A Love Like No Other
All genuine love stories have moments of joy as well as moments of sadness. They may vary in intensity or duration, but they are never absent. Those who think of love as uninterrupted joy are romantics. Those who are obsessed only with sadness deserve their misery.
This love story came to me out of coincidence. In the 1950s I met George when we were both quartered in Quantico with other newly commissioned second lieutenants in the Marine Corps. We became friends. He told me that he was a Yale graduate and that he intended to return to his home in Oakland, Calif., and establish his own business. And he did, becoming one of the most prominent corporate executives in California. I learned from newsletters created and forwarded by some of our fellow alumni that he was married and had several children. Then in 2002, we met on the occasion of the 50th reunion of our class, learning that three had been killed, that two had “stayed in” and become generals, that Karl Ullrich had served as Director of Athletics at Annapolis and then at West Point and that Pete Soderberg was the father of Steven Soderberg, an award-wining Hollywood director, screenwriter and actor.
George was late arriving at the reunion. I recognized him instantly because he had changed little. We had a warm greeting, although I detected a certain sadness in him. A day later we had time together after dinner, and I told him as tactfully as I could that he looked as if something was bothering him. He paused and said that his wife had died less than a month before. He then added that it was not his first wife—the one he married after he left the Marine Corps. He said that they had had several children, but she came to him suddenly one day and told him she did not want to be married anymore and left. From then on, he and his wife became legally separated, and he raised his children to adulthood while maintaining his prospering business interests.
One evening in his middle 60s, he invited an associate to a theatrical performance in San Francisco. He had purchased two choice tickets and was waiting in a lobby guest room for the associate to arrive. Others were also waiting, including a woman who looked both mature and young. Finally, the room emptied, except for the woman and George. A few moments before the show was due to start, George approached her and said, “Excuse me, but are you waiting for the same reason that I am?” She smiled and explained that her guest had not arrived as well. George nodded and then, ignoring his usual prudence, asked, “Would you like to see the show with me? I have two excellent tickets, and seeing this show solo would be like having dinner alone.” She smiled quizzically as if in agreement. In short, they saw the show and thoroughly enjoyed their time together.
George invited the woman, Betty, to dinner in San Francisco twice after that. The second dinner was even more satisfying than the first. They discussed authors (John Updike) and places (Paris) and actors (Spencer Tracy, Eva Marie Saint) they mutually admired. For a week, George re-lived and re-relished those evenings before he telephoned her again. A woman answered the phone, and George asked her if he could speak to Betty.
“Who is calling?” the woman asked.
“George. She’ll recognize my name.”
After a pause the woman said with emphasis, “Betty does not want to see or speak to you again.”
“She does not want you to call her again,” the woman added and hung up.
For several days George thought about nothing but that. Finally, he called back. The same woman answered. She said nothing, but she remained on the line while George pleaded with her to explain her—and Betty’s—rejection. At last the woman explained that she was Betty’s sister. She went on to say that Betty had been seriously injured while lifting her nephew at a beach weeks earlier. Somehow what she thought was a mere sprain turned out to be damage to her spinal cord, and the result was that she could no longer walk. George asked if he could speak to Betty. There was a pause, and the next voice he heard was Betty’s. She said she appreciated his call, that she was beginning to learn to accept her condition, that she did not want sympathy and that he should forget that he ever met her.
A month after the call, George damaged his Achilles tendon while playing tennis. On crutches for weeks, he finally decided to call Betty and tell her they now had similar handicaps and that it might help them both if they shared their misery. She yielded. They met regularly at her home.
Months later during a routine medical exam, it was discovered that Betty had a treatable liver cancer. When she told George about the diagnosis, she did not have any idea what his response would be. There was an interval of silence, and then George proposed and insisted that they should be married.
“Who would want to marry a crippled woman with cancer?” Betty asked.
“I would,” said George.
They indeed were married and had four years together before Betty died in 2001. George told me that he and Betty somehow learned to dance together and even had sexual relations. He never went into detail on either of these subjects, and I never intruded.
It became more and more apparent to me, and later George confirmed, that George regarded these few years with Betty as the happiest years of his life, and her death devastated him. Knowing of my interest in poetry, he told me that Betty wrote poetry. He showed me one of her poems that he included in her funeral service, and it summarized and said everything:
Warm May afternoon sun
behind the oak tree.
Chime and leaf-rustling breeze.
How peacefully I love you.