a part of me as Linda slipped it on and said her vows. I, in turn, reciprocated with the following words:
You are my one true love. Today in the presence of God, our family, and friends, I vow to love you, adore you, and honor you in any and every circumstance that we may encounter together.
In moments filled with joy or sorrow, triumph or struggle, peace or hardship, I devote myself to being the best husband I can be to you all the days of my life.
I covenant to respect you and support you in all ways in pursuit of all your hopes and dreams.
I promise to continue learning from you for you have taught me more than any other person what it means to live each day with a humble and grateful heart.
With my whole heart, I will appreciate you for the beautiful woman that you are. Because you are my one true love, today and always.
Somewhat surprisingly, I was more distraught over losing my ring than Linda was and placed an order for a new one, an identical one, the moment we arrived home from our trip, not even waiting to unpack the bags piled high by our front entryway. But when the ring arrived and I put it on, I still felt a discomfort, a sense that something was lacking. It was not quite the same - it was not the ring that had been blessed by the pastor, safeguarded by my best man, nor given to me as Linda spoke her vows.
Did it matter? Same ring or not, my love for Linda had not changed, my commitment to our marriage was not any different. My vows were not dependent on seven grams of metal, but they did not feel entirely decoupled from the ring either. Life went on.
After Linda died, I found myself unsure about what to do with my ring. Our modern use of rings to signify marital commitment originates from ancient Roman customs, yet those customs emphasize the giving of rings rather than what to do with them after a person is gone. As with many other aspects of modern grief, there are no prescriptive social conventions for what to do in this type of situation, no version of Emily Post’s Etiquette (technically Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home) to dictate norms one should follow. The prevailing wisdom is to do what you feel is right. But sometimes I wish there was just a reference that provided guidelines (I imagine it titled as Etiquette in Mourning or something like that).
And because a ring is a public symbol, a declaration, I pondered what the ensuing perception would be: take the ring off and people might think I was moving forward too soon; keep the ring on and people might assume I would never be able to.
I felt unsettled, similar to how I felt the day I slipped on my replacement wedding band. Ring or not, I still loved Linda, I was dedicated to fulfilling the promises I made to her, and yet these feelings could not be entirely separated from the ring itself. Did the ring really matter?
It certainly felt like it did, maybe even more so than when Linda was alive. I needed a way to demonstrate, to myself and to anyone else, that my loyalty to Linda was enduring now that she was not here.
I continued wearing my ring, and for a time, I thought that perhaps I might never take it off. Six months, one year, 18 months passed. I dealt with awkward conversations when strangers asked about my wife. But there was also an unsettling feeling that my love and commitment had taken a different form, outside of the marital covenant.
When Linda and I selected our rings, we chose platinum as their metal because it is durable, resistant to tarnish, and malleable, meaning its shape will change due to wear while losing relatively little material over time. And as my physical ring has been transformed since I first started wearing it, so too has my understanding of its significance since Linda died.
A few months ago, rather unceremoniously, I moved my ring from my left hand to my right hand. The day had come, unpredictably, when it just felt like the right thing to do. The reality was that I was no longer married to Linda, but it did not mean our marriage had come to an end; I was no longer a husband. I continue to wear my ring on my right hand, and maybe one day I will take it off altogether because that too will feel like the right thing to do.
It is not about the ring. It is about an enduring devotion and wish to do right by Linda that live on in vows that will remain. Vows transformed. Vows that transcend death.
The old vows of my marriage have given way to new vows to my children, sealed with my last promise to Linda, that bind the four of us together. My daughters now represent a love renewed, to Linda as much as myself, today and always.