MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 67 – More Adventures in Paradise
Pele` had earned her keep and was developing into a lovely black and silver German Shepherd. She was obedient, completely loyal, protective, and possessive of ‘her’ family, and usually accompanied Michael on his mischief missions through the neighborhood.
I had early learned not to worry about our precocious son going anywhere near the ocean since the surf still terrified him, and he would play contently with his cars on the warm rocks while Billy and I enjoyed the clear, cool water of Sunset Beach. Only when a storm was brewing was the water anything but crystal clear, and then as the waves became more ferocious they tossed clouds of sand in their wake filling the water with what looked like tiny grains of grits. We were aware that when the water was rough to watch out for the notorious Sunset Beach riptide but of course that is something you have to experience since it cannot be seen.
Several times Michael’s fear infuriated Billy, and since he did not want his son to be frightened of anything, much less the water, he would pick him up screaming, tuck him under his arm, and take him into the ocean, with me running behind and begging him to leave my baby alone.
“My son is not growing up to be a sissy!” Billy would angrily retort. “He is no longer your baby, in fact he is not a baby at all, and it is time that he learned that the water cannot hurt him as long as I am holding him”, and he would take Michael with him into the shallow but foaming surf. No matter what his father did, or even if I tried to gently coax him into getting his feet wet, as we walked along the beach, Michael never liked the ocean and never went in without being forced, and screaming, which was a blessing and a curse. Billy wanted his son to enjoy the ocean as much as we did, but I could not stand to see my son so upset about anything, and I knew that he would never, on his own, go anywhere near the water. I think that this was one of the few times that I ever felt torn between loving and protecting my son and pleasing my husband, and this made it all the more difficult for all of us.
While Michael played on the rocks with his cars and trucks, he quickly became a favorite of our landlords who thought him adorable with his sun-bleached blonde hair kept G.I. short, and the tiny freckles that danced across his little nose. In spite of his fair complexion, he was gradually becoming suntanned and his little bottom was as white as snow compared to the rest of him. Actually, even I was getting a ‘clothesline tan’, but still burned and peeled after several hours at the beach with Billy. The children and I only occasionally walked down to the beach when Billy was not home. Mostly I stayed busy keeping up with my housework, so that when Billy was home I could give him my undivided attention, which he did not demand, but which we both enjoyed. Then, after supper, with Billy carrying Margie, we would all walk down to the beach to walk off our meal, and stay long enough to watch the sun set with an amazing display of color, but try as he may, Billy could not talk me into making love on the beach, or leave the sleeping children in the house alone.
Not long after we found the house, Billy came home with scuba gear he bought at the P.X. Nothing elaborate, just fins, masks, and snorkels for both of us. As often as possible we would take the playpen to the beach, put it under the large palms by the Quonset hut where our landlord or one of the surfers, with Pele` in watchful attendance, would keep an eye on Margie while Michael would play with his cars on the rocks. That left Billy and me free to explore the undersea wonders of our backyard ocean without worrying about the children. Of course, this was only possible when the sea was calm, which was more often than not, at least during the spring/summer season, and adorned in our gear we both looked like Martians and waddled like ducks.
As frightened as I was of the sharks, I tried to enjoy every moment I had with my handsome, adventuresome husband and the never-ending wonders of the coral reef where hundreds of tiny brightly colored fish would swim all around us, in and out between our legs, tickling as they brushed against us. When the surf was ‘up’, and snorkeling impossible, we learned to bodysurf, riding the smaller waves into the sand long after the tiny shells had scraped our exposed skin raw, but I enjoyed this far more than snorkeling since I thought a fast moving target would be less likely to attract a shark. In reality, if a shark was hungry, I do not think it would have cared if we were moving slow or fast. In fact, we both reveled in our time spent together on the beach, and could not understand why we never saw Trish and Rusty enjoying it with Elizabeth.
