These sorts of affairs were always the same. Big philanthropy ball, some old man we’re honoring, and tiny cocktail appetizers that actually make you hungrier. Needless to say, I wasn’t a huge fan. The lights were blinding and the whole scene reeked of pretentiousness. If it was a “feed the hungry” campaign I wouldn’t have minded, but it wasn’t anything that noble. Just a bunch of stuffed shirts trying to be seen at a charity ball.
The only reason I was there was that my editor thought it would make a great story for the local news section. I thought differently, so he thought for the both of us, and there I was at the ball. I pulled a plastic smile out of my coat pocket and wore it around like a professional, but no one was worth talking to in my admittedly jaded perception. I had a few drinks and rolled my eyes when they announced that there were going to be some speeches. All of the others clapped politely and tried their best to remember the name of the charity they were supposedly so invested in. It wasn’t a bad cause, it just wasn’t that great either. It bugged me.
Some silver-haired ken doll made a criminally long introduction and managed to say his own name eight times. I counted. I jotted a few half-hearted notes and had a few more sips of bourbon at the bar.
Then the old man walked up to the front and took the stage. He was elderly, but vibrant. A little slow, and he held the microphone in the exact middle of his chest. I figured his speech would be more of the same, so I wasn’t holding my breath.
“Thank you all so much for coming here tonight,” he began, and then he smiled a little bit. “You all know how important this organization is to my wife, Isabella, and I. In fact,” he said, getting a wily look in his eye and leaning forward, “it’s our anniversary tonight and there’s a whole city full of romantic bistros we’d rather be at right now, but we’re stuck here with all of you people.”
The crowd chuckled politely at the old man’s ribbing.
“I’m not kidding, the second this thing ends, we’re out of here,” the old man continued with wide eyes, evoking a bigger laugh from the audience. He allowed himself a wry smile at his wit, and I grinned too. Maybe this guy wasn’t going to be all bad.
I set down my glass and listened as he got into his speech. I wasn’t expecting much, even then, but I’ll never forget what he said.
“In all seriousness,” he continued, still holding that microphone in the dead center of his chest, “I want to thank you all for the award that you’ve given to me tonight, but at least half of it belongs to my Isabella. She loves this work as much as I do and has had a hand in it from the beginning.” The old man reached up and scratched the top of his head. “So if you’ll permit me, since it is our anniversary, I have a few words I’d like to say about her.”
I’ve heard the routine before. Cynical as I am, when it comes to women I’m something of a romantic. I knew the drill; tell her she’s the air you breathe. Tell her you’d die without her, tell her you’re nothing without her, that you couldn’t get out of bed in the morning if you didn’t know she was there. I liked hearing that sort of thing. A little bit of real emotion might even break up the sea of posers around me, I thought.
He didn’t say those things.
“Isabella, my dear, I love you. You’ve added immeasurably to my happiness in life, and you’ve helped me with this foundation more than I can thank you for. You’re beautiful and hard-working and I’ve never regretted choosing you for a moment.” I got my pen ready to quote the loveable geezer. He was getting ready to tell everyone how hopeless life would be without his better half.
I looked up from my pad of paper with a slight smile, but I saw a seriousness in the old man’s eye. He held that microphone clutched to his chest and he stared intently at one point in the crowd, clearly at his wife.
“I would be telling a lie if I said I couldn’t have done this alone, my love, but it was more fun with you. It was better with you and more enjoyable. People have said that they can’t walk through life without their partner.” The old man shook his head. “I could. Even now I would be able to walk if you were taken from me. I’d grieve like the dickens and, Isabella, we’re old, we can talk about this sort of thing. If you were to be taken from me I’d be sadder than I’ve ever been, I know it, and in my selfish heart I pray that God takes me first if he can’t take us at the same moment. But if you were gone, Isabella, my love, I could still run this organization, I could still function. I could still walk.” The old man reached up and scratched his head once more, pausing only a brief moment, but already the crowd was on edge. Heck, I was on edge. He didn’t slow down.
“I could still walk, but it would hurt, and I would have a noticeable limp. I don’t love you because I’d fall apart without you, I love you because I love you, Isabella, and I can’t think of anything I like better than spending time with you. As we celebrate our 57th wedding anniversary later on tonight, I want to tell you that I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I hope that the time we have left together is as wonderful as the last 57 years have been. I love you, Isabella. I love you.”
The crowd was almost too stunned to respond, but someone managed to awkwardly clap so everyone else snapped out of it and joined in. The old man looked intently at his old wife, his eyes alive and his lips trembling. He still held that microphone in the middle of his chest, like it was glued to that spot.
He kept talking after that. I don’t remember what he said. He talked about the charity or something or other, and then he finished and the night went on like you’d expect. I never forgot what he said, though. It caught me off-guard. I felt like it was so opposite my idea of romance, and yet it was so beautiful. You’re supposed to tell the girl that she’s your soul, your life, your idol, the blood running through your veins, but he didn’t. He said that he was capable of living without her, but no one in that room could have doubted that he loved his wife.
I still lay up thinking about it sometimes.