On A Scale Of 1 To 10…



Spending Saturday with family was amazing!  I’m not sure if Libby just happened to have a fantastic, pain free day or if she rallied by saving all of her small “feel good moments” and stringing them together into one long “feel good day” because, although short-lived, it was a  miraculous, unforgettable blessing that I will never forget.

While the sound of our family’s footsteps still resonated through the hospital corridors, Libby left her chair where she had enjoyed animated conversation and fried chicken and returned quickly to her bed. Soon afterward Libby donned her customary damp rag to cover her eyes as another massive headache slammed her, overshadowing the pain free day. Within two hours she was hurting so badly that she limited out on the allowed pain medications and our roller coaster began its descent into the darkest thirty six hours period of Libby’s hospital stay.

Anyone who has spent time in the hospital will recognize the standard pain scale question asked by the staff: “On a scale of 1 to 10, with zero being no pain at all and a ten being the worst pain you have ever experienced how would you rate your pain for me now?” Even though Libby was in tremendous pain she considered the question carefully and said, “It’s an 8”. Knowing how much she was hurting I asked, “So, Libby, even though you just said it was the worst thing you have ever felt, it’s not a 10?”  “No,” said Libby, as she tried to explain, “I’ve never died and I would think that dying would be the worst pain possible;  dying must be a 10, so this has to be a 8.”

Later that same night as I paced the floor beside Libby’s bed she asked,  “Is that you Barry?” her eyes still covered with the damp rag.  “Yes,”  I said.  “Please pray for me,” Libby said, reaching for my hand, “It feels like my head is going to explode.” I pressed the call button and once again asked the nurse for more pain meds and then I prayed, but the nurse never came back in.

I like to think that I am a patient guy, but as Libby began squeezing my hand and the pain in her head continued to increase, my patience was exhausted. Then Libby pulled me closer and whispered,  “My head,”  pausing every other word to draw in a breath, “Hurts soooo bad… I know….why people……. want to kill…… themselves…This is a 10.”

That was it, my patience was gone. I found the frazzled night-shift nurse at the end of the hall near the nurses’ station and I said, “Look, I’m sorry, I know you have lots of patients and that you are just following orders but we are going to get those orders changed right now. My wife is in unbearable pain, so we have two options here; either you get in touch with the on-call doctor right now and get my wife some pain meds or I’m calling Dr. Schlabach’s cell phone and wake him up at 3 AM to get his approval, and trust me, I will get his approval!”

Libby received a pain injection through her I.V. within five minutes of my tirade and within five minutes more she was snoring softly.  I, on the other hand, catnapped only occasionally feeling a bit uneasy about sleeping in the darkened hospital room while the night nurse walked next to my makeshift bed with an arsenal of sharp needles.




Hair Today…Wig(s) Tomorrow

Libby always had gorgeous dark hair, it was one of first things I noticed about her during Coach Killen’s gym class at Chattanooga Valley Junior High School; well, her hair and the fact that no one really wanted to pick her to play on their dodge ball team.

Libby’s hair remained roughly the same length and style for her entire adult life (except for that teased, big hair, 70’s look). Libby spent a lot of time cutting, curling and fixing that hair, so and it was traumatic when a few days after her first chemo treatment, all of that gorgeous hair started coming out by the handfuls.

Libby snowshoing

Soon after her hair came out Libby said, ” The worst part of chemo isn’t necessarily loosing my hair, it’s that people treat me different without my hair because now I look sick.”

Libby in hat

Years later Libby’s opinion changed slightly and she said, “The worst part of chemo is not that my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows all fall out, its having to deal with all of that while still shaving my legs, because for some dumb reason, my leg hair is resistant to even the most toxic chemotherapy drugs known to man!”

In the five years that Libby dealt with breast cancer we spent a lot of time (and money) on wigs and they became a fun diversion because just as she did with so many things in her life, Libby made the best of a bad situation.

Libby had on her favorite wig one day as we were visiting my dad at his house on the lake; he had been feeling ill and like most southern ladies, Libby believed that home cooking could heal most any sickness. Using my mom’s recipe and her old black iron skillet Libby decided to made some cornbread to go along with the meat and vegetables that she had cooked.

It was difficult to determine if the cornbread was done by simply turning on the oven light and peering through the dark glass, so periodically Libby leaned over and opened the lower oven door to make sure it was golden brown.  After cooking, Libby decided to let the cornbread cool on the stove top and join me for a boat ride across the lake.

As we were walking back to the house after the ride I mentioned to Libby that she needed to check her wig in the mirror because she had a wind-blown look as if we were still flying across the lake in the boat. When Libby found a mirror, I heard a scream and uncontrolled laughter as Libby came into the living room with her wig in her hand explaining that the hairs had evidently melted from the heat of the oven and then cooled on the boat ride. The wind-blown look was permanent because the synthetic hairs melted together forming a cohesive wave and it looked as if she was moving fast even while she was standing still.

