I was driving alone on the dark black asphalt, seeming darker because of ominous clouds on the horizon ranging from dark gray to puffs of white. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of white as the sun tried to peek out from behind the clouds. It didn’t succeed, but first a ray rained into the picture, followed by a halo of rays.
My name is Samantha … but this is not the beginning of my story.
As I caught the rays, my mind drifted back to the time I was driving my preschoolers to swimming practice. There was a similar canvas in the sky that day. They thought the light was heaven shining through. Interesting they made that connection. And it led to a brief discussion about Jesus and heaven.
I don’t know why that thought entered my mind right now. My children are well past preschool age. I miss those simple times. We had a moment to be very present with each other. Priceless is the time spent driving children to and from their events. Soon, we would be caught up in the busyness of life again.
The rays disappeared as quickly as they had appeared as the clouds stitched themselves closer together, and I was once again left with just the asphalt and the clouds. The darkness sucked away the happy memories and I was left with nothing but the task at hand. Though I was driving toward the darkest patch of clouds, I willed the car to reach the horizon quicker, although I was in no hurry to return to my girlhood home. There weren’t always happy memories. And I knew I would have to face those demons as well.
As I turned off the Interstate, I could feel my body tense. The landscape was eerily familiar, yet distinctly different. There was the corner deli, the bakery and the bars … some with different names but bars nonetheless. The bank complex took out a square block. The cookie cutter homes looked basically the same.
I pulled into the driveway … the same one I pulled out of so many years ago. I grabbed my old key and opened the front door.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, spotting Mom on the couch. She looked up and nodded, then quickly looked back at her crossword puzzle. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was her grief or her disinterest in my return that spurred her apathy.
I thought I had a normal childhood. Dad was the light of my life, my biggest fan and supporter. And I was his little girl.
Mom was a different relationship. Even as a young girl there was a tension between us. I always sought her approval, but Mom was critical. I could get all A’s and B’s and Mom would focus on my lone C. I could get all dressed up and she would tell me my dress was wrinkled. She didn’t like my friends or my music and always dismissed my opinions. To top it off, whatever happened, the whole town knew. Mom liked to “share” at the beauty parlor, the grocery store, at church — everywhere! — although her version of events didn’t always mirror reality.
But, Mom was a great cook. She could make anything taste good.
She wasn’t an accomplished chef, but learned her kitchen skills from her Mom, who had learned it from her Mom. Recipes were guidelines and Mom always knew when to add a “pinch” of this or cut back on that.
And she included me in the kitchen, firmly teaching me the basics from early on and sharing her skills as I grew up.
I remember one time when I was around five. I had always followed Mom around the kitchen and had already learned about her critical nature. This day, however, she handed me an apron and had me help mix in the chocolate chips into the cookie dough. At five years old, that was a monumental task and a good part of the batter ended up on my once-clean apron. I started to cry, but Mom scooped me up in her arms and said, “Sam, that’s okay. That’s why we wear aprons when we cook.”
When it came to kitchen skills, Mom was open and forgiving.
I sailed through elementary and high school. In fact, I graduated in the top five of my class at Our Lady Queen of Peace High School. I always thought it was quite an accomplishment, but Mom always added, “Of course, there were only 66 graduates.”
I was well liked in high school, but never did a lot of dating. It’s hard to “find” someone at an all-girl school. The few times I did go out, Mom always seemed to embarrass me with my date and I never went out with the same boy twice.
My best friends from grade school, Mary Bernadette — who we called “Bernie” — Betty, Lynn and Pat, loved to come over, especially when Mom went on a cooking spree. Bernie, Betty and Lynn went to Our Lady Queen of Peace, but Pat was the “rebel” and went to public school. Mom always picked on her, too.
I learned my way around the kitchen during those pre-teen and teen years and Mom was always there to coach me through a lunch or dinner, although my dishes never quite measured up to her standards.
All I knew was I had to get out of here. Because of my grades, I could go just about anywhere, and was accepted at a number of major colleges. I chose the College of Mount Saint Vincent and its nursing program, although the sight of blood makes me sick. It was a case of trying to please everyone else but myself.
Dad, over Mom’s objections, brought me a red Mustang convertible for graduation and for my daily commute to The Bronx. It was my independence. Once I had those keys in my hands, I was never home. It was off with my girls, often ending up at the hot dog joint just to flirt with the guys.
The Fearsome Foursome were heading off in different directions. Bernie was going to school at Fairleigh Dickinson while Betty was headed to the sunshine at the University of Miami. Lynn was off to cosmetology school and the work place.
But we were solid during the summer. We all started working — I worked at the local bakery — but whenever we had the chance, it was off to the Jersey shore in our bikinis and cut off jeans. It was a staple of the summer, boy watching on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights and coyly teasing them.
Summer raced by too quickly and it was a tearful goodbye to Betty. I knew life was changing and never would be the same, but I was determined to savor every minute from here on.
My freshman year in college was, well, let’s just say, less than stellar. Between the commute, the challenges of college and my new-found freedom with my Mustang, I saw unrecognizable grades so, as a vibrant 18 year old, I did the natural thing … party! Of course, my lifestyle choice did not sit well with Mom, but I was comfortable “getting by” in class and enjoying life on weekends.
It all came to a head one February Saturday night. I returned home from a date around midnight, only to be greeted by Mom. She informed me I had not one, but two calls from different boys while I was “out doing God knows what with a third.”
I actually was pretty proud of my popularity until she blurted out. “What are my friends going to think? I’m raising the town whore!”
That stung, although I’m still not sure whether it was because she suddenly categorized herself as a victim or the hurtful slur. Verbal sparring — and volume — escalated from there with both of us saying way more than we should have. Dad even had to come in and send us back to our corners while he tried to sort out the mess.
Poor Dad. He had to listen to Mom’s blatherings, then he had to confront me. Both of us were crying.
“Dad, she had no right to say that,” I sobbed. “I’ve never done anything wrong.”
And I never really did. Sure, I liked to party and toy with guys. I was, admittedly, a flirt and enjoyed leading guys on. But my upbringing and especially my four years with the nuns at Our Lady Queen of Peace — none of this and none of that — made me an in control woman who knew when to put the brakes on in a relationship. A few never came back, but that was okay. If a guy wasn’t interested in more than my body — my body — and wasn’t willing to give me his heart, soul and undivided attention, then good riddance.
A couple of months later, I sat with Bernie for days on end when she thought she was pregnant. Her “boyfriend” skipped out as soon as the prospect of fatherhood was broached so it was up to me to hold her hand, hug her, comfort her, wipe her tears. “What did I do?” “What am I going to do?” “Why did I listen to him when he told me he loved me?”
It turned out to be a false alarm, but the experience steeled my will to stay in control of my life.
And then came Chad.
I first met Chad at, where else, a club.
Bernie, Betty, Lynn and I decided to have a girls night out to celebrate. It didn’t matter what we were celebrating, but it was Betty’s return from Miami and Lynn’s (May 16) and my (June 20) 19th birthdays. So we headed into the city (New York’s drinking age was 18) to let our hair down and have some fun.
I spotted Chad as I walked in the door, although I had never seen him before. He was sitting at a corner table and our eyes met for a brief moment. I quickly turned away to giggle with the girls about the eye candy.
We settled in at a table near the dance floor and ordered a round. We were surveying the club, bobbing to the Four Seasons’ Oh, What a Night, when Jimmy came over and asked me to dance. I never said no to a dance so off we went to the dance floor.
What happened next, though, caught me off guard. While we were dancing he asked me if I saw the guy in the corner … yeah, Chad. He said he would like to meet me, but was too much of a dunderhead to ask.
I stopped in my tracks.
“I’ll introduce you if you want. He’s really a nice guy, just a little on the shy side.”
I thought about it for a second or so and asked Jimmy if he was serious.
“Yeah. Yeah. If you introduce me to the girls at your table, I’ll introduce you to Chad.”
Sensing a challenge, I agreed and we went back to our table so I could get my drink. I told the girls I’d be right back, but Jimmy would keep them company while I was gone.
We got to Chad’s table. He stood up — man, he was even better looking up close with sandy blonde hair, brown eyes with flecks of green, a rugged face with a hint of a five o’clock shadow and the physique of a Greek god — somewhat surprised to see me with Jimmy. He shook my hand and said, “Hi. I’m Chad and you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve seen in here tonight.”
