MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 42 – Our Second Honeymoon
We pulled into the almost deserted parking lot in front of the apartment close to 2:00 p.m. Most of our neighbors, like us, had gone home for the holidays, and the majority would not return until after the New Year. “Good!” I thought, “I won’t have to share Billy with anyone.” I would miss Trish though since now we would not have a babysitter, or Elizabeth to play with Michael, and I knew that he would demand a lot of the attention that I preferred to lavish on my injured husband. It took longer than anticipated to unload the car with Billy’s right arm in a sling, and my advanced pregnancy, but after four trips, we were finally finished. Billy had even managed with one arm to bring the playpen and highchair inside since we wanted them packed with the rest of our household goods. We certainly had no plans to go back to Griffin until we were on our way to California. Now we just needed this baby to arrive on schedule, or at least close to the due date, since we had planned to leave the first weekend in April, on Good Friday before Easter Sunday, and I wanted to be enough recuperated to enjoy the sights along the way.
We were not due to leave Los Angeles until the end of April, but we planned to take our time to enjoy this great country of ours before we were isolated on an island for three years. Of course that depended on when the 25th Division left for Vietnam, and we had no idea if, when, or where, so for the moment I put that thought completely out of my mind since I did not want to dwell on the inevitable during this precious time that we had all to ourselves. I wanted to convince Billy that I was self-sufficient and completely capable of taking care of myself so he would not have the added burden of worrying about me during the next six grueling weeks, but I also wanted him to realize how much I needed him. Perplexed about how I could do this, I had not worked it out in my mind yet, but somehow I had to try. Surely, if Billy kept his mind completely on the task at hand, and did not worry about his family, he could possibly avoid injury since I finally figured out that he usually got hurt when he was bothered about something and perhaps not paying full attention. I wanted to make each one of these ‘golden’ days to be carefree and more meaningful than the day before so that he could anticipate coming home to a well-organized and perfectly planned relocation, and not have to worry about all the little things that so often are put off until the very last minute.
Billy’s mind now was on what he called ‘our grand adventure’, and he talked incessantly about all the places of interest that he wanted to show me. He said that while he had been in Ranger School he would think about his little family, and the trip ahead of us, and in his mind, he would draw a map of where we would go. His face lit up when he talked about the adventures we would have, and often we would sit on the sofa with the Atlas, and map out our route, this time on paper, not in Billy’s mind. Using a finger on his hand encumbered by the sling, he would trace along our route and I wrote down his plans for our first day, second day, and so forth. The excitement in his voice, as he planned our itinerary, was undeniable, and his joy was, of course, contagious and soon even Michael joined in and said that he wanted to see cowboys and Indians. Of course, we did not know if we could fulfill his wish, but I knew his father would certainly try. I wanted to see the Grand Canyon, and that was the number one place that Billy wanted me to see, and he talked endlessly about its glory. He had been there that summer when he drove Gram and Poppa out west for a vacation, and they had to rush him home when his appendix burst. I never figured out why they did not take him to a hospital right where they were, but perhaps since he was not their ‘own’ child, and knowing how Helen doted on Billy, they thought it best to get back to Griffin the quickest way possible. Why they never thought about putting him on a plane to fly home while Gene flew out to them to drive them back, I do not know, but long ago I had quit second-guessing what other people might do when I thought that I had all the answers. By the time they got back to Griffin, he had peritonitis and was a very sick young man for a few weeks following the surgery, and I could not imagine the agony he had suffered, but I hoped that I never had to see him in that much pain. I do not know if my heart could have withstood it.