Later we decided to take a short family trip to the beach and Libby thought that she should buy a blonde wig because, “Blondes and beaches just somehow seemed like they should go together.”


It was rare that we could all get together as a family since Nathan and Bethany were in Augusta but the late fall weather was perfect and I was able to spend some time walking on the beach with my newly blonde wife.

Libby learned a lot about wigs and wig care, mostly through trial an error, for instance once you get the shape and look that you like in a synthetic wig, maintaining that look is easier if it is placed over a round object instead of putting it back in its box.

Unfortunately on our beach trip we didn’t take any of the styrofoam heads to hold the wig’s shape at night so Libby found a roundish lamp shade to support her new favorite wig.  The only problem was that during the night someone decided that particular lamp would make a good night light and synthetic wigs do not do well with heat (see cornbread story above).

Yea, we may have gone through a few wigs during Libby’s five year illness but with Libby life was never dull, just ask the lady at the wig store, we helped put her son through college.

Makeup, Hairdos and Tattoos

After thirty years of marriage and lots of conversations starting with, “Barry…We need to talk…”, one would think that every subject imaginable had been discussed.  Occasionally those conversations happened simply because Libby wanted to talk, but many times when she said, “Barry…We need to talk…”, it meant I was in trouble and it didn’t take long to discover that, with Libby, there was a right and a wrong, a black and a white but very few greys.

Following Libby’s diagnosis of breast cancer we were introduced to a whole host of subjects that, until now, we had never even considered, much less discussed. We were both making adjustments continually because our lives were completely different BC (Before Cancer) than they were AC (After Cancer):

BC (Before Cancer) Libby never had to advise me as to the best methods for washing, conditioning, drying, combing and fixing her hair.

BC I never would have dreamed of offering an opinion about whether Libby would look better with spiked hair or with it parted on the side in a “boy cut”.

BC I never thought that Libby would ask me to help her apply her Merle Norman foundation, makeup, blush and eye liner stuff.

BC I never dreamed that we would be casually viewing photos and discussing breast implants options with a plastic surgeon.

And finally, BC I never dreamed that one day I would be encouraging Libby to get a tattoo:

Following chemo treatments, on Libby’s first visit to the radiologists’ office, a bubbly young nurse was escorting us back to the exam room when she nonchalantly turned to Libby and asked in her perky little Smurf voice, “So, Mrs. Gilley,  what kind of tattoo are you planning to get?  Libby stopped dead in her tracks, unwilling to go any further as she called out to the nurse who had continued walking down the hallway. “I’m not real sure I understand what you are talking about Nurse Perky, but I’m certainly not getting a tattoo!”,

(OK,  I took some literary license there, Libby didn’t actually call her “Nurse Perky” because in the last few minutes Libby had taken the time to learn our nurse’s real name, her hobbies, how many siblings she had, what church she attended, where she did her postgraduate work, her favorite Christian artist and who she was dating.  I, however, did not even bother to learn her name, so Nurse Perky it is;  besides this is my story.)

Nurse Perky came back to where Libby was planted and gently guided her into the exam room as she explained that some people get a tattoo to cover up the radiation alignment marks that she was about to receive.  Perky also said that it became a kind of “badge of honor” for many of their female cancer patients to incorporate the ink spots into the eyes of a dolphin or the antenna of a butterfly tattoo.

After dropping the tattoo bombshell, Nurse Perky left the room just as Dr. Getner entered to find an agitated Libby who explained as succinctly and briskly as she was able that she would not be getting ink dots, initials, a dolphin or a butterfly tattoo, today or at any time in the future and if that was what this procedure was going to involve, she would just leave now.

Dr. Getner had unknowingly walked into a hornet’s nest as he attempted to explain to Libby that alignment was critical and permanent ink tattoos were the preferred method, adding that they had tried using a Sharpie to make the marks but if it wore off then it would mean a long involved process of re-marking and equipment re-calibration.

I offered to Libby, what I thought were some helpful suggestions for a tattoo such as “mom”, “Barry”, and a heart with our initials, etc. but I received one of those looks that made me reconsider my input altogether.

A compromise was reached when Libby earnestly reassured her doctor that if he used a Sharpie, the marks would stay on for the duration of the six-week treatment.  We kept that promise by taping plastic over the Sharpie marks every time Libby showered and strategically placing Band-Aids to prevent her clothes from wearing the marks off for the next two months.  Those precautions and retouching with a Sharpie anytime the mark started to fade were the only things that kept Libby from becoming a tattooed lady and slipping into the dark side.

The  technicians took this picture to show me that she even smiled during radiation treatments:


“OK, Now I Remember—— What I Forgot!