All I could blurt out was, “Sam.”
Jimmy made a quick exit back to my girls and I sat down to chat with Chad.
The bar maid arrived and asked if we wanted anything. “I’ll have what he’s having,” I said, and Chad told her another Coke — “I’m the designated driver.”
“So am I,” I laughed, although the Coke I brought from my table may have had a little Bacardi in it.
There we sat — for about the next four hours — just talking (except for a few bathroom/update breaks with the girls). He just completed his junior year studying engineering at nearby Manhattan College. He was also from northern New Jersey, although he had an apartment with three other Manhattan students in The Bronx, including Jimmy. He was open and appeared to be honest. He didn’t talk much about himself, but wanted to know about me. And he listened. I know because he would occasionally bring up something I mentioned earlier in our conversation. And he seemed to love moving my hair from my eyes after a laugh.
It was the first time in my life I felt so much at ease with a guy.
A little after midnight, the girls started getting a little rowdy, so I told him I should probably get them home. “Okay, I’ll walk you out to your car.”
He held my hand as we walked to the parking lot. I gave the girls the keys so they could get settled in. We got to the car and he said, “This was fun. I’m so glad I got a chance to meet you.”
And he surprised me again. I was expecting a kiss, but instead he brushed back my hair and gave me a peck on the cheek. Then he whispered in my ear, “Can I call you sometime?”
“Sure,” was all I could muster as I reached into the giggling car to give him my number. Bernie already had it written down and handed it to me. I gave it to Chad … and he kissed me.
I didn’t have to wait long. The next morning around 11 the phone rang. It was Chad. He told me he really enjoyed talking with me last night and asked what I was doing. Actually, I told him, Bernie was here and we were getting ready to go to the mall. As we were chatting, Bernie realized who it was and started teasing me, you know, mouthing “Chad” and going into a pantomime faint, or mouthing “I love you” or hugging herself in a mock embrace. So, there I was trying to hush her and listen to him.
Finally, he said he wouldn’t keep me, but he wanted to know what I was doing tonight. When I said, “Nothing,” he asked if he could see me. “I’ll plan something if that’s okay,” he said. “I’d love to see you again. Pick you up about six? We’ll grab a bite to eat.”
“Well, sure,” I responded, as I started twirling my hair — something I never did before. “Where are we going?”
“I have something in mind,” he said. “See you around six.”
“Well, wait, what should I wear? Casual? Dressy?” I stammered as Bernie continued to mock me.
“You would great in rags,” he said. “Just dress comfortably. Nothing special.”
As I hung up, Bernie grabbed me like a school girl. “Aw, you like him, don’t you?” she said, as she danced around the kitchen to the tune of “Sammy’s got a boyfriend. Sammy’s got a boyfriend.”
“Stop. I do not,” I protested, although I could feel my face flushing the shade of my highlights. “What should I wear? Let’s go. I’ll pick up some new jeans and a top at the mall.”
Of course, Bernie had to let Betty and Lynn know before we left and the four of us met at the mall to do some power shopping. The three of them kept teasing me all afternoon, but helped pick out some jeans and a cute top, new nail polish and lipstick. They all came back to the house to help me get ready. And as the polish dried and the last hair was put in place, they all, in unison, said, “Awww.”
At six, almost on the dot, the doorbell rang. Betty ran out of the room, but couldn’t get to the door before Mom. “Good evening Mrs. Casey. I’m Chad,” he said, extending his hand. Mom smiled and said, “You must be here for Sam. Come in.”
“She’s just about ready,” chimed in Betty, giving me the cue to make my grand entrance.
Before Mom could start her inquisition, I walked out. “Wow, you look beautiful,” he said, then turned to Mom and said, “I see where Sam gets her beauty.” I actually saw Mom blush. I don’t think I ever saw that before. “We won’t be too late,” he added as I gently pushed him out the door. “See you later Mom,” I added, leaving poor Betty to field what I knew was going to be a million questions.
Chad continued to be the perfect gentleman. We walked arm in arm to the car and he even opened the door. He drove to my favorite hot dog joint — how did he know I loved Falls View? Oh, yeah, I had mentioned it last night. Wow, he was listening! — and he ordered me two dogs all the way, Frenchies well done and birch beer, looked at me with a wink and said, “Right?” — Wow, he really did listen.
From there we headed to the Sunset Bowl for a night of bowling. Now, I had never bowled in my life, so this was going to be an experience. Chad told me it was easy. You just roll the ball down the alley and knock down the pins. And it felt good when he wrapped his arms around me to show me how to hold the ball.
I think my “high” score was around a 26, but we really had fun laughing and playing and talking.
The night was still young and I wondered what was next as we walked back to the car. The surprises continued. We drove up to Garrett Mountain and parked in an area overlooking the city affectionately known as Lover’s Cove and a place I had been to before a number of times. “This is it,” I thought. “Let the real Chad show up.”
He got out, went to the trunk, pulled out a blanket and carefully placed it on the hood. Then he opened my door, took my hand, led me to the blanket and helped me up. And there we sat there under the twinkling stars overlooking the twinkling city lights, holding hands and just talking, oblivious to the steamy windows of the cars around us. I didn’t want it to end.
The night ended, but our relationship didn‘t. Instead it continued to grow throughout that summer. Chad and I spent a lot of time together and got to know each other a lot better. And he never wore off.
He saw me at my worst when I had a summer cold … and still said I was “beautiful.” He put up with my moods, gently turning my sour side into a sweeter one with just the right phrase or joke. He encouraged and challenged me every time we went out.
I must admit, by summer’s end, I was quite smitten with him. And it appeared to be mutual. After all, for most of the summer, where he was, I was. We went to the shore, and movies, and long drives, and parking on Garrett Mountain. We learned a lot about each other, but still knew our boundaries. Sure, there was plenty of holding hands and hugging and kissing and even a little fondling, but we both knew when to slow down. I think that’s what I loved about him — yes, I said loved. He listened patiently to my words and my heart. He gave me his prime time, not the leftovers. He praised me. He surprised me. He courted me. He treated me like a queen in front of other people.
I learned Chad was very focused on his career, both engineering and the Air Force. He would talk about how he could blend both after graduation. And he took his studies seriously. So I wasn’t sure where our relationship would go when school started.
It changed, but not all that much. Even though we went to school near each other in The Bronx, we lived in different states, so phone calls were expensive. Yet, he found a way to keep in “touch.” He would call to just say, “I love you!” or “I was thinking about you!” or “I miss you!” He planned either a Friday or Saturday night date, usually in the City. He scheduled study dates either at the library or his place — and forced me to study! We went to ball games, museums and plays in the City, just long walks in Riverside Park or VanCortlandt Park.
My Mom invited him and his family to Thanksgiving Dinner and they accepted. It went well, except she managed to embarrass me over and over with her questions and her revelations about my childhood (“she was a cute baby; do you want to see some pictures?” … “she was shy and awkward” … “she was book smart but didn’t have much common sense”). Thankfully, Chad rescued me to meet up with Bernie and Jimmy.
In the middle of traffic he pulled the car over, took my hand and said, “You know, I love you. Every day I love you more. But I have to know if you feel the same way.”
“Yes! Yes! Without a doubt!” I screamed, grabbing his head in my hand and planting a long, deep kiss.
From that moment on, it was official. We were a couple. It seems Bernie and Jimmy were also a couple, although we were too engrossed in ourselves to even notice.
Not much changed as went through the rest of the school year. I knew we still had to get through his stint with the Air Force and I still had two more years of school, so we never talked about marriage. In fact, we never talked about getting engaged, either. But he would indulge my fantasies when we walked past a jewelry store or bridal shop, always with a big grin on his face.
I did stay at his apartment a couple times during the winter when the weather got bad and I slept in his bed … alone. He wouldn’t have it any other way. By February I started keeping some clothes at his place so I could get ready “properly” if we went into the City. During spring break, I went with Chad and his family to Florida. I was so proud to be his escort to a Military Ball just before his graduation and had tears of joy in my eyes as he walked up to receive his degree.
We only had a few weeks between graduation and his assignment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Two weekends before he had to leave, I decided to cook him dinner, Chicken Chasseur, baked chicken breast in a tarragon mushroom sauce, with Glazed Carrots, Pommes Anna and French bread. I picked up a bottle of a nice Bordeaux. I made a Pumpkin and Pecan Cheesecake. Mom and Dad were out of town for the weekend visiting relatives in Delaware.
