A love affair that wouldn’t die

This is the story of a love affair, one that lasted more than 60 years in this dimension and now for eternity in another.

Clarabel Richards and Ralph Looney met while enrolling at the University of Kentucky, she in nursing and he in journalism. On their very first date, he took her home to meet his parents and from that wartime event until six years ago they were never apart for more than a few days at a time. It was the kind of marriage that all ministers hope for when they join young couples with the promise “until death do us part.”

Unable to have children, they found relief from that disappointment in their passion for one another. She reveled in his considerable accomplishments and consoled him when he failed, which wasn’t often. She never complained when an opportunity came along that disrupted her own life. As he rose in the ranks of journalism, she sublimated her own ambitions in nursing to further his career.

The psychologists would tell us that this isn’t the healthiest of relationships, that so much dependence on one another ultimately would leave the survivor unable to function when the inevitable took place. That is not an uncommon occurrence and when Ralph died six years ago, the loss was so crushing to Clara that she sank deeper and deeper into depression. She refused to leave the house they had bought when he retired from his high-profile career, as first the editor of the Albuquerque Tribune and then the Rocky Mountain News.

She refused all entreaties to move although she had suffered a serious bout with breast cancer and was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. Her television was always turned to the all-news channel he watched during the few years of retirement they had before Alzheimer’s began to erode his active mind and ultimately left him unable to comprehend. She changed nothing in the house. Although she clearly was lonely, urging their longtime friends and the few relatives she had to visit, she always found an excuse not to stray far from the scene of their last happiness together.

But as she became increasingly frail, she finally was persuaded to move to more suitable quarters, an apartment in an assisted living facility. She even began giving away things they had accumulated over the decades. Those who knew her were skeptical that she would ever move. They speculated that at the last minute she would find a way to avoid it. They were correct. Less than a week before moving day, she slowly sank to the floor and died alone amidst the trappings and memories of her departed lover, the victim of a broken heart.

When her neighbor and a caregiver found her, she was dressed in a new pants suit she had bought for moving day. Ralph, she had explained, would want her to look nice. But one could only wonder whether she had subconsciously realized that the anticipated journey was really to rejoin him.

Her husband’s best friend and a loyal, caring neighbor were left to put the finishing touches to this love story. They arranged for the simple, graveside service during which the minister said that the devotion Ralph and Clara shared was a model for all those who take a vow of fealty to one another. A measure of the strength of the bond that held them together was evidenced by the remarks of the few who attended the service in the hot morning sun of the high desert. They reminisced about “Ralph and Clara,” not just Clara. Among the mourners with her mother and father was 16-year-old Sarah, a Down’s child Clara and Ralph had loved since her infancy. She cried quietly.

All that remained was to prepare the house and furnishings for sale. It isn’t easy to close out a 40-year friendship, consigning the pictures and mementos and awards of a lifetime of public service to a trash heap because there is no one left to treasure them. But it wasn’t as difficult as it must have been for Clara who had assigned herself the task of guardian and caretaker of her husband’s legacy, grieving daily, until that time that her strong religion told her they again would be together.

She was just a slight and pretty Kentucky girl who left rural poverty to find a lifetime of happiness with someone she adored. We should all be so lucky.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)