Greg and Mary’s Story
I had lost my wife to brain cancer a little over a year before my sister introduced me to Mary. I wasn’t looking to light up anyone’s life or even their night. I was looking for companionship pure and simple, someone I could take to dinner and a movie who enjoyed good conversation. Someone who could travel with me from time to time. They didn’t necessarily need to be pretty, although that would be a plus.
During my wife’s illness I had learned to love unconditionally, exuberantly, holding nothing back. Oh, to love that way again! [google Nancy Justice, 60 Minutes followed our journey after she was accepted into a cutting edge study at Duke University using a modified Polio Virus to fight the cancer] But less than 2 months after she passed, I was diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. It’s a long story what happened after that, but the bottom line is I didn’t want to drag anyone through a prolonged illness that wasn’t going to end well. I was and still am in remission but that could change at any time. Only 4 out of 100 survive the disease 5 years.
That first night at my sister’s house when she introduced us, Mary and I communicated honestly, from the heart.
She told me how she had come to the states in April of 2001 with her husband and 4 children from Venezuela. She told me how damaged she was after her marriage and how it had taken years for her to recover. But recover she did through prayer, the support of friends, and Christian counseling. It had been seven years since she broke it off with her ex-husband and she hadn’t had a single date since. But God had promised her a husband and she had friends who prophesied that he was just around the corner. She was waiting in eager expectation to see what God had in store.
I told her how God had been right there with my family through my wife’s 4-and-a-half year illness and how He had blessed our family through it. We had lived deeper more meaningful lives than ever before. I also told her about being diagnosed with cancer, and although I was in remission now that I didn’t intend to fan a romantic relationship and bring it to the point where someone suffered as they watched my slow demise as cancer ravaged my body. I told her I am not a statistic but chances are I wouldn’t be around long term, only 4 out of 100 in my particular circumstance make it five years and I was into this over a year already. But I intended to live life to its fullest in the meantime. I wanted to travel like I had the last few months after retiring from the job I had held for 30 yrs. I wanted someone who could break loose and travel with me. But I was not looking to fall in love. I was not looking for sex. I didn’t want anything that would hinder the testimony of God’s goodness all the time, even when, especially when, facing the kind of adversity my family had.
But, I added, perhaps I could be an interim step, someone to show her that there are good guys out there to get her ready for that guy God had promised.
“Well, then, you’re probably not for me. God told me nothing about an interim step,” she said matter of fact, without a hint of apology or disappointment in her voice.
Wow, shot down by I God, I thought. I sensed she had a golden heart, and she was exceptionally beautiful. Long jet black hair, dark brown eyes, a strong, clean jaw line and great legs, shapely hips hidden partially by the smock she wore. I imagined she had a slim waistline and other things better not mentioned here.
That first night I realized Mary was definitely someone I would pursue if circumstance had been different. We had agreed to go out for coffee or a movie or something when I came back to Florida from my home in Valdosta, Georgia. But with all the other things she had shared with me, I doubted she would do it.
Indeed, she did blow me off at first, but as I pulled into my parent’s driveway in Davenport, Florida, on my return visit, I received a text from Mary.
“You are in my heart, I am praying and trusting God; for his timing is perfect. Be blessed, Greg,” she wrote.
I texted back and after going back and forth we eventually agreed to go to Disney Springs that evening.
Disney Springs is comprised of 120 acres of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, museums, bars, and other attractions that sit on the south shore of Lake Buena Vista, which itself spans over three square miles.
Mary picked out the dialect and accents of several South and Central American countries as we walked around the lake looking for a restaurant that struck our fancy. On any given night people from all over the world get their party on at Disney Springs.
Considering the prodigious number of restaurants, it would take several nights just to check them all out. We finally settled on Bongos, Gloria Estefan’s Cuban restaurant. As we waited to be seated, Mary stood in place doing a muted version of the Salsa. At one point I almost lost my breath as I watched her shaking her hips as she dipped a bit. It appeared she had extraordinary rhythm and from the looks of it liked to dance almost as much as I. We sat inside for a while enjoying the entertainment, a Cuban band with several sets of dancers. But the band was loud and it was difficult to hear one another. We moved to a quieter table on the veranda overlooking the lake.