Chad was right on time, as usual. The table was set, but I was still in my sauce-stained apron with hints of flour dusting my hair. I lit the candles, told Chad to get comfortable, went in and freshened up, came back and served dinner. It was magical. The chicken was moist and tasty (I had never prepared an ENTIRE meal by myself) and the French bread was the perfect accompaniment for the sauce.
After dessert, we went to the couch to talk and cuddle. I don’t know if it was the intoxication of the wine or the realization this all was ending, but I wanted to go further than just kissing. As I started unbuttoning his shirt, he asked, “Are you sure about this?” to which I responded, “definitely” as I led his hand to the buttons on my blouse. This was new territory for both of us … skin on skin.
As I got up to take off my jeans, I reached out to him and led him to my bedroom. “Are you sure about this?” he asked again. “Definitely,” I responded. And there in my bed, we made love, both exploding in ecstasy. We both lay in each other’s arms for what seemed like hours. Eventually he rolled over and dozed off. I just kept staring at him, my head resting on my hand.
As the euphoria waned and the afterglow ebbed, though, second thoughts crept into my mind. I felt what we did was right, but my upbringing nagged my thoughts. “What did I do?” “What am I going to do?” “Why did I listen to him when he told me he loved me?” “He’s leaving next week.” “Is he going to leave me now?” “What did I do?”
And there I was, literally and figuratively stuck buck naked between the wall and a man. How did an in-control woman lose so much control.
As I lay there just staring, Chad woke up. He rolled over, kissed my arm, then propped his head on his hand and kissed me. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I responded. “I just have to pee,” I added as I bolted up and grabbed a blanket to hide my nakedness on my way to the bathroom. I threw in a towel for Chad.
When I was returned, Chad was already getting dressed. “I knew it,” I thought to myself. He asked me again if I was alright, then said he probably should be going. “I don’t want to give the neighbors anything to talk about,” he said as we walked toward the door. “You do know I love you,” he said as he kissed me goodnight.
As his tail lights faded down the street I convinced myself my actions ruined a perfect relationship. I put on some floppy sweats, made myself a cup of tea and wrapped myself in a blanket on the couch. The minute hand on the clock inched ever so slowly … 12 after … what seemed like forever … 13 after … another eternity … 14 after … And with each minute, another argument raged in my mind. What we did was right. What we did was wrong. What did I do? What am I going to do? Why did I listen to him when he told me he loved me? He’s leaving next week. Is he going to leave me now? What did I do? When was daylight coming so I could call Bernie? I needed her and I needed her now.
Shortly after 8 o’clock I made the call. Her mom answered and got her. She was still half asleep when she answered, but as soon as I said “Bern” she knew something was wrong and immediately became much more alert and awake. “What’s wrong, Sam? What’s wrong?”
As I started to blurt out “I think I messed …” she cut me off. “I’ll be there in a half hour.”
She walked in the door and found me crying, all curled up on the couch. I reached up to her and really burst into tears. She sat down next to me and hugged me. “Calm down, Sam. Tell me what happened.”
Through a box of tissues I told her everything — from dinner to dessert. She never said a word, just kept the tissues coming. After I finished my tale, she said, “Did it feel right?”
“Yes,” I sobbed. “No.” Then I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”
“Well, do you love him?” she asked.
“Yes, but that’s the problem. I don’t know if he still loves me.”
“What makes you say that?” she asked. “Did he say something?
“No,” I whimpered. “He said he loved me, but he went home.”
“Okay,” Bernie said, “You’re thinking too hard. You guys have been going out for a year…”
I interrupted her. “I know, but we never went all the way. He knew I wanted to wait and I thought he wanted to wait. But we got caught up in the moment and one thing led to another … and now I’m afraid he’s gone.”
“That’s silly,” she said. “I’ve seen you two together. He not only loves you, but he respects you too. That’s more than a lot of guys…”
“But,” I interrupted again, “that’s the problem. I don’t know if he will still respect me.”
“Well, maybe you should talk to him,” Bernie offered. “Come on, enough of this pity party. We can’t change the past. You know that, hell, you told me that, remember? But you still can control the future. You’re the same fun-loving girl you were yesterday,” she added, then put on an infectious smile and added, “only today you’re a woman” as she poked my arm.
She was, of course, right, but I was positive Chad would soon be history. He was leaving for Ohio next week and I would quickly become a memory.
When Chad called later in the day, the first thing he said was, “Are you okay? I sensed something was wrong when I left last night. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Do you want to talk?”
“No, everything is fine. Last night was … well … special,” I gushed. “I’m okay, just a little tired. How about a rain check?”
He tried to convince me to go out, but I continued to say no until he finally said “Okay, Sam, but remember, I love you!”
That was Sunday. He tried again Monday and Tuesday. Each time, I found an excuse. I knew we should talk about Saturday night, but I wasn’t ready. And with each passing day, I started insulating my heart from breaking.
Wednesday night Chad showed up at my door. He gave me a kiss, say hi to Mom and Dad, and tried to whisk me out the door. “Let’s go for coffee,” he said. At first I resisted, but Mom started asking questions so off we went to the diner.
“Something is wrong,” he said as the waitress brought our coffees. “Is this about Saturday?”
“No, nothing is wrong,” I insisted.
“Bullshit!” he said, catching me off guard because I don’t think I had ever remembered him saying anything even remotely off color.
“No, no, everything is fine,” I said. “Saturday … was … was … wonderful. I guess you … I guess I thought you should spend some time with your family since you’re going to Ohio next week.”
“I spend enough time with my family,” he said. “I want to spend my time with you. But there is something else going on. I know you wanted to wait and I’m sorry we didn’t. I wanted to wait, too. But it doesn’t change anything. I love you, even more.”
“I know and … it … was … great,” I stuttered, grasping for each word. “I’m not sorry we made love…”
He interrupted me. “Yes, we made love. We did not just have sex.” He put his hands on mine. “Sam, I love you.”
With that, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a little box. I opened it. It was two white gold rings studded with small diamonds and soldered together with a big gap in the middle. I just looked at him with a quizzical expression on my face.
“That’s the wedding ring I picked out for you,” he said, as he reached into his other pocket and pulled out another little box. I opened it. It was another white gold ring with a diamond proudly standing in a simple yet elegant setting.
“That’s the engagement ring I picked out for you,” he added. Then he put the two settings together. “A perfect fit,” he said. “Just like you and me. They were made for each other. Just like you and me.”
I was speechless.
“Samantha Marie Casey, will you marry me?”
I was still speechless as the conversation at the table started to draw some attention.
“Samantha Marie Casey, will you marry me?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m positive. Samantha Marie Casey, will you marry me?”
“Yes! … Yes!” I said through welled eyes. The crowd around us started clapping and saying, “Way to go” as I pushed my left hand out.
“No …” Chad said. The crowd stopped clapping. Some whispered “What did he say?” Our waitress dropped her coffee pot. “… not sometime in the future. I mean right now, this weekend. Sam, I love you. I don’t want to wait to make you my wife.”
As the claps started erupting again, I answered, “I love you, too. This weekend it is!”
The claps turned into hugs and handshakes from total strangers. The couple in the booth next to ours picked up our check. Our waitress brought us a piece of cake she cut into the shape of a heart. Even the cooks came into the dining area to offer their well wishes. There we were, two young lovers being treated like rock stars. And amid the commotion, we were isolated, existing just for each other.
For the rest of the evening, we planned our marriage. We agreed not to tell anyone, although Jimmy knew “sort of,” not the specifics but what Chad was thinking. If Jim knew, Bernie knew, since they were a couple as well. And we both agreed we wanted them to be a part our wedding.
We agreed not to tell our parents or friends. We knew eloping would disappoint them, but this was our moment and we didn’t want any lectures. It was a little surreal. Both of us are more, well, practical.
Chad said he would make all the arrangements. He would pick me up early Saturday morning and we would head to Maryland. All I needed to do was come up with a cover story … and of course, spending the weekend with Bernie was perfect.
Even though it was late when I got home, I called Bernie. “You have some time tomorrow? We have to talk about something,” I said.
She cut me off. “He did it, didn’t he. He asked you to marry him! That son of a gun. I knew it. I knew it!”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “That’s why we have to talk … tomorrow.”
“I’ll see you about nine,” she said as she hung up.
