Helgi and Kate

August 30th, 2010

Helgi and Kate Love Story

It was love at first height.

That’s how Helgi tells the story, at least.

He says he spotted her first – mostly because it was hard not to spot her, but that’s the part that drew him to her in the first place. Kate is a tall woman. Model tall, with a movie star smile, porcelain features and skin most women would die to have. Helgi is basketball tall, with rugged good looks and an accent to boot. All of these superficial markers are evident immediately upon meeting the couple. What isn’t evident, however, is how perfectly they fit together when it comes to the fundamental stuff. Like how well their personalities complement each other. How kind they both are. How passionate they are about gardening, travel, animals and the outdoors. How close they both are with their families. How they make each other laugh. How they motivate each other and believe in and support each other’s dreams. That’s the kind of stuff height alone can never reveal.

Of course, all of that would take time to come clear. For now, on this night in November of 2003, when they first met, they would notice each other’s eyes. And, of course, the bad makeup job.

That’s what Kate remembers, at least.

“He was wearing a black leather jacket and bright red stage makeup, pancaked on his face,” she says, shaking her head.

It was a Day of the Dead party, held the day after Halloween, and everyone had to dress up. Kate came as a southern belle, in a shiny green dress with lots of lace.

Helgi tried to come as a demon, but, as he so aptly explains, “Couldn’t find any stupid horns, so I just looked constipated.”

Debutante meets constipated demon. Kate meets Helgi.

Kind of like the southern version of Cinderella, Kate showed up in her shiny blue dress right at the stroke of midnight.

Her take on how they met: “I walked in. He saw me first, and I guess he was following me around. I looked around for someone to dance with, and there’s this tall guy, and I was excited, so I did the head nod to ask him to dance. He says he did the head nod to me. I remember we talked about art. I thought, ‘This guy’s nice, but it isn’t gonna last.’ I remember at one point in the evening, I was in the bathroom, trying to get all his red face paint off my dress from when we were dancing. There were all these strangers in the bathroom, trying to get the red off with Kleenex. Later, while standing in line for beer, I somehow put myself down, because I’m so tall. And Helgi immediately speaks up and says something like, ‘I love tall women. I think you’re beautiful.’ My friend Sarah decided right that second she could go home, and I’d be fine. He would take care of me. The next day, we went to brunch. He’s still wearing this leather jacket from the 80s. And he had on really tight, skinny pants. I thought, ‘What the hell is he wearing? I don’t know if I can go out with him.’ He hated the food, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’”

His take: “I was not having a lot of fun at the party, but enjoying the music. Kate walks in. I noticed her because she’s tall. I told my friend, ‘I want her.’ I walked over to her with the intention of giving her the head nod. I’m shy around women. I’ve always been shy — and retarded. We danced for 3 or 4 hours. And with the red paint, well, I guess I put my mark on her. We had a horrible brunch the next day.”

So, to recap: Red face paint all over her dress and cheeks, a dated leather jacket AND a bad brunch experience. Most people would just go their separate ways, but not the demon and the southern belle. Helgi called the next day, and that was pretty much that.

After an inseparable courtship, it became obvious to both of them that a solid commitment was close on the horizon. But then there was the septic tank.

Kate recounts the “crappy” nature of Helgi’s proposal: “We had both discussed marriage a lot. We had talked about, if you were to propose, what would you want it to look like? Helgi said he thinks it’s hoakey to do it in a restaurant in front of people. I said I didn’t care, but as long as it’s not on a climbing trip. And when it’s a good moment. So we went on this trip in Northeast Oregon in the Blue Mountains. It was an enchanted place filled with wildflowers. But very remote. No toilets. I hadn’t showered for four days. We’re talking about how we want to get land someday and build a house with a toilet, and a septic system, and we can’t live with a latrine. And I’m talking about the specifics of septic systems, and then he says, ‘Do you wanna get married?’ Based on the parameters I’d given him, I can’t think of a worse place to propose. But I said yes. We drove to the supermarket, which was 60 miles away, so I could call my sister and my mom. We sat on the back of his truck, which he called the turkey truck. There was no ring, no knee, and I was smelly.”

