The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)
After years of bouncing from one relationship to another, a few failed marriages, and numerous one night stands, I never felt anyone would come into my life and make me feel like a complete and whole person. As a matter of fact, I’d totally given up on the concept.
Was I looking for love in all the wrong places? Probably. Was I unrealistic in my expectations? Probably. Was I a one-relationship kind of person? I used to think so but evidently it wasn’t in the cards.
My dogs loved me. My horse loved me for thirteen years. Everything not human loved me, unconditionally. I loved unconditionally, also. So, what was wrong?
Actually nothing was wrong. As I found out, for me anyway, it wasn’t a lightning bolt or bells ringing or some distant star guiding me to the promised land of romance and love. It was plain and simple chance…the proverbial, long shot. And…I certainly didn’t expect it to happen at this point in my life.
* * *
The first time I met Sylvia Carr was nothing earth shattering…a casual hello and some small talk with other people around. I would see her from time to time over the next year and the more I saw of her the more attracted I started to become towards her. There was something about Sylvia. Maybe it was her whiskey cigarette voice, her smile, her vibrancy, her quick wit, or the way she carried herself. I don’t know, but I liked it.
I never pursued anything with her. However, we both ended up at the same rehab center and got reacquainted. We were both going to the rehab center having daily morning treatment as outpatients. She was having respiratory therapy and me…for my heart with counter pulsation therapy. Whenever she would cross my mind at times, I would think, “Now wouldn’t we make a great pair,” spiked with my usual sarcasm and I’d simply pass it off.
One muggy June morning I found her sitting alone on the bench outside the rehab center.
“Good morning,” I said, as I sat down next to her. She smelled great, like a light scent of gardenias.
“It looks like they’re late this morning. The doors are still locked,” she replied.
I smiled and looked at her and said, “Maybe somebody finally figured out that six thirty in the morning is an ungodly hour to be doing this kind of crap and they decided to sleep in.”
She chuckled a little and replied, “Anytime is ungodly for any of this stuff.”
Just as I started to warm up to her the nurse unlocked the door. I got up and said, “Think we ought to go in?”
“Might as well. We can’t dance,” she responded, with a casual bit of wit and off we went in separate directions.
During my treatment that day I asked one of the therapists about her.
“Do you know if Sylvia is dating anyone?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Ron,” he answered. “I do know this about her, though. She is by far the nicest, sweetest person I’ve ever had to work with. She’s an angel.”
It would be a month before I ever thought of asking her out. It happened quite by accident one day while I was shopping for clothes at the Seminole Beall’s Department Store. As I was picking out some shirts, I remembered she had told me she worked there. I asked one of the clerks if she was working. The polite young associate told me where her department was and I wandered over to the area. After looking up and down a few aisles I noticed a woman on her hands and knees straightening out the shelves. Her back was to me.
“People just kind of leave things a mess, don’t they?” I asked, cutting through the quiet.
“Oh,” she screamed, startled as she jumped up and looked at me. “I’m kind of touchy when someone sneaks up on me,” she said with a smile and a little embarrassed. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to take you to lunch. Are you ready to go?”
She looked at me a moment, shook her head, smiled, then softly said, “Yeah, let’s go. I usually go down to this little place just down the mall. I’ve only got forty-five minutes. Let me get my purse.”
That was the beginning of the greatest love I have ever known. In all my years I had never known anyone I was so attracted to and definitely a person I thought I would never tire of.
Over the next month, Sylvia and I became a bit closer and then one evening she started to open up more. She told me about her three daughters she had raised in Michigan. Two still lived there and one had “followed” her to Florida when she left Michigan. We talked about past relationships. The most current one of hers was the one that blew me away. She told me she was ‘kind of still dating’ this guy.
“I got breast cancer a little over a year ago,” she started. “I don’t know what happened but shortly after I started treatments, one day he just left. We talk on the phone every now and then, but that’s about it. He tells me he loves me but just needs his space.”
“Nice guy,” I responded, a bit sarcastically. “Just the kind of person I’d like to have in my life if my back was against the wall.”
All of this discussion was taking place over a nice dinner she had prepared at her house. After dinner we went for a walk around the neighborhood and talked casually.
“Well, I’d better get going,” I said as we approached her driveway.
