I first met my wife, Dana, when she was 11. I was 31 at the time, married to my first wife and raising our two sons. Dana’s family moved to the suburban neighborhood a year or so after we did. In those days, children were free to roam the several blocks near our houses safely. Families were around to watch out for them, mothers to keep in touch with each other in case of emergencies.
Indeed, everybody knew everybody. It was congenial and comfortable in a way neighborhoods are no longer. It was unnecessary to look over one’s shoulder out of fear. There were no drive-by shootings. Muggings were few and took place in dangerous neighborhoods, not in our calm place. There was race-baiting, but it was in the national news, and it took place at nothing like the present volume, at least not where we lived.
Dana and her little brother sought out our boys as playmates. Her brother was the same age as my boys. Dana was approximately five years older, thus she became the leader of the bunch, quickly organizing them into a club in the woods behind our house, beneath what she called the Tree of Life. She led them through the rituals, making bows, arrows, and quivers out of branches, telling them stories she made up about spirits, knights, and heroes. A large grass lawn lay invitingly next to a church that abutted our small lot. I joined them there for impromptu baseball games. We spent a lot of energy laughing.
A few years later, we moved an hour away, just over the state line. I continued to work in the city. One Friday, my wife called me asking me to pick up Dana and her brother for a weekend visit. By this time Dana was 15 and a lovely girl. The weather was bright and sunny that weekend. We cooked out, played ball on our own large lawn, and swam at the pool nearby.
I was putting together a portfolio of illustration then to take to New York. Dana asked to see the little shed where I did my painting. As she examined my work, she described her own drawings and told me she wanted to write, giving me the plot outlines of several stories involving a heroine with three names, which I have, alas, forgotten.
We Drift Out of Each Other’s Lives
A couple of years later, my wife and I separated. It had been an unhappy marriage and I missed my home and children. I moved back to the city and, a year or two later, my boys left their mother’s house and moved in with me. Boys need fathers. But they were difficult, associating with dubious creatures I did not much like. They never got into trouble with the law, but they skated close to the line. My older son, unknown to me, began doing drugs, marijuana at first. He also began to drink. He never did these things in our house, but elsewhere, where he was sure I wouldn’t find out.
I happened to run into Dana once or twice during that time. She was in almost in her twenties by then, much engaged in a busy social life. She drove my boys to rock concerts and took them to parties. I paid little attention, glad that my sons still had some close friends who were sane. I trusted Dana, sure she was smart enough not to indulge deeply in the cultural shift that was too rapidly taking place. Eventually, I could not tolerate my sons’ foolish habits and packed one son off to live with his grandmother. The other left of his own accord, having gotten a good restaurant job and his own apartment. I had been unemployed for too long and, at the invitation of a friend, moved to New York to refresh my prospects.
I had been in New York a year or so when, walking home from the market with my supper in a plastic bag, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned, stunned to see Dana standing there, a smile beaming across her face, her gray-blue eyes twinkling like stars. “Hello, Frank Rocca,” she said. She wore work boots, jeans, and an athletic shirt under a brown denim jacket. A leather tool belt with a hammer in a holster draped her tight waist, worn like a cowboy’s weapon. We walked and stopped for coffee. She told me she was now an experienced stage carpenter, working on a job at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. I was impressed. She invited me to dinner at her apartment just to catch up.
I took the train to the Bronx, a bottle of wine in hand. When I rang the buzzer she poked her head out of the window of her sixth-floor apartment. “I have to toss you the keys,” she shouted. “The buzzer doesn’t work.” I took a creaking elevator to the sixth floor and knocked. She greeted me cordially and ushered me into a large, airy space, where she fed me chicken Marengo. It has since become the signature dish of our relationship. She told me she had no great ambition but to live a thoroughly good life. She also said that she had returned to the Catholic faith of her upbringing after a hiatus of several cynical years. She confessed she had once had a terrible crush on me—when she was 15—and had told my children. I had never known it, nor would I have acted on it had I known.
We saw each other casually over the next couple of years, but never quite got together, even though we began to have feelings for each other. For me the 20-year separation in our ages held me back from feeling what I thought was deep inside, buried somewhere. It seemed forbidden in some way. For one thing, I had known her as a child. That kind of difference can ultimately prove deadly to a romance, even after an intense beginning. Better, I thought, not to engage at all. I was certain Dana would eventually find me boring and old anyway, she was so young and vibrant. I was sure she was up for dancing and gleeful laughter, while I was up for stodgier pursuits.
