Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Another year older...

Okay, it's that time of year again. Birthday Eve, and the approach of this one has been particularly hard because it will be the first birthday I've spent without either of my parents in the world. As difficult as the holidays were this past season, this milestone is worse. You don't really think about it, but for most of us, our parents are the ones who are always there. Who always remember your birthday even when no one else does. The fact that I no longer have that really hit home when I checked the mail today and found no card from them, and I realized there will never be another one.

I remember back to my birthday two years ago, the last one when I still had both of them. It was what I still call the four-cake birthday. First my kids made me a cake, then my co-workers bought one, then some friends gave me one, and then I went over to my parents' house and my father had bought this huge cake as a surprise. I was so caked out I could barely stand the sight of it for awhile, but now I'd give anything to have a slice of that huge cake again.

So my gift to you on this birthday eve is treasure the ones you love, because they are the greatest gift you could ever receive.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A True Valentine's Day Story

With Valentine’s Day approaching and all this talk of love in the air, I thought I would share a love story greater than anything Shakespeare or Byron or any of those other romantics could dream up because, well, it’s true.

You see, no matter what long-dead poets or Madison Avenue advertisers might lead you to believe, love isn’t defined by hearts and flowers and jewelry and chocolates. Love–true love–is thick and thin, tears and joy, sickness and health, I’ll-never-leave-your-side-no-matter-what, life and death devotion.

That’s the kind of love that defined Frank and Mary.

Frank was an honorable man. People devalue the word honor by throwing it around without really understanding its true meaning, but Frank knew what it meant because he lived it every day of his life. If he had to put it into words, they would have been:

Never make a promise you know you can’t keep, and never break a promise you make.

In other words, love–true love–is caring enough to always be honest with yourself and others.

Frank and Mary’s story started out like it had been scripted by Hollywood. They met in a Miami bar on New Year’s Eve. It was 1952 and Frank, an ex-Army World War II veteran and newly re-enlisted Air Force sargeant, had just flown in following a year-long remote stint in Alaska. The bar in question was owned by his best friend, Pete, a man cut of the same cloth as Frank. A man who was loyal enough to his friend to resent the way that friend’s wife of less than three years had spent the entire time Frank was off serving his country flaunting an extramarital affair. As a friend, Pete told Frank everything he had seen and advised him to cut bait and run. But Frank, being a man of his word, wasn’t so quick to want to throw away his vows. It took his cheating wife calling him to say she was pregnant with another man’s child and wanted a divorce to convince him that, rather than make them both miserable, he would forego his promise and give her what she wanted.

So what has this got to do with love? Well, be patient, I’m getting to it.

The night Frank got back into town, he went straight to Pete’s bar with two missions in mind: to deliver the divorce papers his wife had asked for and to have a drink with his best friend. He walked in and strode across the room to the table where his soon-to-be ex-wife and her consort were laughing over drinks, handed her the signed papers, and, like the honorable man he was, shook his replacement’s hand.

“Congratulations. She’s all yours.”

Mission one accomplished, he turned around to head toward the bar, ready to pound down the cold beer his buddy had waiting, when his eyes fell upon the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

Mary was in town with some friends on a working vacation. She’d started waitressing at the bar the week before, and was an instant hit. Of course, a lot of that had to do with the fact that she was a knock out. According to prevailing opinion, Rita Hayworth had nothing on Mary.

Love at first sight is just a cliché, or at least, that’s what Frank thought until that moment, because he knew as he stood looking at Mary, that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. No doubt in his mind.

Now Frank was a handsome devil himself. A young, Italian stud, he turned more than a few female heads standing there in his dress uniform, hat in hand. One had to wonder what his wife was thinking passing up on this, especially since her new boyfriend left her high and dry six months later, before their illegitimate child was even born. Talk about bad decisions.

But I get ahead of myself.

Frank had new orders assigning him to Georgia at the end of January, so he was determined to make the most of his time left in Miami, which meant the first thing he did when he reached the bar was ask his friend Pete about the new waitress.

“Name’s Mary,” Pete told him, and added, “I think she’s seeing someone.”

“Is it serious?” Frank asked.

Pete shook his head. “Far as I know, it’s just some guy she met on the beach.”

“What time does she get off?’

