It’s Fate: How Kim and Joe Met
Shared by Joe W
“Grief and sadness knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger than common joys.” – Alphonse de Lamartine
The ripples catch my attention, sparkling golden in the setting sun of late fall. Everything else on the lake is so still. It is quiet, walking around the lake, no one else about, the trees now barren, the wind pushing the leaves into piles between the rocks. There is a chill in the air; I zip my coat up tight around my neck and bury my hands deep in my pockets. Winter is coming.
There is still one lone duck out on the lake, silhouetted black against the setting orange sun. The duck is paddling. In its wake ripples cry out in concentric circles that fade the further they get from the duck. Why is one duck still here when all the others have left for warmer climes weeks ago?
The duck is only twenty feet offshore, and does not flee my approach. He is swimming in a tight circle, counter-clockwise. He does not even notice my presence, his green head focused in the center of his circle. In the middle lies his brown-drab mate, motionless, on her side.
He is there for days, swimming his solitary circle, not wanting to catch up to his flock without his companion. But she will not be accompanying him on migration this year. Ice is forming at the pond edges this evening. I wonder if he will survive the winter…
My wife of nineteen years, Debbie, died on July 8, 2012. We had been together for a total of twenty-seven years. We were raising two boys, Jake, age twelve at the time of her death, and Trevor, age nine. We had built our beautiful house into a home, and shared the same hopes and dreams of watching our kids grow up and retiring to the good life that we worked so hard for, just like everyone else.
Cancer changes everything. It does not care about hopes and dreams and plans for the future. It is an equal opportunity destroyer, striking the young, even the good, demanding its tribulations be paid, ready or not. And no one is ever ready.
I certainly was not. For months I was that duck on the lake. I’m sure I looked like I was doing fine, but my circles were mindless, and my feet paddled frantically, underwater, where no one could see them.
My tight circles were the fears that kept me up at night – how will I raise two boys on my own, how will I take care of the house and the homework and the dishes and laundry while still working more than full time? How will I ever sleep again without falling into the black hole of loss that is now my bedside partner?
At first I did not even notice those on the shore who were throwing me lifelines. But Debbie remained with me, with us boys, even if she was drowned out by all my demands most of the time. In quiet moments I felt her presence in the treetops, in my prayer grotto, still in my heart. In rare moments of solitude, I could even feel a knowing, if only I would trust it, that things would be okay, and that Debbie was still there to help.
And then, for a reason that is still a mystery, about a month after Debbie died, I was compelled to start a blog (www.jwalko.wordpress.com). I shared my true feelings, my hurts and losses, my small victories and glimpses of hope, and mostly my tears. I don’t know where the words came from, having never blogged before. But it was easy, and the posts wrote themselves; I just channeled them, complete with a picture and a quote or two.
It felt good to share, and comments poured in from friends and family, and people from around the world viewed and shared. It did help me, tremendously, and I think it helped others, too, for we all will experience loss.
Across my community, another hurting soul was struggling with her own loss. A friend of my wife from Our Lady of Joy church knew of her struggles too, and passed on my blog site to her. “Maybe it will help,” she said.
This person read my blog in silence, and felt my trials and tears, my struggles and sadness, because they were her tears and sadness too. And after a couple of months of reading, she asked for my email address, again through a mutual friend of my wife.
Kim’s email to me stopped me in my tracks. She told me of how she could have authored so many of my posts herself. Her husband of nineteen years, John, whom she had been with for the last twenty-seven years, with whom she was raising two daughters, Claire, age sixteen, and Emily, age thirteen, had died on July 3, 2012, five days before Debbie died. He also died of cancer, after a long, valiant fight of almost twenty years, when he had been told he only had two.
Kim shared with me her fears and challenges, which were the same as mine. She shared how most days she didn’t know how she made it through, and how people commented on how strong she was, but she just didn’t know. Kim was a duck, too, swimming in her circles of grief and fear, smiling because you don’t know what else to do, okay to the outside world – but also frantically paddling underneath, just trying to stay afloat.
Most chilling, though, Kim shared with me that her husband John, and my wife Debbie – are buried next to each other, in Plum Creek Cemetery. I had no idea up to this point who the other fresh grave in the cemetery belonged to…
Kim and I started an electronic conversation, cautiously sharing our overwhelming challenges. It felt good to know there was someone who truly understood what I was going through, what I was feeling. And a couple of months later, we actually meet face-to-face, in a bereavement support group for young widows and widowers, sponsored by Forbes Hospice.