In fact, they had become friendlier with neighbors just a few homes up Ke-Nui, who they also had known at Ft. Benning, although I did not think they were that close. Michael and Elizabeth still played together, mostly at her house since Trish was staying pretty close to home with the baby due anytime, but I never did understand what happened to our long nights playing Bridge. I do think that Billy kept much later hours, but in fact, all the young officers in the Division were working hard to prepare for deployment. It just seemed as if when we did have some time for Bridge, they had already made plans with the other couple, and I felt as if we were drifting apart. Trish and I still talked frequently, and visited each other on occasion, but I was busier than ever with two children and a much larger home to keep spotless. Perhaps it was my fault that I stayed so close to my own world, but I wanted to make sure that when Billy was home, the house was in order, my chores done for the day, and that he always had clean uniforms in the closet.
Not long after we began to enjoy the water, a huge shark attacked and killed a surfer in Kaneohe Bay, to the west of us, but that was still too close for me. The papers embellished the shark sightings and the accident stating that the friends of the surfer seeing that he was in trouble went to his aid, reached for his hand, and that was all that was left of him. Of course, the Marines stepped up their shark patrol flights. It became almost routine, when we were at the beach, to hear the blades of the helicopter ripping the air as it circled the water looking for the elusive predators who, I learned, do not attack with their fins above the water, but rather from below and behind their prey. This did a lot for my confidence! Only once did we hear the dreaded sound of the horn while one marine held the ‘SHARK’ sign out of the door of the helicopter, and I can tell you this, I was the first one out of the water, and Billy was not far behind! I was still a strong swimmer, but my experience with the ‘sharks’ when living on the Isle of Palms as a child, was never far from my mind, and after that day I became far too wary, and even my own shadow on the bottom of the ocean could send me scurrying out of the water. I tried not to let this fear ruin the happy times I spent with Billy, we took all precautions, not wearing anything that sparkled, like jewelry, and I even removed my precious bracelet, but never my wedding band. This I covered with a band-aid and Billy even wrapped the gold buckle on his swimsuit with duct tape. When he saw me swim with speed and purpose for the shore, he would always follow me out, and I would just say that I had a cramp in my leg. He would kneel on the sand, take my leg in his strong hands, and gently massage until the ‘cramp’ was gone, but I never could tell him how frightened I had become of the sharks.
Occasionally, during the week, I would take the baby and walk back to the rocks looking for Michael, and on one trip, I found a rotting mango that Pele` was sniffing, so I picked it up and threw it into the shrubs. Later that evening while fixing supper, my arm felt as if it were on fire, and a rash began spreading from between my fingers up my arm, and by the time Billy got home, my entire arm was inflamed. He insisted on taking me to the clinic at Schofield, although resistant to the end, I finally decided that perhaps it would be a good idea. Leaving Michael with Trish, and taking the baby, we drove to Schofield in record time; this time taking the back road, which Billy insisted was faster, but more winding and narrow than the road through the pineapple fields.
Almost as if on a different island, this road wound through mile after mile of sugar cane with occasional wind whipped trees lining the sides. It was a prettier drive, but I never did like all the curves and I stuck to the main road when I was driving. At the clinic, when questioned about what I had done that day, for instance had I put my hand in bleach, all I could think of was the piece of rotting fruit that I had picked up, and of course, that was the culprit. I was deathly allergic to the sap from the skin of the mango, and after being given a shot of Benedryl, was told to stay far away from the abundant fruit. Even as far as eating it or drinking any of the tropical drinks that contained its juice, which would not be easy in Hawaii where the fruit was abundant. The doctor also gave me a bottle of the Benedryl tablets, and I carried them in my purse wherever we went, just in case, although I hoped to avoid taking them since they made both the baby and me drowsy.
It was after this incident that Billy decided that we needed a second car, although I knew that a car payment would stretch our budget to the breaking point. His reasoning that something could happen to the children and that I would need to take them to the clinic was quite rational, and it was true that most of the time it had not worked out for him to ride with Rusty and vice versa. They were in different battalions, on different training schedules, and frankly, Rusty was not as dedicated to his job as Billy was to his, then again, there was a full contingent of officers in the company where Rusty was a platoon leader. Since Russ had moved to Headquarters Company that left only Billy, Chuck and one totally ineffective alcoholic officer at C. Co. Although the NCOs were highly efficient, it was a huge loss to the company since now the only two officers capable of running any exercise were Billy and Chuck, and as Company Commander, Chuck had mounds of paperwork, although Billy had his share too. With this situation complicating an already overburdened staff, Billy’s candle burned much later than Rusty’s, so while I hated to admit it, we really did need a second source of transportation. This would be good for Trish too since there were times when neither of us had a car, although sometimes she took Rusty to work just to have hers available, but with their baby due so soon, Billy finally convinced me that a second car was a necessity, and not an option.