As Libby’s hair began to grow back following the chemotherapy, her once dark hair came in solid white and began to curl into hundreds of fine little ringlets perfectly sized to wrap around a pinky finger.  Soon after the goose down hair started growing those same damaged hair follicles began producing thicker and darker hair, now capped with those fine, curly, white tips.  Libby was not accustomed to change in any form, especially when it came to her hair, so she was slow to embrace the new look and unwilling to be seen in public without one of her wigs.

Nathan, Jerod and I were commenting on the unique and attractive look of Libby’s hair one Saturday night during one of our planned family nights.  Embarrassed by the compliments and the attention she was getting, Libby got up from the couch to go start dinner but after standing, she awkwardly stepped sideways, and nearly passed out as three sets of hands gently guided her back to her seat.  A combination of residual chemo drugs and radiation treatments often affected Libby’s balance and rising quickly from a seated position increased those odds.

Even after a diagnosis of cancer, which made us all reevaluate our priorities, it is embarrassing how quickly each one of us became overly busy with life.  In fact we all became so preoccupied with our own lives that we had to schedule family nights at our house.  This particular night was planned to be a simple meal around the dinner table, but after the light-headed spell subsided, we convinced Libby that riding in the truck to and from St. Elmo and sharing a pizza would probably net us more family time than cooking at home.

Noticing the time and worried that the restaurant would soon close, we hurriedly gathered up to leave.  Libby never liked to be rushed when going anywhere, so it she became anxious as I hustled her toward the truck glancing back over her shoulder.  “What are looking for? I asked,  “I don’t really know, ” Libby answered, “it just feels like I’m leaving something”, then after making one last unsuccessful sweep of the room, we left for the restaurant.

Mr. T’s Pizza is our favorite pizza place located just a few miles from our house in a condensed little area of St. Elmo, TN with several intersecting roads, pedestrians, tourists and restaurants all within walking distance of one another.  Libby flipped down the sun visor on her side of the truck as we approached the restaurant so she could check her makeup in the small mirror, a move that always obscured my view out the passenger side of the truck.  Then, just seconds into her primping session, we all heard the scream.

I instantly hit the brakes, anticipating air bag deployment and bracing for impact; I was confident we were about to crash, then, after several seconds, during which time no one died, I asked, much louder than was necessary, “WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?”  Libby calmly turned toward me with an awkward, sheepish grin as she flipped her wrist to close the sun visor/mirror combination.  Cocking her head to one side and shrugging her shoulders she said in a soft voice, “Now I remember what forgot!”

Still in shock over the scream,  angry and confused, I whined, “What did you forget Libby?”  She turned her shoulders a full 90 degrees to look straight at me and then Libby struck a pose while pointing to her head in a gesture which was supposed to make it obvious why she was upset.  Libby’s eyebrows (okay, what used to be her eyebrows) were raised and her head cocked to one side as if I should be able to guess what was going on without any hints.  Dumbfounded, we all three stared at Libby and at one another without venturing a guess as to why she was so upset.  Eventually giving in with disgust Libby said, “My hair guys! My hair, I can’t believe none of you noticed!  I left my hair at home, I can’t go anywhere looking like this.”

Libby and Barry at Pizza Hut without her wig

I probably should not have laughed as hard as I did but we had seen her so much without the wig that it never crossed our minds that she had left it.  It was so traumatic to Libby that later she equated the experience to the nightmares common in young school-age children who dream of going to school but forget to put on clothes.

The boys and I pulled out all of the stops to convince Libby to go into the restaurant including but not limited to: “Mom you look great. There are only a few cars in the parking lot.  No one will know us there,”  and finally, “No one else has a hair do like yours”.  Hunger pains and a compromise finally convinced her that we had to eat somewhere.  The compromise was that we would go to Pizza Hut instead of Mr. T’s because in Libby’s words, “I don’t know anyone who goes to Pizza Hut anymore, but if we go to Mr. T’s we are sure to see someone we know.”

That day was a turning point in Libby’s post cancer treatment life and a huge boost to her self-confidence because the next morning Libby went to church for the first time ever without a wig and she made short hair look awesome.

Libby's first trip out without her wig

Libby Thanks All of Her Friends

 Halfway through the chemotherapy Libby said to me, “I really feel guilty because everyone is being so nice to me and offering to do things for me but I’m not really sick, or at least I don’t feel sick.”

Libby and I both had heard all of the horror stories of nausea and vomiting that were common with the chemo drugs that she was taking but as her treatments continued our anxiety level began to decrease with each successive, uneventful infusion.  There was some mild nausea, some mouth sores, and of course all of her hair fell out (except the hair on her legs) but compared to what other people had experienced, we both truly felt blessed.  The nurses even set up the infusion dates so that Libby would feel her best and have good white cell counts to help her resist infections during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays (so she could still hug Santa).