We talked nonstop for way over an hour. Who knows for sure how long, but looking back, considering everything we talked about, it must have been a long, long time. If we had a question we asked it without reservation and answered without embarrassment. It seemed I had met the one person in the world who matched me in transparency. It was getting late and the bands that played around the lake on weekends would soon be wrapping it up. I suggested we take a stroll and check them out.
The first entertainment we encountered was two guys playing country music. I wish I could remember their names but it’s lost to me now and probably lost forever. One played the guitar and sang while the other backed him up with percussion. As we approached the wall surrounding the band, a couple left and we were able to slide in and sit. There was a lot of sound coming from those two guys and everyone reveled in the Thomas Rhett and Jason Aldean songs they played. It surprised me no one was dancing although everyone was tapping their feet and grooving to the music. After a minute Mary and I were bumping shoulders and swaying as well. Sometimes when I dance with someone new, I will watch them move for a few seconds so I can catch their beat and better match their moves. I learned Mary’s beat sitting on the wall.
The songs the two young entertainers played were done well and were tremendously upbeat. After a few songs, I couldn’t keep from dancing any less than I could voluntarily stop my heart from beating. I stood and took Mary by the hand.
“What about my purse,” she protested.
Even though everyone was still intensely into the music, no one yet was dancing. Must I stand there holding Mary’s hand and dance alone? There were two, little old ladies standing behind Mary who no one would ever worry about running off with their valuables. I took Mary’s purse and handed it to one of the ladies asking if she would hold it for us.
“Sure, honey,” she answered.
We danced three songs, learning each other’s bodies and moves better with each beat. By the second song we were moving as one. By the third song we were oblivious to everyone and everything around us except the music which had become our universe.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but our future was fixed in those minutes we first danced.
After we sat down and I turned to retrieve Mary’s purse, the lady gave me a high five.
“Our first date,” I told her.
She gave me a big smile and a fist bump, “You’re killin’ it!” she declared.
Mary and I checked out another couple bands. Surprisingly, we were the only ones we saw dancing together all night long.
I’m pretty confident that date was among the very best ever in the history of the world.
That was on July 15th. We were married 3 months later. That was after we had gone through family counseling with my sons who needed some time to adjust to the thought of me marrying Mary so soon, especially considering all the family had been through.
During this time I also made sure Mary was going into the relationship with eyes wide open concerning my health issues. I had her meet with my oncologist and a counselor at the hospital where I still receive an infusion of Opdivo bi-weekly, a drug that will hopefully keep the cancer at bay. They held nothing back from Mary and showed great optimism about our relationship.
Besides, Mary says I’m healed. God told her so. There’s a lot more to that story, but suffice it to say I’m living as if I am healed. We’re living fearlessly as if every day is our last. I’ve never been happier. Mary feels the same.
So happy in fact, that we couldn’t wait to celebrate Valentine’s Day. So we did it a day early. We returned to Disney Springs hoping this date would be as magical as the first.
Mary likes to fish as much as I do so the canoe has become an almost permanent fixture on the Sequoia. We parked in the lot for oversized vehicles because of the clearance instead of in one of the parking garages. The canoe on top of the Sequoia works as a homing beacon and makes it so much easier to find when we park in huge, unfamiliar parking lots.
We were both giddy as we sauntered through the entrance to Disney Springs. Mary speaks perfect English but with a lilting, Venezuelan accent, and when she’s very happy her laugh takes on a delightful, babbling brook quality. Her mood was contagious.
When do you stop being newlyweds? We have been married 4 months and we still walk holding hands, often with her leaning into my shoulder and occasionally reaching over to kiss my ear. The suction and resulting smack of the kiss makes my ear ring. I shrug my shoulder and turn my face to kiss her whenever she does it.
