(The above is a photograph of the two of us on our wedding day, 29 years ago)
We have called ourselves partners forever, it seems. She wasn’t fond of the term girlfriend, or later wife, and it never mattered to me. But partners, she liked. It made us equals, and if there is one thing I know about my partner, it’s that she insists on being treated as the equal of anyone.
We met at the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder, CO, during our first year. My earliest memory of her is me approaching her to bum a cigarette because I noticed she was a smoker. I had quit – sort of – by which I mean I’d stopped buying cigarettes for myself. I learned she smoked menthols (for the record I hate menthols). I smoked it anyway. Her smile, when it appeared suddenly was wide, beaming and infectious. She had beautiful long, blue-black hair that hung down below her waist. Yeah, I noticed her more after that.
Her clearest first memory of me was that – in her opinion – I was one of those idiots who asked questions in class about stuff that had no relation to anything she thought would be on the final exam. She had a point. One of the few times I was able to put aside my inherent shyness back in the day was in the classroom. And I did ask questions in class about – to be fair – legal issues that some might consider esoteric. To me the study of law was like a big intellectual puzzle, and it fascinated me. To her, I was simply one of those annoying people who raised their hands rather than wait to be called upon. One of the know-it-alls. One of the show-offs. Maybe she has a point, but in my defense, I didn’t have much self confidence – except in the classroom. There, I felt transported out of my normal, self-conscious, socially awkward persona into a better, more articulate, less fearful self (she would tell you this is all malarkey, by the way).
After our first semester finals, our class had a big party at a local dance bar. She and I ended up in the same group of people somehow. Then she gave me a ride to a downtown bar/restaurant on the Pearl Street Mall. Then we ended up going out dancing, and I learned she was a fantastic dancer, far better than me. Somehow we ended spending the entire night together, talking, talking and more talking. But she was in a relationship, so things never progressed very far after that. Until the summer when that relationship ended and she invited me up to her house in Boulder. I was back living in Denver, driving a cab and renting a room in a friend’s house. I accepted her invitation with – how shall I put this? – alacrity. I drove my 400cc Honda motorcycle for an hour on a 90 plus degree day and arrived, parched and a fairly beaten down by the sun and the wind, to find her sunbathing in her backyard, asleep, babay oil slathered all over her dark skin. I learned she loved the sunshine.
We started dating when school resumed. I hadn’t dated much for a couple of years, but being with her was easy. Her intelligence was more than my match, her wit sharper and keener than mine, and she could carry the conversation when I got tongue tied. And for some reason I couldn’t fathom, she didn’t seem to mind my company. Our classmates noticed we hung out together. We had become a thing, as they say, though I’m not sure we looked at it that way. Both of us had been burned badly in prior relationships, and we both proceeded cautiously. We were just friends with benefits, I suppose you could call it. Well, we were until the night that changed everything.
It was a Friday night and we had made plans to go see The Big Chill, which was the must see date movie that fall. We’d missed out a couple of times before when the theater sold out, so we planned to leave early this time. I left the law school library on my bike (the aforementioned Honda) to go home – a rental shared with two other students, one getting his PhD in physics and the other a journalism major – to shower, shave, and change clothes. You know – make myself pretty, or at least presentable. That was around 6:00 pm. I never made it. The last thing I remember was turning left onto Baseline from Broadway.
She and I had arranged for me to drop by at 8:00 that evening in plenty of time to get tickets for nine-thirty showing. By eight-thirty when I hadn’t arrived yet, she called my house, but my roommates had no clue where I was. She called a mutual friend (I’ll call her Janet here), a woman we both knew well. Janet was pissed. She said I was standing my future partner to be up.
[I should probably introduce my beloved at this point: her first name’s Clara, for Clara Schumann. Her father was big into classical music. Not surprisingly, he bought a piano, and Clara began taking lessons at the age of five. She was very talented and could have gone to Julliard, but chose Barnard instead to study psychology. Lucky for me that she did. But I digress …]
Janet could be very righteous in the defense of what she considered injustice, and a man standing one of Janet’s best friends up on Friday night was a major injustice in Janet’s eyes. Janet came right over to Clara’s house. As the time ticked off, Janet told Clara something to the effect that if I didn’t show my face in the next 15 minutes, the two of them were going to leave and go out on their own, and to hell with my sorry, no good, lying, disrespectful ass. I think that covered the gist of her remarks, though it is hearsay. I wasn’t there after all.
