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My Valentine: To The Moon And Back

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I met Elena on June 3, 2002 on a blind date. I suggested lunch in a safe location, one where either of us could bolt. I looked up and saw a few white wispy clouds and a finger-nail moon hanging in the blue sky.

She arrived well dressed, tall and blond. The thought occurred to me as we sat down that in build and coloring, and even facial features, we could actually be brother and sister. I had a lot of questions for her.

"Where did you go to school?"

"What was your first job?"

"Why did you quit?"

"What do your parents do for work?"

"What's the closest living relative that's been locked up in an insane asylum?"

"Have you or any of your family members committed murder?

I wanted to be sure that I wasn't dealing with a crazy woman. I had had plenty of that in the past. But she responded to each one of my questions with warmth and the slightest hint of a smile. She cleaned her plate, which struck me as a sure sign of confidence. And by the end of the 45 minute encounter Elena had at least partially broken down my serious demeanor.

We stood outside the restaurant navigating that awkward moment at the end of a first date when both parties are looking for a sign. I thanked her for coming and started to shake her hand. She ignored my outstretched palm and grabbed a corner of the fleece vest I had on. That was all the sign I needed.

I was careful not to call right away, but I did call eventually and she agreed to meet me for dinner. Elena came to the door wearing black leather pants. She had curves in all the right places so it was hard for me to concentrate. It was like a test. "Eye-contact!" I told myself over and over again. "Don't look down! No woman, and this is some woman, wants to be ogled by a guy she barely knows!"

She asked me to wait in the front hall of her home on Joy Street on Beacon Hill. I was very impressed by the massive glass chandelier, the high ceilings, exposed brick, and detailed woodwork on the wide maple staircase leading to the second floor. "This was the original Beacon Hill Firehouse," she explained after getting her purse. "They used to back the horses in those huge front doors. My late husband bought it out of bankruptcy and gutted it. I finished it just before he passed away."

My first impression was far less sincere. At that point I was driving a blue Porsche 911 convertible with plush leather seats and chrome instruments. I had bought it on a whim after making a killing during the internet bubble and had almost sold it a few weeks later when I saw another guy driving around town in the exact same car and thought to myself, "What a total prick that guy is!" But then a buddy and I went to driving school and learned how to drive my car close to 200 miles per hour. After seeing what an amazing machine it really was, I decided to keep it even if I looked like an idiot driving around town in a racecar.

I opened the car door for Elena, put the top down, and whisked her out of town. I had decided to try someplace intimate and out of the way: an Italian spot in Medford where I knew the cook.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked with a tone that seemed to imply that maybe I was hiding something.

"Not to worry. I am very single. I just wanted to take you somewhere you've never been."

At dinner the conversation flowed naturally and Vittorio Ettore, my friend the chief, made us his famous tomato sauce. I told Elena about my work and my crazy family and even my kids. She told me about working her way through Northeastern, going to law school, and trying cases every day before getting sick of the adversity of the whole thing. She explained that her family had always fixed up houses. And she had caught the bug, decorating apartments for her friends through college and law school. When she got sick of the law she decided to become an interior decorator full time. In the law, she explained, she was often dealing with life and death issues, defending workers who had been maimed and whose livelihoods were at stake, but in decorating when a client got upset she liked to be able to think to herself, and occasionally remind her clients, "its only fabric!"

The conversation continued on the ride home. I was so focused on what Elena was saying that I drove right by her exit. When she realized my mistake she looked me in the eye and asked playfully, "What are we doing now?" I suggested a walk. So we parked my car at my condo on Commonwealth Avenue and stopped inside to drop her bag off before heading towards the Charles River. On a whim I grabbed my push scooter, an 18-inch graphite board with a handle..

She laughed when she saw it. "What's that?"

"My vehicle of choice," I told her.

On the river the moon glimmered off the surface of the water. We kept talking about our families and our lives. Finally, I got sick of the serious chatter and started riding circles around Elena on my scooter.

"Jump on!" I yelled. I loved to ride around with my toddler son Seamus tucked in front of me holding onto the handle bar. He'd smile and then laugh every time we rode down the street together, feeling the freedom of our collective movement and the security of the scooter. After all, I'd spent countless hours perfecting my ride.

