When We Let Go

In May of 1949, my mother gave birth to me after three years of infertility. Because of this, I often joke that I was the most loved child in all of Southern Ohio. When I was a bit older, my family moved to Chesapeake, Ohio to a housing community that was just starting to develop. Before all the construction took over, I would walk up to the hills that weren’t cleared off and breathe in the summer air. You could see the sun peeking over the treetops and smell the sharp scent of pine. I used to go up on the hillside and sit and think about things. My childhood was full of simple times like that.

I graduated high school in 1967, and promptly attended college to study design. It was after my first year of college, when I was back home for the summer, that I met up with some girlfriends and went to a free beer night at a local pizza place. I didn’t drink beer, but, hey, if you wanted to meet people, then that was the place to be. And as it goes, that’s when I met Danny.

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I remember sitting in that pizza place, laughing with some friends, when all of a sudden, someone caught my eye. He was tall, and handsome, and had such a bright smile. I was in a daze, not realizing that this guy was walking over to my table. Finally, he introduced himself and we just hit it off. He was joyful and extroverted, and made me feel like I was the only girl in the room. I started to love him before I even knew what love meant.

We dated casually for a while, until he stopped calling. Just like that. I thought it was so odd. And I couldn’t call him because my mother had a rule in our house that I wasn’t allowed to call boys on the phone. Only loose girls called boys. But eventually, I just couldn’t wait any longer. I knew that this was the man I was supposed to be with, and I wouldn’t let such a rule make my decision for me. I found a time to call (without my mother knowing) and Danny agreed to meet me in town.

When we met up, Danny wouldn’t meet my eye. He said he’d found someone else to date. That was that. So, I went back to school to live in the dorm, when one day, I got a call from my best friend from back home. Before I could finish saying hello, my friend says, “What’s Danny’s middle name?” I curled the cord from the payphone tightly between my fingers. “Louis.” My friend paused before continuing. “Well, in the paper, there’s an announcement that says he just got married.” The wind seemed to leave my lungs. I knew we weren’t going steady, and I knew he was seeing someone else, but I wasn’t ready to let go.

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One day I was out playing tennis with a girlfriend, when we decided to head over to a drive-thru burger shop for a bite to eat. Suddenly, my friend elbowed me and say, “I — I think that’s Danny driving in that little red car.” Immediately, I sunk down in my seat. But I was too late. Danny walked on over to the car and tapped on my window. After some small talk, he told me he’d gotten divorced, and wanted to explain.

What had happened was, he had gotten a girl pregnant and he then married her. Turns out, they didn’t like each other. She was in love with someone else who was in the service overseas and took the child with her. Consequently, Danny said he was still crazy about me the whole time. Once again, he asked me out. I agreed, but I told him I wasn’t going to say anything to my parents until we were sure about our relationship. I think “going steady” might have brought back memories for Danny, and he started getting cold feet. I looked him straight in the face and said, “Listen Danny, after what you’ve put me through, this is the way it’s gonna be. We’re to be exclusive, or nothing at all.” Needless to say, we were exclusive.

When we officially started dating, I was over 21 years old, I worked full time, and I paid my own bills. While my parents weren’t thrilled about my relationship with Danny, what could they say? Eventually, my parents accepted that Danny made me really happy, and that I was going to marry him — like it or not. In time, they found that they really liked him, too. We got married at a small chapel in 1971. I was only 22 and Danny was 23.

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We were married just three weeks when Danny had his first heart attack.

Everything about the dynamic of our relationship changed. In that day in age, the doctors wouldn’t let a person do anything after surviving a heart attack. Danny couldn’t work or drive, and was medically discharged from the marine reserve. Money became tight. I remained the primary bread winner until I became pregnant with our daughter Kierra in 1973.

We got by living paycheck to paycheck. The thing that was most difficult was that the guy I married was never the same. Before, Danny was the life of the party, but after, he pulled away from conversation. He grew very serious, constantly having chest pains. He was just sick, living in fear of death — at the age of 23. If he wasn’t stretched on the couch in a cold sweat, he was popping nitroglycerin. Even so, I still loved him and adjusted to his new personality.

One weekend in October of 1982, Danny started feeling sick, so I took our daughter to stay with one of my aunts. Well, when I got home, he had fixed supper — something completely out of the ordinary. He was being real sweet until later that evening. His chest pains became unbearable. The next morning, he went to the hospital to get things checked out.

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I went up to visit him every evening. We talked about things. We discussed our future together. One day I called him from work before I was getting ready to see him and he said, “Don’t come tonight. I know you’re just as tired as I am. Please, go out to eat with your friends.” So, I did. But while I was at dinner, at about 7:20 that evening, I felt the need to be near Danny. I immediately stood up from the table and said, “I’m going to go to the hospital.” I gave my friends some money to cover the bill and went to my husband. When I got there, he wasn’t in his room. He was in intensive care. I called Danny’s family for them to come see him, but before they got to the hospital, he passed away.