The deadline came and went. Janet was dragging Clara out the door when the phone rang. Janet told her not to answer it. Lucky me, she did anyway.
The person on the other end of the line was not me, just so you know. It was a nurse at Boulder Community Hospital. The conversation, as I understand it from numerous re-tellings over the years went something like this (obviously, the following reconstructed dialogue is nowhere near an accurate word-for-word recitation, but it’ll do]:
Nurse: Is this Clara?
Clara: Yes. [I add here that she was more than a little surprised to be receiving a call from the hospital. “Confused and bemused” would seem to be a fair description of her state of mind based on what she’s told me.]
Nurse: Do you know a Steven Searls?
Clara: Yes. [pause of indeterminate length] Why?
Nurse: He was in an motor vehicle accident and sustained a serious head injury. We have him in the ER. He can’t remember anything, but he recalled your phone number and asked us to call you. [Note – its possible she said I insisted. In any event, I like to think that was in fact the case]. Can you come down to the ER to see him?
Needless to say, Clara went. Here’s why I was there. A drunk driver in a 70’s era Cadillac had made a left turn directly into my path at an intersection about four blocks or so from my house. I wasn’t wearing a helmet, because I’d trashed mine two weeks before when someone cut me off and I had to dump my bike. When the Caddy hit me, I flew off my bike and the crown of my head struck the fender – pardon the pun – head on. When the police initially arrived on the scene they thought I was dead, because I was laid out on the asphalt unconscious and unmoving. They assumed I’d broken my bloody neck. Turns out, luckily for my kids, they were poor diagnosticians.
I did incur a concussion severe enough to cause me to lose consciousness. Later at the emergency room when I regained some semblance of consciousness, I exhibited post-traumatic amnesia. Here’s a link to a brief description of what that is like.
Post-traumatic amnesia (PTA) is a state of confusion that occurs immediately following a traumatic brain injury in which the injured person is disoriented and unable to remember events that occur after the injury. The person may be unable to state his or her name, where he or she is, and what time it is. When continuous memory returns, PTA is considered to have resolved. While PTA lasts, new events cannot be stored in the memory.
For me, I couldn’t remember my name. I couldn’t remember I was attending law school. I couldn’t recall my parents, my siblings, or anything to do with my former life. I couldn’t remember I was in the hospital, that I’d been in an accident, where I lived, the date, the time or really anything, even after being told many, many times. Nothing. That’s how it worked for me. Apparently, the only thing I did remember was Clara’s name and phone number. When she got to the hospital, the nurse brought her to my bed and then said something to the effect of “call us if he has a seizure, loses consciousness or whatever other bad things might happen to someone after a severe head injury.” Then that nurse took off, and left Clara to deal with me.
For the next several hours I kept asking her the same questions, every five minutes on average. Where am I. Why am I here? What’s my name? And she answered them every time, though she told me it got to be a bit boring after about the one hundredth iteration.
The only thing that kept her amused, she said was my reaction to being told I was in law school. She said I would look okay for a second, but then get a very concerned, fearful expression on my face, and ask her, in an meek, barely audible voice, “How am I doing?” (i.e., how were my grades, class rank, that kind of thing). Each time she told me I was doing very well, indeed, she says I got (and I can quote her accurately here because I’ve heard here repeat this part of our story countless times over the years), “the biggest, shit-eating grin” she’d ever seen in her life. And then five minutes later I’d forget everything she’d just told me, and the cycle would start all over.
I once asked her if she was ever tempted to tell me I was flunking out of law school, and she said the thought may have briefly crossed her mind, but that she never considered doing something that needlessly cruel. I take her at her word. I know her sense of humor pretty well now, and it wouldn’t be much fun for her if the other person didn’t get the joke.
Anyway …. around two or three in the morning the hospital wanted to kick me out because my amnesia symptoms had mostly gone away and my “continuous memory” had returned. Besides, I only had student health insurance and that didn’t pay diddly squat. The last thing they wanted to do was admit me.