During Libby’s chemotherapy regime she was constantly amazed at the number of people who called, sent emails, texts and cards, and after three months of treatments with weekly updates that I posted to her Caring Bridge site Libby decided to write her own post and thank everyone for their concern:

By Jan 23, 2009 6:38pm

My precious friends and family, I just finished my 8th chemo treatment and I am halfway through. Oh, I feel so honored and blessed to have so many caring people in my life. You’ll never know how much it means to me.

I read all the notes and cards and every one of them is treasured. The gifts of food, visits, and surprises make this journey so much more wonderful. I feel like the paralyzed man who was carried by his friends to see Jesus. He couldn’t do anything to be healed in and of himself, but his friend’s took the time out of their busy schedules to make sure the relationship continued, but more importantly they took him to see Jesus. Jesus then healed him!!!!! Hallelujah!!!!

I’ve told you before I have felt carried all the way. There are times I feel a little scared and then I go to God and He speaks to me through His Healing Word. My times with Him are more precious everyday. There are many things I don’t understand in this world but I know I can trust my sweet savior. My desire is quick obedience to His will. More than anything I want to glorify Him with my attitude and actions.

Please pray I will take every opportunity to tell others how wonderful Jesus is. I love you all so much. Please keep praying. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

I’m feeling your great love and concern!!


A Moment Frozen in Time


“Hey, baby…(long pause)…where are you?”  It was Libby’s voice on the other end of our cell phone conversation on a fall morning in 2008; now, nearly six years later, every word and every awkward pause of the conversation is frozen in my mind.

I’m certainly not alone here, we all have them, those indelible moments from our past when it seemed as if time stood still, those events in our memories which are separated from the ordinary days by the preface, “I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about ________________.  For me, the big three were the Kennedy assassination, the space shuttle disaster and the twin tower attacks on 9/11; or at least they were before I received that call from Libby.

September 2, 2008 was a very ordinary Tuesday morning as I left my office on a short two-day sales trip with planned stops in Athens, Maryville and Sevierville, TN,; along the way I would be seeing some of my existing bank customers and calling on some new ones.  As I exited off of Interstate 75  toward Athens I was thinking about the fact that, for me at least, selling was more like getting paid to visit with friends than actual work.

Libby called my cell phone that morning and there was a strange timbre in her voice that I will always remember as she said, “Hey baby…………where are you?”  An odd question, I thought, since I had told her where I was going just a few hours ago while packing my bag.  As I began telling her again where I was going it seemed as though she wasn’t listening this time either because she said, “Oh… OK…. well that’s nice”.  After just a moment of silence, it was evident that her mind was somewhere else when she added, “Oh yea, that’s right, didn’t you tell me that already?”

Libby normally went with me on these trips but she wanted to work on her children’s program at church and besides she had scheduled her mammogram for the first thing that morning.  Libby always dreaded her mammograms which seemed to become more painful every year because of the increasing number of fibrous cysts that she developed in her breasts, in addition, the cysts made it more difficult for the radiologists to read the results, causing more than one cancer scare in the past.

As our phone conversation continued, my stomach was suddenly in knots and I still can’t fully explain what I was feeling, but the strange tone of Libby’s voice made me uncharacteristically pull off of the road so I could concentrate on the conversation, that’s when I asked, “What’s wrong Libby?”

After a brief moment of silence, Libby began, “I’m sure its nothing, I probably shouldn’t have bothered you with this but…” .  Libby then went on to explain that a new radiologists had read the mammogram and even though she explained her history of fibrous cysts he wanted her to see a surgeon for a sonogram as soon as possible, in fact, they had set up an appointment for the following day at 4:00 PM. Then in typical Libby fashion she told me, “Barry, you go ahead and keep your appointments, I’ll get Miss Helen to go with me because I am sure its just the cysts like every time before”, but I could tell from her shaky voice that she had not convinced herself of that fact.

At about the same time that Libby was saying, “Barry, you go ahead and keep your appointments…” I had already turned toward home, accelerating up the I-75 South on-ramp while Libby continued to fill me in on exactly what the doctor had said.

When it comes to the complicated science of modern medicine, most of us want instant answers and instant cures, so we often become frustrated with medical professionals when they seem rushed and even disinterested during a routine office visit but then later when you are waiting on test results, they appear to be slow and methodical. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I can tell you that in most cases they move as fast as they need to, besides too much attention from a doctor is usually not a good thing, such as when they set up your appointment at the end of the day so that,  “…the doctor will have more time to talk to you.”, or when they personally call to arrange for additional testing and consultations setting up appointments one after the other.