“Oh don’t go yet. It’s early,” she said.
“I was just thinking about you,” I responded. “I don’t want you to be too tired for work tomorrow.”
“I’ve got tomorrow off,” she responded. “Besides, there’s something I’ve got to do and you need to hear it.”
We walked into the house and she went directly to her phone and dialed it.
“Hi, George. This is Sylvia. Yeah, it has been a while. Look, I’ve got something I need to tell you, so please listen. I’ve met someone I care a lot about. I didn’t want you to hear about this from anyone but me. I like this man a lot. I want to be with him and I hope he feels the same, but I didn’t want this to go any further without telling you first. It’s over between us. There’s no need for you to feel guilty, or call me anymore or have any concern for me, for any reason. Well, that’s about it. Good luck, George.”
She clicked the phone off, looked at me, and walked over and softly kissed my cheek.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t allow this to go any further without that being said and I wanted you to hear it so there would be no question about how I feel right now,” she said, softly.
I was so stunned I couldn’t speak and for me, that’s unheard of. We embraced and kissed one of those long passionate kisses…the kind that leads to one of those moments to remember…and it did.
From that moment on, I never left Sylvia’s side until the day she died. Unlike anything I had ever experienced, she truly was a love I would never forget.
* * *
We had only been together a month, sharing evenings at her place or my little condo in Largo when she dropped a small bomb on me.
“Ronnie, is there any reason you have to keep this place? I mean, it’s so small. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable at my place, with me?”
I was in mild shock. Live with someone? I don’t know about that.
“You mean like the perfect married couple?” I asked. “I’m not exactly every woman’s picture of the perfect man, honey. Hell, I think you’re finding that out.”
She drew closer, looked into my eyes and spoke softly, “Ron, I don’t ever want to be married again. I don’t ever want the pressures and the crap that can happen with being married but we can be best friends, have everything we ever wanted and never ruin our relationship for the rest of our lives. What do you think?”
She could’ve been a great car salesman. Sylvia had the natural ability to ask a question and not say another word until the other person spoke. That ability creates a tremendous advantage when closing a “deal”. First one to talk loses.
“I’d love that but I’ve got some pretty legitimate concerns,” I answered after thinking a moment.
“Oh, c’mon Syl. Your kids, your friends, your house, not to mention the people you work with. Geez, are you sure you want to go through all that?”
She looked at me without flinching and asked, “And…my health?”
I stared at her for a few seconds and she was staring at me almost as if she was looking straight through me to the depths of my soul.
“Your health has nothing to do with it, Sylvia. I know what cancer is, what it can do and how hard it is to live with. Hell, I’ve had diabetes all my life. I know what living in that shadow is like and how people treat you when they find out. I don’t even put it down on job applications because of the implications. No, it’s not your health.”
She relaxed a little and looked down.
“Okay. Let’s start with my daughters. They have their lives and I have mine. I love them dearly but make no mistake, my life is my own and none of their business. All they really want to see is that I am happy and I think I could be happy with you for the rest of our lives no matter how long or short they might be.
“About the house…my daughters have nothing to do with my house. They didn’t help me get this place and they sure don’t give me any help with keeping it up. So if we’re together, the outside is yours with the exception of six gardenia bushes I’ve never been able to get to bloom. Whatever you do, those have to stay. The inside is mine to take care of. More importantly, the home becomes ‘our’ home. We can straighten out the legalities later. I love you, Ronnie. I love you very much.”
“I love you, too, Sylvia…very much,” I responded kissing her softly on the cheek. “The gardenias have to stay, huh?”
“Yup…you’ll have to landscape around them,” she said with a smile.
“As far as my friends are concerned, you’re going to meet a lot of them tomorrow night.”
I chuckled a little bit and responded, “You’ve got this all figured out, huh? Well, I’ve dealt with family before and I’m here to tell you, it can be an exercise in futility. I would leave that up to you and trust you would see to it they all understand where we are with that particular point and that I don’t get hurt financially in the end. I don’t need a house, Sylvia. I’ve got two condos, paid for. However, if you don’t want to live in a condo we can fix this place up and it will be beautiful, I promise you.
“And, what may I ask, are we going to be doing tomorrow night?”
“We’re going to karaoke. It starts at five o’clock,” she answered nonchalantly.