Pete, knowing what his friend had been through, grinned. “For you, buddy, she can be off right now.”
When Mary came back to the bar to collect her next order, Frank was ready.

“Hi, I’m Frank,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’d like to take you out tonight.”

“Really?” she said, laughing. “Well, Frank, I’m working right now, and I have plans with someone else when I get off.”

“Not any more, you don’t. From now on, you’re my girl.”

And thus began a whirlwind courtship. For the next month, they spent every waking hour together. When Frank got ready to ship off to Georgia, he was determined not to go alone.

“Marry me,” he begged on bended knee.

“You’re crazy,” she told him. “We just met.”

See, Mary had been married before herself when she was sixteen. It was common in those days, especially in Kentucky where she was from, for girls to marry young. Mary’s first husband was quite a bit older than her, as well as an abusive alcoholic, so her marriage was little more than a series of drunken brawls and tear-stained separations. Within two years, they were divorced, and while part of her was grateful, she still mourned the loss. After all, bad as he was, she still had loved him in her own way, and wondered if she could ever trust a man again.

So when Frank asked her to marry him less than a month after they met, she saw it as another disaster in the making. She told him she’d had a nice time with him, but she was sure he’d meet someone else and forget all about her. The next day they went their separate ways, Frank to his new base in Georgia and Mary home to Kentucky, but Frank was determined the separation was only temporary.

“I’ll make you change your mind about me,” he told her as they parted.

True to his word, he called her the next day, and when she wouldn’t take his calls, he kept right on calling, sometimes two and three times a day. He finally talked to her sister Lillian, who was so impressed by him that she began a Cyrano de Bergerac-like campaign to get the two of them back together. She wrote love letters to Frank, confessing her “true” feelings and signing them with Mary’s name.

After a month of corresponding by letter with what he thought was the love of his life, Frank got in his car after work on a Friday evening and drove up to Kentucky, showing up at Mary’s family home early the next morning, heart in hand, to ask her to marry him again.

“I know you don’t believe me,” he told her solemnly, “but I promise I’ll never leave you.”

They were married at the courthouse that day, with Mary’s sister Lillian standing up as Maid of Honor. After the short ceremony, Lillian confessed her part in their courtship. Frank secretly thanked her, and over the years, it became something of a family fable.

Thus began a marriage that spanned fifty-eight years. It wasn’t always happy, and it wasn’t always easy. They had their share of disagreements, but they also had their share of fun. And throughout it all, they always had their love. A love that saw them through the struggles for money, the trials of parenthood, the hardship of military separation and relocation,  endless health issues, the coming and going of good friends and the sometimes maddening obligations of family. It was a love that sometimes bent, but never broke, because they had made a promise to each other that they were determined to keep.

As they grew older, health issues overtook those of home and family. There was a seemingly endless parade of surgeries and illnesses, some life-threatening, some routine, but they always stood up to them together. Frank battled heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, and a host of other life-threatening ailments while Mary spent years preparing herself for the worst. She lost track of how many times doctors warned her that this could be it, and yet, every time Frank would somehow manage to pull through, refusing to break his promise never to leave her.

No one could have predicted that, in the end, it would be Mary who left first. Cancer took her in less than eight months at the age of 87. Frank, whose health previous to that had been so poor he could barely walk on his own, spent those eight months tirelessly seeing to her every need; feeding her, bathing her, dressing her, reading to her, and in the end, just sitting with her and holding her hand.

She had a fear of hospitals, after watching all of her sisters and brothers die in them, and when she knew the end was near, she made Frank promise to let her die at home. It was a promise he would keep even when her care became more than he could manage and everyone around him urged him to send her to Hospice.

On the night she died, with her family by her side, an honorable man broke down and cried, his valiant heart that had fought so hard to survive for her all those years, finally shattering. He was never the same after that, and six months later to the day, Frank rejoined the love of his life.

I know Frank and Mary’s story like my own because, well, it is my own. You see, Frank and Mary were my parents. In this day of easy-come, easy-go relationships, I was lucky to have had them in my life. And while I may never fill the void their passing has left in my heart, I like to think they’re together on a beach somewhere right now, holding hands and watching the sunset like they did on those innocent Miami nights so many years ago.