Our next set of appointments came the next day (one after another) as we met the radiologist, ultrasound technician and then by 4:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon we were sitting in a surgeon’s office (his last appointment of the day) reviewing all of Libby’s charts and test results.  As we both prepared for the worst, Dr. Burns looked up from the charts and shocked us both, “Mrs. Gilley, I agree with you, the lump appears to be one of many fibrous cysts, I have seen a lot of these and I am confident that yours is not cancerous, I suggest you have another mammogram in 6 months and lets just watch it.  You are free to get dressed and leave and I would like to see you again in February.

Wasting no time in leaving, Libby and I were giddy with excitement as we went out through the deserted waiting area littered with 2-year-old magazines.  We knew that we had just dodged a bullet and our emotions were trying to recover some equilibrium after our 24 hour roller coaster ride.

Our biggest decision now was whether we should split the 8 ounce or the 11 ounce Renegade Sirloin from the Longhorn Steakhouse to celebrate. The sides would be a loaded baked potato and Caesar salad, but now Libby was holding out for the smaller 8 ounce steak so she could more easily justify the Chocolate Stampede for desert as she joked, “I have no intention splitting that with anyone!”

Holding hands like two school kids, Libby and I were in the hallway outside of the doctor’s office and I was reaching for the “down” button to call the elevator just as Dr. Burns opened his office door and joined us in the hallway. I just assumed he was heading to his car as well, but then he said, almost as an afterthought, “You know Mrs. Gilley, just to be on the safe side, step back into my office with me for just one more quick test before you leave, since you are already here”.

I am sure readers of this blog never hear voices in their head (or at least none that they admit to) but the voices in my head were screaming when Dr. Burns asked us to go back into his office, “……Push the elevator button…..He has no jurisdiction in the hallway………..He’s not the boss o’ you“.

Before either one of us fully realized what was happening, Libby was once again holding my hand, but this time with a death grip as Dr. Burns performed a biopsy with little warning and no anesthesia.  I was sick to my stomach with sympathy pains as I kept wiping away Libby’s tears with my free hand saying, “I’m so sorry Baby, I wish I could make it stop”, a statement that I would find myself repeating many times over during the next 5 years.

I Love You

picnic furniture

Although I try not to dwell on them too much, its hard not to have some regrets when I think back over my actions, words and priorities during my 35 year of marriage to Libby.  One of my big regrets is the fact that I didn’t say “I Love You” nearly enough, or at least, not nearly as much as Libby would have like for me to say it.

Now in my defense, there were some extenuating circumstances because as a child growing up in the 60’s, the term “I love you” was used only sparingly in my home. Now don’t get the wrong idea here, I had a great childhood and a very loving home but that love was demonstrated and not necessarily verbalized.

As my parents were raising me and my 3 brothers, work was valued above words and that same mentality was reinforced by our friends and our extended family, most of whom were fiercely loyal, hard-working, stoic individuals. When a friend needed help tuning up a car or even roofing a house, it was an unspoken love that was demonstrated by volunteering time to help out and a steadfast refusal to be paid for that help. As a child we were reminded by our elders, “Those who know how to do something, do it, those who don’t know how to something, talk about doing it”.

After Libby and I got married and especially after we had children, I eventually became better at telling Libby that I loved her (without being prompted) but I was always fared better expressing my feelings by writing her notes, sappy love poems and cards always ending them with “I love you”.  But try as I might, I never really got over that early influence in my life and I was most happy when I could do things for Libby, whether it was building something, planning surprise getaway trips or delivering small gifts on days when she wasn’t expecting anything.


Shortly after Libby found out that she had breast cancer, a good friend of ours from Athens, Tennessee found out that his wife had ovarian cancer and although Jack and Connie had been friends of ours for many years, the four of us were drawn closer by bond we now shared. In an odd twist of events Libby and Connie’s struggles paralleled one another, both began their fight against cancer just three months apart, both lived 5 years with cancer and then both lost their battles, once again, three months apart.

Since our wives’ deaths Jack and I still get together occasionally as charter members of a morbid fraternity which no one wants to join. We usually discuss things that we can’t talk about with “normal people”, such as the silly things that some people say to you to “comfort” you or the envy we both feel when we see an elderly couple walking hand in hand and the strange and awkward (for us at least) conversations we each seem to get into with single ladies.  (Note to self:  there are several topics for future blogs within that last sentence alone).

Now Jack, appears to me at least, to suffer from adult ADD, bouncing happily between ten topics during a five minute conversation. As Jack and I ate dinner together last weekend we discussed some of the funny conversations we have had with others and some of our regrets. I wasn’t sure Jack was even listening to me as he continued to look around during our discussion but then he suddenly surprised us both,  “You know, Barry”, he said, his eyes still darting around the restaurant as he attempted to focus his attention deficit ” There are a lot of men who say, “I love you” to their wives everyday of their married life, some mean it, some don’t; then there are the lucky ones, like you and me, who for five years were able to show our wives everyday just how much we really did love them.”

