Reconnecting: A Love Story
Our Second Act
by Ben Miller
“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald proved this with his own life drinking helped and writers have quoted him ever since.
My life didn’t work out this way. I have had a second act. I haven’t written a book like The Great Gatsby, but I’ve done better than that, in my reckoning. Two years ago, I married the woman I fell in love with 38 years before.
Would it be stupid to call her?
Cathy and my second romance began with a thought I dared voice to a friend.
In March, 2004, Scott and I were driving toward a small town, Deruyter, in upstate New York east of Cortland.
“Do you think it’s stupid for people to look up people from their past?” I asked.
My tone was philosophical. I take refuge in that style when I don’t want to express my feelings.
“I think when people get older,” I continued, “they want to see people who were important to them in their early life.”
Scott listened patiently.
Finally coming to the point, I muttered, “Do you think it would be stupid for me to call Cathy?”
My old friend gave me the encouragement I was seeking.
In college, Cathy roomed with Joyce, Scott’s girlfriend and, for the last 38 years, his wife. Scott was my college roommate at Hobart College. Joyce and Scott introduced Cathy and me way back in 1967.
Joyce and Cathy went to Cortland State University, still in New York but an hour and a half away. After our first blind date, as sophomores, we dated until our senior years. Then, as Cathy tells it, “We drifted apart.” As I tell it, “She broke my heart.”
Being guys, Scott and I didn’t talk any more about it then or now.
At the hardware store in Deruyter, I bought three tins of maple syrup and a pair of wool socks. We drove up to the foothills above the farms, parked at the end of a road closed by snow and walked up the road and into the woods.
A few weeks later, on a Friday afternoon in my office, I emailed Scott to ask for Cathy’s email address. Scott emailed back: “found a phone number and left a message. I don’t have it here. Do you want it? If she calls, I’ll ask for an e-mail.”
I replied that I had her number. I had had it for years, though I’d never used it.
I left work thinking I might email her the following week maybe. But then I thought, I don’t have a computer, at home. What if Cathy gets my email address, emails me and I don’t reply until Monday? How will that look?
So Saturday morning I worked up nerve to call her. Her message machine said to “leave a message after the beep.” I didn’t recognize her voice. I said I hoped she was Cathy and, hoping she remembered me, asked her to call.
‘You got a call. I think you’re going to like it!’
I’d done it. Then, I went for a walk on my parents’ farm in West Virginia. At the end of March, spring hadn’t arrived. The sky was gray. The trees and bushes had no leaves. The grass was brown. The only green was the honeysuckle.
When I returned to my parents’ house (where I was then living) my mother met me outside. “You got a call,” she said. “I think you’re going to like it!”
Upstairs, I called back. From Scott and Joyce’s stories, I knew Cathy wasn’t married. But was she in a relationship? Why wouldn’t she be? I’d told myself I just wanted to be in touch and tie up some loose ends, but secretly I was hoping for more.
This time Cathy answered. We talked about the past. We had not talked in all that time, but we knew about each other from Scott and Joyce. Cathy married after college, lived on Long Island, taught elementary school, had a child, Merri, and divorced. (Scott had called me right away when he heard that news.)
Back in her hometown, Larchmont, New York, she earned a doctorate in educational psychology from New York University, established an educational counseling practice, then returned to teaching middle school.
I joined the Peace Corps after college and spent two years in Kenya. Back home in Kearneysville, West Virginia, I got a job as a museum exhibit planner with the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry. I married and lived in Shepherdstown.
One of the first things I said to Cathy was, “You know one secret about me already. I’m living with my parents.” (After 26 years, I had separated, then divorced.)
So typical of Cathy, with her understanding way, she replied, “I’ve been there, too.”
As time came to say goodbye, Cathy said, “I’m visiting my sister in Bethesda next Saturday. Would you like to meet?”
Would I. We agreed to talk on Wednesday to make arrangements.
‘You can’t see me, but tears are streaming down my face.’
Before Wednesday, we were emailing. We found that our lives had moved along similar paths: interest in spirituality, love of dogs, caring for elderly parents. What I sensed from Cathy was more than common interests. It was her compassion. When I told her of my divorce and my reconciliation with my former wife (a lifelong smoker) over her illness and death from lung cancer, Cathy said, “You can’t see me, but tears are streaming down my face!”
We made plans to meet in Bethesda that Saturday.
‘It’s the perfect gift!’
As I walked to the door of Cathy’s sister’s house, I envisioned a courtly greeting. I would shake Cathy’s hand and brush her cheek gently with my lips. Instead, when she opened the door I blurted, “You’re beautiful!” and kissed her on the lips five times in about as many seconds. As a present, I gave her a lotus flower enameled onto a plate that I had bought that morning in a store in Shepherdstown. In Hindu philosophy, the lotus represents rebirth, renewal and redemption.
“It’s the perfect gift,” Cathy said.
We drove into Washington. Spring had come to the city. In the Kenwood area of Bethesda, cherry trees bloomed. We talked so much we hardly saw the canopies of white blossoms as we passed through them.
It was a good weekend. As much as by Cathy’s pretty smile and the joy of our reconnection, I was struck by her compassion and the depth of her empathy. Cathy had had her trials in life as we all do and had emerged with strength, kindness and clarity.
