By Hank Nuwer
All married couples make one beautiful promise at the outset. “Until death do us part.”
My friends Jimmy and Karen made that same vow.
Unfortunately, each made a bad choice. Each put another before them.
Jimmy strayed first. Karen went to Jimmy’s friend-turned-enemy out of need or revenge.
Happily, their separation was brief.
The two were crazy about one another.
Jim’s greatest gift came after his bride was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Karen’s dream had been to own her own house. That never happened on Jimmy’s salary as a part-time sheriff’s deputy and weekend roadhouse singer.
Now, Jimmy bought a squalid, ruined home built around 1890.
While Karen stayed in their rental home, he put on a roof, tore out the floorboards in the kitchen and replaced them with sheets of plywood. He adjusted loose doors so that they fit. He patched walls and ceilings.
The windows had gaps so wide that a loose receipt once floated off a table into the yard. He slapped on a ton of caulk.
After three months, Jimmy put in the touches that make a house a home.
He planted Karen a garden in front of a new picture window. He found an old birdbath in a thrift store so that she could watch birds from the couch.
He restored a fireplace that earlier couldn’t have burned a log without setting the house on fire.
The day Jimmy moved Karen into her dream house, he raided the gardens of all his friends.
He put cut-glass vases of flowers on seemingly every shelf. Next to the toilet, where she now spent so much time, he put Karen’s favorite magazines in a wooden stand.
The gift of love energized Karen. Her fatigue lifted. She no longer stayed parked on the couch.
She used a rag much like the scarf that covered what fuzz she had left on her scalp.
She attacked dust alighting on the fireplace mantel, woodwork, and door tops.
Jimmy joked that she scrubbed the walls until the new paint grew thin.
One day in December, Karen’s doctor said he heard of an experimental drug. He cautioned them not to get their hopes too high.
Fat chance of that. It was their only hope.
Jimmy earmarked every cent for the medicine he prayed could cure his bride.
They scheduled a journey to a well-known cancer institute.
Jimmy helped Karen dress. He hurried her into the couple’s old Cadillac so the winter air didn’t sear her brittle lungs.
The car was a clunker. Its corroded battery, chirping wheel bearings, and bad modulator valve made breakdowns inevitable, but Jimmy found parts in a junkyard to bring it back to life.
The couple parked the Caddy on the hospital lot. Karen took Jimmy’s left arm while his right held a briefcase stuffed with medical records.
A specialist examined Karen and all documents. He confronted Jimmy and the patient.
“Karen is too far gone for experimental drugs,” the specialist said. She had days, not months, left.
Jimmy pressed him with questions. What alternative treatments could he recommend — maybe in Mexico?
None, none, the specialist said. Recommending an unproven drug would make him and the hospital open to a malpractice suit.
Jimmy wrote me at Christmas. He was “shaking bushes worldwide” to find some practitioner full of promises who would prescribe medications that might prolong her life the length of cut thread.
“A thread of life is better than no life at all,” he wrote.
In January, I wangled a magazine article that brought me two days to visit my friends. Karen wanted to show me her back.
My legs wobbled as I beheld her charred flesh.
I wondered if Jimmy would feel relief when his bride passed. I felt ashamed for wondering that.
Even as Karen lay like an inert pelt on the couch, her sighs and groans gave him hope for a miracle.
“We can’t accept a death sentence,” Jimmy said. “We won’t.”
I returned home as Karen’s energized days disappeared. Now Jimmy performed all the dusting.
“Each day we search for a new normality and try to exceed it,” he said. “She’s going to have to be tougher than she’s ever been just to stay even.”
One day Jimmy bawled out Karen’s oldest son by a prior marriage. A long-haul driver, he hadn’t been by the restored house even once to see his mother. Jimmy left only after extracting a promise from him.
Karen died one day after her son’s visit. Perhaps she had stayed alive to see him once more.
Jimmy and Karen didn’t have the unblemished “happy ever after” marriage.
But they sure were one another’s Valentine.
Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.