Birthday Wishes

I have made a concerted effort to avoid the easy path of posting overly emotional articles about some of the more gut wrenching discussions that Libby and I had, especially during the last year of her life; attempting instead, to give the reader an overall view of our friendship, courtship, marriage and family.  This post is a break from that trend as I remember our date on Libby’s birthday a year ago today:

On Monday March 3rd 2014 one year ago today I was preparing to leave for work as one of the many sweet ladies who had volunteered to sit with Libby arrived at our house just before 8 AM.  Libby was spending all of her time in the hospital bed which was set up in our living room and at this stage of her illness she was sleeping nearly 23 hours a day.  I went over to her bed, kissed her goodbye and whispered into her ear, “happy birthday” but not loud enough to wake her.

My meeting that morning in Middle Tennessee was short and very soon I was on my way back home.  Since our decision to sign up with Hospice care after the last failed Chemo treatment, my time at work was normally not very productive because of my inability to focus.  Time away from the house did, however, give me perspective and time to think, which is exactly what I was doing during the hour and a half drive back home on this Monday afternoon.  I wanted to make Libby’s birthday special for her and although I would not have admitted it to anyone at the time, I knew in mind that this would be Libby’s last birthday.

I had been thinking of what I could do for several days and I finally had everything worked out in my head so I stopped on the way home to pick up the remaining items that I needed for the formal birthday meal I had planned.  My tux was laid out along with Libby’s nicest dress, dinner was planned and the candles were ready.  Now, I wasn’t delusional, I knew she probably wouldn’t eat much, if anything, and I would not be able get her into the dress, but I had a plan.

When I got home, I pulled my chair next to Libby’s bed and told her for the second time, “happy birthday”, she looked up at me and raised her thin arm out from under and the cover and spread her fingers out, which meant that she wanted to hold hands,  I took her hand as she whispered to me, “Is it my birthday?”  I said yes and then I told her that I had a surprise for her.  Libby said, “What is it?” I told her that she would have to just wait and see.  Now, for those who knew Libby well, you will understand what I mean when I say that Libby didn’t like surprises, and yet she did.  You see, Libby had no patience once she found out she was about get a surprise, and she certainly didn’t want to wait to find out what it was.  In fact, from the time we started dating Libby would use bribery, stealth and trickery to find out what she was getting from me.  Sometimes, I think she had more fun trying to uncover the secret than she did actually receiving the gift.

I told Libby that I had an evening planned for the two of us starting with some flowers.  I stood up to get the flowers, but she held my hand tightly and said wearily with her eyes closed, “Just stay her and tell me about them, don’t leave”.  So I described each flower as Libby smiled.  Then I told her I had planned to fix her favorite dishes so I would need to get the meal started and then I would be getting dressed up and I planned to lay her dress out on top of her blanket so she would be “dressed” for our date.  As I attempted to get up Libby tightened her grip on my hand and said again, “Just tell me about it…I probably want eat any of it anyway.”

I know now, that I was slowing loosing Libby a little more each day and the only way that she could experience some things now was in her mind.  So I told her my plans to cook for her, then change into my tux, put her dress on top of her blanket, light every candle in the house and turn out all of the lights.  Libby smiled and I could see from her expressions that she had “our date movie” playing in her mind.  I described the menu that I had planned to cook for her birthday meal, starting with Caesar salad followed by blackened talapia, Sister Schubert’s dinner yeast rolls and roasted new potatoes with garlic.  Libby would nod her head and lick her lips as if tasting every course as I described each dish, staring with her favorite, Caesar salad, then I asked if she wanted fresh ground pepper on her salad and she would nod yes. I would ask if she wanted fresh butter on the rolls and she answered, “Sure, why not?”

As Libby “enjoyed” her birthday meal, I wanted her to experience everything that I had planned for her so I described the black tux that “I now had on” and taking some artistic license, I told her how I really looked good in my tux and how I was really rockin’ the pink polka dot bow tie.  Although she still didn’t’ open her eyes, Libby did not like the fact that I was bragging even in our imaginary experience, so she tugged sharply at my hand to get me back on track.

Continuing the fantasy I told her, “I have helped you put your favorite dress on for our night out”, she asked, “Which one?”  I told her it was the dress that she wore to Nathan’s wedding and she nodded her head, satisfied that I had made the right choice. I told her that I had put on her shoes that matched her dress, but her smile quickly turned to a frown; knowing exactly what she was thinking, I said that I also brought her tennis shoes to walk around in just in case her feet started hurting, and she started smiling again.

And so for nearly an hour our amazing date continued as I kept spinning my tales adding more and more details, but soon Libby was sleeping as she relaxed her grip on my hand she pulled her arm back under the cover with a slight shiver.  I tucked her in under her soft pink blanket as she started softly snoring.