I filled her in and even romantic Bernie was impressed with the details. She said Jimmy had told her Chad was going to ask me to marry him, but they thought it would be later this year. This weekend. Elope. “I didn’t see that coming with Chad,” she said.
“Okay, this is between us. We’ll go shopping tomorrow. You’ll be the most beautiful bride ever,” she said as she started to cry and hug me. “You’ll be the most beautiful bride ever.”
Friday we went to the mall. After looking through what seemed like hundreds of dresses, I picked a long white A-line satin dress with a criss cross chiffon bodice and a behind the neck tie. Bernie insisted I wear my hair up and found an orchid hair piece that complemented the ensemble. Then we went into the lingerie department where she picked out a short style peignoir set. Both the gown and robe were embellished with embroidered lace and beads and had chiffon flounces on sleeve hems and hem of gown and a chiffon tie at the back waist. The wrap robe also had a tie. That was her gift to me.
I spent Friday night at Bernie’s house. Chad and Jimmy picked us up bright and early Saturday and as we entered the Garden State Parkway, I realized we really were going through with this. We pulled into the parking lot at the Sutton Inn in Elkton, MD, around noon and checked in. Bernie and I went to one room and Jim and Chad to the other so we could get ready.
By four, we were at the Little Wedding Chapel. Chad looked so dashing in his uniform and he just stared at me in my dress. As he took my hand, he whispered in my ear how incredibly beautiful I was and how incredibly proud he was that I was going to be his wife. With a simple “I do” I became Samantha Watt … Mrs. Chadwick Watt. It had a nice ring to it.
Following the ceremony, the four of us went to dinner. We were so thankful for all Bernie and Jim did for us and we predicted they would be next. We left them around eight and retired to our room — our room — which the Inn staff cleaned and freshened with rose petals on the king size bed and a bottle of champagne chilling.
We talked for awhile, figuring out how we were going to tell our parents, figuring out where we would live, fantasizing about our future together. Around 10, I went into the bathroom and walked out in my negligee. It admittedly did not stay on very long and this time it felt right, very right,
The first thing Chad and I had to do was face our parents. We went to my house first.
As we walked in the house, I called Mom from the kitchen and Dad from his upstairs workshop. When they gathered in the living room, I announced, “Mom, Daddy, Chad and I got married.”
It seemed like forever before either of them said anything, although it really was just a matter of seconds. Mom broke the silence.
“You did what? When? Where? What were you two thinking?” she asked in her usual animated manner. And before I could answer, she continued, “No! No! This is wrong! This is wrong! Are you pregnant?”
“No, Mom. I’m not pregnant ad this isn’t wrong!” I responded.
“How could you do this to us?” she continued, oblivious to my words. She then looked directly at Chad and said, “How could you do this? How could you take advantage of my daughter?”
“Mom,” I interjected. “This was our decision, not Chad’s, ours.”
“And what am I supposed to tell everybody? My daughter got married and didn’t care enough to tell me.”
“Mom, listen to yourself. Why do you always have to be the center of attention. Can’t you be happy for us?”
“No,” she said. “This is a mistake you’ll regret for the rest of you life. After all we’ve done for you. You’re so ungrateful.”
Tears were pouring from my eyes as she turned away with her hands waving.
Daddy stepped in. He was certainly shaken by the news, but gave me a tearful hug and whispered, “I’ll talk to Mom. I’ll make her understand. We went through this exact same thing. We eloped just before I was deployed to Korea.” That was a story I had never heard before.
Then he gave me a bigger hug and said, “Congratulations! I love you. Don’t ever forget that.” And he turned to Chad with an outstretched hand that evolved into a hug. “Welcome to the family, as crazy as it is. You just better make sure you take care of my little girl.”
“I will, sir,” Chad responded.
“Have you told your folks yet?” Dad continued, and when we told him they were next, he shooed us out the door. “Go. I’ll take care of things here.”
The ride to Chad’s house was quiet. I was replaying the scene at my house over and over in my mind while Chad tried to calm me down. “We’ve got each other, right?” he would say. “Hey, I love you … No regrets.”
Chad led the way into his house and called his Mom and Dad. The scene was eerily similar yet distinctively different. “Mom. Dad. I want to introduce you to my wife, Samantha Watt.”
His Mom started to cry but without the histrionics. She reached out to me and grabbed my hand. “Let me see that ring,” she said. “Welcome.” Then she turned to Chad and gave him a playful punch in the arm. “You could have warned me,” she said. His Dad was a little more reserved at first, but quickly warmed up. “Congratulations, you two. I never would have thought you would just run off.”
He put his arm around his wife. As she looked up at him, he asked if my parents knew. When we related the story, he said “I’ll give Joe a call.” His Mom asked who else knew.
So many questions … so few answers.
The parents set up a dinner with us the next day. We agreed, but on our way back to the hotel, I told Chad we were being set up. “You know they want to separate us,” I said.
“I know,” said Chad, “but that’s not going to happen.”
Our dinner went just as expected. My mom, while cordial, said she felt I should stay at home while Chad “figured out the lay of the land” in Ohio. Besides, she said, “you still have school. You’re not going to throw away the past three years, are you?” Dad, likewise, had a million reasons why his little girl should not go to Ohio. Chad’s dad said he was willing to build a little apartment for us, a project his mom fully endorsed. And all four felt we should get married “in the eyes of God.”
We listened, at first adamant about starting our lives together. But the constant “suggestions” started wearing us — or, more accurately — Chad down. After dessert, we gave them all our hugs and kisses and headed back to the hotel. That’s when Chad said, “You know, they made some sense. I have to report for duty. I don’t even know if I’ll be allowed off base right away. And I don’t know anything about the Dayton area.”
I, on the other hand, was very quiet. I said very little, my eyes slowly welling with tears. Finally, I pulled my hand away and said to him, “Why did we even bother to get married?”
I guess you could say that was our first disagreement, just over two days from our I do’s.
I knew Chad was right, but I was hurt. I felt betrayed, especially since he promised it — our separation — wouldn’t happen.
We continued to discuss the issue at the hotel and “agreed” I would stay here while he settled in. But I let him know in no uncertain terms I wasn’t happy with the decision. We went to bed with a kiss and “I love you” but we went to sleep — or at least pretended to sleep.
Tuesday, Chad headed to Ohio and I went back home.
I was adamant about moving to Dayton and immediately started making plans. I went to my guidance counselor who worked with me to find another school in Ohio … Wright State University. My credits and clinical time could be transferred.
I also learned a lot about being a military wife. While we were 99% certain Chad would be assigned to Wright-Patterson, we didn’t expect him to leave for Commissioned Officer Training at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama for a month. His mom, dad, brother and I flew down for his graduation, and the two of us drove back to Dayton so we could do some “apartment hunting.” We found a nice little attic apartment just outside of the city … just in time for me to rush home, pack up necessities, return and get ready for my final year in college. It was a wild August.
Mom, of course, was livid. In fact, before I headed to Alabama, we had one of our traditional battles. How could I do this. Why am I shutting her out. What about a church wedding. Don’t I care about anyone but myself.
The two weeks softened her — a little. But she stubbornly insisted we have a church wedding. Chad and I had talked about it and really were content with what we did, but we did agree to a small gathering for family and friends over the Thanksgiving weekend.
When I got back home, I relayed the information to Mom. But I also told her it was going to be small and simple and Chad and I were just going to show up. We really felt we would be too busy to plan a formal wedding.
She thought for a minute and agreed. She contacted the church, planned the reception, sent out the invitations. All we had to worry about was the wedding party and showing up. Surprise, we ended up with a small, intimate wedding with over 250 guests! Mom kind of got carried away … although in retrospect, it did turn out well. Of course, she couldn’t let my decision to wear my original wedding dress go without criticism.
Our first “home” was a three-room attic apartment, just big enough for the two of us. We learned so much there — about each other, about ourselves, about life in general. Chad learned a new language — womanspeak — and expanded his vocabulary with words like “period,” “PMS” and “cramps.” He discovered Midol was a real product with a real purpose and uncovered the true meaning of mood swings — didn’t understand them, mind you, but quickly recognized their existence. He learned what not to say (usually after it was too late and his foot was firmly inserted in his mouth) and always to put the toilet seat down. He learned the difference between the playful and light “Chad,” the are you kidding “Chaaaad” and the very serious “Chadwick.”