It was not an instant karma meeting. I arrived at the support group after a really bad day at the office, followed by my first big crisis with the boys, unable to help my oldest son who was injured at football practice and therefore unable to bring home my youngest son from school. After a very tense period where I could not get a hold of either boy, finally with the help of neighbors roaming the streets, both were found safe and sound and taken care of. But I was a mess. Asking for help is not my strong point, and certainly I was not used to all these new demands.
I shared my bad day story with the grief group, in a quavering voice and fighting back tears, before I realized after introductions that Kim was sitting across the circle from me. Kim reflects now that I was a mess, and she genuinely felt bad for me. Kim’s husband had been ill for quite some time, and she had a lot more experience dealing with the overburden of caretaking for a sick spouse on top of child-rearing and full time employment demands. She had already morphed into superwoman, at least in terms of how to cram thirty hours of duty into a twenty-four hour day. I felt embarrassed at my weakness, but I also took a lot of inspiration and hope from Kim’s calmness and strength.
We talked briefly after the meeting, and learned that we both planned to do the same charity run in a few weeks. The 5k run was a benefit for three local folks who were also battling cancer. One of the beneficiaries, a wife and mother my wife’s age, passed away the night before. Her husband and three boys were there, and gave courageous, brief speeches that left Kim and I in tears. After the race we agreed to go to Panera Bread for a cup of coffee, and to calm our nerves.
At the coffeehouse, the busy restaurant – in fact the entire universe – condensed down to just the two of us. Faces still wet with tears, hearts busted wide open from our own losses, souls stripped down to their bare essence at the challenges in front of us, we just talked, heart-to-heart. It was one of those conversations where nothing else matters, where the glances are genuine, the emotions are real, the topics relevant, and in the blink of an eye, four hours had passed, effortlessly.
It was only conversation, but I wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch Kim’s hand. I felt a spark, a pull, an arc, an electricity that took everything in my conscious power to not act on. It was the strongest pull I have ever felt.
There was no contact that day at Panera, and we left hastily, to rush back home to the kids and laundry and homework, four hours not a luxury single parents enjoy. But we left with a promise to stay in touch. And just like with my blog, I was compelled to pour out my feelings in writing later that night.
I did not immediately give Kim what I wrote that day. I decided I couldn’t, this isn’t right, it is too soon, we are just two lonely, grieving people who just need to heal before anything else. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, the intense attraction at the soul and heart level, of that four hour conversation across the yellow table and through the tears, mixed with six cups of coffee and an electric charge.
As I thought of this conversation and what I wrote, my heart kept going back to a vow I had made almost a year earlier after one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I somehow had ended up at a retreat, presented by the Center for Soulful Living, in Zion National Park. I was deeply moved by the message and the people at the retreat, and it inspired me to perform a personal ceremony and to make a vow to live from the heart.
My wife Debbie always lived from the heart. I came home from that retreat with a new appreciation for how she saw the world, and a deeper love for her and for everyone. Debbie was so proud and encouraging of my growth, and it truly was the last real gift we shared, for she passed only seven month later. But I asked her to always help me keep my heart open, and I still pray daily for her guidance in matters of the heart.
My heart now told me to send Kim my note. I did, a few days later, and it opened up a channel to connect on a deeper level. I shared my feelings, honestly, and I shared a vision of the future that I could see so clearly, that poured out just like my blog posts. “And when two hearts have flowered together once again, when two bodies have come together as one, when the tears have mingled and dried – two souls, shattered and torn and frayed and splayed open to the universe, will be simply bathed in the Light…”
Thus began our relationship, born in the depths and despair of grief and loss. But also born in the emptiness of nothing to lose, in the fertile soil of a new fresh start.
Can Joy build from the utmost depths of Sorrow?
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” – Kahill Gibran
Debbie’s death truly hollowed me out, to depths I could never have imagined. Nobody suffers more at the loss of a spouse than the remaining spouse. Sure others feel the pain, but most of their life remains relatively the same. Everything in my life changed, in an instant.
