Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

May 13, 2011

USA: I married my best friend last Saturday, 34 years after divorce in 1977

PORTLAND, Maine / The Elder Storytelling Place / Time Goes By / May 13, 2011

A Love Story - Part One

By Dani Ferguson Phillips
of Norman, Oklahoma
of The Cataract Club

I have been single for 34 years following a divorce in 1977, but this past Saturday I married my best friend. This is the story of how such a miracle came about. Our love is real and our story bittersweet since my new husband, my love, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Our goal is to treat each day as the last and to never take for granted this gift of one another.

Ron and I are as different as night and day. I will talk to anyone who will listen and he is the guy that never says a word. Since we were kids everyone assumed that Ron (or Ronnie as he was called in grade school) was just shy.

He was the tallest boy in school and because he hadn’t grown into his size he was a little clumsy and awkward. He was also considered one of the nicest boys in school. He got the good citizenship award every year in grade school and we got it together two of those years. I assure you, I didn’t get it for being quiet.

We are such total opposites in everything that I wonder at times what sustains our relationship other than a shared history (pre-college years). He is the conservative and I’m the bleeding heart liberal. We avoid political discussions as much as possible.

I believe what sustains us is our shared sense of continuity. We have known each other since we were six years old and attended every school together until graduation. It is always nice to have someone in your life who remembers you “when.” You know, when you were young and when you were still a size six. This is the thing that I thought was lost to me forever after my divorce.

It all began with a Cracker Jack Ring......which I still had and Ron carried in his pocket yesterday at the wedding!

I have had one revelation about Ron and that is he is not really shy in the least. On the outside he appears shy and uncomfortable but that is false body language. He simply is a silent observer (a trick I have yet to master) but enjoying his self every second no matter where he is.

I on the other hand am not comfortable in groups or new places. I’m a one-on-one kind of gal and I don’t really open up in a crowd. But get me alone and I'll spill my guts.

So in some ways we are both the opposite of how we are perceived. What’s interesting is I know that people think I don’t have a shy bone in my body when I actually do but Ron on the other hand has no idea why anyone would think he is shy.

Ron came back into my life most unexpectedly. In July of 2001, I was going about my life as a divorced mother of two just as I had been doing for 24 years. I had finally reached a place where I was comfortable if not content. I at least convinced myself that I was content.

My daughters were finishing college and about to embark on their own lives. I finally had time to devote to myself and I had long ago given up the dream of loving someone again or being loved. I no longer yearned for something I believed would never be.

I don't want to trivialize how difficult it was to finally find that contentment. It was a very long and difficult journey. I think I was wishing my life away, waiting for the time when I would finally be old enough that no one would expect love to come along. At 51 years of age, I had finally arrived to a place of contentment.

My mother had stopped giving me advice on how to find a man. Her best advice being the time she told me to watch the obituaries. She advised me that men remarry quickly after losing a spouse. I'm not sure what she meant by sharing that information. Did she want me to beat all the other divorcees to the family car or what?

I was also grateful that my friends no longer tried to set me up. Age and wrinkles had finally brought their own reward.

So, here I was just living and working and going about life as usual when I received an email from a fellow high school classmate. She had created a web page for the class of 1967 to help classmates reconnect before our upcoming 35-year class reunion. On the web page was a list of classmates and their email addresses.

I immediately went to the site to see if there were any names I recognized. I had absolutely no intention of attending the reunion but I was curious just the same. There were a few names I looked for and one of them was Ron’s. I had thought about him many times over the years.

Ron and I met in the first grade. I remember thinking that he seemed like an adult standing taller than all the other kids. He was the quietest boy in the class. He never spoke but there was something calming about his half smile. We exchanged smiles but no words until the day he gave me a Crackerjack ring and I drew him a picture of a sailboat. We each stood up in front of our class to show off our treasures for show-n-tell.

That was the beginning of the next twelve years of shy glances and timid smiles. We went all the way through school together. We never spoke in those 12 years but somewhere in my heart the crush remained.

After high school graduation, we went on to different colleges. He graduated from our local university and then went out of state to receive his master’s degree. In the mean time I went to a small state college, fell in love and married in 1969. I never saw Ron again until our 10-year high school reunion.

