Calendars notwithstanding, to me all years are divided into three categories: good days, bad days, and days of pain. Fortunately, good days wildly dominate the others.
December 19th didn’t used to be that way, though. Today is my husband Gene’s birthday, and it used to be a fun day, all mixed up with the blizzard of Christmas activities that goes on in many large households like ours.
Gene Alan Ford was born on December 19, 1927. He was the youngest of three sons born to Patrick and Mabel Ford in Cedar Rapids Iowa.
All the Ford boys and all five of the kids in my family attended the same parochial school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. St. Patrick’s School included all grades, kindergarten through 12th. I was four years younger than Gene, and he didn’t remember me from that time. Instead, he was always convinced he didn’t meet me until Sister Lorenz “introduced” us at Mount Mercy College when I was 18.
Everybody called Gene “Jingles”. Nobody remembers why. The most likely theory is that it was because he always had at least one set of car keys jingling in his pocket. He loved anything on four wheels — old cars, new cars, stock cars, race cars. He worked in gas stations during high school. My mother-in-law Mabel told me of their fierce fights, because she wouldn’t sign a form giving him permission – he was then seventeen years old — to drive in official stock car races. She said she believed he was surreptitiously getting away with it anyway, but she would not grant him written approval!
Gene continued his love of driving all his life. One time while we were still living in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, he happened to be on a business trip during a running of the Indianapolis Memorial Day race. He scheduled a week to be there and managed to talk his way into being a member of the pit crew for one of the cars. The car didn’t win, but it didn’t matter. Working the Indy was something to treasure all his life, and he never missed watching that race on TV every year.
I always hoped we would die together in a single car accident. Married people who die at the same time are given a great gift from God, and I always thought how lucky it would be if Gene could be driving when it happened. I mean, if you have to die, at least it’d be nice to be doing something at the time that you enjoyed. Sometimes lately, I wonder how heartbreaking it would have been if he could never have driven again. Thank God for sparing him that. If there are cars in Heaven, I know he has one.
The car he’s pictured with above is his ’37 Plymouth he called “Lazarus”.
Gene worked as a control tower operator in the Navy Air Force. Every chance he could get, he’d go up in the planes and try to egg the pilots into letting him take the controls. He loved it. Anything on wheels or wings!
Three weeks or so before his surgery in 2005, a bird flew into our house. I later learned there’s an old wives’ tale that when a wild bird enters your house, death will follow. We hadn’t heard that at the time of his requiem Mass, but we found it ironic later that one of the songs daughter Teresa chose for the family to sing was “I’ll Fly Away.” And he did.
Gene enlisted in the Navy Air Force after he graduated from high school in June, 1945 and then the war ended two months later. He finished his two-year stint in the Navy and then went to college on the GI bill. It was when he was attending Catholic University of America that I “met” him.
He used to chauffeur a station wagon for Father Hartke, head of the Drama Department at Catholic University of America. Whenever he’d go home on break, Father would have him drive the car from Washington D.C. to Chicago and then on to Cedar Rapids, ferrying students along the way. That’s when Sister Lorenz got the idea that her student (me) needed a ride to my first session at Catholic University.
I guess I could write a book about the next 55 years of my life with him. His working career included working as a fundraiser for a New York based firm, a development director for Seattle University, a public relations consultant, and sales manager for Christian Brothers Wines. He retired from the latter at age 60 and commenced a prolific career as a writer in the science of healthy drinking of wines, brews, and spirits. His skills as a researcher and journalist helped influence the nation’s awakened recognition and interest in the so-called French Paradox of healthy drinking.
During the last seventeen years of his life, Gene wrote eight books and many articles, published a magazine for several years, and produced tapes and videos on the subject. In 2001, he was named “Wine Writer of the Year” by the Wine Appreciation Guild, and his book “The Science of Healthy Drinking” received an international award as Best Wine Literature of 2003.
Gene received a lot of awards in his time, but I’m convinced the prize he was proudest of was his family. All of our seven children and fourteen grandchildren treasured him as a world-class father and grandfather.
One of the qualities I will always remember most about him was his courage. Not just physical bravery, but the kind of moral courage I’ve always personally lacked. He lived according to down-to-earth principles, and he was never afraid to doggedly defend them. As a natural-born coward myself, I think this stubborn fearlessness was a quality that awed me — even when it sometimes made me absolutely frantic.
Typical of the unpopular causes Gene tackled was his campaign to convince the world that drinking (gasp) when done in moderation, might have beneficial health benefits for most people. During the 1970s and 80s, he was like a voice in the wilderness. Even those who agreed with him — even in the industry — were too embarrassed to publicly support his efforts. Moderate drinking was certainly being practiced, but it was definitely not respectable to point out its health benefits. In his magazines, books, speeches, and radio and TV interviews, Gene kept hammering away, reporting on every new research study as it was published. Slowly and incredibly, the tide turned, and his long and lonely crusade met with success, especially among physicians.