We entered on the West end of the Disney Springs complex by Cirque du Soleil. We were determined to walk the entire breadth of Disney Springs before settling on a restaurant for dinner. The place is immaculate and pedestrian traffic well laid out. Security was ever present yet unobtrusive.
People are here literally from every corner of the earth. Again, Mary picks out accents from several Central and South American countries. Occasionally a family will pipe in with what we imagine is an accent from central Europe. The Far East is also well represented. And when you least expect it, you hear an exotic looking person speak to their friend in perfect English with a Mid-Western accent. You can’t tell by the way guests dress whether they saved for years for the trip or are well to do and did it on a whim.
The West end of Disney Springs has mostly larger restaurants and entertainment venues. There is a long line of people waiting to enter the House of Blues. They must have a great band and we’re tempted to check it out but decide to stick with the plan. Soon we come to Gloria Estefan’s restaurant which for us will always hold special significance. They don’t have live entertainment on this Tuesday night before Valentine’s Day.
Then we came to the place the 2 young entertainers played country music, where we danced that first night and ultimately fell in love. It surprised me that it looked so ordinary. We sat down in the same place as that first night. After a time we began to sway recalling the music. Lost in thought, I remembered how we fell in love as we danced. I muse that there should be a plaque that commemorates what happened here. It would read, “This is where Greg Justice and Mary Alcocer began their great love affair.”
We walked on around the lake and stopped in several shops in the Market Place area. The prices were surprisingly reasonable and most stores had several racks with clothes on sale.
I tried to buy Mary something in the Columbia store but she said she had everything she needed. Can you imagine how blessed I felt after I found how much she enjoys hearing my stories, likes to hunt and fish, and doesn’t care for shopping? Add to that the fact that she’s an extraordinary dancer and a couple other things I won’t mention here. God must love me a lot to send her my way!
As light began to fade we decide to pick a restaurant on the lake where we could watch the conclusion of the sun set. As we approached the Boathouse restaurant we saw a band setting up. I asked the young gentleman setting up the keyboards what type of music they played.
“Bluegrass/country for the most part,” he said. Like just about everybody associated with Disney, he was friendly and very likable. He reminded me a little bit of Charley Brown all grown up but with red hair and thick rimmed, old school eye glasses. We would return we promised.
We found an open table on the dock at the Boathouse Restaurant which is first come first serve so there was no wait. I ordered the middle neck clams which came in a garlic wine sauce, the mussels in a tomato base sauce, truffle fries, and a Caesar Salad for Mary and a garden salad for me. We settled on a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Grigio. It was a delightful wine, bright, with grapefruit undertones like all good Pinot Grigios.
The food was great, the service just as good, and as usual the conversation was deep and uplifting. We knew we were missing the band’s first set as we sat there talking, but the band would be playing until 9:30 so we would get to catch at least 2 of their sets.
As it worked out we caught the last song of the first set. As we waited for Mighty Swell to begin the 2nd set, we decided to check if there was other live entertainment nearby.
At the very first restaurant we came to there was a slim, mid-30ish looking man singing Latin music. I may not speak the language well but I can dance it. Most of the time I need to watch Mary for a few seconds for it to kick in, but once I get going I’m fluent.
“Is he singing or pantomiming?” Mary asked. “Watch his steps. He’s a great dancer but his vocals are almost too good to be true.”
Like that first night at Disney Springs, no one was dancing. As the beat of the music built up in my bones and my tendons reached the twanging level I told Mary I needed a drink.
“You’re driving home tonight,” I said and ordered a double Jack Daniels neat.
The Latin singer went on break before my drink came. After the music stopped the pressure decreased enough that I didn’t really need the alcohol but I guzzled it in one fell swoop anyway.
“Why do you drink your bourbon that way?” Mary asked.
“Because it hurts too good to drink slowly,” I answered. Then I shivered and exclaimed, ”Ahhh, that’s good!”
