Sunday, February 14, 2016

Will You Marry Me?

Today is Valentine's Day - the first, of course, since Cara's passing. There are several dates each year that I know will always make me especially miss her, for instance, her birthday, our wedding anniversary, and the anniversary of our first date. Valentine's Day wouldn't rank especially high on the list because it wasn't something we generally made that big a deal of. It did make me think of a nice story, though. Probably our most extravagant Valentine's Day outing was in 2010. It was actually on the evening of the 13th (a Saturday, just like this year) that we went out to eat at our favorite restaurant, L'Albatros, a fabulous French restaurant in University Circle. We took advantage of a gift card we had received for Christmas and enjoyed one of the best meals we'd ever eaten. Cara wrote a review of the outing on her Girl About Cleveland blog and I encourage you to look at it. Her writing is wonderfully evocative.

In preparing for the date, Cara really went all out, not only putting on a nice dress but also going to La Barberia in our Little Italy neighborhood earlier that day to get her hair and makeup professionally done.

Hair and makeup pictured, but that's not the dress, in case you wondered. :-p

I don't remember whether it was that night or on one of the following days, but Cara admitted to me that the reason she did this was she wanted to look especially nice because she was expecting I would propose to her.

We had already had discussions about getting engaged, so this wasn't coming up out of the blue. I never had any intention of a Valentine's proposal, though. As I told her, I thought it would be far too cliched. We ended up getting engaged about three weeks later in a really wonderful way. I've told that story before, but I also want to add some of the backstory that I haven't shared previously.

In December 2009, our first holiday season living together, we got an Advent calendar and took turns putting little objects (often candy, but some other things too) behind the doors for the other to open. At this point in time, we were already fully intending to get married and had discussed this openly with each other. I had shown Cara a few rings I was thinking of so that I could get her opinions, and based on her feedback had narrowed it down to two choices. (Partly because I was living on a grad student stipend and partly, again, not wanting to be cliched, I didn't want to get a traditional diamond ring and Cara was fully on board with that. I ended up choosing a ruby with four tiny diamonds around it and she absolutely loved the ring.) So anyway, I was thinking of putting the engagement ring behind the final door of the Advent calendar. (Yeah, yeah, that would have been pretty cliched!)

I procrastinated, and it turned out the particular ring I most wanted to get was not in stock, and I could not get it in time for Christmas, so I scratched that plan. Over the next couple of months, I think Cara was starting to wonder, "What's taking him so long?" We had been a couple for more than three years, had lived together for more than half a year, were obviously madly in love with each other, and had talked about engagement rings. What was I waiting for? Well, a confession. I didn't tell Cara this, but there was an unfortunate factor discouraging me from going ahead and proposing. (She was aware of what I was dealing with, but not of how it influenced my thinking in regards to getting engaged.) In October I had run the Towpath Marathon, the only marathon I ever ran and a great success as I finished second in a time of 2:44:38. It was an amazing experience, but unfortunately, in the course of training for the marathon, I developed really bad tendinitis in both my ankles. I ran through it, expecting that it would go away if I just took some time off from running after the marathon. This did not happen. If anything, at first it seemed to get even worse. I was in a lot of pain and feeling very frustrated and this was having a definite impact on my emotional state. And I wasn't really keen on getting engaged during what was not a particularly happy point in my life.

Things started to improve, a little (although six years later that ankle tendinitis has still not completely gone away). More importantly, my emotional state started to stabilize. I decided I shouldn't let this get in the way of Cara and I moving forward with our lives together.

After almost ordering a ring before Christmas but ending up not doing so, by Valentine's Day I still had not ordered the ring. But I guess that wonderful date night triggered something in me, because it was at lunch time on Monday the 15th that I placed the order (isn't it great having a searchable archive of all your emails from over the years?). Due to an unexpected delay with the shipping, I got the ring about two weeks later. Then it was a matter of finding the perfect time to propose.