She felt differently, but when she said she wanted “babies, backyards, and barbecues” I stepped back. Her alliterative reference frightened me in a way. I’d had an abrasive relationship with my ex-wife and did not think I could ever again take a chance on such a dangerous venture. When she announced she was going back to her home town to finish her education and become a teacher, I thought it was a good idea for her, but knew I would probably miss her a great deal. The last night I saw her in New York, we went to see “Madame Butterfly” in Central Park. When I said goodbye, I was sure I’d never see her again.
Solitude and Sorrow
A few years later, she called me and we began a 20-year correspondence, at first by phone, later by e-mail. We contacted each other four or five times per year on average. Some years it was more often, some less. During those years she married, but did not speak about it much. I learned later that the marriage had been unhappy. I lived the bachelor’s life, accountable only to myself. I worked, enjoyed the city, made a few friends at work, and entertained them with conversation and meals, which I enjoyed cooking for them. I had a cozy apartment with a fireplace, skylight, and garden all to myself. Solitude was, well, not exactly my friend, but my companion, my sort-of-buddy, my roommate.
My sons visited me from time to time. My younger one had become a chef—later to be very successful in several positions, such as head chef at the World Bank—while my older one, also a talented chef, seemed to lag in his profession and life. I found out why when in a phone call he confessed he had become a heroin addict. After that, for better than a decade, I spent much time and energy trying to help him, encouraging him to seek counseling (which he always promised to do but never did).
I often had to pay his bills when they grew overwhelming—rent, doctor’s bills, and other expenses. I also sent him money for groceries, but more often than not I thought he spent it on drugs. In utter frustration and not a little fear, I even offered to take him in (against the advice of friends). I told Dana about it on one of our phone calls. She said to let things go. There wasn’t much I could do. He was a grown man. I grudgingly agreed.
He visited for a week, but I knew at the end of that time we could not live together, not together in the sense of father and son, or even grown adults, because he was bound and determined to keep his drug habit going, putting my safety and well-being in the same jeopardy he put his own. I lived in fear he would invite drug dealers and other shifty people into my home, something for which I could have been turned out of my apartment, especially if he’d gotten himself arrested for a felony drug conviction. A neighbor had done exactly that and lost his lease. I could not afford to lose mine.
When I think all this over I realize that, after he confessed his drug abuse, there wasn’t a single call from him that didn’t involve asking me to send him money. After that week-long visit, he must have realized I would no longer be a soft touch, and he more or less stopped calling me. I also realize, sadly from my own experience, that drug addiction can change the personality monumentally, deeply, erasing fundamental human values such as dignity, trust, and honesty, and turning one’s self upon himself.
Out of the Blue
In 2007, I got very sick and spent a week in the hospital with a bad infection in my neck, too close to my brain cavity, so the doctors told me. In the three months I spent recuperating, my heart sank lower and lower. I came into direct confrontation with my loneliness, with the lack of purpose in my life, with a choking ennui. Unable to bear it any longer, I prayed, “If my life is to have a purpose, then lead me to it or just let me go. I’m too tired to go on the way I am.” I had not heard from Dana in some months, but two days after my prayer, I got an e-mail from her titled “Out of the blue.” That was in February.
In the e-mail she proposed coming to New York to take a screenwriting seminar. She was pinched for funds and could not afford a hotel for the three days of the seminar, and asked if she could “crash” with me. She said she relished the idea of a whole weekend with me, as well as the seminar, but that if I were uncomfortable with the idea, she hoped we could remain friends. As it turned out, she had to cancel the trip. But it started me thinking a visit from her would be delightful.
She and I began to speak on the phone frequently. She told me her second marriage was over and that it had been sad, abusive, and angry. My heart trembled when I realized she was now raising her two daughters on her own with little help from her ex-husband.
She’d had a terrible year. Her husband had walked out and, within a matter of months, both her parents had died, thus she no longer had even their moral support. I wanted to do something for her, but was paralyzed about what to do. I didn’t offer her money for fear she’d resent it. She was too self-reliant to accept what might appear as charity, and I knew it.
I flirted with the fantasy of carrying her and her two daughters to New York. My apartment was small, but so were the children. I did not suggest this. She was well established in her teaching career and relocation might be difficult, especially if she had to quit her job. And relocating to schools might be traumatic for the children. Besides, I could not promise that such a move would be beneficial for them.