That entire ten days I spoiled him outrageously, and shared him with no one. I prepared all his favorite meals, and even fried shrimp in our new deep fryer, although it was hugely expensive and I could not eat it or barely stand the smell of the hot grease. Billy was receiving per diem, or hazardous duty pay, for Ranger School, if I remember correctly, so we had a little bit more money for groceries and all of his favorite foods had been obtainable. I had even bought a case of cokes before we left for Griffin, the day that Billy and I had gone shopping, so that he could enjoy his favorite beverage whenever he wanted one. I made country-fried steak with cream gravy; mashed potatoes rich with butter and opened can after can of LeSeuer peas while I kept fresh and jelled salads in the refrigerator. I fried chicken in the morning so that it by suppertime it was thoroughly chilled, although I preferred to eat it hot, but this was Billy’s vacation, and I wanted to do everything I could to make him comfortable and happy. He insisted on doing the chores that he did not want me to do, and would not allow me to lift anything heavier than the frying pan, and he even cleaned the bathroom with one arm, although I told him that I could do it. Of course, I had to climb into the tub to scrub it, but it worked, and I did not want him to do anything that might further injure or prolong the healing of his shoulder because if he dislocated it in front of the cadre, then his dream would be over. His disappointment would be devastating, not just to him, but also to me. I so wanted him to fulfill the goals that he had set for himself the day he reported to Ft. Benning, and so far, even with the added hardship of having to work through Airborne School, he had been able to see it through to the end. When I had been pregnant with Michael, he had never allowed me to do the housework, at least while he was at home, and now was the same. He ran the vacuum, mopped the floors with a wet towel, and lifted the heavy clothes from the washer and carried the basket to the clothesline, all with his one good arm. We had learned to operate as a team now, and we worked together better than ever, and I could not help but notice that the entire holiday there had not been one harsh word between us, just more endearments, more concern, and more love, if that was possible.
After supper, we curled up on the couch with our books, and while Billy held me close, with his left arm around my shoulders, he would tell me when to turn his page, and we could not read more than ten minutes before one or the other of us asked for a kiss, and we kissed, and kissed some more. Had Michael been older he would have thought his parents were ‘mushy’, but he often joined us on the couch, and Billy and I, taking different voices, would read to him in unison so he would not feel left out. Mostly, though, he sat on the braided rug in front of the television and ran his cars around and around the ‘roads’ created by the pattern of he braids, and only once had a tantrum when the coffee table was sitting right in the middle of ‘his’ road. Billy even handled his son’s screaming rage with more understanding than usual, and he talked him out of his hysteria instead of spanking him.
Often he would put his hand on my stomach to feel the now almost painful kicks of this new life we had created, and in bed, he continued to lay his head next to my womb and talk to our baby. One night, that I remember so well, he told our baby what a lucky little boy he was to have such a pretty and loving mommy, and a daddy who loved us both ‘more than life itself’. I think back on those moments now and how I wish I could have just transported us to a place where nothing would ever change, like a ‘freeze frame’, and we could have lived right in that moment forever.
As we had matured, so had our marriage and our love for each other continued to grow stronger and stronger these waning days of 1964. I had always felt as if I had known him all of my life, and now I was certain of that, and once, Billy had told me that he too had known me all of his life, and he had been looking for me when he found me in the library that cold January night in 1961. We had begun a new chapter in our relationship, I was happy beyond imagination, and he seemed to be just as content. Usually a ‘goer’ and a ‘doer’, Billy was as satisfied as I was to stay home, plan our trip, prepare for the new baby, and make love whenever and wherever possible. With his injured shoulder, he had limitations on his movements, and when we took our shower, I would gently remove the strap holding his arm to his chest, and he would keep it in that position while I bathed him. Of course he sometimes made this difficult by using his left hand to play with my breasts, or he would take my face in his hand and give me a very soapy wet kiss, which was fine with me. Much to his dismay, we were unable to make love in the shower now between my enormous stomach and his shoulder, but we had no problems on the bed, and after a few tries, we worked out a position where I could be comfortable, but he would not have to support his body weight on just one arm. I enjoyed it this way since it seemed to take longer for us to reach the apex, and the longer it lasted, the happier I was. Surely, I could have relived these days over, and over again, and never tired of our routine, but towards the end, I sensed that Billy was beginning to anticipate returning to Ranger School, and to the mountains, where we had met, and the challenge in front of him. Although each morning brought us closer to the day he had to leave, when I awoke I longed for the clock to run backwards, so we could have just one more day, then one more day after that day, and so on until I could have him with me forever.
