Saturday, October 16, 2010

Remembering Donna


A few ago I wrote a tribute to my late father called “Speaker for My Dad”. I got that idea from one of the science fiction books that I read called “Speaker For The Dead”. The “speaker” character in the book would go, mostly on request, to memorials for people who had died and chronicle their lives. His intent was not to deify or degrade but simply to present the persons life in terms of why things were said and done, presenting the good and bad points about the person’s life.

I now want to write a blog that I have been thinking about for a very long time called, “Speaker for Donna”, in remembrance of her passing thirteen years ago this week (October 16th, 1997). This is, in a way, very hard for me because she was my wife, but I think that it will also be cathartic, allowing me to express thoughts about my wonderful times with her.

I want to say right up front that none of what I write here in any way is intended to compromise or diminish my love for my current wife Saraphen. Most of you know our story of meeting and marrying. If anything, looking back on this has strengthened my love for her.

When I look back on my life I realize several key mistakes on my part. For one I think that I got married too soon. But in spite of that, I did the very best that I could to provide for my family. But the flaw that I had in my life as a young man was my propensity to want to “run the streets”. Consequently, my first marriage to a very nice lady ended in divorce. I will not get into the details of that but just say that I left her; but left her with the house, the car, the furniture, the kids and promises to provide whatever support was necessary. So in April, 1980 I moved to an apartment at 5902 31st Avenue.

Shortly after I moved there I noticed a lovely young lady who lived there, but whom I could never meet face to face because each time I saw her it was from a distance and she was on her way out or on her way into her apartment. Then one day I got on the apartment’s elevator and she and her girlfriend were already on it. Our introductory conversation was very brief but at least at that point I knew her name was Donna and that she lived on the ground floor. So from then on we spoke to each other, mostly in passing. Then one day I was on the ground floor laundry room doing my laundry and she came in with her’s. I remarked in our conversation that something was cooking somewhere on the ground floor that smelled really good. She replied, “that’s my liver and onions, do you want some”? So that’s how we started, over a plate of something I really don’t like.

When I entered her apartment, which was about as sparse as mine, the first thing that I saw was a photo of her that mesmerized me and came to be my favorite photo of her.

In the conversation that day I learned that she was separated from her husband and that he had custody of their two kids, ages 7 and 11.

She told me that this was about the third time that she had left her husband because he was abusive, mostly just emotionally, but still abusive. She said that she was really frightened of him because he was a policeman and therefore had a gun. In addition she said, on occasions when they had heated arguments and she called the police the people who showed up were his buddies on the police force. They would then spend time shooting the breeze and then leave without really being concerned about her plight.

Now I am sure that it was a difficult decision to leave her young children. But she knew that they would be safe with their father and she could see them when she wanted. She would not let him bring them to her apartment, or go to their house to get them for visits. Instead she would have him drop them at her mother’s house, or her aunt’s house, both of whom lived close by. It was clear that she really wanted absolutely no contact with him.

One of the reasons that I had such a difficult time meeting her was that she would spend the weekends with her kids at her mother’s house, and sometimes bringing them to her apartment. In between that she would spend most weekends with family (two brothers and a sister, plus several aunts, uncles and cousins) playing cards or just enjoying family. Her main concerns was that her kids were not in her life and she was not in their’s at their early ages when they needed both parents. She also felt that her husband would bad mouth her with their kids, telling them that their mom didn’t care about them since she left them with him. The truth was she loved and really missed her kids but had to get away from him.

Donna worked for the US Postal Service, not delivering mail but in an administrative desk job. That job wasn’t bad she said, but it was barely enough to meet her expenses which at this point included child support for two kids. So she decided to join the National Guard so she could collect a small paycheck for a weekend a month’s work. While her guard duty was also administrative and at a desk, she had to go to basic training and crawl through the mud and mosquitos in the swamps down in Alabama somewhere. Although she was a small woman, she had a big heart and was willing to “do what she had to do” to support herself and her kids.