What I did not know, at the time, was that he had found an officer leaving for the mainland who wanted to sell his older, but in good mechanical condition, Austin Healy Sprite. This was the sports car that Billy had always longed for, white with a black convertible roof, a racy design and bug-like headlights although it had only two bucket seats and a small space behind the seats where Michael could sit. Billy’s rationalization that it would use a lot less gas than the Chevrolet was valid, and he continued to extol the virtues of the convertible and how much fun we would have driving around the island with the top down, although I could visualize Michael falling out of that small space behind the seats. Billy assured me that he would be firmly wedged in and quite safe and I knew that Billy would never put his son or any of his family in jeopardy, so I gave in. The McConnell charm still worked its magic on me, and it seemed that I still could not deny anything to my handsome husband.
It had not helped any argument I had against the car that not long before he found it, reaching over him to turn off the alarm one morning I had accidentally scratched his cornea. He had come home early from work with a huge patch over his eye unable to keep even his good eye open, and when he walked in the door, I almost screamed not knowing that his injury was slight and would heal by morning. This time I cried in his arms because it was my fault! Once again, he held me, begged me not to cry, and assured me that he would be fine with a few hours sleep, but I could not be consoled, and was still crying silently as he went upstairs to bed. He slept the entire afternoon so I kept the children outside and quiet while my heart longed to be lying beside him, but try as I may, I could not get Michael to take a nap! By suppertime, Billy came downstairs, wrapped his arms around me and said that he was sorry if he had been cross with me when he came in, but that he had so much work to do that any time away from his job was upsetting to him. I assured him that he had been anything but cross, and under the circumstances, he had been remarkably kind.
“We need each other too,” he said, with a slight tremor in his voice, “and I am going to try my darnedest to come home earlier.”
The doctor had told him to keep his eye patched for 24 hours, so after supper, and with the children tucked in for the night, we laid down together on the soft cream carpet while once again I cried in his arms. It still upset me to see him hurt. He knew this, and he felt the same about me, but I rarely had accidents, while he continued to come home black and blue from field exercises, and when he was hurt, I needed him to hold me, which he always did. We made love on the rug that night, with the moonlight shining through the top of the window, his bandaged eye rubbed my face, and my heart ached for this man, my husband, who I cherished as much as I did life itself. I never thought that after over four years of marriage and two children that I would still feel the intensity of love that I had during the honeymoon days. Now, it seemed that with each passing day, we became even closer and fell more in love, and now we rarely ever had any disagreements at all. I wanted Billy’s home to be his refuge from what I knew to be a chaotic workplace, and I wanted him to look forward to being here with us, his family, as much as I longed to have him here, so I was determined to make everything as perfect as possible.
As we lay on the carpet that night I told him how I loved him at that moment more than I ever had, and he repeated the words of one of ‘our’ sayings, “I love you more today than yesterday, but I love you less than I will tomorrow.”
I agreed that I too felt that way, but that if I loved him anymore I thought that my heart would burst wide open.
“Little girl,” he said, taking my face gently in his big hands, “don’t you know by now that our hearts are capable of holding tremendous amounts of love, and that they expand with every moment we have with each other, and again with the birth of each child?”
I agreed with him that indeed my heart seemed capable of holding all this love and later, in our bed, I fell asleep in his arms listening to the crash of the waves as they rolled ashore and sang us to sleep.