Our “night on the town” to celebrate Libby’s 56 birthday was over.

me and Libby

The Big Ice Cream Fight——– The Honeymoon Was Over

I should preface this tale of woe by explaining that Libby’s dad the Rev. Jimmie Love Willis, spoiled his girls, especially when it came to their sweet tooth cravings.  If any of Brother Willis’s girls (Libby, her four sisters or their mom) wanted something from the store such as ice cream, or if they needed some sugar or cocoa to make a desert, their dad was quick to respond to the need, grabbing his car keys and jacket as he headed out the door; complaining only after the second or third trip back to store.   Full truth disclosure here, Rev. Jimmie Willis’ behavior may not have been completely altruistic since he was known to indulge in an occasional sweet from time to time.


At the complete other end of the spectrum from the Willis family was my family.  Our family lived further out in the country, and although we had Pace’s Grocery (the original convenience store) a trip to “town” was a big deal that my mom planned out and scheduled once every other week, on Saturday morning, while the bed sheets were drying on the clothesline.  My mom was the queen of making do with what she had when she was cooking, and because of that we had some unusual tasting dishes at times, but we rarely made sudden trips to the store, especially to stores who didn’t give Green Stamps. In the evenings after my dad arrived home from work, just after supper, he took off his boots which signaled the end of his day, after which he rarely left the house unless one of us boys was hurt badly enough to require stitches and then only if they couldn’t get find enough butterfly bandages to pull it together.

With that brief background into Libby’s and my families it should be easy to understand how foreign the actions of Rev. Willis appeared to me and yet how normal they appeared to Libby.  These differences helped cause one of the biggest fights that we had about, of all things, ice cream; and as usual when two stubborn people disagree on something, the source of the problem was soon forgotten as the conflict got bigger and bigger.

Just a few weeks following the return from our scuba diving, beach combing, month long honeymoon, Libby and I were sitting in our living room one evening when she said to me, “I just checked the freezer and we are out of ice cream”, I said, “Yea, I noticed that as well…”  Libby looked at me and said, “Will you run to the store and pick some up?”  I told Libby, “Sure, no problem, we’ll pick some up the next time we go to the store.”  Libby seemed to be getting more and more upset with me and said, “I don’t want to wait until the next time we go to the store, I want some ice cream now.”   Then she made some comments about it being my job, and about how her daddy would get it for her.  Words like spoiled and pig headed were batted back and forth between us as the argument grew.  Libby thought that getting ice cream would be a way to show how much I loved her and I decided that Libby was being selfish and completely irrational.  We were both stubborn and both wrong.

The intensity of the argument grew relative to its volume and we both said things for which we were ashamed, but the thing that neither of us realized at the time was that the first 21 years of our lives had far more influence over our current actions than the last two months of marriage and the marriage ceremony did not magically change that.

We eventually settled our argument or at least called a truce and because of that argument and few more after that, we learned a valuable lesson about the need to set some boundaries that had to be maintained regardless of the intensity of the argument, in addition we eventually decided on some “rules of engagement” for all future arguments:

  • No telling other friends or family about our disagreements in an attempt to get them on our side
  • No leaving the house  (we would, however, go to separate rooms to cool off)
  • No threats of “going home to mom”
  • And finally the big one, no threats of divorce

Although it may sound foolish to some, we could now argue with a measure of security because we had boundaries and with that framework in place, along with time and some much needed maturity for both of us, our arguments became less and less frequent and much less intense than the legendary Ice Cream Fight.

Our Honeymoon, A Month of Sundays

During the summer of 1978, a full 12 months before Libby and I were to be married, I started planning for our honeymoon. Libby and her family had spent a lot of time to make our wedding extraordinary and I wanted make our honeymoon a unique experience, something neither of us would ever forget, so as a part of that preparation I convinced Libby to take a scuba diving certification class with me at the local YMCA.  It was during that same time that I began researching the best scuba diving sites and eventually settled on John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida.  Writing to the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, I received dozens of brochures about lodging in the area and I finally settled on a quaint little Mom and Pop motel advertised as being within walking distance of the docks (of course I found out later that the island was so small everything was within walking distance).

After consulting my trusty Rand McNally Road Map I realized that 12 hours of driving was not the best way to start a leisurely honeymoon, so I needed to break up the drive and find a place to stay.  I called the Burns family (close family friends in central Florida) and asked about renting their cabin in New Smyrna Beach for a couple of nights,   Dot Burns told me that she had been meaning to call when she heard about our engagement and she offered to let us stay in their cabin for a week as her wedding gift to us and, if we had the time, we could rent the cabin for a $100 and stay an additional week when we finished diving in the Keys.  I quickly accepted her generous offer and I changed our reservations in Key Largo to accommodate our new schedule.