As we took the short walk back to Mighty Swell, who were tuning up for the next set, I asked Mary, “How do people listen to these remarkable musicians and not dance?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, as we walked down the steps to the level where the band was performing. “I guess some of them are from cultures where they just don’t do that sort of thing. Others are intimidated to dance in front of strangers, especially in a place like this.” And then she added, “Really, I don’t understand it either. But I’ll dance with you anyplace, Baby.”
As we came off the last step Mighty Swell broke into a lively country song. I can’t remember exactly what the song was except that it was a good one. I grabbed Mary’s hand and gave her a twirl and we danced like we made love that first time, after weeks and weeks of our passion building.
After the song we were satiated but not quite satisfied. We were able to refrain from dancing again, until near the end of the last set, when we couldn’t contain ourselves and cut loose one last time.
Mighty Swell consisted of 3 musicians, a keyboard player, and a violin or perhaps better referred to as fiddle player considering the genre of music they performed, and the lead singer/guitar player.
The keyboard player was reminiscent of a cool version of a redheaded Charlie Brown, the guitarist who reminded me of a 30ish version of Opey, or perhaps more like the young version of Ron Howard right before he became an equally famous director, and the fiddle player who reminded me of a slimmed down version of Tom Selleck before he grew the mustache, were all friendly and drew the audience in with their folksy, southern charm.
As they readied to tear down we took pictures and chatted with them briefly. I got one of their cards and promised I would send them what I wrote about this evening if I ever got around to using it in a story.
We headed toward the AMC 24 Theatre. Hostiles and Molly’s Game was playing at 9:30 and 10:00. I couldn’t remember which one was playing first but it really didn’t matter because I wanted to see them both. We were a little late for the 9:30 showing, but if we hurried we were early enough to catch the trailers before whichever movie showed at 10:00 PM. The entrance to the theatre closest to us was adjacent to Splitsville, a luxury bowling lane/upscale dining and bar establishment with live entertainment.
We couldn’t help but check out the band that played by the outdoor bar at Splitsville, just across from the entrance from the theatre. “Just for a minute,” I told Mary.
The lead singer was a big man and his voice was solid, true, strong, and… well it was just plain beautiful. An unexpected delight. The Steve Hogie band consisted of Steve Hagopian and Keith Wilkinson. It was Steve’s voice that hooked us but it was Keith Wilkinson’s virtuoso picking the 6 string that kept us there.
Mary and I held on for “just one more song” until we were hopelessly late for the movie. Finally we settled in and ordered drinks and enjoyed the band until their very last song.
The members of Mighty Swell were down to earth and folksy, the kind of guys you would hope your kids hung out with or who you would be glad to have as next door neighbors. Steve and Keith from the Steve Hoagie Band appeared to be New Englanders through and through. Not the kind of guys who waved at every single car they passed driving into the neighborhood.
We sat at the table nearest the band but by the corner. When we couldn’t hold back any longer it was only a couple steps around the corner to where we could dance out of the sight of the band and most of the patrons in the bar.
In my imagination the Steve Hogie Band felt no need to be overtly friendly. They were so good at what they did, there was no need to suck up to the audience. They grabbed them by the “cojones” with their music and wouldn’t let go.
No one seems to do encores at Disney Springs. Disappointed that the band wrapped up, Mary and I bowled 5 or 6 frames in the Splitsville bowling lanes before they closed the bowling alley. Our first time bowling was a blast, albeit brief. We had found one more activity we can mutually, immensely enjoy.
It was way past midnight when I parked the car in front of my parent’s home. I turned up the radio and we danced for an hour in the driveway before going inside. And it was a couple hours after we had gone inside, before we ultimately fell asleep in each other’s arms, finally satiated and satisfied.
Mary and I don’t know exactly what the future holds for us. We are sure, however, that whatever it is, God will be right there with us. We have finally learned to be thankful in all things in our old age. We choose to love each other just the way we are. Words can’t express the entirety of our love for each other. And that makes for a very grand life, indeed.