I taught him how to eat leftovers and we actually built up a tolerance for 1,000 recipes with Spam. Spam and Beans with Maple Syrup was his favorite.
Chad introduced me to sleeping with the window open — even in the dead of winter — and the pure exhilarating pleasure of waking up with snow on your nose … going to Dairy Queen during a blizzard … sleeping in the nude (although I never bought into that one) … and shopping and doing laundry at three in the morning.
We learned about budgeting, meal planning, bill paying, stretching paychecks, entertaining ourselves, sale searching, coupon clipping, naps, afternoon delight and just plain old relaxing.
We managed to do a lot together despite our crazy schedules … always starting with a cup of coffee in the morning when we could and ending with us tucking each other in at night. We were very happy and comfortable in that little three-room apartment.
Our first Christmas season brought us our greatest gift. I remember the night we became pregnant. After making love, Chad stroked my hair as he loved to do and whispered excitedly, “Tonight, we created a new life.” I could only respond, “I know.”
That could have been wishful thinking, but a couple of days later my mood was down. Chad asked me what was wrong and I blurted I “knew” I was pregnant, but “you spoiled the good news. I wanted to be the one to tell you the rabbit died.”
Everything was confirmed … and it was time to face the realities of parenthood. I mean, I was just 20 and Chad just turned 22. What did we know about being parents?
Well, like those before us and those who came after us, it was a learning experience on the fly. I worried about practical things like not having a crib. Chad worried about having another mouth to feed. But we got through it. I actually graduated with a little baby bump. On Sept. 8, 1978 at 4:12 p.m., Chad(wick) William Watt Jr. joined the world. We opted to call him JR.
We could take JR anywhere and he would sleep. Except for maybe potty training, he was a perfect introduction to parenthood. But his arrival forced us to look for a larger two-bedroom apartment, actually on base. To be sure, when we moved into the apartment, it marked the end of our honeymoon. When we moved out, it marked a new beginning in our lives.
I worked for a little while before JR was born, but Chad said my job was to take care of our son. And I took it seriously.
We took an early vacation in 1980 to Lake George in the Adirondacks of New York. It was so peaceful — hectic days with Frontiertown and petting zoos capped with nights under the stars overlooking the lake. It was just a one-room cabin and I was busy rearranging things — like furniture — when we arrived. I moved a couple of chairs onto the porch and that was our nightly sanctuary. I would make a pot of coffee and we would just unwind while JR slept inside. We would just sit for hours talking about the first couple of years of our marriage and our future. I know we had never had that much of a relaxing vacation before.
I was in an upbeat mood. I thought it was the clean air, but as we were getting ready to go back home, I walked to the car with JR in my arms, gave Chad a big hug and kiss. I know it came out of nowhere, then added, “I’m not sure, but I think I’m pregnant.”
I was, but it was a rough pregnancy. Chad had to go to Colorado for a few weeks. He called every night but I never told him how I was feeling. Actually I was spotting for a couple of days but I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even call my doctor. Great nursing training, huh!
That changed as soon as Chad walked through the door. He immediately called my doctor and whisked me off. Everything seemed okay, but the doctor ordered bed rest for a couple of weeks. Yeah, like that was going to happen … especially with a two year old running around.
But we got through it and cried tears of joy when Katelyn Danielle Watt was introduced to the world Jan. 25, 1981 at 4:12 a.m.
There were birthday parties and watching JR and Kate-D grow. There were times playing cards with our neighbors. There was a steady stream of friends at the apartment.
Kate-D was impossible and didn’t want to sleep anywhere except in her crib. So we never went out. She was also a rocker and put her head through the crib headboard. Meanwhile, JR was being a typical toddler getting into everything … like repainting the living room walls with butter. The two urchins wore me down.
Chad noticed a new housing development going up. He packed us up and we went to see the area. The land was just being cleared and there was only one “show home” and a couple of others under construction. We went through the figures and calculations. Since the house was under construction, we could “save” some money by not adding a gambrel roof, doing our own painting, etc. All we needed was about $7,000 down — the equivalent of about $1,000,000 today.
Chad and I went through every possible scenario to get our payments in line. If we sold the car … if we scrimped here and there … if we … I admit, I was less enthusiastic and more realistic. If we sold the car we would have to get another one. Even if we scrimped and saved, the pennies wouldn’t add up fast enough.
Somehow, the pieces fell into place. Chad was promoted in rank and pay. We found a buyer for the Chevy wagon and a reliable replacement (no more car payments). We kept filling our water jug with loose change and culled as many extras from the house as we could, like a finished basement, painting, landscaping except for some basic seeding, the gambrel roof over the door, etc. The mortgage application somehow went through. We were going to be new homeowners!
We closed in late 1983. After a check for the escrow … and another for the taxes … and another for the insurance … and another for the points … and another for, I don’t remember what, were both in shock. When we got back to the car, all I could ask was, “What did we just get ourselves into? Are we going to be okay?”
Chad said, “Sure we are.” It all turned out fine … just don’t ask me how.
We managed to get some of the work done around the house. Chad was a good engineer, but not as handy with a hammer or screwdriver. Still, he had a patio poured — it had a slight pitch, okay, a marble would roll right off it — and he did finish a room in the basement — okay, it had a gaping hole in the closet and he never did find his hammer after putting up the wallboard. I always teased him about being able to design detailed plans, but not being able to follow them. I sure was glad he was designing and not building projects for the U.S. Air Force!
We finally got the fireplace we had to scrub when the house was built and my forsythia twigs matured into a vibrant break on the edge of our property line. We even got a puppy … a playful Irish setter named Harrigan who fit right in with the family.
Chad spent a lot of time with the kids. He taught JR how to fish, usually with Kate-D tugging at his pant leg pleading, “Can I go too, daddy? Please!” One day I came home from shopping and found Chad sitting on the floor “drinking” tea with his four year old daughter. And there was Little League and Brownies and “boys weekends” and dance recitals.
And, like he did when we were dating, he listened patiently to my words and my heart. He gave me his prime time, not the leftovers. He praised me. He surprised me. He continued to court me. He treated me like a queen in front of other people.
Even though we were a military family, it still seemed normal. Since he worked on projects with mostly civilian engineers, there weren’t many “Air Force” rules to deal with. He had most weekends and holidays off.
But there was that time in 1986. He and his team had to go to Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to integrate their portion of a satellite monitoring project with other teams from around the country. It was supposed to be about a six week assignment that dragged to over six months. We missed Thanksgiving and it looked like we were going to miss Christmas as well.
Somehow, he found a friend of a friend of a friend who couldn’t use their condo in Aspen over the Christmas holidays. He called and asked me if I wanted to celebrate Christmas in Colorado. I had about a million reasons why we shouldn’t, but I sure did miss him and I knew the kids did too. We thought about flying, but I decided to drive the three days and 1,200 miles with a five and eight year old. It was quite an adventure, navigating unpredictable weather and trying to keep JR and Kate-D occupied. But it was worth it.
Chad brought a Christmas tree and had it decorated when we arrived. We spent our days skiing and sledding and building snowmen. We drank gallons of hot chocolate. We not only celebrated Christmas but JR’s and Kate-D’s birthdays. At night after the kids were settled in, we snuggled in front of the fireplace … and then some. It was like a second honeymoon.
Of course, all good things come to an end and the kids and I returned home. Chad finally made it back — on Valentine’s Day with a dozen red roses. He never ceased to amaze me.
Later in the summer, Chad and I were in the PX doing some shopping. Out of the blue, he says, “Do you think we should start going to church?”
Stunned, I stopped in my tracks. “What?”
“Do you think we should start going to church?” he repeated.
“Is something wrong? Are you okay?” I answered, instinctively, thinking he may be melancholic since we just buried his father a couple of months ago.
“I’m fine,” he insisted. “Forget it. I just thought the kids should start learning about God.”
Now, Chad and I were brought up in the church and we were believers. But we never really practiced our faith after we got married, except for maybe a Christmas or Easter service and weddings and funerals.
“I’m not against it,” I said as I started wheeling my wobbly-wheeled cart back down the aisle. “You just caught me off guard. Why don’t we get a coffee and talk about it?”
Well, that’s exactly what we did. Chad explained faith and church attendance had become a fairly regular topic in the office. He thought it might be time to do something. After all, he reasoned, JR was almost 10 and Kate-D was seven. “We know what we believe, but what about them?”