The one thing that I worried, perhaps not enough about, was getting pregnant again. Not long after arriving on the island, I had my six weeks checkup at Schofield, and the doctor, a contract female obstetrician, said, as she examined me and I winced with pain, that I had a long way to go to heal completely. She asked if I had been sexually active, and I explained to her that with a 24 year old husband due to leave any day for Vietnam, that, yes, we were exceptionally sexually active. As she continued to examine me, she asked who delivered my baby, who was now sleeping soundly in her infant seat nearby, and I explained that Margie had been born at Martin Army Hospital at Ft. Benning, Georgia just weeks before we left on our long trip to the West Coast. I told her my story of the prolonged pregnancy, the birth, and the weight of the baby, and she just sighed. After the exam was finished and I had dressed, the nurse led me to the doctor’s office, which was in itself unusual, but she explained that the doctor wanted to talk to me.
When she arrived and sat down behind her desk, she sadly looked at me and said, “Honey, it’s too bad that you had your baby at an Army hospital because you have been butchered! If this baby had been born in a civilian hospital, you could sue for what they did to you, and I imagine that as you get older you will eventually have many gynecological problems. You are far too small to have given birth to such a large baby, and you have scars from four long cuts, the longest from the vaginal area to the rectum, and then two cuts down your left leg and one down the right since a routine episiotomy was not sufficient to allow the baby to be born vaginally. She should have been a caesarian section, but as you well know by now, not many Army doctors care enough to go to the trouble, and I am surprised that having relations with your husband has not been incredibly painful.”
I was stunned, but I knew that I had been in abnormal pain after the birth, and then I explained to the doctor about how I had gone into shock in the recovery room. Not surprised, she again just shook her head. I explained that at first relations had been terribly uncomfortable, but that Billy was a kind and gentle lover who took great pains to make sure that I enjoyed the experience as much as he did, and that I simply could never deny him. She nodded her head with understanding and said that I was very fortunate indeed to be married to a man who thought about me first. Of course, she asked if I had told him how much it hurt, and although he always asked if he was hurting me, I could never bring myself to tell the truth, although I knew that the sensation was still not quite normal. She told me that in time the pain would completely go away as the incisions hardened to scar tissue, as I had known it would, and then we discussed birth control. She was concerned that we were not using birth control since at my young age, already with two small children and four pregnancies, although I did not confide in her about the abortion since the wound was still far too raw, I was obviously very fertile. Now, with the men getting ready to ship out to Vietnam, and our emotions running in high gear, we should be taking precautions, but she agreed that I could not use the pill and nurse. We discussed the diaphragm but I told her how unsuccessful it had been in the past and how I thought it would hurt far too much now, and she agreed. While I explained that I had thought nursing would prevent pregnancy, she nodded her head and said that yes, it could, to some degree it was a great deterrent, but certainly not foolproof, and she asked how my husband felt about withdrawal. Well, I knew how he felt about that, much the same as he felt about using condoms, which I had explained to her earlier. The last option of being careful during certain days of the month was impossible since I had not had a period since the birth, and most likely would not as long as I nursed.
Sighing deeply, she finally said, “I guess all you can do is pray!” She handed me two prescriptions, one a topical spray for pain and the other a lubricant, which she explained would help while having intercourse, and as I turned to leave her office, she said, “Honey, I will pray for you too.”
I had decided that I would not share this conversation with Billy because he would have been too concerned about hurting me to enjoy our lovemaking, and I wanted to be in his arms as much as possible even if we did make another baby.
Although no longer just a rumor that the 25th Division was shipping out to Vietnam, not even the commanding general, General Weyend, knew the exact date, and several times the entire division was on alert. Once they got as far as getting onto the trucks to take them to Pearl Harbor and the troop ships, but General Weyend wanted his entire Division to go together, and not piecemeal, one battalion or brigade at a time. He was making explanations to Washington that he needed more officers, and that all the units needed more training, so for now they were ‘on hold’, but it could not last much longer. Col. Proctor, commanding officer of the 1/14th was a stickler for training, and I respected him for that since he wanted his men to be fully prepared for what they would find in Vietnam, but the hours they trained became longer and longer, and I missed having Billy at home more and more. Perhaps, I thought that by gradually not having our husbands at home, it would make it easier for the families when the time came for them to actually ship out, but for me it was just the opposite. I wanted to be with my Billy even more if I was to be without him for six months until he could get back for R&R (rest and recreation that occurs halfway during a combat tour). I had already decided that if I could not be with Billy as much as I needed him, I would make sure that the time we could be together would be perfect, for both of us.
