An Anniversary Reflection

Sunday was Father’s Day. For scheduling purposes, we celebrated with a hotdog roast/pool party on Saturday with kids and grandkids. It was an outdoor party, properly socially distanced, and with the total number of attendees limited to eight. Yes, it was an overcast, cloudy day, with temperatures that barely made it to the seventies, but our grandkids are hardy northwesterners, and swimming under cloudy skies is totally normal for them. They don’t need temperatures in the nineties to dive into a swimming pool.

In addition to Father’s Day, however, Sunday was also the thirty-fifth anniversary of the day Bill and I first met at a 1985 retreat for newly widowed folks sponsored by Widowed Information Consultation Services of King County. At the time, I wasn’t exactly newly widowed. At the time of the retreat, I had been divorced for five years, and my former husband had passed away two and a half years earlier, but Diane Bingham, a co-founder of WICs, had encountered my book of poetry, After the Fire, and had invited me to do a poetry reading at the event. The book tells a story of love and loss and deals with the complexities of living inside a marriage drowning in a sea of alcohol. Diane had introduced the book to her grief support group, telling them that After the Fire was an example of the creative use of grief.

Fortunately for me, one of her grief-support attendees was a guy named Bill whose wife, Lynn, had succumbed six months earlier after a seven-year battle with breast cancer. During the grief support group, Bill took a brief glance at the book, decided that I had to be one of those “fire-breathing feminists,” and passed it along to someone else. He wasn’t interested in coming to a poetry reading, but he came to the retreat anyway, primarily because he had promised several of the older widows in his group that, since some of them didn’t drive, he would give them a ride to the retreat which was scheduled to take place at a YMCA camp out along the Hood Canal. Fortunately for me, Bill is a man who keeps his promises.

I was nervous about going to the retreat because all of those other people were still married when their spouses died, while I was already divorced, but the woman at the registration table who signed me in assured me that there was no set expiration date on the process of grieving, and if I needed to do some of that, I should feel free to do so. At the retreat, Bill and I were briefly introduced, but he didn’t attend my poetry reading. Instead, with three college-aged kids in his life, he chose to take a quiet walk along the beach. We encountered each other again that evening during a grief workshop where we discovered that our first spouses had died on the same day of the year two years apart. Jerry Janc and Lynn Schilb both passed away a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

At the marshmallow roast after the workshop, we struck up a conversation based on that same-day coincidence. And that was the start of it. Six months later to the day, on the 21st of December, we got married. Yes, it was a whirlwind romance. No, we didn’t HAVE to get married for traditional shotgun wedding reasons. We got married in a hurry because we’d both seen all our hopes and dreams shattered. We knew that life could be snatched away from us in an instant, and we didn’t want to waste a minute of whatever precious time we might have available.

So Sunday, on the 35th anniversary of the day we met, after wearing our masks for the journey, we sat in an unnaturally sparsely-occupied dining room at John Howie Steak in Bellevue and reflected on both the good times and bad—the highs and lows—of our thirty-five years of being together. We started our celebratory dinner with a pair of our traditional cruise-fare pre-dinner cocktails—Kier Royales.

In our time together we’ve done a good deal of traveling, and not-surprisingly many of our joint high points came from those adventures. The private luncheon we shared with our kids and grandkids at the Ratskeller München while on our Rick Steves Family Adventure was very high on the list. So was Bill’s and my private visit to Andrea Bocelli’s private estate. But the one that we both picked as our primo event was one where together we battled through dark circumstances only to emerge into blazing sunlight on the other side.

We were scheduled to go on a Silversea cruise through the Baltic, starting in Copenhagen and ending in Stockholm. We used Alaska points to book our First Class flights on British from Seattle to Copenhagen, timing our departure so we’d have an overnight in Copenhagen prior to boarding the ship. We arrived at the airport in a timely fashion, checked in, and were waiting in the lounge when they announced that the flight had been canceled due to mechanical issues. We were directed to go downstairs to the ticket counter to see about rebooking. I got in line at the counter while Bill went hiking off through the bowels of SeaTac airport to retrieve our checked luggage.

Bill injured his back in his twenties, and it has bothered him ever since. By the time he struggled back upstairs with all our luggage, his back was on fire. There are very few places to sit around in the ticket counter area, and it took more than two hours of standing in line before I was finally able to have us booked on a Delta flight via Amsterdam the next day, an arrangement that would have us in Copenhagen in time to board our cruise. We left the airport, went back home, barely slept, and were at the airport the next morning for round two.

Our flight on British had been booked First Class. On Delta we were Business—no flat beds. When we arrived in Amsterdam, we had to transverse the entire airport and go back through security before boarding our Copenhagen-bound flight. None on the moving sidewalks were working, and by then Bill was in absolute agony. We had some carry-on luggage, and I had to carry both his and mine! In the end, we made it to the dock on time and were among the last passengers to board the Silver Whisper.

On the Silver Whisper most of the dining occurs in a large dining room, but there are a pair of small upscale dining rooms where reservations are required. Much to our surprise, at check in we were able to get a reservation in one of them, La Champagne, for that very night. It’s a small, elegant space with only seven tables and impeccable service. Our table for two was next to a table for six where the host in charge was, unfortunately, the very epitome of an ugly American, complete with boorish behavior and outspoken complaints about both the food and the service.

But Bill and I didn’t care. We were there in our own private bubble, so grateful that, after everything that had happened we had made it though and were together on the ship at last. We had Kier Royales for the first time in celebration. We loved the food and the service, but most of the time we loved each other, holding hands on the table when our hands weren’t otherwise occupied. We paid little heed to the guy at our neighboring table, but the waitstaff must have noticed the difference. After he and his, no doubt miserable, guests had made an early exit and moved to the cigar room, the waitstaff came over to our table and presented us with an autographed menu. Then, over dessert, our waiter—an opera singer in his other life—serenaded us with a beautiful aria. We didn’t understand a word, but we loved that, too.

So yesterday at dinner we recalled that event. It reminds me of my favorite hymn, Whispering Hope.

Wait ’til the darkness is over,
Wait ’til the tempest is done.
Hope for the sunshine tomorrow
After the shower is gone.

And that’s what that whole cruise was—sunshine. We never left the ship. Bill’s back problem was too bad, but we were together, watching spectacular miles of Nordic shoreline forests punctuated by plunging waterfalls flowing past us outside our windows. We’ve had busier cruises since then, but none that were better.

So yes, some of you may have read about this cruise experience before, closer to when it happened. I’d like to think that I’ve added a few more readers since then, so it isn’t a rerun for everybody. But it is a story about counting our blessings, and I think those are always worthy of retelling.

Besides, when it comes to repeating stories? No problem. At my age, I’m entitled!

And as I’m sitting here thinking about that whole experience, I’m reminded of one of the poems from After the Fire. The piece is called Fog, and it’s something I wrote in Seattle as I was finally beginning to emerge from my own period of terrible despair.

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
It turns out both Bill and I had kept moving through some pretty dark and similar circumstances not only just then, but in our previous lives before we ever met, and we’ve been living in the light ever since.

And maybe the poem along with the second verse of that hymn both offer a good messages for all of us right now.

Then when the night is upon us,
Why should the heart sink away?
When the dark midnight is over,
Watch for the breaking of day