LOSING YOUR PARTNER
A HUSBAND'S EULOGY
FOR HIS BELOVED WIFE
For nearly half a century,
Sara was his princess
By DAVID ZINMAN
What do you say when you lose your partner in life?
I thought about that when my wife Sara died a few months ago. I stood alone with her in her hospital room as she lay still and unmoving. I wondered what my last words would be--words I knew she would never hear.
Sara and I would have been married 50 years on October 27th. We never reached that milestone. But we had a fulfilling life.
We lived in Norfolk, New Orleans, and Long Island. When I retired, we came back to Saras roots in the little town of Conway near Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. She was born there in the front bedroom of her familys home on Main Street. We were living in that one-story frame house when she died on April 17.
Saras first name comes from the Old Testament. It is Hebrew for princess. Sara was that--a regal Southern lady.
She had soft blue eyes, lovely white skin, and blond hair that darkened with reddish highlights as the years passed and finally turned gray.
When I wrote about Sara in my column, I called her my B.W. She thought the initials stood for big wife. She was wrong. B.W meant beautiful wife.
She was that and more. She was bright, charming, sociable in the soft, friendly manner that many Southern women have acquired, and she had a special sense of humor.
That humor traces back to childhood. Sara (then Sara Wachtman) and her friend Lloyd Rogers were at the top of Conway Highs class of 1949. They were often bored in the classroom and paid little attention. One day, their teacher gave them a warning. Better change direction, she said.
A few hours later, there were Sara and Lloyd outside the classroom window. They were riding backward on a bicycle built for two. And they were waving. The teacher couldnt help laughing.
What do you think about when a life partner passes? You think about some of the happy times you shared.
One of those times told me how resourceful Sara was. It was in the 1950s. The Korean War was on. I was a wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant junior grade who had just reported to the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga in New York.
They had taken the ship out of mothballs, outfitted her with a canted flight deck, and ordered her to Norfolk for a shakedown cruise. The captain called me in.
Zinman, he said. Your records say youre fresh out of journalism school. Okay. See what you can do. Go down to Norfolk and drum up a dockside reception for us.
I had no more idea than a jaybird how to do that. When I got to Norfolk, I told all this to Sara. We had just started dating.
Wait a minute, she said. Im teaching in high school here. Maybe, I can help.
A few days later, the Ticonderoga steamed into the Norfolk Naval Base. There, on the pier blaring away with martial music was the marching band from Saras high school--all 110 pieces--plus 10 striking majorettes.
The captain looked my way and nodded. The event made the front page of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. I became the ships public relations officer.
I knew this Southern gal was special. What I didnt know was how special. In the summer, she went home and got a job as a reporter for a newspaper in Myrtle Beach.
The newspaper was so small (circulation: 2,000) she was the only reporter. But it was a job she loved and she soon established a big following. Heres what Sara wrote describing her brief journalism career in a family history for her grandchildren:
My crowning story was my Miss America piece. The year was 1955. I had gone up to New York to see David. While I was there, the Miss America pageant went on in Atlantic City. Of all people, it was won by a South Carolina girl--Marian McKnight. It was the first time a girl from our state had won. She was having her first press conference the next day.
Of course, I had no press credentials. The Myrtle Beach Daily News had no press cards. Somehow, David talked me in. I was the only South Carolina reporter there, and I got a wonderful scoop.
But the Daily News had no funds for long distance phone calls, much less telegrams. So I sent my story airmail special delivery to Mr. Leroy Harrelson, the editor.
He told me he almost fell off his chair when he opened the envelope. He printed the story on the front page with my byline. An editors note said: 'Today, the Daily News offers a coup detat. Staff writer Sara Wachtman, while vacationing in New York, was Johnny-on-the-spot for the new Miss Americas press conference.'
I came across a clipping of the story in her scrapbook. The last paragraph said: The new Miss America personifies all the characteristics of unassuming, sincere, and warm-hearted Southern womanliness. And now the world knows what South Carolinians have always known--that the prettiest and the finest young women come from right here.
I thought Sara could have been writing about herself. It was a wake-up call. I knew I better move quickly. She was in South Carolina. I was in New York.
I dashed to the phone and proposed via long-distance. To my everlasting joy, she accepted. I have made many mistakes in my life. But that day, I was right on the mark. Marrying Sara was the great accomplishment of my life.
Today, we have three fine children--Caroline, Daniel, and Elizabeth. Daniels beautiful wife Lauren has given us three lovely grandchildren--twins, Matthew and Samantha, aged 8; and 4-year-old Ava whom I call the A to Z girl.
Our children and our grandchildren, Sara said, are our hopes and our dreams.
While raising our children, Sara, a graduate of the College of William and Mary, directed a mail order ABC shorthand system called Zinmans Rapid Writing. It was devised by my father, a shorthand expert. And she sang in local choirs.
Because of her love of singing, she became a devoted opera lover. That led to a surprise appearance with the New York City Opera.
One day, Sara was in bed upstairs in our Long Island home, running a fever she couldnt shake. I turned on the radio. The City Opera was having an on-the-air telephone auction as a fund-raiser. The biggest prize was a walk-on role in La Boheme.
I thought if I could win that part for her, maybe it would buoy her spirits. I called in and got through to a lady taking bids. I made one.
Dont hang up, I said. Im bidding for my sick wife. Whatever the top bid is, Ill bid $100 more.
The lady stayed on the phone. When the auctioneer said, Going, going She topped the high bid by a $100. Nobody bid more.
I raced upstairs. Im not drunk, Sara. Youve just gotten a walk-on role in La Boheme at the New York City Opera. You go on stage in four weeks.
The ploy worked. It was like she had taken a wonder tonic. She brightened like a Christmas tree. She was well in a few days.
There are two footnotes. The features editor at Newsday, where I worked, heard about it and asked her to write a first-person story. She did and it appeared on the front page of the features section under a head that read, My Night In the Opera.
A few days before she was to appear, one of the papers drama critics, Leo Seligsohn, called her. He knew she was a singer. This is the chance of a lifetime, he said. Dont listen to what anyone tells you. As soon as you walk on, go straight to center stage and sing out.
I often wonder if the City Opera suspected something. When Sara went on stage during the Act Two parade scene, she was accompanied by a full-time, non-singing actress who never left her. Sara was also positioned behind a low barricade. She claims they also tied her ankles to the stage with ropes. But I think she was only pulling my leg.
At any rate, this opera lady was my life partner. And the question still turned in my mind--what do you say when you lose your partner in life?
Saras health started failing last fall. She gradually got weaker although she never let any of her friends know. I was her caregiver. I knew her life was running out. But every day I got to be with her was a gift.
Then, one night, her labored breathing woke me. I couldnt rouse her. I called 911. Paramedics rushed her to Conway Medical Center.
Doctors could not rouse her from her coma. Five days later, the phone rang at dawn.
Saras heart is slowing, the nurse said. Come right away. But I dont know if you can get here in time.
I jumped in the car and raced to the hospital. When I got to her room, the nurses were taking out her IV line. Saras heart had stopped.
They asked if I wanted to be alone with her. I said I did. For a few moments, the world disappeared and Sara and I were by ourselves. I leaned over and kissed her. Her lips felt cold.
But touching her cleared up something. When I raised my head, I felt a fog lifting. I knew the answer to the question that had stayed in my mind.
What do you say when you lose a partner in life? What word do you find to bid farewell to someone you have loved for nearly half a century.
I paraphrased Shakespeare.
Goodnight, sweet princess, I whispered to Sara. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
©2006 by David Zinman. This column first posted Sept. 25, 2006.
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