When I had my first conversation with Donna at the “liver” dinner we talked about growing up, our families, and a lot of other things. I was surprised that she grew up in Duckettsville, Md near Bowie in a situation very similar to mine 1500 miles away in Mississippi. We talked about going to the corner store with a quarter to get goodies and coming out with a little bag full of candy. She grew up in a wood framed house where she had to share a bed with her brothers and sister. She had very humble beginnings.

In later conversations I told her that I was dating a lady named Jackie and asked if she had a friend too. She said that she did have a friend but that he was kinda shaky. So we agreed to just be friends but I told her that if she ever needed anything to let me know. It was some time in June when I first met Donna and it was sometime in early December when she asked me if I would go to see a play with her, “Arms to Short To Box With God” with Patty Labelle. I accepted her invite and told her that our car club was having a Christmas party but I could not invite her for obvious reasons. She didn’t seem upset with this but I think she was just a little upset. Then on the night of the party Jackie came back to my apartment with me and at the same time Donna was coming back from her visit with family. I could tell that she was really pissed by the way she walked right by my car and not only didn’t speak but also didn’t even look my way.

In one of our conversations about the upcoming Christmas season Donna mentioned to me that she wanted so perfume, Oscar DeLarenta, that cost about $50 an ounce. She said she loved the perfume but could not afford it. So after I finished taking care of my kids and mom and dad for Christmas, I decided to surprise her and buy it for her. As I recall that was a pretty dismal Christmas for me. After I visited briefly with my kids and with mom I came back home and sat around watching TV. I did have a small artificial tree decorated but there was hardly anything under it except Donna’s gift. I tried calling Donna a couple times because the play was that evening, but she didn’t answer her phone (this was 1981 and well before cell phones). Then about 5:00 PM Donna called to ask if I was still going to the play with her. I could tell from her tone that she was still pissed about the party and seeing Jackie visiting me. She said she would be home soon and would be ready by 7:00 PM. So a little before 7:00 PM I went down and knocked on her door, gave her the present, and said I was going to warm up the car and pull up close to the door. She told me much later that when she opened the gift and saw what it was she was so shocked she couldn’t speak. Needless to say we had a nice time at the play.

I don’t remember whether it was during the play date or later but I told Donna that I really liked her and that I would like to have some time to get to know her better. So I suggested that we take one of the bus trips up to Atlantic City while we were both off work between Christmas and New Year. She said OK and that later became something that we did every Christmas week for years.

That was a nice trip, four hours on the bus each way and six hours to walk the board walk, gamble in the casinos, and shop. That’s when I first found out what a shopper Donna was. We spend just a short time playing the $10 we each got back for our trip. Then she shopped in every store on the boardwalk. But that aside we had a nice trip with plenty of time to talk and get to know each other. I learned that she had a very close and fun loving family and they got together to celebrate all of the holidays.

My car club had planned a ski trip for late January and I had asked Donna back in November if she and some of her friends would like to go. She and a couple girlfriends eventually paid a deposit to go on the trip. About three weeks before the trip Jackie and I had dinner and she let me know that if I was not committed to marrying her after I got my divorce, she wasn’t interested in continuing our relationship. I was just a little shocked at this but also happy that we ended our relationship amicably. I was elated that I could then concentrate my feeling on Donna and immediately called her when I got home to give her the news. As usual, she was not at home. So I wrote her a note to call me as soon as she got in. She did and that was the official start of a very beautiful relationship.

A few weeks later was our ski trip and Donna and I went together. When we all got to the tour bus was when I first noticed her laugh. Amid all of the laughing and talking on the bus as we were getting ready to depart I kept hearing this laugh that was louder than any other sounds on the bus. Donna had a very distinctive laugh, very high pitched and not like any I have ever heard before or since. My one regret is that with all of the video of her that I have, I never captured her laugh. I have giggles and chuckles but not the real laugh that everyone knew as unique to her.