At that time, my marriage was on the verge of collapse but Ron’s had just begun. I asked a mutual friend at the reunion if he had seen Ron and was told he was there with his new bride. After locating him across the room I was absolutely awe-struck by the way he was looking at his new bride. He was so filled with love and looked at her so adoringly they might as well have been the only two people in the room.

I don’t know how or where I found the courage but I walked across the room and spoke the first words I’d ever said to him in my life. Ron smiled and returned my greeting and then introduced me to his wife and that was it. I congratulated them and went back to my seat across the room but I never forgot how he looked at his young wife that night.

Throughout the years, especially when I was feeling lonely, I would often remember that night and how Ron looked at her and wonder how it would be to have someone look at me that way.

So, 25 years later, looking at the reunion site and locating Ron’s name and email address I decided to write him a note and tell him how he had impressed me those many years ago. I wanted to tell him I hoped his life and marriage had continued as happily as it was that night.

Sending that note was so out of character for me but I really wanted him to know that he had left a lasting impression with me.

A few days after sending Ron the email, I received a reply. He politely thanked me for my note but said unfortunately his marriage had ended in divorce three years earlier. He said they were married for 22 years but unexpectedly one day his wife said she no longer loved him and asked him to leave.

I could tell by the tone of his words that he was still hurt and struggling. He told me he had one daughter who was married and had a son. He also told me he had received his master’s degree in long-term health care and made his career as a nursing home administrator.

When I received his reply I was speechless. Now, what do you say after putting such a large foot in your mouth? I responded apologetically but somehow in the midst of our awkward beginning we began emailing one another.

For almost a year we exchanged emails, not regularly but every once in awhile. I thought he was still living in North Carolina so the exchange felt safe and comfortable. I was not looking for a relationship nor did I want to date. However, I enjoyed the exchange and began to look forward to his correspondence.

Then one night I was on the computer when I got an instant message from no other than Ron. This was the first time we had talked in real time. I was taken back when he suggested we go get a snow cone sometime. I laughingly responded, “Sounds great but how do you plan to do that from North Carolina?”

“I don’t live in North Carolina, I’m right here. I live in mom and dad’s old house” responded Ron.

I couldn’t believe it. We had been writing to each other for almost a year and it had never occurred to this man to mention we were living in the same town! This changed everything.

I immediately got nervous and stressed. I was scared to death. All my self-consciousness rose to the surface. It had been more than 25 years since the last time we had seen each other. I was now 51 years old. What on earth would he think of me? I suddenly felt old, fat and ugly but I quickly typed my answer, “Why not!”

Part II - Cherry Flavored Snow Cones

Ron and I picked a day and time for our meeting and I told him I’d just pick him up since I knew where his parent’s house was located. Secretly I needed to feel I had some control over the situation and told him I looked forward to seeing him again.

So, on July 14, 2001, I drove to Ron’s house to pick him up for a snow cone. When I drove up in his driveway he was already waiting on the porch. I would have recognized him anywhere. The only change I noticed was his hair was now salt and peppered with grey, making him look distinguished. I don’t know why it is that men grow distinguished with age but women just grow old.

He was over six feet tall with broad shoulders and as he struggled to get into the front seat of my sub-compact car I noticed he strongly resembled Larry Hagman, of Dallas fame. He smiled as he sat down and we greeted one another with nervous small talk.

He politely told me he would have recognized me and that I still had the same smile he remembered. I drove to the snow cone stand across town all the while chattering away nervously. I was grateful to be driving as it gave me something else to think about.

We got our cherry-flavored snow cones and took them to a popular duck pond near our old elementary school. I parked my car and before I could stop the engine Ron was at my door opening it and offering me his hand. I was definitely not used to such chivalry. We walked around the pond awhile eventually taking a seat at a picnic table near the water.

It was weird talking to this man I knew but didn’t know. We’d never held a conversation in our lives other than on the internet yet we shared memories of school days and mutual friends.

We spent the next two hours telling stories about our marriages and break-ups. It seemed obvious to me that we were in very different places. It was more than 24 years since my marriage ended and the wound was no longer raw. He on the other hand was just beginning to let go of his anger and hurt.

I think that is what finally put me at ease. I knew I wasn’t looking for a relationship and I knew that he was definitely not ready for one. It was a win-win situation.

Several hours passed while we sat there talking about our lives since high school. Ron had moved around a lot with his career while I had only lived in one home other than my parent’s house. Ron moved back to Oklahoma after his marriage ended and when his father was diagnosed with colon cancer. His dad passed away three years earlier and his mother almost ten years prior.