Helgi’s retort: “Women were always attracted to the turkey truck because it made sounds like a turkey.”

I suppose humor is key when septic systems are involved. But then there was the matter of the wedding. A big affair was planned, then, one-and-a-half months before the wedding, Helgi was laid off from his job. So in the last minute, everything was moved around and the couple wed at Kate’s parents’ house.

Here’s a clue about what the rest of your life together will look like if you have no money, your wedding crumbles before your eyes and you have to fly by the seat of your pants, but you end up laughing about it: pretty sweet.

Kate says she looked like a flamenco dancer in her dress. She asked her mom’s friend Corky to become a minister just to officiate the wedding. Helgi’s friend played the fiddle. Someone read an Icelandic poem. Kate’s mom’s friends catered the food, which included gluten-free wedding cake and cream puffs. Kate and Helgi giggled all the way through.

“We were so happy and just having fun,” Kate recalls. “I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.”

You might say that’s a personal statement of hers that has remained consistent throughout their lives together. It’s interesting, though, considering the amount of struggles they’ve had. Most people would get really stressed out and fight and maybe even break up. But the hard stuff is what has always kept their relationship strong.

Like when two really tall people lived together in Kate’s 350 square-foot apartment. Or when Helgi went back to school to finish his Bachelor’s degree for two years and they had just one income. And how, because of this, they had to wait THREE years to take their honeymoon. Things were great by this time, though, as Helgi had a job, and they spent a lovely month in Thailand. But when they got back, they quickly discovered that Helgi’s company folded without word to any of its employees. Including Helgi.

What couple could weather such uncertainty?

Guess who?

“Twice now, we’ve gone through rough patches financially,” Helgi notes, “and we now know how to handle things. If something happens, I feel like we can deal with it.”

Kate says she noticed that when things get really bad, she learned that she could be very supportive. She admits that, before, she didn’t think she was the sort of person who would be that way. In fact, she says she would’ve left 50 times in the first two years to get a breather from it all, had it not been for something Helgi said to her long ago.

“Helgi told me he always stayed friends with his ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife,” she recalls. “But he said he loved me so much that if we ever broke up, he could never stay in touch with me because he couldn’t take it. So when things get rough, and I want to leave, I think about how he would never talk to me, and know I’d be a wreck.

“He makes me feel loved. He doesn’t fight. Even with the financial difficulties, I have absolute and complete faith in him. He would never even look at another woman. He tells me I’m beautiful all the time, and I think he means it. That makes me cry, because I always needed that. It makes me feel alive.”

On the day after their wedding, Helgi left Kate a note that read, “Happy first day of marriage. I love you.”

Even if there was no note, it is completely obvious to me that these are two people who definitely want to be together. Not because they’re tall. Or they share similar beliefs about septic systems. Because they’re one of those couples you read about in books or see in movies, but don’t think are real because you secretly believe people just don’t stick it out like this in real life.

But I’ve met Kate and Helgi. They’re as real as can be. In the mornings, Helgi imitates the Cookie Monster while they’re having breakfast, and Kate records him singing, “C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me,” on her Iphone.

For Kate and Helgi, C is for commitment, and it’s pretty darned sweet.

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Denise and Ryan

August 23rd, 2010

Denise and Ryan

They were playing ping pong in a bar – he paddling furiously and jumping around the table as if engaged in a serious battle, and she calmly standing in one place, neatly moving her paddle from side to side without much of a fuss.

From a distance, it looked almost as if she was disinterested, and he the clear master of the game. In five minutes, it was all over. They walked back to their seats without a word.

“Who won?” I asked.

“I did,” she said, calmly.

She was neither delighted nor upset, and he didn’t appear terribly dejected, nor did he look surprised. It seemed, almost, that this had happened before. Or, perhaps, it happened all the time.

When I asked her later, she verified that I was correct in my assumption.

“Ryan is very dramatic,” she said, taking a sip of her soda. “But I play the game.”

After knowing Denise for nearly two years, I can see this is true. Only the game she refers to isn’t really a game at all. It’s her life. And she plays it well.

But then, so does he. Together, the two make one amazing team.