One by one, our neighbors began coming back, and I knew that the time was drawing close for Billy to leave. Four more days and he could take his strap off, three more, two more, until that day arrived, and I knew I only had two more days to hold him close and to love him. Although at first weak, he said that his shoulder felt better, but I was not so sure, even though he was moving it normally, and once again, he could lift Michael, he still did not try to throw him into the air. As if to convince me that all was well, he made love to me bearing his weight on both arms, and now he proclaimed that it was just my huge tummy that made our side-by-side position more comfortable, but I still feared what might happen when he rappelled down a mountain! The only thing I could do to maintain sanity was to put this scene out of my mind, but I had dreamed that I saw him hurtling through the air, where he came to rest in a heap on the jagged rocks at the bottom of a cliff. The worst part was that I could not reach him and hold him while he lay injured, but my always-vivid imagination conjured up the worst scenario, and I had to stop it or go mad while he was gone.
I found that I might just as well grasp a cloud than hold back the time, and that last day finally arrived while I cried all day. Pregnant women are usually quite emotional anyway, and I could not be consoled. Once again, he told me repeatedly to lock the windows and the doors, and he even bought and installed a deadbolt lock for both the front and back doors with permission of the management. He was as worried about leaving us as I was distressed about his leaving, and it was all I could do to take my hands off of him long enough to care for our son. Billy reloaded the old .22 pistol that he had taught me how to shoot so long ago, and when he clicked the safety in place, he made me show him that I still knew how to use it. He also made me promise that I would not hesitate to protect myself, although he said that he was counting on the ‘mother bear’ instinct to take over as I protected our son and our unborn child. He had given the unloaded pistol to Michael with the safety on to make sure that he could not figure out how to take it off, and when, frustrated that he could not pull the trigger, Michael soon bored of it and tossed it aside for one of his own toy guns that made lots of noise. Then Billy loaded the pistol and I put it in the top drawer of the chest after Michael was asleep and could not watch where he hid it. Again, my handsome husband was securing his home and his family to the best of his ability before he had to leave, and I could tell that his heart was breaking too. He wanted so badly to finish Ranger School, but he did not want to leave me either, not when the baby was so close to being born, or so we thought, but between my sobs, I assured him that we would be O.K., and that I would wait until he came home to have the baby. As usual, I was far more worried about him than I was about us. All the ‘what ifs kept crawling through my mind and soon I felt like Medusa and her headdress of snakes, although my snakes were my worries about Billy.
After we showered that last night, I re-taped his foot and packed a roll of tape in his duffel bag. We had washed his clothes the day before and taken them to the Laundromat to dry since it had been raining, so I knew that he had enough clean underwear to get through this next phase of Ranger School. With the camp located just outside of Dahlonega, he would be going ‘home’ to our beloved mountains, and he teased me about driving up there and said that he would sneak out and meet me at the Copper Mine. However, both of us knew that the Copper Mine was now a part of our memories, and no longer existed in our real world. Billy did have a dream of buying that land and building our retirement home there, but I was sure that by the time he retired, the area would already be a subdivision. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful dream that I often shared, and in our minds, we would plan our ‘home’, made of logs with a porch surrounding three sides of the house like Granny’s porch in Bowman. We would buy enough land so that we could have our own private lake, and could spend our evenings fishing for our supper, and our nights making love under the stars that shone through the skylight that would be directly over our bed. Oh yes, we had such wonderful dreams, and I knew that if all possible, my handsome husband would make every one of them come true. My own private dreams were not quite as grandiose, rather just wanting him near me, and I knew that together we could conquer any obstacle thrown into our path. Surely, he would become at least a full colonel, and I would be there to help him in any way that I could. I was just along for the ride as he climbed the ladder to a successful Army career, and that is exactly where I wanted to be.
Neither of us were able to fall asleep that last night, and when he finally did, after we had made love and whispered words of undying affection for hours, I stayed awake and watched him, as if by closing my eyes, he might slip away from me. By dawn, I fell into a restless sleep and wished that I could remain so until once again I was back in my precious Billy’s arms. Over and over I begged him to hold me and never let me go, and over and over he assured me that he would never let me go, and that he would hold me close in his heart when he could not hold me in his arms.