Debbie was a stay at home mom for the last decade, so I hadn’t done laundry or big grocery shopping in almost that amount of time. Clothes shopping for the boys? Dentist appointments? Homework? Not a clue. Packing backpacks and lunches daily, baseball and football practices and games? On top of working ten to twelve hours a day? Impossible…
I survived on pure adrenaline alone at first, literally no sleep often for days at a time. But things had to change, I could not survive long-term like this. When the mounting, never-relenting stress built to dangerous level, big fights with the boys began. The worst ended with the Borough police in my driveway, our screams terrifying the neighbors, not to mention my boys.
So I quit my job. Just up and walked away. I walked away from a 25 year career. I felt I had to. But I also walked away from a secure career path, the safety net of a 401(k) and a pension, and a comfortable retirement. I walked away from hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars. My whole life plans are now up in smoke. It its place? I have no idea.
But I know what I have done is the right thing to do – I feel it in my heart. It is the right thing to do for my boys, and for myself. Something will work out, says my heart, says my guardian angel, says my vow from Zion. I am trusting my heart now, released fully into the River of Life.
And the truth is, I am not sure how I would have survived those days of circling mindlessly, stuck on the pond, unable to move on, even with winter coming – without Kim. My personal demons of alcohol were also circling, threatening to convince me to cave in to the shallow appeal of giving up all of my impossible single parent struggles and just giving in to relief at the bottom of a bottle. I came oh so close to doing just that.
Instead, I leaned on Kim. We met when I was truly at a bottom. We cried late into the nights together, after we tucked the kids into bed and told them everything was okay, only to let down our guards, because things were not okay. We understood the loneliness of an empty bed and the empty chairs at the dinner table, and at school and family functions, where most everyone else has a spouse. We understood the overwhelming emotions of preparing for Christmas without Debbie and John, putting presents together late at night in a deathly quiet house.
Kim was there to hold my hand when it all got too much and I broke down at Wendy’s; she wiped up my spilled coffee and dried my tears. Kim was there for me at 2:30 in the morning when Jake ran away and I was wandering my neighborhood with only a flashlight and Kim’s calm reassurance on the other end of the phone that things would work out. I was there for Kim when she was felled to her knees, on the receiving end of a phone call that no parent ever wants to get, and we worked together through a long, dark, and very low episode.
I don’t how we would have made it through these things alone. Certainly I was a mess. My entire life was upside down, and I was completely overwhelmed. I only know that Debbie and John knew we would be able to help each other, and help our kids. We both recognize the incredible circumstances of our meeting, which just cannot possibly be happenstance. I am fully convinced to this day, that Debbie and John have orchestrated this union…
I have this vision, clear as day, a vision of Debbie and John, young and in their prime, big hair and even bigger smiles as they introduce each other and share conversation and a beer or two, sitting on that beautiful hillside above Plum Creek, between the dogwoods and below the towering oaks. Bathed in The Light and The Love, they are whole, they are happy, they are aglow; laughter and honesty are exchanged easily.
But they also still so love their families, and they don’t want to leave for their sake. As they look down at our pain, at our struggles, which they now understand is necessary for our growth, they still want to help, as was both their nature.
So they concoct a plan, to guide us, to help us to help each other, to help our children. The signs are so obvious that even two headstrong survivors, hearts shattered, souls torn and frayed and splayed open to the universe, and heads finally empty, pay attention.
And we do. Thank you, Debbie, thank you, John, thank you both so much…
Kim and I also recognized immediately the specialness and depth of our bond, starting with that electric pull. From the very start, we made a vow to be fully honest with each other, at Kim’s insistence. Like my writing, Kim doesn’t know where this insistence came from, she only knew that it was important and the right thing to do. She listened to her heart. Our bond and vow to practice full honesty is sealed in the deep soul stares we still share, in the beauty of each others’ eyes, those portals to the others’ soul that reflects back to us. It is another present that I took from Zion, and still a precious gift that Kim and I share, cherished to this day. We still cry when held in each others’ gaze.
It has now been over a year now that Kim and I have been dating. We felt the need to keep things on the low for a while, for there are lots of feelings to consider here, most importantly, those of our four children, whom we agreed from the start would come first. We rolled out our relationship to them slowly, but also with the full honesty that we promised each other. Today my boys recognize the special gift of Kim and her girls, too, and have asked, on their own, that we include them in our nightly prayers. Kim’s girls are comfortable with us boys, too, even our bawdy humor and penchant for burping (though the girls can keep up here, too!)
