When this blog posts on Friday morning, it will be the thirty-fourth anniversary of the weekend Bill and I met.
That particular weekend, starting on Friday June 21st, 1985, I had been invited to do a poetry reading of After the Fire at a Widowed Retreat for newly widowed individuals sponsored by WICS—Widowed Information Consultation Services of King County. The invitation had come to me in a round-about fashion.
After the Fire was first published in the fall of 1984 as part of a church project. At the time I was living in Bay Vista, a building with commercial space on the first six floors and residential space above that. (Any resemblance to Beau’s digs at Belltown Terrace is purely coincidental, right?) There was a flower shop in the lobby of the commercial space run by a guy named Jim Hunt. He took a few copies of After the Fire to sell on consignment and sold one to a woman named Diane Bingham who happened to be a grief support group facilitator for WICS. She passed along the book to some of her support group members, including a guy by the name of Bill Schilb whose wife, Lynn, had died after a seven year battle with breast cancer on New Year’s Eve of 1984/85. Let’s just say he wasn’t particularly impressed.
When Diane invited me to come speak, I agreed, but I was also terrified. My first novel was due to be published at the end of June, a week after the retreat, but at the time, other than doing practice talks in my Toastmaster’s Club, I had done zero public appearances. Not only that, this was a widowed retreat and I wasn’t exactly a widow. My husband had died of kidney and liver failure in lat 1982, two years after I had divorced him. So what business did I have talking to people who were still married at the time their spouses died?
Let’s just say, at the time my former husband died, there wasn’t a whole lot of sympathy going around. One of the men in my office said, “Hey, you divorced the guy, so what’s the big deal?” After that, I pretty much did what I could to stifle.
The retreat was held at a YMCA camp over on the Hood Canal. When I got to the registration table on Friday evening, I voiced my concern to one of the counselors. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “If you feel like grieving, do it here.”
Bill showed up for that weekend’s retreat as well, but not necessarily because he wanted to. Several of the older women in his grief support group wanted to go but were afraid to drive there, and he offered to be their chauffeur. We may have seen one another in passing during the Friday evening festivities, but it wasn’t until noon the next day when we were actually introduced and herded to the same dining table at lunch by someone who happened to know us both. I was distracted all through the meal because I was nervous about the upcoming poetry reading. How nervous? When I was done eating, I jumped up and starting clearing the table before some people were even finished with their plates. For me that’s always a bad sign.
I did the poetry reading that afternoon. There were fifteen or so people in the audience. The guy I had met at lunch wasn’t among them; he was out on the beach, treating himself to a solitary walk.
That evening after dinner the choices were these—an egg race or a grief workshop. Since I had been told that grieving was okay, I chose the latter. There were probably thirty-five to forty people seated in a circle when I stepped inside the room. Nervous about not quite having my ticket punched to be there, I grabbed a seat next to the facilitator. For starters she said we needed to go around the room and say our name, our spouse’s name, what they died of and when they died. Since I was seated next to the facilitator, I started the ball rolling. “My name is Judy and my husband’s name was Jerry. He died of chronic alcoholism on New Year’s Eve, 1982-83.”
Half way around the room was the guy I’d met at lunch. He said, “My name is Bill. My wife’s name was Lynn. She died of breast cancer on New Year’s Eve,1984-85.”
Boom. Just like that we had that date in common—New Year’s Eve.
Then it was time to share. Since I had given myself permission to do the grief work, share I did. I said that I had divorced my husband in 1980, prior to his subsequent death in 1982. Since no one was ringing my doorbell at Bay Vista, obviously my life as a woman was over, so I was raising my kids, writing my books, and making the best of a bad bargain. Then, once it was Bill’s turn to speak, I wanted to hear what he had to say which was … well … nothing. Not one word.
When the workshop was over, I was mad as hell—at him. There was a bonfire outside where people were roasting marshmallows, and I went looking for him with a chip on my shoulder and blood in my eye. “So what are you?” I demanded. “The strong silent type?”
I’ve never forgotten what he said in reply. “No,” he answered, “it still hurts too much to talk about it.”
Within minutes I was literally sobbing on his shoulder. He stood there with one hand on my waist, trying to figure out what he should do with that other hand. He told me later that when he heard me share that “no one was ringing my doorbell,” the thought that went through his brain was, “Hey, I could fix that.” And he did.
The next weekend he came to the grand opening party for Until Proven Guilty. I had given him a personal invitation, but he wasn’t on the “official” guest list, so he had to talk his way past the designated doorkeeper, my daughter.
Over the next few months, we did a lot of talking, sharing our grief work together. In terms of months, I may have been two and a half years ahead of him, but in terms of facing up to grief, we were very much on the same page. We talked about real stuff. We had both been raised with solid Midwest values, so we had a lot in common there. In the course of those long talks, I assured him I wasn’t the marrying kind—that I had tried marriage once and I wasn’t very good at it. Intent on maintaining a “meaningless relationship,” I was shocked when he had a job offer the would have taken him to Grass Valley, California. And then I realized that if this really was a meaningless relationship, I had no right to be upset that he might be leaving. And when he didn’t take the job, I was overjoyed.
On the 16th of October, we had pizza with my kids and then went out for a glass of wine, just the two of us. He had told his secretary at work that he was going to ask me to marry him that night. She bet him I’d say yes. He was pretty sure I’d say I had to think it over.
When he popped the question at a long gone bistro in Pioneer Square, my reply wasn’t what either he or his secretary had in mind. “When?” was all I said, and the when happened to turn out to be December 21st, one day shy of the day we had that lunch together at the Widowed Retreat.
There’s a poem in After the Fire called Fog. It goes like this:
I walk in fog
It’s velvet touch caresses me
And hides the hurt.
Beyond the fog,
The sun shines clear and bright.
I must keep moving, I have earned the light.
For me, the sun broke through the fog that weekend thirty-four years ago, and it’s been shining ever since.
PS For those of you who are very sharp-eyed readers, the name Jim Hunt probably jumped out at you because it sounds slightly familiar, and there’s a reason for that. After 1985, I lost track of Jim for a number of years, but we reconnected in the nineties. When Bill and I bought our current house here in Bellevue, Jim was our interior designer. For years he’s masterminded our Christmas decorations, and for the past two months he’s been directing the action of folding the art and furnishings from the Tucson house into this one. So the fact that Jim Hunt happens to be the name of JP’s and Mel’s interior designer is purely coincidental, too. Right?
Sure, and if you believe that, I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona!