I’m told that you learn how to love from your parents. So on this International day of love and cheap Walgreens chocolates, I’m going to share the lessons of someone whose influence has been huge and far reaching- My mom. Here is a part of her story.
My mom and dad met on a blind date set up by their two best friends. It was only meant to be “friendly” and an innocent night of fun. Neither my mom or dad were fully on board with the idea of it, but they were told “It’s just dinner. What’s the harm in that?.” What was promised to be just dinner, ended up being the first night of a journey that would lead to marriage and four kids. Bam! In 1993 my dad was diagnosed with cancer. There was a lump underneath his belly button which had been there a while. It hadn’t really grown or changed but to be on the safe side they went in and removed it. Upon opening him up, they saw that not only did he have cancer, but that is was so widespread they couldn’t even locate the origin. So we were never told he had “lung cancer” or “stomach cancer.” He had whole body cancer! He was given six months.
We were also told the cancer was too far spread for chemo or radiation treatments to be effective. My dad wasn’t thrilled with this prognosis, so he devoted himself to getting well through a hollistic approach. He cut out white sugar, white flower, meat, artificial everything, and drank so much homemade carrot juice that his palms turned orange. He lived in great health for three and a half more years to the surprise of all his doctors. But ultimately he lost the battle. After he died, I remember my mom saying “I could never love someone the way I loved your dad.” And it was pretty well understood and accepted that she wouldn’t marry again.
But four years later, she was set up on another blind date which she again resisted strongly and almost bailed out on minutes before. This time it was a different set of friends who set her up, but the promise was the same. “It’s just dinner. And we’ll be there the whole time.” Well wouldn’t you know it, sparks flew that night too with Roger. (We liked to call him Roger Dodger) And six months later, they married. I remember my mom saying, “When you get to be my age, you just know these things. There’s no reason to wait!” He had two kids from a previous marriage, so now altogether there were three boys and three girls. We were literally the Brady Bunch, just far more dysfunctional. But it was a really incredible thing to see my mom so re-energized again. Roger was very different from my dad, but it didn’t seem to matter. He brought her back to life.
Five years later, I was a junior in college at LSU. I remember this Tuesday morning distinctly. I was brushing my teeth and going over a case in my mind for my Media Law class that I was running late for. My cell phone started ringing and I saw it was my house. When I answered, I heard the horror in my moms voice. She could hardly get the words out, but she does. “Roger died last night.” He was in Florida on business and died in his sleep at his hotel room the night before. He was never late, so when he didn’t show up to work the next day, they knew something was up. The autopsy revealed it was a heart attack. I kind of gasped for air when I heard my moms words. In a moment it felt unreal and disgustingly real simultaneously. I was trying to process what she had told me as I packed a bag when it hit me- the icing on the cake of this surprising and sudden tragedy–my sister was getting married in two weeks. And here’s the cherry on top– they were getting married in the very same Hall that my mom and Roger were married in. As my sister Amelie so eloquently put it, Are you fucking kidding me?! It was unbelievable. I hopped in the car and made the hour and a half drive home, in shock. It felt like a 10 second drive. Doug, Nick and Amelie were all in by that night as well. Roger’s kids were in the next day and we all put our heads together and began the “making arrangements” process. Sometimes I still look back at all that and think, did that really happen?
So we Gelpi’s do two things really well: Weddings and funerals. For one thing, we’ve had a lot of practice. We planned and executed the funeral, and then prepared for my sisters wedding a week later. Somehow, the funeral was beautiful and seemed just how Roger would’ve wanted it. A lot of people spoke, including his son who’s words were poised and beautiful. The service took place outside in the 3 acre garden he created. As depressing as it was, somehow it still felt right. The next weekend, it was time for my sisters wedding. And it was a blast. Still one of the best weddings I’ve been to! Everyone smiled, laughed, and danced, including my mom. Sometimes I think we should start a business where we plan both weddings and funerals. I must say, there’s not SUCH a difference. Each involve an absurd amount of flowers, a lot of drinking, and usually someone saying something inappropriate. There’s just more dancing at a wedding! Anyway, the next year involved a lot of cursing and yelling at God. A lot of questioning life and existence and the universe and a lot of crying and flipping off the sky. But in very quiet moments, in stillness, I felt reassurance. I could feel that this was not how the story would end. It wasn’t over; not yet.
Just over a year later, my mom was at a bar-b-que at some of our best friends house, the Pastoreks. Paul Pastorek was one of my dads best friends. They were the family we’d take ridiculous annual vacations with in the summers. We were extensions of each others families. Anyway, while at the bar-b-que, my mom met Paul’s brother, Marc. Somehow, in their more than 20 years of friendship, my mom had never once met Paul’s brother, until today. You can go ahead and guess where this is leading. Yep! They ended up falling in love, too. Just over a year later, they were married on a mountain in Colorado. We joked about who was crazier; my mom for taking another chance and marrying again. Or Marc, for taking a chance and marrying a woman with two dead husbands! The first song we danced to at the wedding was “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. It was both irreverent and inappropriate, just like all of us. Once again, we danced all night. It was perfect.
So now, the lesson. Only marry men with strong genes. Just kidding. I think the biggest lesson I have gathered from my moms story, is that choosing to love someone involves incredible risk. There are no guarantees in life and certainly none in love. I think it would have been very easy for my mom to clam up after the first loss. And then to disengage completely after the second loss. Excuse my Jewelry commercial sappiness, but I think by keeping her heart open to even the idea of loving again, she was able to both give and receive it in spite of the track record. At Roger’s funeral, she stood up to speak to everyone’s surprise, including her own. But she said something came over her, and the first thing she said was “To love is to be vulnerable to loss.” This is true for everyone. And that’s a scary thought if you harp on it too long. But the alternative, which is safety, bears no reward. And that doesn’t sound like much fun, at all. Most everyone I’ve talked to who has been in love, whether it worked out or not, says it was well worth it. A few nights after Roger died, a lot of people were over at our house. We were eating, drinking, and remembering, telling stories. At one point my mom was talking about their first date and how hesitant she was. At the end of the story she said “What can I say, given the chance, I’d do it all over again.” That’s what you call courage! I was in awe of her. And as I watched her marry a third time, change her name a third time, ‘do it all over again,’ take another plunge into the unknown, I knew I was bearing witness to a model for not only how to live, but how to love too. Get busy livin or get busy dyin! Am I right? So here’s to you mom, for doing it all over again, picking up the pieces and moving forward, and teaching everyone around you that love, while it is a gift, is not random. You have taught us well.
Health, Happiness and Love!