It's appropriate that Lent has just started, because that also ties in to this story. Starting in 2009, Cara's first full year living in Cleveland, and continuing all the way through last year, during each Lenten season we picked one Friday and went to the fish fry at Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights. We weren't churchgoers; it was just a really fun thing to do. We loved having little traditions like that to share. In 2010, we went to the fish fry on March 5, just days after I received the ring. Cara must have suspected something was up. There's no way she could have actually known that I had just gotten her engagement ring, because I had had it shipped to my work and it had never been somewhere she would have seen. However, as we stood in line to get our food, she not so subtly patted me down as if she was trying to see if there was anything hidden in my coat pockets. Of course, she acted all innocent when I asked what she was doing. I did not, in fact, have the ring with me at the fish fry. As usual, we had a great time together.

The next day, Saturday, we went for a walk at the Cleveland Metroparks Euclid Creek Reservation. Despite being March, there had recently been a large snowstorm, and the ground was blanketed with snow. That weekend saw the coming of a thaw. As we walked on the path alongside Euclid Creek, I recall watching in wonder as a tremendous flow of large ice chunks rushed downstream, carried by the heavily flowing water.

On that day, for the first time during an outing with Cara, I was carrying the ring with me.

We walked for some time. We always loved going for walks together, ever since even before we started dating. Now, I'll let you in on a very silly inside joke we had. As I recall, it started on a trip we took to Hamilton, Ontario to see a concert. We camped at a park on Lake Ontario and, while there, went to check out the beach. In the sand, Cara spelled out the words I LOVE YOU. I smiled as I watched. However, she was not done writing. Who knows what put this idea into her mind, but she added two more words, to complete the phrase I LOVE YOU BOBA FETT. (Boba Fett is the name of a Star Wars character. Cara, unlike me, wasn't even really a Star Wars fan. Ah, the mysteries of the human mind...) We both thought this was hilarious, and from that day on, we would occasionally write I LOVE YOU BOBA FETT in random places. And one such place was there in the snow along the trail at Euclid Creek Reservation.

It was around then that I considered popping the question. It just didn't feel right to me, though, because it was a very gray day. So I decided to wait, for which I'm glad.

The next day was Sunday, March 7. In the morning, we went to a spin class together at Urban Active in Beachwood, as we often did that winter. In the afternoon, Cara was going to see the recently released movie Alice in Wonderland with a friend (I had no interest in seeing the movie.) It was a beautiful day, and I asked Cara if, before she went to the movie, she'd like to go for a walk with me in "the ravine" - Roxboro Ravine, a section of Doan Brook in between North Park Boulevard and Fairhill Road. (Later that year I wrote a whole blog post about my love for Roxboro Ravine.)

Unlike the previous cloudy day, the sun shone brightly on that Sunday, illuminating the snow that still covered most of the ground. The whole landscape sparkled. With mild temperatures, it was a great day for a walk. As we descended on the trail into the ravine, a place we had walked several times in the past, Cara remarked to me that the ravine was "special" to her. Secretly, it thrilled me when she said this. I, of course, agreed with her.

After walking for some time, we reached the spot pictured here:

I took this picture then. I was carrying the ring box, by the way, in my camera bag.

Since Cara was going to the movie with her friend, I said that we should probably head back to the car. She began to do so. Then I added, "But first, there's one more thing." She turned back around to see me down on one knee, holding out the ring. "Will you marry me?"

In her excitement, Cara fell on her backside in the snow. It was truly a perfect moment! She said yes, of course.

So then we did return to the car, and Cara did go to the movie, while I went on a bike ride. That night, Cara, her friend, and I went to the Happy Dog on the West Side for a little celebratory dinner to cap off a wonderful day.

And a little addendum about that engagement ring. Last fall when I was looking at pictures from the Cleveland Museum of Art's annual chalk festival, I was surprised when I looked very closely at this picture from the 2009 chalk festival and saw that Cara was wearing, on her left hand ring finger, what appeared to be her engagement ring (it's hard to see without looking at the original full size image).