With Elena my motivation was not as pure as with my son. She protested that it wasn't safe and she had on the wrong shoes. But finally she agreed. I told her to position her feet at the very front of the board and asked her not to move--to let me do the work. I stood behind her, wrapped my arms around her waist and held onto the handlebars. She placed her hands between mine. I put my right foot at the back of the board and pushed off with my left. We glided along the river in the moonlight. Elena giggled.

***

A week later, I found myself buckled into something called the 'Tower of Terror', suspended a hundred feet up in the air. I tried not to look down, only at the tobacco barns and rolling Western Massachusetts hills on the horizon. Then the massive spring, which was holding us in place, let go. We went into freefall. Terrified of heights, I screamed bloody murder. At the bottom, we bounced and headed back up almost to the top of the ride again. My eyes stayed firmly shut the whole time. Only one thing could possibly have gotten me onto that thing: a beautiful woman.

Elena had suggested going to an amusement park after our dinner date and scooter ride. I had gone to the old Riverside Park growing up in Amherst, just south of Springfield. Six Flags had long ago bought the place. The oldest roller coaster, a rickety old timber job painted white, reminded me of childhood trips to the park with. Elena and I rode a bunch of coasters, including the new Super Man, and ate some cotton candy before calling it a day. We climbed back into the Porsche and headed home. By the time we arrived back in Boston, Elena was asleep on my shoulder.

A few days later I was walking down Newbury Street, which was packed with tourists, and stopped at Ben & Jerry's with a friend for ice cream. As I came out with my cone, Elena passed by me within a yard, a very handsome gentleman on her arm. I could have swore she looked right through me as if she had seen and completely ignored me. My heart sank.

Out on the sidewalk, my mind was racing. I was fuming. "This couldn't be. I really thought she liked me. Things had been going so well. How could she be out with some other guy?" But then the demons were talking to me, "You idiot, she is way too good for you. You have to be kidding yourself that she actually liked you. You are one pathetic mother-fucker!"

I ignored the voices in my head and backtracked down the sidewalk and ran into the ice cream store, looping around the front of the line to try to hide the fact that I had been stalking her. I brushed up against Elena. She looked up innocently, recognizing me with a big "hello Tom!" Before she could introduce me to her friend, I leaned in and planted a wet kiss on her lips. Mission accomplished, I briefly shook her date's hand and left.

The next time we get together, Elena and I agreed on a trip to see Monsoon Wedding. I had already seen the movie with my sister, but I kept that fact to myself hoping that the romance of the film would rub off on the woman I wanted to be my girlfriend. After the pageantry of the wedding scene, Elena and I emerged from the theater to face a real live monsoon, Boston-style. We ran for it, arriving back at my condo soaked. I offered her a dry t-shirt and set about seasoning chicken and slicing red peppers and eggplant while she changed. With dinner on the grill, Elena sat on my kitchen counter wearing an old rowing shirt of mine, a grin on her face.

"What's so funny?" I asked her, standing close with my hands on her waist.

She finally admitted to me that the friend I met at Ben & Jerry's, who I assumed was some other guy she was dating, was really a gay interior designer from her office.

"But I appreciated the concern," she said with a giggle before kissing me affectionately.

After a few weeks together, I began to see that, like me, Elena came to our relationship after some real-life challenges. She had been married before. Her husband got sick with cancer on their honeymoon. Eighteen months after getting married he passed away, a vigorous young man, making Elena a too-young widow. I could tell that along with her outer beauty this woman had inner strength that I could trust, even with my most precious possessions: Kerry and Seamus. For years I had kept any woman I'd been involved with completely separate from my kids. I had bled and sweated to make myself into a good father and wasn't willing to risk that for anything. I yearned to be able to share my whole life with someone, not just the bachelor part, but so far I just hadn't met the right woman.

That July I invited Elena to meet us in Providence, near where Kerry, Seamus and I were staying at a beach house. The kids and I baked cookies and brownies and drove to meet Elena. When she pulled up, the kids greeted her with sweets. We got an early dinner of pizza on Federal Hill and then drove up to the East Side of Providence to play Frisbee and run on the soft grass of the Brown quadrangle in the early evening light. At one point, while we were playing hide-and-seek, Kerry caught Elena and I kissing. She laughed and made funny noises of protest, "Ewww, gross!" But she was smiling and seemed pleased to see her dad happy. Kerry was eight and Seamus was six. Before saying goodnight we all got ice cream and sat outside licking our cones and laughing.