They met at summer camp when they were 12. She was the shy bookworm and he was the gregarious charmer every girl pined after. One look and she was hooked. But she was not about to vie for his attention. For the next two years, she’d watch countless girls at camp write, “I love Ryan” on the bathroom walls. One girl even slept with a photo of Ryan next to her bed. “Don’t you think Ryan and I make a great couple?” she cooed, gliding her fingers across the frame. All the while, quiet and steady Denise was secretly fuming inside.

By the time Denise and Ryan were 14, they started spending a lot more time together. In fact, it appeared they might actually be an item. Once, after Bible study, Ryan knocked on Denise’s cabin door. It was late. She was brushing her teeth. He stood at her doorstep, the moon a halo over his head, staring nervously at his feet. And then it happened. He dove forward, planting a tiny kiss on her cheek, then ran off, into the night, without a word. You might say that was the day he kissed his fate.

The next day, he had an important choice to make. Junior high pandemonium had set in, and the girls at camp were descending like vultures.

“He’s so charming and outgoing, so every girl automatically assumes he’s in love with them,” Denise says, noting that it’s an issue even today. “His personality is part of what I love about him, and I don’t blame others for loving those same parts of him. But I had to let him know it was not okay with me to flirt with every girl around. Not if he wanted me.”

And so, at 14, Denise did what most women never learn to do – she refused to compromise her principles just to appease someone of the opposite sex. She respected herself far too much. It was either her all the way, or none of her.

And he chose all of her. From that moment forward, at the age of 14, he chose her. And he never looked back.

Their love was never simple, however.  There were challenges early on. It was difficult enough when they lived two hours apart in Maine, but when he moved to Florida to live with his mom, the relationship was flailing out of control.

Then there was the marriage. They were both in college, and lived off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the first few years.

When they decided to move across the country from Maine to Seattle, they had to fit their entire lives in the back of a Jeep. They stopped along the way. She took pictures. They camped. She wanted to rip his head off at times. They were grumpy and tired. She had no job lined up. They had only a few hundred dollars in their bank account.

They were so young.

But here they are. They are older, but for them, the struggle isn’t close to being over. They are barely into their mid-20s. There is growth yet to be done, and mistakes to be made. But not even that reality fazes them. They will do what they always do – face whatever shows up together.

When most 20-somethings are still learning how to balance a checkbook, they are learning how to balance each other. While their peers are partying and hooking up with random people, they are holding hands in church, and baking cookies, which they hand out to the homeless on cold nights.

There is a quiet confidence to their love. It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever encountered. I look at them both, and I know, with certainty, that they’re going to make it. And somehow, this makes me really happy. It’s some of the clearest evidence I’ve ever seen that a truly solid relationship can withstand all the bumps in the road, all the growing pains, all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and all the states between Maine and Seattle, so long as the people in it are committed to the same things.

Denise and Ryan certainly are.

When I ask Ryan how he knew, all those years ago, that Denise was it, he admits he didn’t know that. Not in the beginning, at least.

“She was all in at 14,” he remarks, “and I was easily distracted by female attention. I think once I got over the female attention part of it, I realized that Denise loved ME (every bit of me), and I loved Denise (every bit of Denise). After my hiatus of flirtation and cheesy relationships, I chose to commit to the woman I could see building a life with. She makes me a better person and encourages my personal growth as a human. I think I realized this at a certain point and it drove my desire to commit. She woke me up through her honesty (and sassiness!). I think it was instinctual because of how she regards me.”

That honesty (and sassiness!) is perhaps their saving grace. Because they’re vocal about their feelings, and air out their laundry on the spot, they have developed successful coping mechanisms people twice their age have often failed to master.

“It was tricky getting married with no money, while still in college, so we basically had to learn life skills together,” Ryan admits. “I think the fact that we don’t harbor things helped us to learn to be there for each other. The first year we were married was no picnic, but I am thankful it was hard. It gave our relationship character and strength. Do we still want to rip each other’s heads off from time to time? Yes. But that is the beauty of relationship. You take the good and the bad.”

He takes it with great appreciation. How could he not? He knows about evolution. He knows that what happens between the ages of 14 and 24 is only a tiny window into what happens in a lifetime. And he’s so darned excited to watch the story unfold.