I was very confused for a moment, because this picture was taken some six months before we got engaged. Then I remembered the other ring I had gotten Cara. It was a garnet ring. She had been telling me that it would be nice if I got her some jewelry, and as I recall, I bought it for her at a shop in Lake Placid, New York that we were at together during family vacation. It was nothing fancy, but she really liked that ring. The engagement ring was similar in appearance (although obviously much nicer) and she told me that this similarity was one of the reasons she loved her engagement ring so much. I don't know where that garnet ring is now. Perhaps I'll come across it someday. The engagement ring remains with Cara.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

This is, by a wide margin, the least likely thing that has ever happened

I've always gotten a kick out of coincidences. That's probably human nature. One fun little example: Cara was born at 6:20 am and for part of her childhood she lived on a street called East Jeffrey Place. She would, of course, grow up to marry a man named Jeffrey - whose birthday was 6/20.

There are a number of really remarkable coincidences regarding Cara that I have in my memories, and I thought it would be worthwhile to compile them in one post. So, here goes.

First of all, there are two incidents I remember in which Cara seemed to have some sort of unconscious ability to predict the future. I'll tell the second one first, because the other is more interesting. Cara and I were going out to dinner at the since-closed Mexican restaurant Mi Pueblo near Case campus. It was one of our favorite spots; when we started dating I lived just around the corner and we enjoyed many meals together there. Anyway, on that particular night, as we walked from our car to the restaurant we heard a band playing in the nearby Euclid Tavern. "Is that 'Rockin' in the Free World'?" Cara asked, referring to a Neil Young song. I listened for a couple of seconds and answered that no, it wasn't. We entered Mi Pueblo, sat down, had a nice dinner together, and by the time we got up to leave had no doubt forgotten all about the band in the Tavern. But as we headed out into the night, I was startled to hear a familiar tune emanating from inside the old music venue's walls.

"Keep on rockin' in the free world..."

We could only look at each other and laugh in amazement.

The first incident of Cara's psychic abilities was far more shocking.

Early in the morning on June 14, 2009, we were driving out to Burton, Ohio for the annual Sunday in June bike tour, Cara's first ever bike tour in Northeast Ohio and my first ever bike tour period. I have absolutely no idea what caused Cara to say this, but she remarked, "Wouldn't it be funny if I got 666 for my bib number?" (A bib number, for those who don't know, is the identifying number worn during a race or other such event.)

So we got to Burton, parked our car, got our gear together, rode our bikes over to the starting point, went to the signup table, filled out the registration forms and paid the fees, and then, sure enough...

I mean, it was probably the strangest thing I had ever seen in person to that point in my life. Think about it. If Cara had been asked in advance to predict her bib number, she'd have had less than a 1% chance of predicting correctly. But what possessed her to even make such a prediction? Why would she do that? We were both just totally stunned that her bib number was, indeed, 666. Making this even more funny was that the Sunday in June tour goes through the Amish country of Geauga County, and according to Cara, some children she rode past reacted by saying things like, "Get away, Satan!" (They may have been joking. I'm not sure.)

So those are the two stories of Cara's psychic powers. There are also several remarkably odd incidents that occurred related to Cara's cancer and her death, which I'll recount next.

The first was one that I had no idea the strangeness of until some time after it happened. Nearly two months before Cara was diagnosed, my mom (who, it should be noted, has generally never asked me about going to concerts with her) asked me if Cara and I might like to go to a concert with her in Columbus. The odd part? The concert was on September 22, Cara's birthday, and the band was Typhoon - that is, the band whose powerful music would become my own personal soundtrack to my and Cara's lives after Cara was diagnosed. (We did not go to that concert, but I did see Typhoon on September 21 in Cleveland.) When my mom sent that innocent email query I had no idea that one day I would look back on it and marvel. As I wrote in the post linked above, "What was it that made her ask this, just this one time, about this one specific band, for a show on Cara's birthday?"

