Thursday, October 4, 2012

Happy Heavenly Birthday!

Verna didn't like me when we first met at a summer day camp in 1990. I thought she was frosty because she gave me an almost cross look when I cracked a joke. She'd just returned from a family reunion in Minnesota, and her muscled cyclist legs were dotted with purple welts from all the mosquito bites she'd endured during the humidity in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. She had on jeans shorts and a white t-shirt, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore red lipstick. Verna put on makeup maybe two or three times in the 20 years I knew her, but she always wore some shade of red or ochre lipstick, like her physical calling card for the world.

But we became friends by accident. She was forced by our boss to leave the quiet and comfortable confines of the administrative office and help me run the activity-adventure camp for 12 and 13 year olds. She asked me one day to drive her to her mechanic's. Then we started sharing lunches. I made the sandwiches, she brought the fruit. One time, she tired of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on wheat bread, so she made her first ever vegetarian quiche in order to accomodate me.

She later said that the drive to pick up her car convinced her I was a pretty nice guy.

She arranged our first "date" with another camp colleague, a woman I later learned had a crush on me, to fix up the colleague and me. I spent most of the afternoon talking to Verna and ignoring our friend. I invited Verna to see Wynton Marsalis with me for our first real date. She hadn't heard of him. I made dinner--swiss chard frittata--and when she showed up at the door clad in a black leather mini-skirt all I could blurt was, "You look awesome!" before I rushed into the kitchen to tend to dinner, which I feared might burn.

A month after we started dating that summer, she invited me home to meet her parents, an aunt and uncle, her two brothers, their wives, a nephew, who was almost four, and her five-week old niece. Verna made a vegetarian lasagna, and throughout the meal her two brothers kept shouting like announcers at a sporting event, "Verna, this dinner is awesome."

Verna would have turned 48 tomorrow--October 5--had she not died two years ago from the ravages of metastatic breast cancer.

I lost my best friend, the kids lost their mother. Verna and I complemented each other. We truly made up a whole or complete person. I was the gregarious and obnoxious half, she was the shy and relaxed (most of the time) part. I helped her to loosen up and she showed me how to relax, even if I generally ignored the examples she offered me daily.

While Verna was so reserved and had overcome painful shyness as a kid, she forced herself to grow when she decided in college to become a teacher and thrust herself in front of people everyday. Even though she hated, hated, hated public speaking of any kind, she agreed to do a presentation for a national group of educators, one of whom was Albert Shanker, the unpleasant head of the American Federation of Teachers. He questioned Verna about why she couldn't finish the entire textbook and several centuries of history in the 4th grade social studies curriculum. She responded that the quality of instruction and being able to go in depth about a shorter time frame trumped the quantity of material.

She'd stood up to one of the most powerful educator advocates in the nation. A few weeks later she received a commendation from the Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District for her outstanding presentation.

A few years later, after she'd been a paralegal for the city of San Francisco, we attended a 10 year anniversary celebration for the city's daycare program, a pioneering one begun by then SF City Attorney Louise Renne, who was the 2nd most powerful person in San Francisco behind the mayor. She was an affable grandmother who wielded her power behind the scenes but with firm convictions.

I approached Ms. Renne and thanked her for the daycare program that Miguel had enjoyed for several months before I left teaching to become an at-home father. I said to her, "I am Verna Wefald's husband and I just wanted to thank you..."

As soon as I mentioned Verna's name, Ms. Renne's face lit up and she said, "Verna, Verna, we just love Verna."

She may have been quiet, but she certainly had an impact on people. She worked as hard as anyone I've ever known. She took on tasks whenever anyone asked and never complained. She received a gazillion compliments from co-workers and attorneys about her amazing attitude and work ethic. She often bitched later at home about being dumped on, but at work she was the consummate professional.

She was my best friend, and I looked forward to life with her. It wasn't perfect, but it was our life. Even before she got sick with breast cancer, even before the cancer returned and metastasized and she was forced to take steroids, which made her face puffy and her behavior yo-yo like someone on steroids, we fought--as all healthy couples do. Verna worried incessantly about having enough money. I was usually, "Don't worry, it'll all work out", which often infuriated her and caused me to sulk when she didn't trust me.

Our other area of contention was that I took things way too personally (and still do). I never cut her the slack she deserved because I felt she was intentionally slighting me. But our love never wavered, even after cancer assaulted Verna's body and she knew she was going to die. Before she got really sick she would call me at work, two or three times a day, maybe for a minute or two, just to check in. I always liked coming home to her. We enjoyed each other's company, reading, hiking, vacations with and without kids.

The week we spent in Cabo in 2008 to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary was legendary, seven sun splashed days along the beach, snorkeling, seeking out restaurants, absorbing the local culture, and imbibing a few, um, a few more margaritas as Verna went way beyond herself and danced on a table as part of a contest at a local pub.

Now that I have fallen in love again, some people have strangely said that I have moved on. As if Verna was merely a chapter in my life, turn the page, erase the past, fast forward. While I do want to scream at them, I also know that moving on is not possible. I think about Verna on my own every single day. And I think about Verna when Maya implores me two or three times a week to bring her Mommy down to her "right now. I want Mommy right now."

But because I was able to love Verna so fiercely and passionately and because I think I am a better person now for having loved and lived with Verna, I was able to find romance another time. A gift for which I am truly grateful and believe that Verna blesses, sanctions, and, maybe, helped direct.

Tonight, as Maya drifted off to sleep, I held her hand and said, "Mommy is looking down from Heaven and she loves you so much, is so proud of you."

Verna made me better and isn't around to reap the benefits. She would have been two years away from turning a half century tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Verna. We miss you.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    Will you please post a link to your Blog at The Fatherhood Community? Our members will appreciate it and as the father of 3 teenage boys, I will too.
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    James Kaufman, Editor