“What if I don’t like karaoke?” I asked sarcastically.
“You’ll love it,” she answered with a smile and a wink.
That was another thing I came to love about Sylvia. She made plans, told me where we were going and…we went. To be perfectly honest, it took a lot of pressure off me because we were doing what she wanted to do. It was always fun and I didn’t have to do a thing…except pay. What a deal!
* * *
As we walked through the back gate at the Bamboo Beer Garden it was evident that Sylvia knew everyone there.
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
“I don’t get nervous meeting new people, Syl. My problem is how ‘they’ take me, once I open my mouth,” I responded.
To say the least, I’m not shy and I don’t get intimidated easily. I knew I was going to have to keep it semi-low key because I had been Sylvia’s best-kept secret for last few months. There would be no sense in unleashing the full force and power of Dirty Little Ronnie on this poor unsuspecting crew. Not yet, anyway.
“Hi, everybody,” Sylvia said, with a big smile. “This is my new best friend, Ronnie. Ronnie, this is Jay, Lolita, Al, Pam, and Maggie.”
I made my way around the table doing my handshake and glad-to-know-you thing and finally took a seat right next to and very close to Sylvia. This little Maggie was eyeballing me and listening intently to me as we all small-talked. Maggie was the suspicious friend.
“Do you sing?” asked Jay.
“No,” I answered. “I just came to listen to Sylvia.”
“Ya’ oughta’ try it sometime. It’s a lot of fun,” Jay responded.
“Yeah, I know. Sylvia sure looks forward to it. Maybe one of these days, when I muster up the courage, I’ll give it whirl,” I answered, tongue in cheek.
“Hi, everybody,” came this exuberant voice from this tall blonde standing on the small outdoor stage. “My name is Muffy and welcome to Muffyoky! We’re here every Wednesday and Friday from five until nine.”
I bent down towards Sylvia’s ear and asked, “Muffyoky? What the hell is a Muffyoky?”
Sylvia whispered in my ear, “If you’ll be quiet, you’ll find out.”
I winked, smiled and responded, “Gotcha’ covered, kiddo.”
By the time Muffy got through the first verse of, “Me and Bobby McGee”, I was stunned. By the time she finished, I was astounded, and I was on my feet with the rest of the crowd. I hadn’t seen that much on-stage energy and heard such a good voice since my old Nashville days. She may have looked a little strange with her spiked hair and tattoos but so did Janis Joplin and she could really belt out a tune.
When Sylvia got up to sing I was again astounded by her exciting and vibrant rendition of “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B”. She had a voice like Juice Newton. She was incredible and it showed she truly loved what she was doing.
By the time the evening was over I had heard a couple of great voices, a lot of not-so-great voices, and a few that could have scarred the life out of a pack of coyotes on my ranch in Idaho. However, the thing I noticed about everyone was, they were all having fun.
* * *
After a couple of weeks of going to karaoke at the Bamboo, the old guy, Jay, started in on me one night.
“When are you going to try a song or two?” he asked.
“I don’t know that I ever will,” I responded. “Do you think the world is ready for my voice?”
“Well, if they can stand Lolita they can sure as hell stand you,” he responded in a challenging tone as he pushed his karaoke disc book towards me.
“Pick a couple,” he said.
He was right about his wife, Lolita. She sang loud and very off key. She had a voice that could shatter glass and when she sang it was like chalk on a blackboard.
I quietly looked through his album of discs.
“I found one,” I said with a smile.
“Good. I’ll go put your name in the rotation,” Jay said, almost happy at the thought of seeing me embarrass myself.
Sylvia was ecstatic. “You’re really going to sing? This is going to be fun! You’ve never done any karaoke?”
“Nope. Never,” I answered.
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
“It doesn’t look like rocket science,” I responded with a smile. “I think I’ll be okay.”
Two songs later I heard Muffy’s voice say, “Okay! Ronnie’s going to sing now. Ron’s a new singer and he’s Sylvia’s beau. He has never sung here before or sung karaoke. Let’s hear it for Ronnie!”
There was mild, courteous applause as I approached the stage and handed the disc to Muffy.
She smiled and asked, “Do you want a key change on this?”
“No. It’s fine right where it is,” I responded.