Next, there is another music-related coincidence. On rare occasions I will hear a song on the radio (something I generally only listen to while in the car) that I'm just so taken by that I immediately have to go look up the song and the artist and not only that, I soon find myself going ahead and buying the album. I love it when this happens. It's a fun way of discovering music. One such incident happened early in 2015, less than two months before Cara died. As I recall, I had just dropped her off at work when a song on WJCU (John Carroll University's radio station) really caught my attention. The song was "Here's Where The Story Ends" by English alternative rock band The Sundays.

It was released in 1990 and according to Wikipedia topped the U.S. Modern Rock Charts for a single week, so it was something of a hit, but The Sundays aren't exactly a household name and I doubt most people would remember the song. I can't remember ever being aware of it before that day I heard it on the radio. I heard it on the radio a few more times in the ensuing weeks and, as I mentioned, I also bought the album on which it appears, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. It's a solid indie pop album, but "Here's Where The Story Ends" is definitely the best song. And it really is a wonderful song.

Flash forward to April 28, the day of the calling hours for Cara at the funeral home. As I drove to the funeral home that morning, a familiar song came on the radio. I kind of chuckled to myself. It seemed fitting, given the song's title and lyrics. Already that was a pretty wild coincidence, hearing that particular song on the way to the funeral home that day, but that was just the beginning. That night, after the calling hours were over, I was visiting with my relatives at the hotel where they were staying. We were eating dinner in a common area. In the background, some music could faintly be heard playing over the hotel's speakers in another room. And as I sat there eating and conversing, and another song started playing, I turned more of my attention to those distant notes because they sounded familiar - was that really...?

A stunned expression came over my face. This is a fairly obscure song we're talking about here. Why was it playing over the hotel's speakers, on the same day as Cara's calling hours, on the same day I had already heard it on the radio?

I found this eerie, but an even more eerie thing had happened several days before. Early in the morning hours of April 24, I sat by Cara's hospital bed. At 4:15 am, her mother, the nurse, and I watched as Cara breathed her last breath. At that very minute, my phone's text message notification sounded. Her mother and I looked at each other, startled. The sound played again.

My beloved wife had just passed away, but not knowing what else to do, I looked at my phone. I had received two text messages from my mother. Not only that, but both messages said "blank message."

This was probably the most eerie moment of my life. It was as if Cara's spirit was trying to communicate with us as she left the world.

I later learned that my mother had indeed texted me at that time with a message about how she and my father were leaving Columbus to head up to Cleveland. The reason the messages showed up as blank (something that had happened before) was that my outdated phone could not handle some symbols my mother included in the messages, and as a result, did not display the messages at all. Still, it was quite a coincidence that my mother texted me at the very same minute that Cara passed away.

Finally, I have one more little story to tell. This past November I went for a walk at Horseshoe Lake in Shaker Heights, a place where Cara and I many times enjoyed walks together. While there, I happened to notice a memorial marker. I was startled when I saw the dates. I posted this picture to Facebook and captioned it, "At Horseshoe Lake today I happened upon a memorial to another person who died far too young on the 24th of April."

(The text on the marker says: "Tasting all these and letting them have their ways to waken me, I shiver and resolve: In my life, I will more than live." -William Stafford. Michael Robert Tucker June 4, 1982 - April 24, 2010)

Happening upon a memorial, at a place Cara and I loved, for a person who died exactly five years before Cara was a coincidence, sure, but not that crazy, right? Well, here's the crazy part. After posting the picture on Facebook, I was informed by a good friend of mine who saw the post that Michael Robert Tucker had been a close childhood friend. Even more amazing, the two, after not seeing each other for years, had reconnected, by chance, just weeks before Michael died in a tragic rock climbing accident.

As with every other story in this post, I once more found myself stunned.

It can be tempting to think of all these wildly unlikely occurrences as evidence of some sort of higher power. It can even be fun to think that way. Of course, I'm well aware that we humans evolved to find patterns in randomness. Still, who really knows?

I do have to point out one other extremely unlikely event that happened in my and Cara's lives. At some point in time, in a single cell within Cara's body, by random chance, a very specific error appeared in her genetic code that would ultimately lead to the development of lethal metastatic lung cancer.

Downer of an ending, I know, but that's life sometimes.