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I didn’t fully understand the power of vows until I renewed them. I was 23 when I first declared my vows to my husband, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church. Coming from the pages of Khalil Gibran instead of the Bible. When my husband recited his, I heard loving poetic prose filled with promise and possibility that had resonance for the both of us. The vows were modern, progressive and new like our union. But they were also empty, waiting to be filled with what might be.

After 10 years, my husband found himself on assignment in Las Vegas. With the passing of my father, the birth of a child and the challenges of marriage, on a whim, we decided that I should fly down and renew our nuptials at one of those cheesy chapels.

Because we didn’t bring our original marriage license, we had to register at the Clark County Marriage License Bureau. We stood in line wearing jeans, Converse and T-shirts behind those in formal wedding attire, while others sported cut-offs and cowboy boots. Even this was making things real again.

Once registered, we went to the Little Church of the West to book a time to renew our nuptials. The assistant at the chapel whipped out a long notepad similar to what older pizza parlours used. Instead of toppings, we could tick off video recording, music, bouquet and even photos while we put a deposit down for the ceremony. When we returned, a preacher in an iridescent, shark-coloured suit married us. The words spoken were simple but I struggled to speak, my throat feeling like a golf ball was lodged deep within it. I realized that our legacy together had begun to fill the once-empty vows with meaning. The preacher commented on the energy and commitment of our words, unaware that we were already married.

At 20 years, all our parents had passed. We had more children and the challenges of marriage were significant. Our life was a whirlwind of trying to keep it all together. I wasn’t sure whether we’d even make it to 20, but once we did, we decided to celebrate and renew our vows once again, this time at home.

I went to our local parish to meet the priest. I was scolded and he flat out refused to partake in anything that wasn’t performed in a church. Since the Catholic Church declined the gig, I found a lovely, compassionate gay lawyer who dealt with immigration issues. She was articulate, bright and became our Justice of the Peace.

We created a Tuscany theme. Our guests arrived elegantly appointed, wafting of fragrance, holding glasses of chilled Champagne and looking like they came from central casting. Our tiny urban backyard was transformed, spilling with light through the dense foliage from the surrounding mature maples.

Two decades now filled our original oaths and we both struggled when we spoke our vows and both of us quietly wept listening to what each had lovingly written. I noticed more men crying in attendance than women. Since they’d spoken their own vows, many had seen their wives through breast cancer, others through illness, some had drifted apart, others divorced. Though the renewal of vows was designed for us, it was as though everyone participated. There were no borders to the sentiments and our officiate’s words enveloped the essence of love.

At 30 years, the kids were grown and moved out, our careers were steering in different directions and middle age was fully upon us. We couldn’t quite get it together in our anniversary month of June and didn’t want the year to end without renewing our vows. We had a dear friend who was a Superior Court judge oversee the ceremony.

We planned it during our annual Christmas party, and kept it a secret from our guests. A third of the way into the evening, the judge announced the renewal of the nuptials and we sprung into action. Everyone gathered in the living room while the Beach Boys’s God Only Knows played. Our eldest FaceTimed us from the West Coast while his siblings stood in attendance. Our closest friends, some of whom were at our first wedding, bore witness yet again. I sobbed but my husband wept more. With the undercurrent of life experiences, this time the words uttered were enormous and substantial in their meaning. Our vows were filled with a life of love, struggle, tension and laughter.

With each vow renewal, we were newlyweds once again. Feeling young and filled with promise as we started the next chapter, washing away whatever previous turmoil existed. There was no denying the freshness that came with each service. The vows echoed growth and pain. It was intensely romantic and soulfully challenging.

We celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary June 23rd. The concept that time is fleeting has never been more evident. Each vow renewal has been a tremendous gift: providing a moment to stop and reflect on a chapter of life that we have banked, defined and encapsulated. Through their repetition and reciting with an open heart, we could experience a life lived through vows. It has been transformational to the delicate structure of our marital union.

Should we be make it to 40, then we might consider renewing every five years.

Djanka Gajdel lives in Toronto.

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