Exhausted the next morning, not that I was not already so just from carrying this child, tearfully I finished his packing while he shaved, and then after we ate breakfast, I took Michael over to Trish’s apartment so that I could be alone with Billy on the way to Sand Hill. He had left his new wedding band at the apartment since he never wore anything shiny in the field, and he did not want to lose it either. Already, I missed seeing it on him even although there was a new, wider indentation where he had worn it since the day he opened his gift that early Christmas morning. Now he too had a memento of our love with our ‘saying’ inside, but he could not wear it all of the time, and I understood, although the delightful jingle of my charms reminded me with each mile that passed how far we had come and how well it had turned out. With his arm around my shoulders, he told me repeatedly how much he loved me, and asked me never to take my bracelet off, but when I was lonely and missed him, as if there would be a time when I would not, to read the message and know that he would always love me ‘more than life itself’.
Again, I cried torrents when I left him standing in that parking lot where he remained until the car was out of sight, and again it was one of the hardest moments of my life, and my tears flowed freely all he way home. By the time I picked up Michael, my eyes swollen from crying, my nose red. Michael looked at me and said, “Mommy, do you have a boo-boo?” My 2-½ year old son finally made me smile. “No, Michael, Mommy doesn’t have a boo-boo, I’m just sad and I will miss Daddy.”
“I won’t leave you, Mommy,” my son said, and I hugged him closely and promised that I would never leave him either. This little boy, no longer a baby, who was the living example of Billy’s and my love for each other, and who would always be a part of the joy in my life – my firstborn. I cannot think of any words ample enough for that feeling of holding him for the first time, and often through the years and his many misadventures, I had only to remind myself of the joy of that day.
The first three weeks went slowly, Billy was much better about writing to me this time, and he even stood in line, in the snow, for 45 minutes to call me. The Ranger candidates had only one phone call home during this session, but just hearing his voice perked me up, and he told me that all was going very well. In fact, he said that his shoulder had only bothered him a little at first, and was fine now, and his toe did not bother him at all as long as he kept it taped. It was cold in Columbus, and much colder in the mountains, and more snow was expected, and my rough and tough Ranger candidate complained that he never wanted to be cold again, not ever in his life. I reminded him that Hawaii was tropical, and he reminded me that so was Vietnam, and while I did not like to even think of the prospect of him going to war we both knew it was only a matter of time. I had begun to accept that this would be another challenge for our marriage, one that would make it even stronger, and one that would heighten my appreciation for the time when he was home. Remarkably, his letters arrived almost daily, and one had what looked like drops of water smearing the ink in places, but he wrote that he was writing to me while sitting under a tree and it was snowing. Never had Billy written so many letters, and he did not miss a day nor did I, but then again I had never missed a day, not when we were apart those few weeks after we married, not during summer camp, not during the three weeks of hand-to-hand training. Only during Airborne when I had to work out, for myself, what I wanted for my future did I not write, but he did call twice, and I called once. Of course, I had decided that I wanted him in my life, in spite of my constant fear that some day I might lose him. The moments we did have together were of such quality that I could not begin to imagine life without him, and my life revolved around the man that I loved ‘more than life itself’.
Remarkably, and mostly because he had a very pregnant wife nearby, the cadre allowed Billy a few hours at home when the class arrived back at Ft. Benning before leaving for Florida and ‘swamp’ training. That night, in late January, was cold and rainy, and we spent the entire time in our soft, warm bed, that he had not slept in for three weeks. The baby was due in just over two weeks, and the doctors had said no more intercourse, but that was not about to stop me from making love with my precious Billy, even if it meant that I would go into labor. Ever so gentle, he tenderly guided me to ecstasy, this time before he was ready, probably because just being in his arms had been enough stimulation for me. Finally, he fell onto his side in the bed, wrapped me in his strong arms, made even more muscular by the rappelling, and soon I thought I heard him crying. His head buried into my shoulder, when I looked into his eyes, he made no pretense of wiping the tears off his face. When I asked him why he was crying, was it all that bad, he simply said, “I never expected this.”
“Never expected what?” I asked completely puzzled.
Tears forming in his eyes again, he said, “I never expected you to make love with me, not with the baby due anytime, and me leaving you again. I don’t know if I can leave you this way, not now.”