***

Just three months after our first date, I invited Elena to our family house on Lake Megunticook. We arrived with Kerry and Seamus, joining my parents, brother and sister. The second night we were on the island, I arranged to have my sister and parents watch the kids. I put on too much cologne, which my sister in-law ribbed me about as Elena and I left. We walked along the waterfront in Rockland. The demons were talking to me: "You don't deserve this woman" ... "You can't leave the safety of your apartment" ... "How will the kids take the news?" ... "Are you really capable of being a good husband?"

We sat on a bench looking quietly at the boats in the late afternoon sun. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a ring, holding it tightly in my hand so Elena couldn't see it. I used my diaphragm to squeeze the base of my lungs, forcing air up to whisper: "Elena, will you marry me?"

She wept and grabbed me, gently whispering the word "yes" in my ear.

Back on the island, I ducked my head into my parents' room to tell Mom I needed to talk to her right away. She came wandering out in her pajamas, toothbrush in hand, looking concerned. Dad was in his usual nighttime spot, reading a pile of newspapers in a corner rocking chair.

"Jim come sit with me," Mom said motioning to him. Dad sat next to her on the couch. They both turned expectantly to me, now holding Elena's hand.

"We have some important news," I started. But before I could continue, there was a bright flash of color up the lake. We turned to look at orange and then blue streaks in the sky. Dad was out the back door and on the porch, trying to see what was going on.

"Those are some serious fireworks!" he reported back. We all watched until they were done. Then Dad sat back down beside Mom.

"Where were we?" she prompted.

I cleared my throat, trying to pick up where I had left off, "Elena and I have decided to get married!"

"Oh, Tom!" Mom cried as she jumped up and down with joy. I could see the relief on her face. This had been a long road for her, worrying about her boy. Elena's eyes were full of excitement too. She and Mom whirled around the room together.

"That's great!" Dad said rising out of his chair, looking more than ever like a giant teddy bear. He gave me an engulfing hug and then grabbed Elena and gave her one too.

***

On December 28, 2002, Elena and I were married in Tuxedo, New York. We exchanged vows by candlelight, as snow fell gently in the dark. A tenor belted out the 'Ave Maria'. Kerry was so excited she kept standing on Elena's dress. Seamus rang the church bell at the end of the service. On the way out of the church I noticed Elena's late husband's father. A gentle man who had always greeted me with a hug, he had tears in his eyes. His wife was comforting him. They both looked happy and broken-hearted at the same time.

At the reception, each table acted out a verse of the twelve days of Christmas, family members standing on chairs, waving napkins wildly in the air and singing with all their might. Dad gave a heartfelt toast, acknowledging the distance Elena and I had traveled to get to that day.

Inside my wedding band Elena has inscribed, TO THE MOON AND BACK.

***
Valentine's Day, 2005. The Bean Pot Hockey final was on television. Northeastern had sent the game to overtime with a late goal. The nurse asked my wife Elena to look up at the screen to get her back in the right position as she pushed and screamed in pain. I snuck a peak at the game as I held Elena's hand.

"It's time," the nurse said. "I'll go get the doctor."

Elena and I had been at home on a Sunday night watching the Grammies. Melissa Ethridge had came on stage, head shaved as a result of radiation. She had just recovered from breast cancer. It was her first public appearance. She belted out Janis Joplin's 'Piece of My Heart' with so much courage and strength it brought tears to both our eyes. At that very moment, Elena turned to me with concern to report, "Tom, I am leaking!"

We checked in at MGH. Progress was slow at first but there was no turning back. Realizing the baby would likely be born the next morning, Valentine's Day, I had plenty of time to think of related names. Cupid and Valentino were my favorites. The nurses found me amusing; Elena not so much.

When things do eventually get serious Valentine's Day evening, the doctor on duty is nowhere to be found. We had been told that this particular Ob-Gyn, who we had never met, was an expert in "high-risk" deliveries. A midwife comes into the room and asks to observe the birth. She discretely stands in the back of the room as Elena labors on. Finally, the nurse goes to find the doctor only to come back empty-handed. He is delivering another baby. The nurse tells the midwife, "Scrub in, you're delivering this baby!"

Moments later Cole Timothy is born. Elena is crying, this time tears of joy. And so am I. In the years that follow Cole seals our family together as one unit. Kerry and Seamus adore him almost as much as he worships them. And every day I look forward to crawling into bed with Elena and holding her tight.

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