Thursday, February 14, 2008

To Susan

This post is to my valentine. Not just on this day, but on every day. To the one person whose company I've chosen for the rest of my life and afterlife. My wife.

September 7, 2001 was like any other Friday for me at the time. I went to work interning at the Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, PA. Drudgery to be certain. The best part of working at BVPS was the people, most notably my father. Being on 'his turf' and being able to slip away for lunch at Josephine's across the bridge in Midland. A quick fish sandwich and back to work. But we always put shop talk aside to enjoy each other's company.

But on September 7, I had somewhere to go that night. PNC Park in its inaugural of the most beautiful ballfields in the country. The Pirates were hosting the Reds under the lights. And my friend Bill Brenneisen, then employed at Pitt, had tickets to a UPMC luxury box. Bill and I had been friends since I was a kid. I met him through Boy Scouts, and Bill was one of the older guys that I looked up to. Literally. He asked me to join him at the game and of course I went. Those tickets changed my life.

We got to the game very early. After all, luxury boxes are stuffed with free food and free beer. We were the first ones to arrive and promptly began to partake. When the first pitch was thrown at 7:05, we were already enjoying the night.

I sat there at one of the small round tables drinking with Bill, laughing and glancing at the game every once in a while. Somewhere around the second inning, one of Bill's coworkers entered the box. Chris Yoest, known to friends as 'Yogi.' Yogi didn't want to go to the game that much; but he figured that it was free, and could be fun. So he dragged his roommate with him. Her name was Susan.

Bill introduced me to Susan and Yogi and we politely exchanged greetings. Sitting at the small table together, Chris and Bill discussed work, leaving Susan and I to ourselves. We engaged in chit-chat. Nothing spectacular. I'd love to tell you we discussed politics, poetry and the great mysteries of life. But we talked about funny lines in the movie 'Office Space' for the most part. I asked her what her favorite movie was. She said, "Shawshank Redemption.'" "Funny, that's my favorite movie," I replied.

We continued to talk and drink. She was fun. This small and skinny little gal. Just under five feet tall, she had this effervescent personality. And a killer laugh. We hung out most of the night, just chatting. We stepped out onto the box's balcony seating to watch the game. The Bucs scored two in the sixth to take the lead. The promotions gang responded by firing t-shirts into the crowd. One of them arched towards our box, and Susan promptly stood up and caught it. That caught my eye.

The Buccos won 3-1. Here's the proof.

As the game wound down, Sue and Yogi decided to split. We said goodbye and that was that. She went one way, I went another.

What, you were expecting some sort of magical interlude? Didn't happen. I'd spent that entire summer trying to reenter the dating scene after living in China for several months. I wasn't successful. In fact, it was a legitimate disaster. I figured a lady wasn't in the cards for a while. I was out to relax with friends and enjoy life.

But as Susan and Yogi left the park, her mind was on our talks. And, as she walked across the Roberto Clemente Bridge back into downtown, Susan says to this day that she heard a voice. A voice that clearly told her, "Don't let him go." She asked Yogi to intervene and get my contact information from Bill the next week. Maybe you are starting to see the kind of woman I married.

Let's shorten the story a bit for your collective benefit. We started dating a few weeks later. During this first few months, I knew that she was extraordinary. I told her I loved her before we even hit our two-month anniversary. She said the same. I wrote her two poems...the only two I've ever written for her by the way. She framed one of them, it sits by our bed today.

During that winter Susan asked me if I was happy with where I was headed in life. I told her I wasn't. I didn't like the work at BVPS but it paid well. Maybe I could parlay the internship into a well-paying job. She asked me if I would really like that job, and I knew that I wouldn't. Susan asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told her I always thought about doing sports broadcasting. She told me to try it out by going to grad school.

I did. I did because she made me recognize my own dreams. Just before I graduated with a Masters degree from Syracuse University in 2003, I proposed to her in an airport terminal in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She was flying there to see her parents. I stayed up all night, flew out ahead of her to get their approval, then asked her as she stepped out of the gate.

We got married in June of 2004. She left a good job in Pittsburgh to follow me to Buckhannon, West Virginia. She drove 50 miles round trip to work every day. Susan sacrificed her life to share it with me.

And I wasn't there to share it. I was working 80-hour weeks. We ate Christmas dinners at Chinese buffet restaurants. We couldn't afford a house. It wasn't always fun. But she remained my biggest fan, and I hers.

Our daughter Isabelle was born March 9th, 2006 at the hospital Susan worked at in Elkins, West Virginia. Seeing her hold our first child for the first time...amazing. And when I went back to work three days later, and worked thirteen straight days during one of our many busy seasons, she never complained. At least not much.

Nearly a year later, she called my cell phone while I was at a basketball game to tell me she was pregnant again. A month later, we were told our baby might have Down Syndrome. Susan was a rock. Unwavering, undeterred. Prepared for whatever we would face. I was a mess.

Soon afterwards we found out that our boy (she wanted to know) was in fact just fine. By then, we were preparing for a new life in Farmville, Virginia. Once again Susan was willing to go wherever I chose. This new life meant more time for us. She and the children deserved that. And I needed it too. I needed her.

In late September last year, around the six-year anniversary of our first date, we discovered our son was carrying a massive tumor. Kenneth Edward would be born with cancer. No one would tell us the exact prognosis, whether he would make it or not. No one seemed to know. On October 3, he was born. Doctors told us that his ability to survive the surgery would depend on his will to live. Would he battle? Doctors told us the moment a child is born is crucial. Crying = desire to survive. Silence = we didn't want to hear.

When Kenny entered this world, there was no sound at first. Until my wife said loud and clear for all to hear. "Kenny, you fight. You fight it. Start fighting right now."

Right then, he started to cry.

Maybe now, you see the kind of woman I married.

Six days later, the tumor came out. Kenny came home with us nearly three agonizing weeks later on November 1st. All the while, Susan spent time with Isabelle and longed to be with her son. Now we are all together. And I am living the life I always wished I could have.

I live that life because of my wife. Susan is the person who convinced me to go to Syracuse University for grad school. She is the one who accepted a marriage proposal from a guy in debt, with no certain future. A guy who was returning home to live with his parents.

Susan is the one who followed me across the country when the proper opportunities arose. She took a chance on me. She deals with me when no one else on this planet would wish to. She puts up with my flaws. She cheers my accomplishments. She is my anchor.

I write about her today because I want her to know how much I think of her. How much I respect her. How much I cherish her. I want those reading to understand why my family means so much. I want Susan to be certain of the role she plays in my life.

Susan. You are my best friend. You are the love my soul desired for so long. You are the reason I rush home from work. You are the wonderful mother to our children, and the epicenter of my universe.

I love you.