One rainy weekend, with Billy at home, Margie was totally out of diapers so we had to find a Laundromat and quickly. We all climbed into the car with Billy carrying the heavy wicker basket filled with wet laundry, and once we were all settled, he turned the car towards the windward side of the island, since we knew that there was not a Laundromat in Haleiwa. After driving for what seemed a long distance to me, not being familiar with the physical constraints of the island yet, he finally found a small strip shopping center in Kaneohe and a large clean Laundromat. While the clothes washed, we waited and tried to keep our son from destroying everything in sight, so after Billy loaded the last basket into one of the large industrial sized dryers and deposited the correct change, we decided to walk up and down the strip so that Michael could run off some of his seemingly boundless energy. As we walked behind, Michael ran ahead, and it was all we could do to keep up with him. I was frightened that he would run out into the parking lot when a car was coming, so Billy rushed ahead to catch up with him and I turned to walk back to the Laundromat holding Margie against my right shoulder, which was unusual since I usually held her on the left. Just as I turned, I heard the squeal of brakes, startled, I abruptly turned my head to the left, towards the parking lot to look behind me, and my momentum carried me directly into one of the iron posts holding up the concrete canopy over the sidewalk. I crashed hard into the post, striking my left brow, but not even realizing that I might be hurt, I immediately checked Margie, who was still sleeping soundly on my shoulder, and was grateful that I had been carrying her on the wrong, but this time the right side.
Billy, with Michael on his shoulders, caught up with us as we reached the Laundromat, and looking at me, he asked, “What on earth did you do to your face?”
I explained my little mishap, and told him how relieved I had been to be holding the baby on the opposite shoulder, and he said, “You have a huge goose egg over your eye; I need to find some ice.”
I had not felt any pain, but as I reached up to touch my brow I realized that there was indeed quite a lump, and just the thought made me feel woozy. Billy left for the store and came back with a cold bottle of soda, which was all he could find, and while I held it to my face, he emptied the now dry laundry into the basket, warning Michael not to move, but keeping him in sight. By the time we got home, I had a nice bruise on my upper eyelid, although the swelling seemed noticeably less, and I thought no more about my accident. That was until the next morning when Billy woke me to kiss him good-bye, as he always did. I must have been sleeping on my left side since it was not until I rolled over for his kiss that he saw that side of my face. Shocked, he exclaimed, “I wish you could see your eye! It looks worse than any black eye I have ever had.”
A black eye was just what I needed since I had my first coffee to attend later in the week! I rushed into the bathroom to look in the mirror and my eye was swollen shut, although using my fingers I could pry it open just a bit. A deep purple bruise covered almost the entire left side of my face, and I knew that it would not heal by the end of the week. Billy wanted to take me to the clinic, but I knew it was just a bruise, and as ridiculous as it might seem, all such injuries to a spouse fall under a veil of suspicion, and the cause of my injury was particularly dumb. Who walks into posts at shopping centers? One would have to go a long way to make up such a story, but still I knew what the medics would be thinking. Billy certainly did not need any kind of stain on his record, even if it was just a suspicion, and frankly, I did not want anyone to see me this way. Just a bit of the vanity in me, but I was ashamed of the way I looked having seen my mother with similar injuries throughout my childhood. It was dumb reasoning, but deep seeded and well planted.
I kept ice packs on my face as much as I could between chores that day, but my eye remained swollen shut for several days and was just barely open the day of the coffee. I attended the function, carrying my nursing infant since Bunny assured me it would be permissible, but I kept my dark glasses on even though the light was quite dim in the club. It was almost two weeks before there were no traces of my mishap!
All that week when Billy and I made love on the white carpet, he would gently touch my bruised face like I had so many times touched his, and once he tenderly said, “Darling, now I know how you feel when I get hurt, because seeing you hurt is breaking my heart.”
After all these years of nursing him and sobbing over his bruises, cuts, sprains, etc., he now knew how much it hurt me to see him injured, but I knew that he never got hurt intentionally, just as I had not. We simply loved each other, ‘more than life itself’, and we always would.