Many years ago, I was working at my desk in my Corona del Mar home when I got a telephone call from a gruff voice telling me that my wife had been injured in an auto accident and was on her way to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian. And that I had better get to the emergency room. Pronto.
Janet had left the house in our only car on an errand 15 minutes earlier. When I rushed next door shouting "I've got to borrow your car," our neighbor — and good friend — took one look at me and silently handed over her keys. There was a single outlet from our neighborhood to Coast Highway, and cars were backed up there. I could see my car in the distant intersection with the driver's door open, the door behind it smashed. And in the street, neatly positioned side by side, were Janet's shoes.
I got a police escort through the intersection traffic and made it to the emergency room in 10 minutes. There I found cuts and abrasions, but no broken bones or lethal damage. But my thoughts — and yes, my prayers — during those 10 minutes ended up as the lead story with my byline in the Reader's Digest of September 1964. I know the date because I just finished reading it for the first time in many years.
I sought it out because today I'm sitting at another desk in another house, waiting for word from my two daughters about their mother's and my former wife's condition as Janet approaches her 90th birthday. I'm discovering that the words I wrote so long ago still continue to define the lifetime of good living packed into the 33 years that we shared before our lives took different directions.
So here's a patch of what I wrote — and what I remember — about that 10-minute race to the Hoag ER:
"The evidence was so vivid that I found myself contemplating — against my will — a life without her. For the first time I saw myself clearly as the completely permissive parent I was, and I realized that Janet was the iron in our family.
"This wisp of a girl, who could wear slacks or cocktail dresses with equal elan, who frequently skipped when she walked down the street — she was the one who made the tough decisions in our family, then made them stick.
"There was money in the bank for David's college education because she had seen to it that the money got there — and stayed there. And Debby could play our house organ because Janet refused to let her stop taking lessons after I'd talked her into letting the two older children give up theirs. And Janet was the first to acknowledge Patt's declaration of independence just as we were loading the car to return to California after a summer in Indiana.
"She made such decisions easy for me. With only a high school diploma, she was far better educated than most college graduates by dint of her voracious reading and consummate curiosity.
"She said to me 'Why don't you quit?' — when I was eating my heart out at a job I hated. And who allowed me to use our last savings to go to New York to see the original cast of 'My Fair Lady' perform. These decisions at a time when we had three small children to feed and clothe and turning away from a steady job would have been unthinkable in most households.
"A cascade of flashes rippled through my mind, like moving days when she worked for hours along with the moving men, then somehow managed to put together a meal for a family that expected it as a matter of course. Or the night she wept when she discovered she was a year older than me. Or her insistence that she didn't care who won our family softball games — she was the pitcher for my team — all the while fighting like a tiger for every base hit and out."
So it went many years ago. And so it goes today. Sitting at my desk and waiting and remembering, a poem by Robert Browning comes to mind:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life
For which the first was made.
Maybe so. Maybe Janet can skip through this crisis. Or maybe the pair of shoes I still see in my mind's eye lined up carefully on the street will finally disappear, off on their own journey. Maybe that's what Browning had in mind. We must wait and see.
Note: Janet Hartman Bell picked up her shoes at 5 a.m. on Wednesday.
Editor's note: The staff of the Daily Pilot offers Joe and his family our condolences.
JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.