We have helped our kids tremendously since our meeting, too, not as a replacement for the mom and dad who are no longer here, but as a place where our kids can go for comfort and guidance, as best we can. The kids help each other, too. Adolescence is not easy; navigating the maze of high school and cliques and peer pressure can be overwhelming, as any parent knows. We now have six people to turn to for help in the messy, difficult and glorious process of growing up.
There may be some who would not have understood this story a year ago, and certainly some would have raised their eyebrows in judgment. So we have not flaunted our relationship publicly, and often times felt we had to hide. That is a shame, for it only takes people seeing us together to understand that this is real.
So it is now time to recognize, publicly, the miracle of our meeting, the glory of our relationship, and the heartfelt connection Kim and I enjoy. For we are soulmates.
Perhaps that is too strong of a term for some, perhaps it carries connotations and emotions others may not be comfortable with. But that is what it feels like, in our hearts. In fact, often times the feelings are so intense, soulmate does not even feel strong enough.
We know what the other is feeling before it is even spoken. Our common interests are amazing in their number, our parallel lives eerie. We send texts and call at the same time, often on the same exact subject. We experience deja vu at events that could only have been experienced in past lifetimes. There is incredible comfort and relief and joy, pure joy, in each others’ arms. There is an intensity in our bond and relationship and lovemaking that is sometimes shocking. And we pine for the other when we are apart, even for just a little while.
Perhaps some will say it is because of the grief and strife out of which our relationship was born that we feel this way. Maybe it is because of our shared tragedy. But it has been almost two years since our spouses have passed. This is not a passing fancy. Our connection has not faded. We still wake up thinking of the other. We still send silly texts a dozen times a day. We still make out in the car. Our relationship is still the most precious gift in our lives.
True, the circumstances of our relationship are almost unbelievable. We both wonder if a relationship like this would have – could have? – developed in a “normal” meeting, under “normal” circumstances. I am not sure, mostly because I am not sure I would have let my heart be this open, if I could have trusted my heart, the way I did when Kim and I met. We were so busted open and raw. But that is how it happened, and we made the important decision to keep our hearts open. We still choose that.
Maybe that it is because we both have angels guiding our love. I know Debbie is still smiling, held now in the ultimate Love, and hearing my daily prayers to her to keep my heart open. I know John so loved Kim that he wants nothing more than for her to be happy, to experience the love he knows she so deserves and is so capable of enjoying.
Whatever the reason, it does not matter. For we both recognize what a precious, precious gift this love is – the most precious gift either of us has ever been given. A second chance at love. Real love, true love, the most intense, heartfelt, soulfelt love that can be bestowed upon two persons. Neither of us could have ever seen this coming in the days after our spouses died and our hearts were completely broken, when we were both just paddling in numb circles.
From those depths, we oftentimes wonder what we did to deserve this. How is it even possible that we are here, in this beautiful relationship? The old me, who lived from the head, would have doubted it. The new me, who lives from the heart, embraces it, no matter the reasons. Perhaps, even, these open hearts have created it.
No matter. I have shared our story, and what we believe, and that is all that matters to us.
“Every great love starts with a great story…”, says Nicholas Sparks in The Notebook. This is our story, and it is great, just like our love…
In the springtime, the ducks returned to the lake. On a glorious sunny spring day, there were numerous pairs of ducks foraging in the shallows, tails tipping skyward, beaks probing the underwater depths for food. Ducks return to the same lake year after year. And ducks are monogamous, only re-mating upon the death of a mate.
There are no bachelors on the lake this spring. Is my grieving duck, the one spinning in circles just last fall, one of the ones to return this year? Of course I cannot know for sure, for to me all the drakes look the same.
But I like to think he found love again, perhaps on his journey to the wintering grounds, maybe on the wintering grounds themselves. Perhaps a lonely hen was spinning her own circles, too, and they danced together, at first just to lessen the loneliness and fear, later to recognize that new buds that can grow after a disaster, like the green shoots of new trees growing through the charred remains of the forest after an intense fire. For it is only the fire that opens the seed pods. It is only the fire that fixes just the right mix of nutrients in the soil, nutrients found only in the ash. It is only the fire that clears the forest, allowing enough sunlight for the seedlings to thrive. It is only the fire that allows the forest to start again…
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