The music started and I went into a talking intro… “I laugh. I cry. I weep. I Am…I Said…
“L.A.’s fine…the sun shine’s most the time…
“And the feelin’ is laid back.”
As I finished the Neal Diamond song the crowd was on their feet with applause and whistles. Walking back to my seat they were reaching out touching me and complimenting my performance. I stopped at Jay’s seat and handed him his disc as he looked up at me.
“Can’t sing, huh?” he said sarcastically.
“I didn’t say I couldn’t sing. I said I didn’t want to sing,” I responded and winked at him.
“Yeah, well that was pretty damned good,” Jay responded rather tongue in cheek.
“Thanks,” I said as I sat down next to Sylvia as she took my hand and bent towards my ear.
“Ju got some ‘splainin’ to do, Ronnie,” she said with a smile.
“I’ll ‘splain’ later,” I said with a smile and a wink, kissing her on the cheek.
We stayed another hour and left for home. Sylvia remained quiet in the car for about sixty seconds.
“Alright…out with it. What don’t I know about you?” she asked.
“What? Do you mean the music?”
“Yes, the music. That was awesome! I didn’t know you could sing,” she said excitedly.
“Yeah, well it was in another life I learned how, Syl,” I responded rather stoically.
“Well, I want to know all about it. How long have you been singing?”
“About twenty years, full time,” I answered. “If you really want to know the whole story it’s in three plastic tubs in the storage shed…the good…the bad…and the ugly.”
We pulled into the driveway and Sylvia looked at me with a warm smile. She said, “I’ll be in the storage shed. Let Buddy out, okay?”
Sylvia spent the next two hours in the shed and came in about eleven o’clock.
“That’s some history lesson out there and I’m only through tub #2. I had no idea you were into anything that big. Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“It was a lifetime ago, Syl. It’s just history. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to forget it,” I answered quietly.
“Did you feel uncomfortable singing tonight?”
“No. I felt great singing. I’ve always looked at music as the freest form of expression I’ve ever known and I love doing it. I just haven’t done it for a while.”
“Well, you were great tonight and everyone there was buzzing about it. I’m so proud of you,” she said as she came to kneel in front of and looked up. “I love you, Ronnie. I love you with all my heart.”
We embraced and kissed each other long and lovingly.
Sylvia drew back and said, “Keep singing. Don’t stop. I love it.”
For the next two years Sylvia and I became regulars at the world famous Bamboo Beer Garden two or three times a week and the music that had been missing in my life for so long, was back. I came to enjoy this part of her life as much as she did. I also knew I would have never sung again had it not been for Sylvia.
* * *
Sylvia’s cancer had been in remission for almost a year. She was stronger and felt better than she had for about three years. We were both happy and content.
As agreed, I’d completely landscaped the yard complete with a large pond and waterfall. I stocked the pond with baby Koi and Goldfish.
The inside of the house remained hers except for a complete remodel I did so she could have her dream kitchen. Everything she ever wanted was designed into that area and she loved it.
We were lying in bed on Christmas Eve making love when I sat straight up.
“Syl! I just felt a lump on your breast! Did you know it was there?” I asked, panic stricken.
She looked up at me and nonchalantly said, “Yes. It’s been there about two weeks. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment on the third of January. It’s no big deal and the doctor didn’t seem too concerned about it. Now, get back down here and finish what you started.”
I did but my mind was racing. I hadn’t been scared of anything in a long time but this had me by the throat.
On the third of January we found out Sylvia’s cancer had returned. She was started on chemo and radiation treatments immediately.
For those who have never seen the effects of chemo and radiation, it is very scary. Chemotherapy completely strips the body of its immune system. A person’s hair starts falling out almost immediately and the effects of the stress on the person getting it are both emotionally and physically evident. Chemo takes one to the brink of death. If the body and mind are strong enough to withstand it the cancer will go into remission. If one can survive the cure they should be okay. However, there is always the cloud of reoccurrence with the cancer popping up again and in a different part of the body. It’s an ugly disease and being cancer free for five years doesn’t guarantee that it’s gone.
Sylvia was well aware of all the uncertainty but she forged on never once complaining of the discomfort. She continued working her job and keeping our life as normal as possible. I can’t even begin to imagine what she was really going through.
Continued in Part II.......