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A Birthday at Niagara Falls

(originally published in 2012, a slightly altered version of this essay became Chapter One of Winter Sun: A Memoir of Love and Hospice)


On November 14, 2010, Janice and I drove to Niagara Falls to celebrate her birthday. We arrived in the afternoon to a wet, cold, and dreary town. Most of the shops and restaurants on the US side were closed due to it being the official off-season. The Canadian side looked livelier, but since I did not have a passport, we were stuck in New York. We kept a running joke going all weekend about how the folks across the border were having the real fun, but it actually added to our enjoyment that we were finding happy adventure in a relative ghost town.

We bundled up and walked the trails near the falls in the early evening before the sun went down. As we were standing gazing at the falls and soaking in the ambience along with the freezing mist, I gave her the birthday present I’d been holding onto for that very moment. I asked her to marry me. She joyfully said yes, and we immediately began making plans to have a little ceremony in the Smoky Mountains in early spring of the coming year. We thought about a couple of favorite hiking cabins as possibilities, and also discussed having it at her family home in North Carolina so that her mother could easily attend. We would of course invite her brother and sisters and maybe a couple of other folks. My son Paul would be the best man, and hopefully my daughter Christi could come up from Florida to attend.

That night, full of exuberant love, we decided to walk to an Italian restaurant she had read about in a local guide book. She asked directions from a clerk at a convenience store who pointed to a stop sign and said, “Turn right and drive a few blocks until you see it on the left.” But we were hikers and ignored the word “drive.” We ended up walking for two hours through some rough neighborhoods we didn’t even know existed in Niagara Falls—I saw at least two curbside drug deals along the way—before giving it up and finding our way back to the hotel. Exhausted, we had dinner at the Hard Rock, the same place where we had lunched, because it was the only restaurant open near the hotel. Afterwards we walked through the only open casino in town, lost five dollars in a slot machine, and then returned to the hotel—still full of exuberant love.

She had requested that the trip itself be her only birthday present, but I wanted to dress it up just a little to complement the engagement surprise. The previous week she had mentioned a particular perfume she liked, so Paul and I went to the mall where we proceeded to bumble from store to store like a couple of characters from a science fiction movie who’ve been dropped off in some strange, exotic place. We finally secured the Shalimar, but we were forever changed by the experience.

Paul had been stumped as to what he could give her. He told me that he wanted to find something that would show how glad he was that she had joined us in Pittsburgh. In his words, “Dad, we’ve always had a good home together, but with Janice it’s a real home.” I suggested he simply write down those thoughts in a card. He did. “Thank you for all the help and care you have given me,” started the note in which he expressed his loving gratitude for her being in our lives. Janice was not a reflex crier, but a couple of tears rolled down her cheek as she read his words.

I hid the perfume in my suitcase along with a few other little trinkets and surprised her with them as we relaxed in the hotel room that first night. To cap the mini-birthday party off I read her a couple of favorite poems. The celebration had been calm, peaceful, and delightful. Janice had come into my life in search of simple-hearted contentment. Her joy-filled birthday, as sparse as it may have been in material gifts, was a wonderful verification that her search was finding fruition.

How beautiful it was to be together at the very moment we were each beginning to gain a genuine awareness that life is fleeting and should be savored. We spent the rest of the weekend lolling around the falls, holding hands, and sharing love with each other. We had fun imagining how our lives were going to play out for the next couple of decades, and we listed all the things we hoped to be able to do together as we settled in some nice mountain cottage for those final years.

Janice’s sudden illness rearranged our shared vision of the future. As she lay dying just weeks after our trip to Niagara, I would repeatedly whisper, “Hold tight to the love Janice. Let it carry you. The Love goes with you, and the Love stays.” I wasn’t quoting anything consciously nor trying to offer any explanations; the words just flowed out and we both understood. Now, when the pain seeks to take my breath away, I can hear her say, “hold tight to the Love.” And I do.