After being around Donna for a while I found that she was a pessimist. She felt that whatever bad could happen WOULD happen. She wanted to get off of the ground floor of the apartment building because she was afraid of a break in. So a short while after I met her she was able to move to another unit in the building. I helped her move and also met another of her brothers who came with friends to help also. A short time after she moved Donna had to go off to North Carolina for two weeks of National Guard duty. We had grown very close to each other by then and she was sad that we would be apart. I am sure that I was filling the space in her heart that was left by the absence of her kids in her life every day. We had come to start doing almost everything together. So I decided to go spend the weekend between her two duty weeks with her. I drove down to NC and we then went to Myrtle Beach for the weekend. The following year she had duty again, but at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod. So I did the same again and we had a good time on Cape Cod for the weekend. These two trip were the beginnings of many travels we had together.

I was in heaven dating Donna because when I got home from work I really didn’t have to go anywhere to be with the one I wanted to be with. We kinda split our time between her apartment on the first floor and mine on the fifth floor. Many a morning one of us would be using the back steps to get to our apartment to get ready for work. Even though Donna had a good job and the extra income from the National Guard she was still kinda struggling. A part of that was because she liked to shop, especially for shoes and pocketbooks. So at some point I suggested to her that she give up her apartment and move in with me and spend her rent money paying off her bills. I knew that this would work for me because I had observed Donna enough to know that she was a fastidious person who didn’t like things out of place. For example, one evening she was cooking at her apartment and asked me to hand her some seasonings from the kitchen cabinet. After she used it I put it back and she quickly said, “no that does not go that way”. She actually had her spices arranged by name in the cabinet. From then on I always teased her about things being out of place, saying things needed to be in their assigned “square or circle”. But the bottom line was we both likes things neat and orderly.

Sometime after we started dating officially Donna asked me if I wanted to go to church with her. She said it was the church that her mom and other family members attended. I accepted her invite and when we attended I found that I loved the church and also not only was her mom there but also her kids and a couple aunts, uncles and cousins. I think we attended church services there for about 8 months and then in December of that year we both joined it officially. A few years later we would be married there.

A couple years after we met I decided that I wanted to get out of the apartment and buy another house. So Donna and I went looking in our spare time. We looked and looked but never found the right one. Then one day she had something to do and so I went looking by myself. I think the reason she had something else to do was because she was not really sure what the new house would mean for her. I had assured her that my intention was for her to come along with me. So on this one trip that she did not accompany me on I found the house at 5800 Oland Drive and signed a contract on it. She was somewhat angry that I had signed a contract without her seeing the house first but after I took her to the neighborhood and showed it to her ( from outside since it was occupied) and explained what features it had she started to get excited about moving.

We moved in and our furniture didn’t make a dent in the space in the house. But Donna took care of that over the twelve years we were in the house together. While I had no eye for decorating, she did and so I pretty much left all of the inside stuff to her. Several months after we moved, and after my divorce was official (and so was Donna’s), she asked me straight up where she stood with me. She said she liked the house but it really didn’t feel like her’s. That was a little of her pessimistic side coming out. I assured her that I had no intentions of letting her go anywhere. She was the type of person who did not let things fester on her mind. If something was bothering her she would just say, “we need to talk”, and get it straighten out. We didn’t always agree on the outcomes but we talked civilly and aired our feelings and differences so that it was no longer an issue. This was definitely not how it was in my previous marriage.

I decided that I would give Donna an engagement ring for Christmas, along with some other things. I bought the ring and wrapped it, and then put it in a larger box and wrapped it, and then put it in a box that was even bigger and wrapped it again. Then I also bought her an automatic camera. On Christmas morning we finally got up and I told her to open the box that had the camera in it first. She did and said that was nice. Then I took the camera, which I had put film and batteries in, and told her to open the other box. By the time that she opened the second box she was somewhat disturbed at my antics. Then when she opened the third box with the ring I snapped a picture of her reaction; I actually got a before and an after.

