It was all about how he looked at her. I was enchanted by his look of devotion and love. It reminded me of something, or someone. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
I’d gone to their simple but cozy home to interview the veteran of World War II for a newspaper article about the Honor Flight he’d been on. We sat in their kitchen as he answered questions, but soon he went off on a tangent, reminiscing. He got more and more animated as he related stories about his time in the Navy. As he talked about his friends and comrades, unchecked tears streamed down his cheeks. He hardly seemed to notice. A vacant look in his eyes, he was in another world. Across the table, his wife reached out and took his hand. As if coming out of a trance, he looked up then and smiled broadly.
“I wouldn’t be here today, if it weren’t for her,” he said, and her eyes sparkled at the compliment.
While he’d thought the Honor Flight an amazing adventure, the highlight of his trip was the surprise that met him at the airport. “She doesn’t even drive, but someone brought her to the airport to meet our airplane. I’ll never forget seeing her there,” his eyes never left her face, and the look he gave her was one of unadulterated, pure love.
A lump formed in my throat as I watched them.
“I loved them,” I told David when I got home. I dropped a personalized thank-you note in the mail the next day, one with a photo of David and I on the front.
When the newspaper story came out the next week, I picked up an extra copy and dropped it off at their house, an excuse to see the couple again. Abby trailed along behind me. We were greeted effusively, and welcomed inside the house. I saw my thank-you note propped up on a small table near the door, and noticed the Chicken Soup book that I’d mentioned my essay was in on their coffee table with a book mark inside. I was surprised when Abby allowed the man to hug her good-bye.
“That was nice of you to let him hug you,” I said when we were back inside the car.
“Of course I did. I loved him,” was her simple reply. This, from the little girl who pulled away from anyone else who attempted to hug her, except her beloved Daddy.
For days afterwards, Abby asked if we could visit the “old man” again, so often that David finally said he needed to meet this couple we were so fond of. We were welcomed warmly, and David spent a good half hour visiting with the older gentleman while his wife and I mostly observed, our eyes meeting in amused affection for our equally animated spouses.
Back in the car, I asked, “Do you see why I love them so much?” and he nodded his head.
“That’s us, when we’re older.”
“The way he looks at her, as if she is his life…” I fumbled with the words, and David took my hand in his.
“That’s how I feel about you,” was all he said.
Which was why I couldn’t bear to see them again after David died.
A card arrived from the wife in May, apologizing for the late sympathy note, but she’d just heard. If there is anything we can do…she wrote.
A phone message was left on my machine.
“Mary, we were so sorry to hear.”
I wrote them a letter, asking if they would consider being adopted grandparents for my girls. A return note of affirmation arrived in my mailbox a few days later.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to visit. How could I bear to see them; a reminder of what David and I would never reach together?
One summer day, Abby and I rode our bicycles past their house and she asked again when we would see them. A few days later, I rode by alone, nearly stopping, but just the thought brought tears to my eyes. I cried all the way home. Instead, I wrote them another letter.
In November, I stepped into the hairdresser and there she was; the wife, having her hair done. We simultaneously reached out our hands and her face lit up. I grabbed her hand firmly. “I am so sorry I haven’t come. It has been difficult.” She nodded and her eyes softened in understanding. Before she left she turned and said, “We want to be grandparents to your girls. Come and see us soon.”
Today we did.
This afternoon I picked up the gift I had wrapped several days ago; the ribbon candy she’d mentioned she’d loved as a little girl. I also wrapped up the two most recent books I’d had essays featured in. When Katie, Abby and I pulled up to their house, I couldn’t see where their sidewalk was because it was covered in snow. We laboriously made our way to the front door and rang the doorbell. The wife greeted us all smiles, and let us in. With a tug to my heart, I noticed my thank-you card was still on the hall table. “He’s lying down because he’d gotten so tired trying to shovel the driveway,” she whispered when I asked where her husband was.
“He shouldn’t be shoveling!” my voice belied my horror, and she responded tearfully, “I know, but there was no one else. Our neighbor did the driveway for us but the city pushed big blocks of ice in front of it.”
“I’m going to go home and get a shovel,” I said. Just then I heard someone shuffling down the hallway. He must have heard our voices. His back was hunched; he walked unsteadily, appearing to wobble a little on his feet. I reached out to steady him, and he brought me closer for a hug.
“You can’t be shoveling,” I repeated.
“I know. I’m 87 and I have a bad heart, but the city closed up the driveway.”
“Give me your shovel. We’ll do your sidewalk.” Katie and Abby nodded their heads vigorously. The wife brought two shovels and three pairs of gloves and we went to work outside. When I got to the end of the sidewalk, I saw what he must have encountered at the end of his driveway; the city grater had pushed large chunks of icy snow that had solidified at the edge. As I chopped and scooped, I fumed. Why hadn’t anyone helped these people? I knew their children and grandchildren lived out of state, but what about a kindly neighbor? My own neighbor had cleaned my sidewalk and driveway the day before, out of the goodness of his heart. Didn’t any of their neighbors notice the sidewalk was closed in with snow and there was no way to get to the front door? Right then I heard a snow blower start up across the street and noticed a young man cleaning his already plowed driveway.
“I’ll be right back. I’m going to go get some sidewalk salt to melt some of the ice,” I told the woman when we returned her gloves and shovels. She apologized that her husband had gone back to bed. The girls were very quiet as we headed to the grocery store.
“What can we do to help them?” Katie finally asked, and I just shook my head.
Inside the store, I grabbed a container of ice melt, and then I spotted the fresh-baked Kalona apple pies near the entrance. Back at their house, I sprinkled the ice melt on the sidewalk as Abby delivered a pie to the wife. When I gave her the container of ice melt to keep, she smiled a grateful smile. “You have no idea how much this means to us,” she said, but I waved off her thanks. “I worry so much about him,” she confided, and we exchanged a knowing look. Before I left, I warned her that David’s heart attack had initially appeared as shoulder pain, and then I hugged her again, turning away quickly so she couldn’t see the tears in my eyes as I finally realized what the man’s look of adoration had reminded me of.
“He wouldn’t want to live without her,” David had commented on the way home after our visit. “I wouldn’t want to live without you,” he’d added, and I’d responded in kind.
I’d recognized that look of pure, unadulterated love…
because David looked at me like that.
The girls and I will be adopting this couple as our own personal set of grandparents, which of course means that each time it snows we will be heading over to their house to clean off the sidewalks.