I knew that Ron was an only child and I remembered hearing in grade school that he had an older brother who died. That night as we continued to talk Ron told me about his brother and how he fell on a tricycle handle bar causing a hernia. He was just turning five at the time.

The doctor indicated the repair was a minor surgery and assured them all should be fine. Ron was just an infant at the time so his parents were juggling the care of a newborn and his brother’s surgery.

On the day of surgery, his mom and dad were told the operation had been delayed for a few hours so they left their oldest son in the care of his uncle while they ran home to feed their new baby. While they were home there was another change to the surgery schedule and his brother was whisked away to the operating room while crying for his mother and daddy.

Ron’s uncle immediately called his parents but before they could get back to the hospital the surgery had begun. Ron’s brother had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia and died on the operating table before they arrived. Ron said the doctor continued trying to revive the child for almost two hours until his mother finally said, “Enough.”

I just sat there thinking about my own children and trying to imagine the pain his parents must have felt. Ron continued the story saying his parents married just as his dad was leaving for WWII. His mother wanted to conceive a child before Carl went to war so she became pregnant with Carl Jr. Ron’s dad didn’t see his son until he was almost three years old. He had only been a part of his life for two years and then he was gone.

Ron told me that his father was never able to talk about his firstborn son and that Ron had only recently learned from his uncle all of the circumstances surrounding his death.

So, now with both his parents gone and his only child living almost 2,000 miles away he was back home in the house his parents built when he was a kid, the house around the corner from where I grew up. Now, here we sat, 34 years after our high school graduation, telling our stories and filling in the gaps of time.

© 2011 Ronni Bennett.

A Love Story - Part 2

By Dani Ferguson Phillips

Green is Not My Color

After our snow cone date, I sent Ron an email thanking him for the evening. I didn’t feel any pressure or have any expectation of seeing him again. We just continued emailing each other off and on for the next few months. Nothing was ever mentioned about getting together again and that was just fine with me.

Then around the second week in December, Ron called me and invited me to the Nutcracker ballet. He told me he had two season tickets to the ballet and would I like to see the Christmas production. I said sure and the following Saturday he picked me up and we drove to Oklahoma City to the ballet.

He was a perfect gentleman and I had a wonderful time. Our conversation was minimal but I wasn’t uncomfortable with the silence. He played Christmas CDs in the car and we sang along to all the familiar carols.

He drove me straight home after the performance and we exchanged a quick good-bye at the door. It was perfect, no pressure and no expectation - just a nice evening with an old friend.

The following week he took me to hear Manheim Steam Roller and the Oklahoma City Symphony. After the performance we took a drive through the city to look at Christmas lights. I was having a wonderful time just getting out and doing things with a great companion.

I finally got the nerve to tell my daughters I’d actually been going out with someone but promptly informed them that it was not a romantic relationship but just an old friend. They were actually very encouraging and said they were happy to see me getting out of the house.

I had really dreaded telling the girls and definitely underestimated them. I failed to realize they were grown up. I never dated when they were younger because they were so possessive and wouldn’t tolerate anyone they considered an intruder. I rarely rocked the boat by going out with anyone.

Now, here they were, all grown up and giving me dating advice. They even went so far as critiquing my wardrobe and selecting clothes they thought would at least bring me into the current century.

The Christmas season ended and Ron and I picked up with our email contact and an occasional phone call. Although we never went out again, I was still enjoying our occasional talks.

He was a great listener and we talked through some difficult times that year. I was able to share my grief when a dear friend committed suicide. It was wonderful to have someone to listen to me and help me work through my unanswered questions and pain. It was easier because the relationship was not complicated by any romantic interest by either of us.

I wrote to him about my daughter’s move to another state and how I was going to miss her. He was the first I told when she told me she was in love. He was also one of the first I told when she announced her engagement and upcoming Vegas wedding. So in July, the day my other daughter and I were flying to Vegas for Julie’s wedding, I wasn’t totally surprised when Ron showed up on my front porch.

He brought me a silver dollar to bet on his behalf in Vegas and to extend his best wishes to my daughter. I was happy to see him again even though we had never really lost contact.

When I showed my daughter the silver dollar on the plane she teasingly exclaimed, “What, is it Christmas time already?”