Its interesting how when you proposed to any woman they do not want to waste any time getting to the part about “I Do”. So we started talking about a date and it quickly moved from June to March or April. Her comment was , “why we gotta wait that long?” We finally settled on a date after a counsel with our pastor and checking to see when the church would be available. We had a small wedding at church and then a reception at our house.

A few months later we went to Hawaii for our honeymoon.

Life with Donna was great, no SUPERFANTASTIC. It seemed that she loved to do any and everything that I liked to do. She was a touchy-feely person who always wanted to do things together (that was one of her favorite words). If I was relaxing in front of the TV she was right there not just beside me but with a head on my shoulder and/or a leg on my lap. From her I learned to be touchy-feely myself. When at night she was ready to go to sleep she would say come on its time to go to sleep, regardless of whether I was ready to go or not. She just wanted us to go to bed at the same time. We always walked holding hands in the mall, or wherever and also kissed and hugged a lot. When we first got married she would ask me frequently if I loved her and when I replied yes she would say, “if you do, you should say it without out my asking”. So I learned to do that and not feel any awkwardness about it.

Donna loved sports and I do not mean just sitting with me while I watch. She would get into the game, be it football, basketball, or baseball. And she loved going to sports games live. We did college games as well as pro games. One year we were able to get from one of her friends season tickets to the Redskins games and she went to every game. She actually went to the opening day at the Redskins’ new stadium as a volunteer for a boy scout troop selling hot dogs. We went to the Bullets (Wizards now) basketball games at the Capitol Center. We went to Oriole’s games at Camden Yards in Baltimore. We even went to a couple hockey games.

She and her family all loved sports but when she watched the Redskins it was not always from a seat on the sofa. If John Riggins was breaking off a long run, or Doug Williams was completing a long pass she was up off the seat running across the room helping, always with her patented laugh going.

Every year or so her family would have a big family reunion and we would attend that and you could always hear Donna’s laugh over everyone else. We started to make an annual trip to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg and in the park Donna was not a stand on the side and watch type person. We would go into Busch Gardens and ride the Lock Ness Monster (roller coaster) about 4 or 5 times in a row before we moved on to other roller coaster rides. Although she couldn’t swim, whenever we went to the beaches or pools Donna would always get in the water, but many times with a death grip on my arm. Donna eventually joined the bowling league that I had a been in for years and we were teammates. That meant we were together on Friday evenings instead of her sitting at home. She eventually worked her way up to a decent average of about 140 and we actually won the league championship one year (we had another female on our team who regularly rolled in the 170's or higher).

Donna continued to participate in her kids lives as much as she could. As teenagers they didn’t show much interest in talking to her. But after her youngest got out of high school they both started to call and come by to see her, even though it was not frequent. But overall her relationship with her kids was improving as they got old enough to see for themselves how their father really was. With time her relationship with them had greatly improved and she helped them both begin college (bother dropped out after a year or so).

Donna also liked to stay in shape and had a member ship at Ballys Health Club that limited her to one club on certain days. So for her birthday one year I gave her an upgrade to the same type unlimited membership that I had. We both did the health club but at slightly different times because she was off from work and home before I even got off. Donna liked to eat out and we eventually got to the point where we went out to eat at least once a week and then we decided that the two of us would have a standing date for dinner every Friday. She was not a picky eater so we could try a variety of restaurants.

We continued our annual trips to Atlantic City but soon started making a couple trips to Las Vegas every year.

We made a couple more trips to Hawaii, then to Cancun, and then we started doing cruises.

In November 1996 I retired and spent time just putting around the house. Then after about 7 months at home I decided to do something that had been on my mind for a long while and go to travel school to become a travel agent. School was all day five days a week. At about the time that school started I did some looking around and found a cruise for us to go on which was the day after my travel school ended. In anticipation of going on the cruise, Donna went shopping and found a gown and shoes for the formal night. Then I convinced her that we should take swimming lessons. I can swim enough to keep from drowning, but she would get in the water but not let it touch her face at all. She would not even let water run on her face standing in the shower at home.

