Friday, April 12, 2013
Hank and Rhoda
Like, Hank and Rhoda.
Well, that's not their real names, and I've concealed their real identities to protect them, but they could be one of many couples in the western part of Sussex County.
Or, any part of rural America, really.
In fact, I had never met either one of them before Hank died, but I was called in to officiate at Hank's funeral. That happens sometimes in Hospice chaplaincy. People suffer with chronic illness, take a sudden turn for the worse and then, two, three days later, they're gone.
The family is stunned by the loss - and, stunned because they are stunned by the loss. And then, just as suddenly, there's a funeral to plan and nobody knows what to do. Somebody asks, "Can the Hospice Chaplain help us?" and the next thing I know, I'm having phone conversations with relatives that begin with a sincere expression of condolence at the loss of this wonderful person and become filled with laughter and tears as amazing stories spill out about the deceased and their family.
The first thing one of his relatives told me was that Hank had worked for the same company for 36 years. Can you imagine that, he asked? Thirty-six years with the same company? It does seem pretty remarkable, especially these days, but I think that says something about Hank as well as that company, don't you?
The second thing I was told was that Hank and Rhoda had been married for 57 years. Imagine that? Fifty-seven years with the same person. The person who told me this said it with a mixture of astonishment and yet like this was exactly how things were supposed to work but didn't so much anymore and he was a sad that it had all come to an end.
I was also told Hank enjoyed fishing, crabbing, riding motor cycles, shooting sporting clays and traps and had won many turkeys and hams for the freezer in trap shooting contests.
He had also worked as an assistant scout master, raising two of his sons to eagle scout. He loved tinkering in the garage with small scale airplanes and other craft projects - some, his niece explained with a laugh, he would finish and some are still in the garage.
Sounded like your average, everyday remarkable human life to me.
Of all the stories I heard about Hank - this man I never met - these two about Hank and Rhoda became the bookends of all the stories of their 57 years of married life together.
Hank met Rhoda when he was 19 and she was 12. Rhoda was on vacation with her family in DE and when she and her two sisters walked to the dance hall they went by Hank's house where he was outside washing his car.
At the end of her vacation, Rhoda went back home to PA and Hank went into the Navy. At the end of his Navy career, he was stationed in Philadelphia and decided, just on a whim, to look up Rhoda.
He went to the addresses he had for her only to find that her family had moved. Hank started calling everyone with her last name that was listed in the phone book (remember those?), asking them if they had a daughter Rhoda. He called and called and called all day and into the evening until he found her.
He surprised her one night when she was leaving her job at the A&P store and showed up in his Navy uniform and won Rhoda's heart. At the time Rhoda was "engaged" but once she saw Hank in his Navy uniform, she broke off her engagement with the other guy and "Hank and Rhoda have been together ever since".
The second story is one that is more recent. A few years ago, Rhoda need to be admitted to a local skilled nursing facility for a few weeks of IV antibiotics. Once she had the does of medicine, she was allowed to come home for a few hours and had to be back to the facility by bedtime.
Hank was always used to Rhoda taking care of him, so when she came home he still expected her to clean the house, do the laundry and cook his meals. One day, while she was home, they had a disagreement and he was fussing and she decided that she was not coming home for the day anymore until she was discharged because she was just not able to do the regular houseowrk and he just did not understand.
That night, he called his daughter and daughter in law and wanted a family meeting. He wanted an explanation of what exactly was wrong with Rhoda and why she was mad with him and then, his family told me, he cried. His "girls" told him that maybe he needed to do something special for Rhoda to show her he loved her and they suggested flowers.
Hank became very upset. "She knows I love her and I have never bought flowers in fifty some years and I am not going to start now," he thundered.
Well, Rhoda wasn't going to give in either. She wasn't going to come home until Hank apologized.
The next morning, Hank called the florist and ordered "a dozen of their prettiest roses and he said he didn't care what the cost was". Then, he took the roses and his cane and went unsteady to the second floor of the Skilled Nursing Facility where Rhoda was staying.
The story was that no one was certain who cried more - Hank or Rhoda - but Rhoda called the girls that evening, crying happy tears and saying "in 50 plus years he's never given me flowers, much less roses."
The girls said, "This story just goes to prove that it's never too late to give flowers and tell someone that you love them."
Well, yes. That is one thing that story just goes to prove.
I think it also goes to prove that love comes in all different kinds to many different kinds of people, but the kind that holds a marriage together for 50 plus years is not necessarily the romantic love that first brought them together.
That's a much more complicated and complex mixture that grows stronger over time and having three kids together and doing projects in the garage and riding your motorcycle and cooking meals and doing laundry and going to trap shoots and winning hams and turkeys for your family freezer.
Even so, I've learned that the only three words stronger than "I love you" are the words, "I am sorry".
Add a dozen roses to the mix and you get a love story that is as timeless and eternal and extraordinary as it is everyday and commonplace.
The story of Hank and Rhoda is just one of those love stories.
And I - lucky me - get the chance to tell a piece of it.