She was referring to Ron being a holiday date only. But Ron surprised us both by asking me out in September. He just called out of the blue and invited me to go to the state fair. I was excited to go since I hadn’t been to the fair since I was a kid.

He purchased tickets to Disney on Ice and we had front row seats to Monsters Inc. It was very cute and at some point during the show he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around me to ward off the chill of the ice.

After the show we walked around the fair and through the midway and ending up at a karaoke show under a pavilion. I was sensing something had changed between us but it was so subtle I couldn’t be sure. Ron had always taken my hand to guide me to and from the car but this time he would take my hand and linger a bit longer than usual.

We decided we would dare to ride a few rides before leaving the fair and I chose what I felt sure would be tame. We rode the monorail with its bird's eye view and the giant ferris wheel. Ron however decided we should ride a giant wheel that spun its passengers faster and faster while tilting on its axis. I thought I could handle it so I was game until I found myself strapped in so tight I couldn’t even turn my head from side to side.

The wheel began turning, picking up speed all while beginning to tilt until you were literally parallel to the ground and the passenger standing across from you. The ride had barely begun when I began talking to Jesus. The rider across from me didn’t know whether to be afraid of the ride or me.

Ron was laughing so hard at me I could hear him over the sound of the wheel and my own screams. At some point I began bargaining with the almighty and swore I’d never say or do a mean thing again as long as I lived if He would just get me off this wheel of torture alive.

When the ride finally ended, I was a lovely shade of green and sick as a dog. Ron was still having trouble controlling his laughter so we decided it was time to say good-bye to the fair.

It was about a 45-minute drive back to my house and just enough time for my stomach to finally come to a complete stop. Ron helped me from the car and walked me to the door as he had done many times before. I opened the glass door and put my key in the door and as I unlocked it I turned around to thank Ron for the evening. With no warning what so ever he pulled me close and kissed me.

It wasn’t a peck goodnight but a real kiss, our first kiss. I can’t describe it other than to say that for the first time in my life my knees actually buckled beneath me. My response was as unexpected and as big a surprise as him actually kissing me.

So there, standing on my porch with my knees weak and my heart pounding, I knew that everything between us was about to change.

Kiss and Tell?
Well, if this were a Harlequin romance, there would be a lot of clothes ripping and sweaty bodies about now but hey, we’re talking about two people who didn’t get up the nerve to speak for almost 50 years and it took a year of emails to finally meet and another nine months for a first kiss so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Oh, the passion was real and my head was swirling but caution is my middle name. We ended up sitting on the porch for a while holding hands and absorbing the fact that an unexpected spark had definitely been ignited.

I was still trying to absorb this sudden change in our relationship and frankly, I was a little out of practice in the romance department. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted a romantic relationship but my fluttering heart seemed to have a mind of its own.

By the time we parted that night I was sure of only one thing, I couldn’t wait until we were together again.

I didn’t have to wait long as the next day was the first of many days together. We went to football games, basketball games and baseball games and did I mention I’m not a sports fan? What we will do for love!

Our relationship grew from friendship and was definitely worth the wait and just as they say love comes when you least expect it.

One evening I was trying to teach Ron how to dance. He admittedly had two left feet but was such a willing student. We rolled back the rug in his den and we started out with the Texas two-step graduating to the Cotton Eyed Joe. We were laughing and having so much fun as he counted out every beat.

I asked him where he was when I needed a date to our high school senior prom? Suddenly he stopped and looked at me with such a serious look I thought I must have stomped on his foot. He said, “Didn’t you go to the prom”?

Surprised by his sudden change in mood, I replied, “No, my boyfriend and I broke up a week before the prom and I missed it.”

Ron’s face remained solemn as he responded, “If I had known, I would have asked you to the prom.”

It was so sweet and so sincere I found myself crying. Here I was, 52 years old and crying about a missed opportunity 35 years earlier. But, somehow I couldn’t imagine that prom being any more wonderful than this moment, this first dance.
Then as unexpectedly as that first kiss, Ron looked in my eyes and said, “I love you.”

Now, this is where I will end our story out of respect to this shy, quiet and private man that I love. He has changed my life in ways I cannot describe. He has held my hand through difficult times and I have never felt alone. Now it is my turn to hold his.

© 2011 Ronni Bennett.