A few weeks before the cruise we started the swim lessons at the local community center pool. I was in an intermediate class and Donna was in the beginners. She made great progress and I will never forget the sight of her after about three classes floating face down in the pool with her hands stretched out in front of her on a float. She was not really swimming but had overcome her great fear of water on her face.

The next evening we didn’t have a swim class so Donna decided to go to the gym after work. On that Wednesday morning she packed up all of her stuff, kissed me goodby, and headed out the back door to her car, headed for work. I said to her “See You Later Bag Lady” because she had her pocketbook, her lunch bag, her gym bag, and a shopping bag full of sale fliers and sale magazines. Those were my last words to her ever.

Wednesday afternoon I got home about 5:00 PM and since we were pretty much all packed to go on a cruise in a couple days I didn’t think I needed anything special for dinner. So I just made myself a sandwich and had a beer. About the time that I finished my sandwich the phone rang and it was Donna’s mother telling me to meet her at the hospital, they had taken Donna there. I tried to question her about it but she didn’t know any more than that; she had gotten that information from a niece who worked at the health club where Donna worked out. My first thought was that she had been in a car accident. I was not prepared for what came next.

When I got to the hospital and found the room where other family members were gathers the doctor came in a few minutes later and said “we are trying to get her heart started again”. When I finally saw her she was on a hospital table in the emergency room with tubes in her mouth and her eyes were wide open, but she was not awake. The heart monitor showed a beat but it was about three times normal. That was such a traumatic experience for me that to this day I do not care to see movies and TV programs depicting life in hospitals and emergency rooms. We took turns visiting at her bedside and later one of the nurses came in and said she was stable but not out of the woods yet. We all prayed and though that she would recover. After all she was the healthiest person in the family, no diseases, not overweight, never smoked, exercised regularly, watched what she ate, etc.

Between the emergency room and the critical care ward we waited about eight hours until about 2:30 AM the doctor told us the bad news, her heart rate would not stabilize not matter what they tried. He said that when they took away the medications her heart would stop. We all had time to say a goodby and start a new chapter in our lives. Her kids were there and so was her mother and one of her brothers, along with a bunch of her close girlfriends. The autopsy which I received a copy of a few weeks later said died of a congenital heart defect, “Right Ventricular Myopathy with Displasia”. The same heart problem that has killed athletes like the runner Jim Fixx and the former Boston Celtics player, Reggie Lewis. There are no symptoms, the person dies and the problem is discovered afterwards..

We cried some that night, but it took me several weeks to get that really big cry that I knew I needed and was coming to hit me. It did come after a visit to her grave and I had to stop the car and let it all out. The long term healing process took a lot longer than that and a lot longer than I thought it would. I signed up for bereavement classes and then signed up for a second session. After about a year I started to date, but I could not develop any feeling for anyone because Donna still had all of them. It was more than three years later before I could really look seriously for another mate. So four and a half years later I got a message from Saraphen and the rest is new history.

I wrote a paragraph about Donna for the funeral program but it did not do her justice. She was a remarkable person, loving and caring and a person with an innate sense of what is right. She was kind, gentle and concerned. She was a blood donor, a bone marrow donor, took CPR training, served in church, and volunteered when the need arose. Her funeral was the largest that I have ever seen. We printed over 1,000 programs and they were all taken, so was every seat in the church, and the funeral procession to the grave site was about half a mile long.

There is more that I could say about this wonderful person, Donna, and our 16 years together but it would fill a book. 

POST SCRIPT: What I learned from this time in my life was that when you lose someone that you love dearly, be it a parent, spouse, child, relative or friend, you do NOT get over it. You just learn to live with the loss. It took me more than three years to move on with my life but it's different for each person to get to that "move on" moment. I have a friend, a former co-worker, who when I first met her had lost a son, her only child, and she would get very melancholy every year around the anniversary of his death. For a long time I did not understand this. But I do now.

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