Like the part about how he finds himself loving things about Denise he didn’t even realize before. And how she’s so kind and giving, and basically how he doesn’t have enough time to tell me all the things he loves about this woman.

And so I tell him to stop. That I’ve heard just about enough. And I have. Because now my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. And I have a newfound appreciation for love stories. And I want to write more. And so I begin.

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Louise and Charlie

August 16th, 2010

Louise and Charlie

He never had much to say. Mostly, he would utter quiet phrases like, “Well, I’ll be,” or, “Is that right?” often while shaking his head.

Those in his company wondered what more there was to him. “He sure doesn’t talk much,” they’d say.

She knew the truth, though. She knew that the way to measure a man is by his actions, not his words. And as far as action goes, Charlie spoke volumes.

To be fair, however, Louise didn’t know all that yet. Not when she met him on a blind date in April of 1946. They went to a movie. It was all rather uneventful. In fact, she wasn’t even sure she liked him. They went out a few more times, and then she went off to St. Louis for a week with a friend.

When she returned to Indiana, and got on a connecting bus to go home, her girlfriend tugged at her shirt. “I think you’d better get off this bus,” she urged. “Looks like there’s someone waiting for you outside.”

And sure enough, there was Charlie. He called her sister to see what time her bus came in, and he showed up. From that moment, until the day he died, he always showed up.

He was a good husband. He wasn’t too pushy. He was clean cut. Her family loved him. And, turns out, so did she.

“You have to know him to know how he was,” she says with a smile. “He was so easy going. Anything I wanted to do, it was all right with him.”

After a year of dating, Charlie popped the question. It was rather unromantic by Hollywood standards, but it was just fine for Louise.

“He had the ring, and gave it to me one evening, before he left,” she said. “He turned around and put the ring on my finger. I accepted it.”

When I asked her if she was in love with him, she looked at me like I was crazy. She said she wouldn’t have accepted the ring if she wasn’t. When I asked her how she knew, she said she was pretty sure anybody would know they’re in love. It’s easy to tell.

“The man was so nice to you,” she says. “He wasn’t pushy. He was easygoing. He’d come and see me. He’d call me. He’d leave my house and drive 27 miles back home.”

Love, for my aunt Louise, is a fairly simple equation. It makes me wonder how most of us got so off track. How we expect so much, and have all these unrealistic fantasies about what he should say or do or how he should make us feel. Maybe it’s enough that he treats us kindly. That he wants to make us happy. He listens. He shows up.

I guess you know you love him back when you want to show up, too. Like when you find out he has cancer.

“He had cancer for 15 years, but he didn’t know it,” she reveals. “When he was in the service, the doctors overseas told him he had hemmorhoids. One day he went to a doctor here, and they found out that’s not what it was. I was waiting outside and the doctor asked if I was his wife. I said yes. He said, ‘I want her to be here to hear what I have to say.’ We didn’t even make it make it across the parking lot after that. We were both crying.”

In 1951, Charlie was told he had just six months to live, but he toughed it out until 1971, even so he would be in the hospital off and on that entire time. The last few years of his life he was bedridden, and Louise took care of him. Charlie would’ve done the same.

It’s easy to do that sort of thing when you love someone. And even if Charlie was a quiet man who nodded a lot instead of expressing his feelings, the truth was pretty evident to Louise.

“One time his mother told me, ‘I miss all my kids, but I miss Charlie the worst,’” Louise remembers. “And I asked her if she wanted him back. She said, ‘Oh no, he’s too happy.’”

I take my aunt’s hand, removing the photo of Charlie when he was still healthy and smiling. I figure she might not want to keep talking about this. I tell her we can stop.

“I’d rather talk about him,” she laughs, as if he were in the next room and she was spilling a secret. “I don’t want to forget about him. You don’t forget about someone you love. Charlie was my true love. He died June 3, and our anniversary would’ve been June 22. He died just before our 23-year anniversary. I would’ve liked to have spent 25 years with him.”

I’m surprised you can love one person for so long, and still miss them after so much time has passed.

“You really miss him, huh?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” she says, giving my hand a tight squeeze. “I do miss him. I do. I do.”

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