At my request she sent me the girls’ photos. How lovely they were. Dana was in the background in some of the photos. It was the first glimpse of her I’d had in 20 years. I suppose it’s a cliché to say I fell in love with her at that moment, but I realized then my love had been long in the making. For decades, since the failure of my first marriage and two other relationships that came close, I’d told people I would likely never marry again because I could not marry anyone I could not trust and, therefore, that I would have to know my potential spouse for many years before I’d be able fully to commit to her.
That, I was sure, was clearly impossible. There simply weren’t enough years left for that process to take place. Then it dawned on me, and it frightened me a little, to realize this seemingly impossible standard I’d set myself for finding and testing the perfect spouse had suddenly and unexpectedly been met. I hesitated. But then something happened to move me.
One Night, a Dream
I am not a mystic by any stretch of the imagination. I like my truths grounded in reality, not in visions, apparitions, or specters. But one night, in a dream, Dana’s dead mother, whom I had gotten to know years before, seemed to lean over my bed and speak to me. “Someone has to go and take care of these wonderful girls,” she said in the dream that was all too real. “I can’t do it anymore. Do you love Dana enough to do it?”
I sat bolt upright, stunned out of sleep and unable to close my eyes. I got up, dressed quickly, and wandered around New York in a daze until it grew light again. That day ground on slowly as I waited to phone her. Finally, evening came, when I knew she would be home from teaching, and I dialed her number. “I have a confession to make,” I said.
“What on earth could you have to confess?” she said, sounding amused, almost giggling, but also a bit apprehensive, I thought. What indeed could I want to confess?
“I realize now that I’ve been in love with you,” I said. “For… many years.”
There was a long beat of silence until she answered, somewhat irritated by my awkward and not-at-all-well-timed confession, “Well, it’s about time you told me!” It wasn’t fair, I admitted, but I’m a slow learner. In a later call, I told her, “And I’m going to marry you.” She laughed out loud.
Nonetheless she agreed to come to New York for a weekend. When I first saw her, I could not suppress my own wide grin. But she told me firmly she’d have to see what happened, that she would have to be certain, that she was making no commitments. Her children were a vital element in such matters, and if they had the slightest hesitation the deal would be off. Besides, I had no right to her immediate answer when I had presumably made her wait for something like 25 years! She was going to make me wait, because I deserved to demonstrate my patience. I only hoped she would not make me wait as long as I’d made her wait.
The Magic Was In the Waiting
I visited her a few weeks later and met her daughters in person. When that first evening the dog jumped into my lap and the cat curled her tail around my head as she purred on my shoulders. Dana, who’d just put the girls to bed, stood on the staircase and said, “I guess the family has accepted you.” Relief flooded my senses, as though I’d finally made it home, not to a physical place, but to somewhere inside my soul.
Dana and I were married in our home on December 30, 2007, the Feast of the Holy Family. I had just turned 66 and she was 46. Our life together has had its moments that seem like ordinary ups and downs, but they are fleeting moments at most. Our marriage is so easy, we know it is rooted in the deepest kind of love; therefore, it has never wavered for a moment.
It is solid, also because it is based not in the initial heat of passion, but in the depths of friendship. It is comfortable, never wanting. Now I see why God made us wait. It is because in the waiting had been the magic. There is no other explanation I can think of. I would not prescribe waiting so long to find the perfect spouse, but I would prescribe solid friendship as the precursor and that if it is true love, it ought to be easy—not the relationship, which always requires its own kind of due diligence, but the love itself. I know it has worked for others; it has certainly worked for us.
Dana is still my closest friend, confidant, confessor, and angel. She has been my teacher, too, as I have learned so many deep truths and continue to learn more as I live with her day to day. I knew many things intellectually, but the depth of a truth must be demonstrated empirically in living. Dana has not forced me to live, but instead has made true living eminently possible for me.
I feel at home in my life now, as I have never felt before. She has released the bonds of my rigid self and enabled me to broaden my experience, and in the process, my wisdom. I learned, as did Peer Gynt in the Ibsen play, that living is not in the nonexistent “seed” of the onion, but in the layers, in the day to day realities, the experience.
Aldous Huxley said experience is not what happens to a man. It is what he does with what happens to him. The miracle of finding the right spouse has opened me to experience and taught me that wisdom is greater than simply the sum of knowledge. It is the greatest yield, the great promise, of living one’s life. Wisdom is where true happiness resides, in that part of the mind that is called the heart.
I know that sounds like cliché, but even clichés are based in some cosmic, if distant, truth. I was 66 when I married Dana. She made me promise to stick around for at least 20 years for holding back at least that long; I owed it to her. I pray every day that it is going to last much, much longer.