Some of you might remember the 1970 movie Love Story and its famous line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But here’s another meaning of love: bending down on a wobbly knee at the age of 80 and asking for a woman’s hand in marriage—and then trying to get back up again!
What I’m describing is a moment I never could see coming. When I married my first wife, the former Phyllis Ten Pas, I couldn’t imagine ever being betrothed to another, let alone someone with the first name of Phyllis whose middle initial also was “M.” Yet nobody but God knows the future. When I married my first wife in the spring of 1957, I had eyes only for her, of course. That continued until her death only two months short of 60 years later, in February 2017, when I lost her after a decade-long fight with the unspeakable ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. We had an incredible life together, and then for 10 years, in ways both tender and horrible, I watched her slip away until our Lord finally, mercifully took her into the palm of his hand.
This story is about second chances. Phyllis Palazzolo helped me understand that my own life wasn’t over and that my once-hardened heart could be reversed. For that and so much more, I’ll always thank God. And it’s with that mindset that I went to one knee while on a European river cruise during the summer of 2017.
She’d been a widow nearly two years when I saw her out walking one evening and invited her in for some leftovers. She agreed, and immediately I got nervous. I started to wonder—had I just asked her out on a date? (This is the time I’m sure lots of widows and widowers become reluctant to “start something.”)
We started out talking about things connected to our condo association, but the conversation moved to my asking how she was handling her husband’s death. She said she couldn’t sleep at night. Then she asked me questions as well, and they were the right kinds of questions. I wasn’t used to talking about myself or my feelings.
I distinctly remember that both of us were feeling somewhat guilty about this. We’d both had successful marriages and had collectively enjoyed nearly 120 years of togetherness with our first partners. But for me, it had been only a few months since my wife died, and I felt like I had to hide the fact that Phyllis Palazzolo and I eventually saw more of each other.
In the beginning, we were afraid of what people—especially our children—would think, so we largely hid our relationship from public view. What they didn’t realize was that I had begun grieving for my wife nearly 10 years earlier, and the grief grew more and more oppressive as time wore on.
Over time, we introduced one another to our children, a situation I will say was tougher on my children than on hers. For mine, it was too soon for me to be involved with someone else, and while I respected their position, with prayer I chose to proceed. I’m convinced that we were able to resolve that because my love for them never wavered and never will. They just didn’t understand my emotional needs at the time. On the surface I’m sure I exuded strength, and they’d seen that facade when I was going through other tough times in life. Isn’t that the face the older generation portrays?
In 2017, Phyllis and I went on that cruise on the Rhine and Danube rivers, and on Aug. 1 I proposed even though I didn’t have a ring to present to her. I did arrange for some flowers, though. I knew the whole time that we would be breaking a lot of taboos: not only was I acting too swiftly in some people’s eyes, but here we were, a Protestant and a Catholic, a Polish-Italian and a Dutchman, intent on making the best of it.
We were married Nov. 25, 2017, in a ceremony co-celebrated by a minister and a priest. Both reminded us that we had just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and that our Lord intended us to be able to work together even if we came from different faith walks. So even as we stood there, both of us 80 years old, we felt as if we were breaking new ground. It was a very special day.
Our theme for the day and since then has been from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). We try to hold each other accountable for each of these from time to time. It works, and we’re better mates for it.
Our worship includes the best of our religious traditions, and we have no issues with that. She has made me a better, more loving Christian, and I’m confident it works the other way too. We speak of our faiths and traditions more than most people our age likely do. We attend Mass on Saturdays and Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church on Sundays. My congregation has warmly embraced her as well.
What’s interesting to both of us is how we can freely and lovingly talk with each other about our families and the relationships we had with our former spouses and still have with God. Widows and widowers we know tell us they don’t get to do this, for no one else seems interested in talking about deceased spouses. We seem to be an inspiration to many for a variety of reasons—or so they tell us!
Once a commitment to each other is made, the rest is easy. The finances, the legal work, the housing, and other seemingly insurmountable issues seem to fall into place. It is likely fear that inhibits many from looking for companionship and love again. But we know God put us together for a reason. Comfort replaces fear.
We were both active after losing our spouses, for grief has a way of filling our lives in other ways. I believe neither of us comprehended in the moment how important it could be to embrace another again and not feel guilty about it. There are almost no words for that gift of companionship. And studies are beginning to illustrate that while diet, exercise, and genetics go a long way toward telegraphing how long and how well you’ll live, belonging to another is emerging as just as important. We think our children now understand just how vital it is to be connected to other human beings, no matter how old you are or where your journey has taken you. I now have a wonderful caregiver, one with experience, compassion, and love. And she has me. This bond is much needed as our health begins to fade, operations happen, and companions are included in discussions with doctors. We’ve been blessed!
Note: A version of this story appears in the author’s book, Stones That Speak.