‘I don’t have to think about it.’
We talked Sunday night. Cathy was back in Larchmont; I was in West Virginia.
“Would you like to meet next weekend in Baltimore?” Cathy asked. “My sister suggested we could stay at her apartment.”
When she offered me time to think it over, I said “I don’t have to think about it.”
A few days later a book of daily meditations arrived in Kearneysville. She had sent me The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have, by Mark Nepo. On its cover was a lotus. Almost every day, by telephone and emails, we discussed these readings. What a way to know each other’s thoughts.
‘Three weeks! I was like that after three weeks!’
Cathy and I met several times in Baltimore. Cathy came down from Larchmont by train. I drove over from West Virginia.
The borrowed apartment off Mount Vernon Square overlooked the Washington Monument on Charles Street. One spring night, we walked in the park across from the Peabody Conservatory. Two women sat on a park bench. A man stood nearby. One of the women spoke to us. “You two look like a happy couple,” she said. “We’ve been talking about men! What do you think about men?”
We stopped. The women laughingly riffed on the basic men are jerks theme while the guy silently played the straight man to their humor. One had been betrayed, and not for the first time.
Seeing our happiness, she asked how long we had been together.
“Three weeks,” we replied in unison.
“Three weeks!” she said. “I was like that after three weeks.”
She was right, of course. Who knows whether the early passion of a love affair will last? We thought we knew, however. We both felt we had been together a lot longer. We felt confident for the future.
‘We’ve always thought of you together.’
In May, Cathy and I drove to visit Scott, Joyce and their two children, Keelin and Luke, north of Ithaca, New York. Keelin, a talented and marvelously expressive violinist as a 14-year-old, was giving a recital.
At dinner, Scott offered a toast saying that even though Cathy and I had been apart for all those years, he and Joyce had always thought of us as being together, as meant for each other. We thought so too.
‘My mother just died!’
On June 19, the mood of our romance changed.
Cathy called from New York with the news that her mother had just died.
Cathy’s mother, Helen, had died in her sleep, at a home for Alzheimers patients in Northern Virginia.
The early stages of a romance are light, exciting and insular. There are just two people, and the world functions as an encouraging backdrop.
Yet the death of Cathy’s mother brought us even closer. Cathy responded to me as the partner in her life. Her family her daughter, Merri, three sisters and a brother with spouses, partners and children accepted me as Cathy’s partner, too.
‘This is basmati rice!’
After a summer of visiting and travel, I went back to West Virginia in September, thinking of retiring from the park service. Retiring from my job of 32 years was an agonizing decision; deciding to ask Cathy to marry me was not.
In mid-September, we met again in Baltimore. I thought of where I would ask the question. Perhaps while we stood in the window of Sue and her husband Sonny’s apartment, looking down on Mount Vernon Square. Perhaps another romantic setting.
My plan was not to be. Cathy arrived late by train, and we went straight to dinner at an Indian restaurant on Charles Street. I was distracted while we talked and ordered. Finally I blurted out, “I’m thinking of something and I’ll keep thinking about it if I don’t just say it.
“I want to marry you. Will you marry me, Cathy?”
Cathy said, “Yes!”
Next, she wanted to share the news.
She called Sue, her daughter Merri (who when Cathy told the big news started humming “The Wedding March”), her sister Chris, her sister Cheryl, her friends Verna, Claire, Kathy and Essie.
The appetizers came, but we were too excited and chattering too fast to eat.
The waiter asked if there was anything wrong with the food. Cathy told him we had just become engaged, but that news didn’t seem to register. He soon brought the main course and his standard proud boast (we had eaten there before), “This is basmati rice!”
The Hard Questions
Cathy’s sister Sue advised waiting four seasons since we reconnected before we married. We agreed, and the wedding was set for April.
During that time, we separately and together answered the questions in a book called The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say ‘I Do’, by Susan Piver.
People in love often feel they have everything in common, but no two people do. This book asks people to think about what they want in a home, their livelihoods, sex, their relations with family, where they want to live. The questions are detailed, and so are the answers if carefully thought out. Answering the questions in this book made us think of things we hadn’t considered.
We also got good advice from a counselor. “Don’t let the woman plan the wedding alone or with her mother, sisters or friends,” she said. The passive male approach to a wedding as in Whatever you want, Dear establishes a pattern for making separate decisions in the marriage.
Cathy and I listened. We planned our wedding together from the place to the minister to the cake to the flowers. We had a ball doing it, and, sure enough, this was great practice for other decisions we were soon to make.
Cherry Blossom Time
On April 15, 2005, in Baltimore, at the 4 East Madison Inn, near Mount Vernon Square, Cathy and I married. It was little over a year from the day we reconnected. Cherry blossoms were a theme of our wedding.
Scott and Joyce attended with their children Luke and Keelin. Scott and my cousin Rusty were best men. Sue and Merri attended Cathy. Keelin played a lovely violin piece called “The Prayer.”
Cathy and I saw our ceremony as a way to give people hope that love, romance and fulfillment are all possible. We may have to wait, but we don’t have to settle. As Etta James sang, “At last, my love has come along.”
Cathy and Ben moved to Edgewater in August, 2005. This month, they’ve bought their first home together in Cape St. Claire. Cathy’s photographs and Ben’s articles appear regularly in Bay Weekly.