“Sure, hon. We can go to church. That was never an issue. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay, that’s all,” I said.
Since we both grew up in the Catholic church, I figured we would be heading to St. Paul’s down the street. But Chad suggested Grace Community Church in Huber Heights about 12 miles away. He said a couple of the members of his team went there and spoke about it favorably.
I was skeptical, but we packed up the kids and went to Sunday’s 10:50 contemporary service. The kids went off to children’s church and Chad and I encountered a totally different worship experience. Everyone was friendly and helpful. It was a casual atmosphere with a message that focused on our relationship with Jesus, not a bunch of rules and regulations. It had uplifting music, not stale hymns, with horns and drums replacing the organ. I can’t speak for Chad, but I left with a warm feeling.
Chad suggested we stop at IHOP after the service and we went around the table sharing our views about the church. The kids were just as enthusiastic as I was and over our pancakes we decided to make this a Sunday tradition.
Over the next few months, we got more involved at Grace … bible studies .. family-focused activities … the kids got involved in AWANA. Chad and I found new friends and a home outside our home.
Of course, not everyone approved of our decision. Chad’s Mom and my Dad tolerated the decision, but Mom was … well, Mom. How could I do such a thing? How could I turn away from God? What was she supposed to tell Fr. Pat? Or her friends?
And I thought back to my encounter with the glimpse of white as the sun tried to peek out from behind the clouds on my way out here. It didn’t succeed, but first a ray rained into the picture, followed by a halo of rays. As I caught the rays out of the corner of my eye, my mind drifted back to the time I was driving Kate-D to swimming practice with JR in tow. There was a similar canvas in the sky that day. They thought the light was heaven shining through. Interesting they made that connection. And it led to a brief discussion about Jesus and heaven.
To think, we might not have had that conversation if Chad hadn’t suggested a trip to Grace Community Church.
We headed home to visit the parents for Easter 1989. When we arrived, Chad was complaining about a headache. I gave him a couple of aspirins and all seemed well. By midweek, however, he was complaining of a headache again. Again, aspirin did its magic,
But headaches were unusual for Captain Watt. He was in good shape and regularly passed his physicals with flying colors. To have two bouts with headaches in a week — actually three, he had another one while we were driving back home — were a source of concern for me, although they weren’t constant and easily managed with aspirin.
When he continued to complain over the next few weeks, I suggested he get his eyes checked. He agreed and, sure enough, he was now a candidate for glasses. When he went to get the specs fitted, however, the doctor brushed the side of his head just above the ear. Chad said the casual contact resulted in an immediate, deep, migraine type headache. The eye doctor discovered a swelling just under the hair line and told Chad — and me when I came to pick him up — it should be checked.
So, we headed to the doctor’s. The news was not good. After tests, Chad was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforma tumor, one of the fastest spreading cancer of the brain and the most deadly. It had already started to metastasize and Chad started feeling worse and worse. Ultimately he had a seizure that sent him to the hospital over Memorial Day weekend. Dr. Walker scheduled surgery to take a section for a pathological diagnosis and to remove some of the mass pressing against his brain. He said we would follow with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. But the prognosis, he warned, was not good. Chad’s age and physical shape were a plus, but typical survival was only about a year.
The parents flew in. JR and Kate-D were lost … and there wasn’t much I could do to help them. I was lost, too, stunned and shocked by the sudden turn of events.
We had a chance to talk and pray before Chad went into surgery. We walked down Memory Lane and he told me he never regretted a moment of our time together. “I knew,” he said, “you were my soulmate the first time I talked you in that club in New York. I told you you were the most beautiful girl I had seen.” I reminded him he also added “tonight.”
He also said he was sorry. “For what?” I asked.
“For this. For making you go through this. For everything I ever did to hurt you. I never meant to,” he said, with me hushing him and holding him as tight as I could amid the wires and tubing.
“You … never … hurt … me. You … always … loved … me … unconditionally,” I sobbed. “Get … through … the … surgery … tomorrow. One … day … at … a … time.”
Dr. Walker was less optimistic after the surgery. He said the finger-like tentacles couldn’t be removed and were growing into the temporal lobe, cerebellum and dangerously close to the brain stem. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I think we should consider palliative care.”
Chad wasn’t Chad after the surgery. He had a hard time focusing or recognizing people or places. But he always held on to my hand, squeezing it between pangs of pain. He died June 12 at 12:35 p.m. — a day after our 12th anniversary — with me holding him tight and telling him “I love you.”
Dr. Walker gave us six months. I got 16 days .
I don’t remember much about the calling hours or funeral. I remember keeping my children close under my wing as we greeted an endless line of visitors, but I couldn’t tell you who they were or what they said. I was surprised by the number of people who showed up to pay their respects to Captain Watt … military and civilian. He touched so many lives.
But there he was, decked in his dress uniform, surreally sleeping in his high gloss red cherry casket on almond velvet sheets. An honor guard stood at the corners, watching over my fallen hero.
Pastor Rick officiated and eulogized Chad. I can’t remember all he said, but I do remember him saying a person’s life is like the residue left after drinking a glass of milk. You really have to scrub it to remove its effect. Otherwise it just stays on the glass. Even just a quick rinse can’t remove it. I don’t remember where he was going with the analogy, but it did resonate with me. Chad’s “milk” left its mark on the world.
At the cemetery, all I could do was stare at that flag-draped casket. I don’t know whether I was squeezing JR’s and Kate-D’s hands or they were squeezing mine. The three of us accepted his folded flag and, even though I had been to many military funerals, the staccato of rifle volleys stunned me to my core. Maybe it was the sudden sound amid the eerie silence. The parents took the kids while I just sat there for like what seemed forever, not wanting to leave. The casket took on strange shapes and hues through the lens of teared-up eyes. Dad had to come back from the car to get me. I completely broke down in his arms.
I was still in a fog at home, politely greeting friends but wanting to be anywhere but there. The parents stayed for about a week and we decided to let the kids go back with them. We figured the grandparents could keep them occupied while I went through the mundane chores of new widowhood. I’m still not sure if that was the right decision … for the kids or myself.
I wasn’t sleeping well. Okay, I hardly slept at all. I wasn’t eating right. It was too much trouble cooking for one, even going to the well-stocked freezer for something quick and easy. I broke down at the silence in the house. I couldn’t watch the television shows Chad and I watched together. My first trip to the PX ended three steps inside the door. I just couldn’t go on. There were forms to be filled out, simple forms that took hours to complete. I really had to focus to make sure the check for the electric company actually went into the envelope for the electric company. I started crying every time I wrote a check that still had Chad’s name atop mine and I started crying every time I went to the mailbox and found mail addressed to both of us. I started crying whenever anything triggered a memory … and almost everything did.
I picked up the kids in mid-August.
When I got to Mom and Dad’s house, Mom greeted me with, “Samantha, you look like shit!” Thanks, Mom. I feel like shit, but I was hoping for a better greeting than that.
JR and Kate-D ran up to me with a big “Mommy” and a hug. That was better.
When Dad got home from work, he cradled me in his arms like he used to do when I was a little girl. “Love you, Pumpkin,” he whispered, causing my eyes to flood … and his too.
When I went to Mom Watt’s home, she greeted me warmly and started to lecture me over tea about taking care of myself. I love my mother-in-law, but all I heard was “Blah blah blah blah blah de blah.”
I went to lunch with Bernie and Lynn and the two of them tried so desperately to get me to go down to the shore over the weekend “just like we used to do.” I declined. “There’s too many memories,” I told them. I don’t think they understood but they respected my decision although Bernie stopped by Mom and Dad’s a couple of times. She sure has been a good, close, let’s talk over coffee type friend for so many years.
I only stayed for a couple of days before we headed home. The kids had to get ready for school. It was a quiet ride home, none of us really talking or playing license plate bingo or I spy like we generally did on car rides.
I don’t know why I rushed home. It wasn’t a home anymore, just bricks and mortar, wood and nails, a house. Even the normal commotion of two young kids couldn’t penetrate the eerie silence within the walls.
I still wasn’t sleeping well and I know we weren’t eating right. It wasn’t unusual for either JR or Kate-D to find me crying. I still couldn’t watch television at night and wasn’t focused enough to even read. So I would just pace or putter around the house or sit there in a darkened living room doing nothing … nothing, which would get me to thinking about Chad and all we did and all we planned to do, which drove me deeper into my despair.