I went to the bathroom and just threw up. My body mourned him. Here I was, a 33-year-old widow, and I had watched the life fade from my young husband. I knew that my Danny would die young, but I was thinking maybe age 50 or 60. In my mind, it was so far down the road. When I got back in the room, the doctors began pushing papers at me to sign for an autopsy because of his unique circumstances. I waved them on, glassy-eyed and unable to process what had happened. They later found out that his arteries had never grown past that of about a twelve-year-old. He died at 34.

I started seeing a psychologist, and after a while, I thought I had regained a handle on my life. I was back at work and taking care of myself. But I didn’t realize that while I had made a safe home in my own little world, I left my daughter Kierra to handle her grief by herself. Kierra was desperately trying to make sense of death — of her own father’s death — at nine years old. I couldn’t believe myself.

I went to my doctor and started sobbing. I begged him, “I thought you were going to help me! You’re the guy that I come to for help! Why am I not feeling better?” He just looked at my sorry stance and said, “I’ll tell you what. When you buried Danny, you buried a lot of stuff with him. What we’ve done is we’ve opened the grave and dealt with a lot of it. And now that we’re finished with it, you’re feeling the hurt. But soon, we’ll be able to bury it back again. You’re the one who has to deal with this, not me. I’m just here to listen.”

Kierra and I had been living with my mother after Danny died, but once it got closer to Christmas, I decided that I had to go back home. We had to begin living again. We moved back the week before Christmas, and once we got in the door, my daughter turned to me and said, “Mom, are we not gonna put up a Christmas tree?” That night I went out to a sad-looking tree lot and put one up.

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On Christmas Eve, Kierra looked at me and said, “I just want everything to be normal.” I held her hand and replied, “But it’s not normal, honey. Your dad’s gone.” Without hesitation, Kierra just said, “Promise me you won’t cry tomorrow.” Somehow, I didn’t, and things were as normal as they could be.

Sometime later, I went on a beach vacation with my friend and my daughter. But after being there a few days, I realized that I had been watching the same shows I did at home and going through my same routine while everyone else was out in the sand. The silence reminded me that I had been so lonely since Danny. I had put my needs on hold so that I could help my daughter have a normal life again, desperately trying to overcompensate for when I had ignored her hurt. I sat on the bed and cried. I didn’t deserve to be lonely, and no amount of crying would bring Danny back. I thought, this is ridiculous. I’m a young woman with a whole lot of life to live, and I want the rest of my life to be happy. I do want to get married again.

But I didn’t really date in the coming years. I didn’t want to go to a bar, and church just was full of married couples. I once dated a guy with a temper, but quickly cut it off after his first outburst. It wasn’t until a few years later when a friend told me about a man who had been recently divorced who was “just the perfect match for me.” After a few weeks, I decided to make the call. We arranged to meet for dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Somehow, I knew this man, Charlie, was the one. He was kindhearted, generous, and he was head over heels for his child, whom he raised on his own. We shared a deep love of music and faith. We left the restaurant way past closing-time, and he said he’d call.

Well, weeks went by and my phone never rang. My mind went back to my mother’s childhood rule about calling boys on the phone. Maybe she was right, but I was too old for anyone to be telling me what to do. I called, and he answered. We talked all night long and have been talking every day since.

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I married Charlie in May of 1986, so happy to be with such a good man, and have another child to call my own. To solidify the merging of the two families, we let our kids prepare vows to say during our wedding ceremony. I think that’s what put us in a good place at the start of our journey.

I’ve never fallen out of love with Charlie, and each day I feel like we grow closer. We’ve really been through it, raising our children, navigating the messiness of our pasts, and starting fresh, together. It’s been a whirlwind. Since our retirement, we’ve gotten to take cross-country trips and have built wonderful memories.

I don’t plan to forget my first marriage, though I have buried the grief and confusion that came with it. I’ve figured out that I’m never as “in-control” as I think I am, and I believe that’s for the best. I look back on my life and see how I might have willed things to happen that wouldn’t have led to my happiness today. While I’m not a passive person in any sense, I don’t think I could have crafted such a full life for myself. But now, I can see that I’ve lived through heartbreak so that I could experience love in a deeper way. I’ve found that we have more room in our hearts to love when we learn to let go.

This is the story of Donita Cook

Donita’s first marriage ended tragically, as her husband died young of heart problems. After years of coming to terms with her past, Donita was able to start over and love again. Donita believes that she has been able to endure the pain and joys of life through her faith in Jesus. Donita loves music, as she can play the piano and accordion.

If you would like to share in the life journey of Donita’s husband Charlie, click here.

| Writer: Colleen Walker | Editors: Kristen Petronio; Adam Savage |

Life Log #92

This story first touched our hearts on May 12, 2018.




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