Before that happened though, one day after he came home from the hospital following prostate surgery, he insisted on fulfilling an appearance on a panel arguing the merits of responsible drinking on a Town Hall meeting on local television. The topic was still controversial and emotionally charged, and he was determined not to cancel his side of the argument.
He was too weak to drive to the studio, so I took him there. I think someone in the crew put make-up on him, but to me his complexion was ashen, and I was sick with worry that he might faint. As always though, his presentation was firm and persuasive. I sat in the audience watching and listening to him in dumb amazement. Only he and I knew that as he powerfully presented his case, he was wearing a diaper. I don’t think I was ever more proud of him. It just seemed like another day in the life of an everyday hero.
Another quality that amazed me was his optimism. Some of the ventures he produced ended in failure but rather than defeating him, I swear that his failures seemed to strengthen him, and they made his successes all the sweeter. I always wished I could do that. Fail at something and then twist the experience in such a way as to reap benefits from it.
As an example, when he was 28 years old, while a graduate student in political science at the University of Iowa, Gene ran in the primary for U.S. Representative from the 7th district in Iowa. It was a brash move, even for a young optimist, and, of course, he lost.
The experience somehow earned him the respect of the state’s Democratic politicians of the time, and the friendship of his opponent, Len Wolf. After the primary, Len was elected to the House of Representatives and whenever he had to travel and was in the Seattle area, he used to come visit us.
Gene and I were married for a long time. He was a kind and loving husband, a wise mentor, and my best friend. I didn’t deserve such good fortune, but I got it anyway. Whenever anyone asked me if I was angry that his life was torn from me, it made me wonder what God would think if I flailed at Him with “Yes, God, I know you allowed me 53 years and 8 months of the best years of my life, but what have You done for me lately?”
Gene was 77 years old when he died on June 10, 2005. He died during surgery at Virginia Mason Hospital as the result of a catastrophic reaction to a drug called protamine sulfate.
Before the operation, we poured over information on the Internet about the procedure. We were pretty well informed when the time for surgery came. Except for one thing. It never occurred to to us that Gene’s shellfish allergy might have affected the outcome. I only wish it had occurred to the doctors or hospital staff. I wish they had applied precautionary pre-treatment or alternative strategies to his care. I’ve never forgiven them for their failure to do so, and for their failure to help him make an informed consent to their use of the drug.
The morning of the operation, a nurse affixed an orange bracelet around Gene’s wrist. It read “SHELLFISH” in large black letters. As we watched her putting it on him, our daughter Lisa asked the nurse what it was for. She answered, “People with an allergy to shellfish can have adverse reactions to some of the drugs that might be used in surgery”. We will always have to wonder how she was apparently the only professional involved who knew that.
If you have read this far, you are aware that this is not your most joyous tidings of the day. I’m sorry about that, and it doesn’t get any better. Like I said, December 19th is not my best day.
On Gene’s birthday in 1970, all nine of us had just finished having his birthday supper, before he had to leave for a meeting at Seattle University. Our son Mark’s friend, Tommy Fawthrop, was picking him up to give him a ride to his Sea Scout skipper’s house. Mark was studying to complete his requirements for the Quartermaster Award in Sea Scouts (equivalent to Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts).
Unlike his dad and his younger brother Matthew, Mark had refused to learn to drive a car. He could never explain why, only that he would never do it. It always seemed to me that Gene must have been disappointed that Mark didn’t want to drive, so as he was leaving, I said to him, “Mark, for a birthday surprise, why don’t you tell Dad that you’re going to apply to get your driver’s license?”
He just looked at me, brushed me off with a grin, waved and left. Lisa and Susy went to Northgate to shop for Christmas presents. The rest of the kids went about their activities for the evening. I was washing dishes when the phone rang. Another friend of Mark’s – Bob Murphy – was on the line. “Mrs. Ford”, he said, his voice shaking, “Mark was hit by a car and he’s unconscious.”
Matthew and I ran to the car and he drove me the several blocks to the skipper Jim Matson’s house on Boyer Avenue. The ambulance was just preparing to take him to the hospital. As we rode to Group Health, I remember one of the EMT’s saying, “He’s not conscious but his vital signs are good”. I learned that Mark had gotten out of Tommy’s car and was running across the street when he was hit and was thrown almost two car lengths.
Two years later – on December 19th – Gene’s heart was broken yet again on his birthday His father Patrick Ford had come to visit us, had a stroke, and died on that day.
All this is why I’m never going to like today’s date. To me, December 19th can never again be one of the good days.
If you stuck it out reading through this overlong narrative, thank you for spending this time with me.