That all changed on Sept. 12 — three months to the day after Chad died.
The night before was like so many others. For whatever reason, instead of my pajamas, I had on one of Chad’s old shirts — I just couldn’t get rid of them. I couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for hours, I made my way to the couch and curled up in the fetal position, covered by the Cincinnati Bengals blanket that usually was on the back of Chad’s recliner.
I must have actually dozed off, and in that suspended state, I heard JR telling Kate-D to be quiet. Without opening my eyes, I could hear him pouring cereal for his sister in the kitchen. She asked who was going to brush her hair. He told her he would do it and I could hear a muffled “Ow” followed by a whispered “I’m sorry!” as he apparently discovered a knot. Kate-D said just as quietly, “That’s okay.” They came over by me and blew me kisses as they headed for the door, but I was incapable of responding. I tried, but my eyes and mouth and body remained motionless.
I was in that same fetal position when they came home. I didn’t hear them come in, but felt JR gently stroking my arm. “Mom? Mom? Are you okay?” he said quietly but with a tinge of fear in his voice. As I finally opened my eyes, I saw Kate-D standing next to him with tears streaming from her eyes. “Mom?” he asked again as I managed to pull my arm from under the blanket. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, sweetie, I’m okay,” I said.
“You scared us Mommy,” he said, with Kate-D parroting him, “You scared us Mommy. We thought we lost you too.”
That woke me up. I gathered them up like a mother hen with her chicks under her wing. “I’m okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” I assured them.
With JR hugging me from my left and Kate-D from my right and me embracing both of them in a group hug, all I could say was “I love you. I love you” as I kissed each of them on their head. I could have lived in that moment forever.
“Give me a couple of minutes to get dressed,” I told them, “then we’ll go out for dinner. Where do you want to go?”
Without hesitation and with gigantic smiles on their faces, they said “IHOP!” Kate-D added, “Yeah, IHOP. Can I have pancakes?” she asked. When I said “Sure,” Kate-D responded, “Yeah! Just like when we go with Da…”
She stopped in mid-word, realizing what she was about to say. JR turned with a stern “Kate!”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Yeah, just like when we went with Daddy. Give me a couple minutes to get dressed and we’ll go to IHOP … just like the old days.”
That’s what we did. Breakfast for dinner. Over the pancakes and sausage, I realized how I failed to let the kids talk about how they were feeling about Chad’s death. I was so wrapped up in me, I forgot about them and their hurt and their grief. We talked about the happy times with Chad. “Remember when …” was a preface to a story each of them shared.
When we got home, we gathered around the table and talked some more. When it started getting too melancholic, I packed them up and we walked down the street for some ice cream. We got home and I told them to get into their PJs and brush their teeth. I had another surprise for them. As they were getting ready for bed, I got into my pajamas as well. When they came to kiss me goodnight, I told them we were sleeping together in my bed. “We can talk about Daddy, about how you’re feeling, about school, about anything you want,” I told them. “Tonight is for you. Okay?”
They loved the idea. They snuggled with me — it felt good — and we shared our feelings. There were plenty of tears, but there was plenty of laughter. I got a front row seat into what they were going through … and how I contributed to their angst. It wasn’t always pretty. For the first time in three months, they had an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings.
We talked for hours. Kate-D gave in first, falling asleep around 11. JR hung on for another hour or so. And despite knees in my back and an arm slung over my face, it was the best night’s sleep I had had in months.
The next day, after I dropped the kids off at school, I stopped in the Guidance Office at Wright State. I figured if I needed to move on, I should probably get a refresher nursing course and get my certification. While I was waiting for her, I picked up the local weekly newspaper sitting on one of the tables. By happenstance — is there ever really happenstance? — there was an ad announcing a grief counseling series at Miami Valley Hospital … the same hospital where Chad died. I wasn’t sure I could step back in there, but also knew I couldn’t go on the way I was going. So, I jotted down the number and signed up.
I had opportunities for grief counseling through the Air Force, but I knew so many military families. I just didn’t want to expose myself to people I knew.
When I walked into the chapel for the meeting, I still wasn’t really sure this was the right route to go. But when I looked around and saw the grief on my fellow travelers’ faces and heard Susan’s reassuring voice, I knew I was among friends.
It was painful. I was the rookie of the group — the youngest and the most recently widowed. I allowed the others to step up as I quietly listened. One woman nursed her husband for years battling cancer. Another lost her husband to a heart attack. A woman and her daughter lost a son and brother to suicide. A man came home from work and found his dead wife at the bottom of the stairs. When it was my turn, I offered my tale of woe and, like the others before me, through plenty of tears.
But as I drove home, it dawned on me I was blessed. I had a chance to say goodbye and I knew Chad didn’t suffer long.
Susan kept us on track, touching raw nerves and helping us understand the chaotic emotions we were going through. She played a tape of a song, Be Still by the Celebrant Singers that first night. The opening lyrics are “You’re asking me to tell you how I feel. Well, there’s an ache inside, I don’t think it will heal. But when hope is hard to see, I hear you say to me, ‘Be still and know that I am God’…” She replayed the tape at our last session and instead of the opening lyrics, our focus shifted to the closing lyrics, “…You’re asking me to tell you how I feel. Well, there’s an ache inside, But I think it will heal. “Cause when hope is hard to see, I hear you say to me, ‘Be still and know that I am God’…”
Over the years, whenever I feel myself spinning out of control, I remember those words from Psalm 46:10.
The crash and shrill comment awakened me from my nostalgic Neverland and brought back into reality. “Mom?” I cried out, at the same time realizing my hands were immersed mid-forearm in soapy water.
“I’m okay,” Mom said. “I just knocked over a table.”
Simultaneously, I cried out again, “Mom, are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” she repeated as I fumbled for a dish towel and headed into the living room.
There she was, on all fours on the floor, picking up 1,000 jigsaw pieces. I noticed a wet spot on her behind, shadowed by a dried, slightly larger stain. I went over and helped her scoop the pieces back into the box and right the table. Then, trying to be discreet and sympathetic as I helped her back to her feet, I said, “Mom, you must have spilled something. Let’s…”
“Or I pissed myself again,” she interrupted.
“Well, let’s get you cleaned up. Then I’ll make some tea, Okay?”
“Okay,” she said as she squeezed my hand and we made our way into the bedroom.
The bedroom. Now, Mom was never Mrs. Homemaker. Her forte was in the kitchen. But when I walked into her room, I was aghast. The bed wasn’t made, there were clothes thrown on it and the floor, drawers were half opened with clothes hanging out, shoes and slippers littered the floor. It looked more like … well, my room when I was a teenager.
As she started changing, I went into the bathroom. The hamper was overflowing, powder was all over the floor, the shower curtain liner was all bunched up with flecks of mold in the creases and the medicine chest was slid wide open.
When I got back to the kitchen to put water on for tea, I was overwhelmed by not only the dishes and glasses and cups I had washed and dried, but also with how many more still had to be done. Where did they come from?
It had been just a few weeks since I was home, visiting then burying Dad. I guess I was so wrapped up with him, I neglected to take notice of Mom. And in that moment, I remembered my last conversation with Dad.
“You have to promise me something, Sweetheart,” he said.
“Anything, Daddy,” I responded through tears. “You know that.”
“You have to take care of Mom.”
“No, I mean it,” he said sternly in a tone I rarely heard from him. “I know you and Mom don’t always get along, but she’s a good woman.”
“Well, I know,” I said.
“Believe it or not, you two are so much alike. But she is going to need you. Give her a chance and promise me you will take care of her.”
As Mom appeared in the kitchen and sat down at the dining room table, I hardly recognized her. How did she age so much in just a few weeks? What was going on?
The nurse in me led to tackling the parade of orange bottles sitting over the sink. Certainly, some of them, no, most of them, were probably Dad’s. I figured I would weed them out and take them down to the pharmacy for disposal.
Sure enough, the first five or so were Dad’s. But there were still a number of bottles left, along with aspirin and vitamins. They were for Mom.
Okay, potassium. That make sense. After all Mom is 76 years old.
Metformin. Well that must be for her diabetes.
All right, furosemide, a diuretic. Makes sense.
Whoa. Norvasc. I know Mom has high blood pressure, but that seems like a pretty potent dose.
Huh? More high blood pressure meds? Lisinopril?
What in the world is this? Aricept. Isn’t that for dementia? When was Mom diagnosed with dementia?