I was still pretty shaky on my feet, and felt like I’d been run over by a truck (close enough), so they told Clara what she needed to do to care for me over the next few days. I think they assumed she was responsible because obviously we must have a very close relationship. I remembered her phone number after all, and she had come when called. I am of the opinion that I told her that she didn’t have to do that, and to just drop me off back at my place, but she insisted on taking me to her home. She recalls that I was in no condition to remember anything of the sort (hard for me to argue with her on that point) but she flet sorry for me and she took me to her home where I moved into her bedroom. And then I just never left. [That’s the part of the story that always gets the biggest laugh when she tells it]
And it’s true, I never left. I did end up spending an inordinate amount of time that semester in her bedroom, and missed a lot of classes, because the ER folks hadn’t discovered that the nasty head banging the Cadillac gave me had also resulted in a cracked cochlea in my right ear, from which fluid leaked. Ultimately, I’d be diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease induced by trauma. That injury led to a number of vertigo attacks, nausea and general difficulty standing, much less going to class.
On the many days I missed classes, people lent me their notes, and I learned something else about Clara. No one took better, more detailed, more precise notes than she did. Reviewing her notes was like reading a chapter from a textbook, that’s how detailed they were. Of course, before law school she had worked as a legal secretary back when they still had to know shorthand, so she would take her notes in shorthand and then type them up after class. Oh, did I tell you she could type around 80-100 words a minute with no mistakes? Well, she could. Must have had something to do with her aptitude as a pianist.
The short of it is that within a little more than a year, I asked her to marry me – before I bought the ring! One night in bed, it just came over me to ask. I knew I loved her. I hoped she’d have me. Lucky me, she said yes, and right away, too, even though she has never been big on the spontaneous thing. Not having a ring turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because she wanted to pick out the jewels and fashion a ring based on her own design (a former lover of hers had been a jeweler). So, in a way that was my present to her. At least, that’s how I see it.
We told both our families of our engagement on our graduation day. That was also the first time I met her parents, two immigrants from Japan who came here after the war when Japanese citizens where generally banned from immigrating to the United States. Clara’s father, however, had a unique skill set, as we call it these days. He was a physicist who had by accident become a tropical storm researcher. He was also one of the brightest people I ever met. They made exceptions back in the fifties for people from former enemy combatants if they were smart enough and worked in scientific fields. So, lucky me, again, because otherwise Clara never would have been born in the United States, I we never would have met.
We married on one of the hottest days of the year in 1987 in the only church in Denver that had a minister who spoke Japanese – an important requirement as Clara’s grandmother (her Oba-chan) and two aunts came over from Tokyo to attend the wedding of the odest grandchild in the family. It was a wonderful ceremony, and an even better reception. We had a live jazz band for dancing, sushi as part of our catered dinner – that raised more than a few eyebrows among my extended family – and a wedding cake with two porcelain penguin figurines atop it instead of the traditional Bride and Groom.
Remember what I said about being equal partners? Well, Clara had been adamant that we would not have a cake with a bride and groom on it. To her that reeked if inequality and I wanted her to be happy. Eventually we came across the two penguins in some little knick-knacks shop, and (according to my recollection anyway) we made the decision the moment we saw them that that two penguins were the perfect topper for our cake. They were the symbols we chose to represent our relationship. Yeah, it confused a lot of people, especially the older ones on my side, but what the hell. It wasn’t their wedding. We did receive penguin themed gifts for years to come after that from my family, however, so I guess it did make an impression. We still have the original penguins from the cake, too!
It’s been a long time since our wedding. Good times and tough times. Our first born son, a year earlier than planned. Our baby daughter six years later, after we had abandoned all hope of having another child. A move from Colorado to Western New York so Clara could live in the same city as her brother, one that I struggled with for a long time. My chronic autoimmune disorder that caused me to retire from the practice of law only a few years after making partner. Clara’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and the chemotherapy treatments that may have saved her life, but devastated her brain, leading to severe cognitive deficits – confusion, short term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, anxiety attacks, depression and so forth. And all the other, common trials and tribulations that two people in a committed relationship inevitably go through.
But through it all, we stayed committed to our partnership, even in our darkest hours. And tonight we are going to celebrate at a local restaurant. Seafood. Clara loves her some crab. I don’t know what I’ll be able to eat from the menu – one of the issues related to my illness are lots of dietary restrictions – but it won’t really matter. We’ll be with each other. Still standing, as they say. Still – partners.