“Oh my darling”, I whispered, as tears began to form in my own eyes, “You did not expect to come home and not have me fall into your arms, did you? I never have denied you, not since that very first time, not with poison ivy all over you, not with slings or bruises. I cannot refuse you anything, my darling, and I certainly could never withhold from you the love that I feel every moment of every day.” He did not reply, but held me even closer while I held onto him, and we both cried, and never had I felt so loved.
I knew, and he knew that he had to go back! He was 2/3 finished and still in the top ten in his class, in fact, he had forged ahead of all the West Point graduates while in the mountain phase, and he was sure to be an honor graduate and hoped to be number one in his class. As I explained to him, Michael had been two weeks late and even then my labor had been slow and I had needed help, so probably this baby would be the same. The formal graduation ceremony was on February 18, although he would be back from Florida and dismissed on the 17th, so I promised him that I would hold off labor until he got home. After all, it was only four days past my due date. He had applied for two weeks of leave to finish getting the apartment ready for Bill and Snookie to move in, and surely would be on leave when I went into labor.
Once again, the car took us back to Sand Hill on another cold and rainy morning, with both of us exhausted from lack of sleep, but Billy assured me that he could sleep on the bus on the way to Florida. During this phase of training, they would learn to live off the land and to survive in a jungle type environment with hostile forces searching for them, which was all so important for those headed straight for the jungles of Vietnam. Eventually it would be Billy’s turn to go, but first we had many adventures ahead of us; a new baby, a road trip to California, a cruise on an ocean liner, and then paradise. For how long, no one knew, but we would get there, although this wintry morning it seemed so very far away. We kissed and held each other in the car as long as he could stay, and I shivered more from my sobs than the penetrating cold until he finally had to leave when the buses pulled into the parking lot. Again, I watched him in the rearview mirror as he stood in the rain and waved until I was out of sight. On the way home I could feel the small charms from my bracelet as they jingled with each bump of the road, and that brought me comfort, for as long as I was wearing that bracelet, Billy was not far away, and he was always and forever in my heart.
I was now on a weekly schedule for the OB clinic at Martin Army Hospital, and on one visit after measuring the size of my abdomen; the doctor again ordered an x-ray for twins. Anxiously I waited while the film was developed, but again there was just one large baby! Thank goodness! With all the moving, the trip to California, and who knew what else coming up so soon I could not have managed Michael and taken care of twins! Needlessly, I had worried but my grandmother’s twin brother and sister, Emma and Emmett, were the last twins born in the family, so far! With just Michael, I needed eyes in the back of my head!
Again, Billy wrote every chance he could and always the letters were water stained and dirty. “I am writing on a fallen tree,” he wrote, “and nothing is ever dry around here. My feet stay continuously wet, and I have a raging case of athlete’s foot, but everyone else does too. When we get back to the tents, there is still nothing dry and the sheets are damp with mold. But you know what I heard the other day? I heard that if you are not a ‘winter Ranger’, you are might as well not be a Ranger at all! How about that? Your loving husband is a ‘winter Ranger’ and it looks like I will be in the top five in the class, in other words, an honor graduate! Won’t you be proud when my name is called at graduation? I just wonder if my father will even come, much less be proud of me. I love you ‘more than life itself’. Your devoted husband, Billy. P.S. Give Michael a hug and kiss for me and tell him that his daddy said to be a good boy and to take care of Mommy.”
I held his letters to my heart when I finished reading them and memorized every word, and most I still remember, although the letters have long since been gone. This letter was special though since it was the first time that Billy told me that he would definitely be an honor graduate, and this meant that his would be one of the first three names Rangers to receive their certificate. Billy’s friend, Tom Moran, was 2nd, and a N.C.O. was 1st, but Billy was 3rd, and he had completed his training with a broken toe and an injured shoulder! Concerned about going to his graduation since I was so huge that I knew he would have to be embarrassed, I decided that when he got home I would tell him that I did not have to go, but that I would be there with him in his heart. Perhaps it might even work out that I would have the baby the day he arrived home, and then he would not have to make that decision. The last thing that I wanted to do, on this most special of special days was to ruin it for him by showing up looking like a blimp! But again I misjudged his love for me.