“Mom. Mom.” I called out.
“Have you been taking your meds?”
“Yes,” she said confidently. I looked at the bottles again. When I checked fill dates, the pills used didn’t match.
“Are you sure?” I asked as I carried the handful of bottles into the living room. “I haven’t seen you taking any pills since I’ve been here.”
“You just didn’t see me,” she responded, flicking her hand dismissively.
I sat down next to her. “Mom. What’s going on? What are these all for?”
“I don’t know,” she said candidly. “The doctor said I needed to take these, so I do.”
“But do you know why? Do you know what you’re being treated for? What’s the Aricept for? Are you being treated for dementia?”
“No. No.” she said. “I forget some things sometimes. These are just to help me remember.”
“Well, how are you feeling?” I continued.
“I’m tired … real tired.”
She also looked a little pale, so I pulled out my stethoscope to take her blood pressure. Even though she balked at first, she let me take it. 88/52. Too low. Much too low. No wonder she looks pale and is so tired.
“Okay, Monday I’m calling Dr. Gibson. I need to know how you’re doing and what you’re being treated for,” I told her.
Sheepishly, she responded, “Whatever.”
Mother’s Day morning. In the early hours, I was reading my daily devotional which focused on Titus 2:3-5 … tell the older women … to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited…
The scope of what the younger women need to learn cannot be communicated in words. It is action. It is an older woman who bakes beautifully, whose garden is spectacular. It is the kind of thing that faithful living communicates. It encourages younger women more than you can know – it gives hope towards the future, it gives ideas and inspiration for what kind of women we want to be. But it gives it in a way that is discreet, that encourages without pressuring. It gives it in a way that is not an invitation to complain about your life or fuss about your children. It is encouragement in the best way, encouragement by example…
As I was reading, I heard Mom call out, “Samantha Samantha!” so I immediately stopped and went across the hall to her room.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“I just wanted to know you were still here. I don’t want to be alone. Can you sit with me?”
“Of course,” I said, reaching over to give her a kiss on the cheek with a “Happy Mother’s Day.”
“Oh, Happy Mother’s Day to you dear.”
“Do you want some tea? Do you want me to make you some breakfast?”
“No, I just want you to sit with me.”
“Okay,” I responded, “but I am going to take your vitals. You look awfully pale.”
Her BP was still low and I could feel a lower temperature. I’ve seen the signs before. This wasn’t going to be a long journey.
We sat there, me holding her hand for minutes, although it felt like hours. She would drift in and out of sleep.
Suddenly, out of the blue, she patted my hand and said, “Sam, I’m sorry if I ever hurt you. I love you. I always have loved you.”
“Shh,” I said. “I know you’ve always loved me and I’ve always loved you.”
“But we never told each other, did we?” she said. “I’m sorry for that.”
“I am too,” I answered.
“Why not?” she asked. “Why weren’t we close? Why didn’t we ever talk about it before?”
I crinkled my nose and simply responded, “I don’t know.”
Mom, despite shallow breaths, said she wanted to make me strong and independent. “You had your Dad wrapped around your little finger and I had to be the mean Mom. I had to be the one to say no.”
“You weren’t mean,” I interjected. “But you could be hurtful, almost like my feelings didn’t matter. That’s what bothered me the most. I mean, I could get straight A’s and you would focus on my lone B. I didn’t think I was ever good enough for you,” I added, my eyes welling up. “But I always loved and respected you.”
“I’m sorry sweetheart,” she said. “I just tried to make you strong and independent.” She tried to smile, adding, “I think I was successful … maybe too successful. You’re the strongest, most independent woman I know. And that scared me.”
“I’m not that strong,” I said. “I’m not independent.”
“Well, I’m proud of you. You’re a survivor. That’s all a Mom could ask for.”
She drifted off again, so I got dressed, made some tea and warmed up a couple of muffins. I also called Dr. Gibson just to let him know what was going on. When he called back, all he could say was, “Keep her comfortable.”
As I walked back into her room, she half opened her eyes. She wanted no part of the muffin, but did drink some tea through a straw.
“I’m so tired,” she said. “But I do want you to just sit with me and talk to me. I feel we missed that over the years.”
“Of course. What do you want to talk about? Anything special?”
“How did you get through everything?”
“What do you mean?”
“Putting up with me growing up. Burying …” she said, trying to remember “… your husband … uh”
“Yes, Chad. I should have been there for you.”
“Mom, there was nothing you or anyone could do. I had to work through it myself. Taking care of the kids was a big help.”
“How are the kids doing? JR looks just like his Dad and Kate looks just like you.”
“They’re doing okay. You just saw them a couple of weeks ago at Dad’s funeral.”
“I know, but I didn’t really spend much time with them.”
“Well, JR always dreamed of following in his Dad’s footsteps, joined the Air Force ROTC program at Bowling Green and is now a commissioned officer. Unlike his father, though, he is a pilot,” I reported. “The deployments cost him his first marriage, but he and Heather had two girls, Rachel and Nancy. He’s doing more teaching than flying now and has remarried Bekah. They have a son, Chad III, and a daughter, Diana.
“Kate followed my nursing footsteps, although she was harder to get out of my nest. She went to Wright State but stayed at home until she got married to a fine young man, Al Macias, at age 26 and moved to Toledo. She, too, has two children, a boy John and a girl Kathi.”
Mom interrupted me. “Did Kate give you trouble like you gave me?”
I laughed. “No. She wasn’t as flirty as I was. But I was always a good girl. I may have pushed the envelope, but I set boundaries I wouldn’t cross. That’s because of you, Mom.”
I continued to tell her Kate was and is the “fixer.” “She spent a lot of time trying to take care of me. She would try to set me up with dates with her friend’s fathers or uncles.”
“What about you?” Mom asked. “Why didn’t you ever get remarried? Knowing how outgoing you were growing up, I thought for sure you would find someone else.”
“Never was really interested,” I said. “Chad and I had something so special, I knew it could never be replicated. I mean, I went out on a couple of dates, but it just wasn’t the same.”
“What about your neighbor?” she asked.
“George? He’s been just a very special friend. He lost his wife a couple months before Chad died. JR and his son Georgie were best friends, so George made sure he included JR in camping, Scouting and other guy activities. He helped me around the house and we often would accompany each other to events … not as dates, though. We’ve been special friends … wow … for 24 years.”
“What about Ber … Bet … Betsy?” Mom asked.
“You mean Bernie?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I was never sure whether she was a bad influence on you or you were a bad influence on her.”
I laughed. “Bernie and I have been tight for ever! She’s doing okay. Still lives here in Jersey and operates a hair salon. We talk all the time. In fact we’ll probably get together before I head back.”
“Thank you,” Mom said. “This was nice. Just talking with you. Just having you here with me.”
“Yes, it was nice. Why don’t you rest a little. And remember, I love you.”
“Okay,” Mom said. “I love you, too, and I’m so proud of the woman you’ve become.”
That was out last conversation. Shortly after noon, I felt Mom’s hand go limp in mine and I knew. It was over. I lifted her up and held her in my arms. She had a smile on her face, which put a smile on my crying face. She was home … and we both were at peace.
Even though he was retired, Fr. Pat con-celebrated Mom’s Mass of Christian Burial and offered the homily. An octogenarian himself, he knew Mom for over 25 years, first as a young priest in the parish and later returning as pastor.
During the homily, he looked straight at me. “Samantha, your Mom was so very proud of you. Every Sunday she would tell me ‘Sam did this’ or ‘Sam did that.’ I watched you grow up, not only myself, but through the eyes of your mother. Even when you made questionable choices, it was your mother who defended you. She was behind you all the way from grade school, through high school and into college. She always told me what you were doing in Ohio and about your family. She may not have said it, but she loved you so very much.”
Normally, being singled out like that would have made me squirm. I may have even challenged some of those comments. But I sat with Mom over those last hours and I knew Fr. Pat was spot on. A smile appeared on my face and I looked over at the casket. I could almost see Mom smiling as well.
I found myself driving home alone on the dark black asphalt, seeming darker because of ominous clouds again on the horizon ranging from dark gray to puffs of white. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of white as the sun tried to peek out from behind the clouds. It didn’t succeed, but first a ray rained into the picture, followed by a halo of rays.
I remembered my conversations with the kids when we saw a similar canvas in the sky that day. They thought the light was heaven shining through.
I knew they were right.