Because it was summer, the one commodity that we had in abundance was time.  Libby’s classes and my job were both on summer break, so we had plenty of time, money however, was a another matter.  In the fall Libby would be starting her junior year at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in pursuit of her teaching degree, leaving Mercer University and it’s generous academic scholarship behind, so besides car loans, a mortgage, utilities, taxes and insurance we added tuition to the debit side of my modest $11,000 salary at Olan Mills.  Looking back now, I should have been nervous about our finances but I was in love with this little girl:


Our friend’s New Smyrna Beach cabin came compete with beach chairs, skim boards, floats and surfboards, in addition they had generously stocked the refrigerator with food and homemade deserts, so we spent a lot of time on the beach lying in the sun, surfing, walking, floating, eating and just relaxing. It was a great time for us both to slow down after the stress of the wedding and with no schedule agenda, the timing could not have been better.


I had prepaid the motel and cabin bill several months before we left and we had budgeted $500 for the rest of our honeymoon expenses such as gas, food, diving, sightseeing and any other expenses.  Libby was always the more detail oriented person in our relationship, so it just made sense that she would be in charge of the budget and she enjoyed carefully recording every expense in a daily planner.  The first chink in the armor of our budget happened in the Everglades when our car battery went dead and we had to buy a set of jumper cables for $24 at a convenience store, putting a strain on our already tight budget.  Determined not to have credit card debt, we decided to eat out less and buy some bread and cold cuts instead.  As I type these words, I realize how ridiculous a $24 overrun sounds now, but at the time it was a strain on our budget and in turn on our young relationship because it meant that we may have to go home early.

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At the end of our first week in New Smyrna Beach we drove south to Key Largo and began our week of scuba diving.  Libby and I made two to four dives a day and depending on the amount of energy exerted and depth of each dive, our compressed air tanks would last just under one hour (longer if you held your breath, which Libby did often when she got nervous or excited) We experienced coral reefs, amazing fish species and so many shipwrecks that a monument called Christ of the Abyss was erected in memory of the sailors who lost their lives.


Being in the open ocean 50 feet below the surface, Libby was uncomfortable during the first few dives, but she soon became more accustomed to her surroundings and eventually even wrote a note to me on her slate writing tablet telling me to take a picture of her and she would point to the scenery.  She may look calm in the picture below but as soon as I snapped the image with my underwater camera she immediately began turning her head back and forth holding her breath and looking for Jaws.


It didn’t help to ease Libby’s fears when, on our very next dive, Libby saw a school of barracuda, some of them 6 feet long. Remembering the warnings that our dive master had given during our training classes, she knew that barracuda were attracted to shiny objects and have been known to mistakenly bite off the fingers of divers in an attempt to get their bright shiny rings, Libby tried warning me about the intruders by pointing toward them with her head using an awkward jerking motion pushing her head in the direction of the barracuda.  She was afraid to point with her finger, in fact she tried covering her rings with her other hand, afraid that the barracuda would take her engagement ring, wedding band and the finger within. Eventually the barracuda lost interest in us and went on their way, but now Libby had several more reasons to keep her head on a swivel while in the open ocean.

Following our week of diving in the Florida Keys we returned for another week to New Smyrna Beach to begin our final week in the cabin.  Libby found out during our first week on the beach that she absolutely loved playing skee ball in the arcade across from our cabin and on the way back to the beach Libby confessed, “I think I’m addicted to skee ball, I spent way too much money the last time we were here”.  I laughed and said, “That’s silly, how could anybody be addicted to skee ball, besides, at 10 cents per game, how much money could you possibly have spent?”  Libby dropped her head sheepishly looking out of the corner of eyes she quietly said.  “Over thirty dollars the first time we were here”.

Some intense discussion followed (OK, it was a fight)  in which we discussed our budget, jumper cables, mortgage and tuition.  Again, the amount of money was petty by today’s standards but at the time we were, once again, back to bologna sandwiches.  As we crossed over the inter coastal waterway on our way back to New Smyrna Beach we had less than $150 to spend, so we mutually decided that one dollar per day should be enough to satisfy Libby’s skee ball compulsions and still leave enough gas money for us to get home even if we could sell the giant panda that she “won” with her skee ball tickets.

Libby and I enjoyed the third week of our honeymoon back on the beach and during that time we were invited to spend another week back at the our friends home in central part of Florida, we told them our money predicament and they said it wouldn’t cost us anything since they had a spare bedroom and we could eat with them.

Our fourth week in Florida was spent relaxing with great friends who took us around to local sites, fed us, put us up in their home and let us use their three wheelers to explore the local fields and swamps.

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Soon after celebrating July 4th with our friends in Florida we decided to take I-75 North back to our little house in Flintstone, GA.  After more than a month in Florida and only minor disagreements about money and skee ball, we were about to learn what people meant by the term, “The honeymoon is over”.