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May 25, 2022

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Valentine’s Day tales of love, courage, special bonds from Clark County

Columbian readers share experiences of joy, wisdom, heartbreak

By , Columbian staff writer
2 Photos
Courtesy Jennife Nilsson 
 After her fiancEe died, Jennifer Nilsson went on a 500-mile pilgrimage in Spain. The journey not only helped her heal, it prompted her to move from Chicago back to her hometown - Vancouver.
Courtesy Jennife Nilsson After her fiancEe died, Jennifer Nilsson went on a 500-mile pilgrimage in Spain. The journey not only helped her heal, it prompted her to move from Chicago back to her hometown - Vancouver. Photo Gallery

Love is a lifeline. It’s what we humans always seem to need, and always revel in finding. But it’s no picnic.

We challenged fans of “Everybody Has a Story,” our weekly column featuring true tales by Columbian readers, to supply a special Valentine edition’s worth of love stories. The responses that swamped our inbox are fascinating and delightful — and tough. Many underline the passage of time, the losses that accrue and our unending quest to keep our hearts connected, despite life’s very hardest knocks.

Other stories, we’re glad to say, are simply a Valentine hoot. We got swamped by so many great stories, we couldn’t squeeze them all in here today — so we’ll intersperse them with other, non-Valentine tales over the coming weeks.

We wish you a little serious reflection, and a lot of joy and hope, as you read your neighbors’ love stories. Never forget, Columbian readers: We love you!

Walking away, going home

My fiancé was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day. That was two years ago, but I still think of the day as “Diagnosis Day.” A day when everything about our lives changed. A day that foreshadowed the darkest day that I would ever know when, just four months later, Jeff took his last breath at the age of 40.

In the days following Jeff’s death, I wandered about our Chicago apartment, its shelves lined with his books and its balcony overlooking the park where we once shared bottles of wine and plates of cheese during outdoor concerts.

I couldn’t stay there. And, as it turned out, I couldn’t stay much of anywhere for long. I quit my job, packed a suitcase and traveled the world for 18 months through 22 countries, traversing 70,496 miles by way of 39 flights, 39 trains, nine buses, six cars, five ferries — and one very long walk. It was that very long walk that finally brought me home.

The Camino de Santiago is a 500-mile Christian pilgrimage that involves walking over an actual mountain range, from France all the way to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. If that sounds crazy to you, it’s because it is crazy.

At least that’s what I thought when I first heard about the Camino. At that time, I wasn’t religious, I didn’t even own a backpack and I hadn’t camped or hiked in double-digit years. Besides that, the idea of staying in bunk beds at the pilgrim hostels that line the route, called albergues, sounded horrifying. It’s safe to say that walking the Camino was not at the top of my bucket list.

What was on my list? Reading all 407 books that Jeff left on those bookshelves in Chicago. I was in Indonesia when I picked up one of those books, a work by Paulo Coelho called “The Pilgrimage.” As I thumbed through its pages about finding inner peace while walking the Camino de Santiago, I felt called.

Before I knew it, I was strapping on a borrowed backpack and setting out for Santiago on a hike that led me through four regions of Spain over 35 days of walking 12 to 22 miles per day. Yes, I slept in bunk beds.

The first 10 days were excruciating. I had to leave my right boot untied to relieve the pressure on my aching Achilles heel, and developed multiple blisters between and beneath my toes. I spent more money at the pharmacy than I did on my lodging.

But then the pain faded into background noise, replaced by the muted, meditative sound of walking sticks against paths cushioned by fallen leaves, carved over the centuries by the footsteps of the pilgrims who walked before me. As I turned inland, away from jaw-dropping coastline views and toward mountainous, windswept ascents dotted with wild horses, my mind adjusted to the scenery. Even the extreme beauty became a backdrop.

I didn’t have to think about directions since the Camino de Santiago is marked with yellow arrows painted by local volunteers onto fences, trees and buildings all along the way. And with everything I needed for 35 days strapped to my back, life was simplified.

Suddenly, answers to the complicated questions I had been mulling about life and love, and whether I deserved either, seemed clear. Questions about where I belonged seemed obvious. Somewhere between the autonomous regions of Asturias and Galicia, I decided that it was time to go home. Not home to Chicago, where I had lived for the better part of the 20 years, but home to where I grew up and to where my family still lives: Vancouver. 

The grief fog lifted and I was able to see all I had gained from my short time with Jeff, rather than focusing on all I had lost when I lost him. I saw that life is too short to be apart from our loved ones for long. And somewhere within me, I felt that I would love again. I could accept the risk of losing my partner because every bit of the pain is worth the love in the end.

These realizations were as momentous for me as the moment when I finally reached the end of the pilgrimage, and sat speechless in the courtyard of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

I don’t know when I will fall in love again, but I do know that walking the Camino de Santiago gave me the courage to come home and to take the first steps down a new path.

— Jennifer (Doolittle) Nilsson, Landover Sharmel 

Not recommended

Forty years ago I literally jumped into a stranger’s car and instantly knew we would marry. Not that I recommend anyone do this to find love, but we were meant to be.

I was talked into going to Wintler Park one evening and noticed a cute guy in a hot 1970 Torino. I was bet that I wouldn’t go get in his car. When he leaned over to roll down the window, I said, “Just unlock the door.” I jumped in and we talked for a while. I knew his name was Pat, he had a job, a nice car — and that I would marry him.

For two weeks I drove up and down every neighborhood street looking for his car. Found it! Pat’s mother answered the door and said, “Ah, you must be Traci?” Butterflies!

I found out later that within those two weeks, Pat drove not only straight from Disneyland to Vancouver, but while doing so accidentally drove straight through a rest stop at 60 mph thinking he was still on the freeway. Family says he wanted to get home to find me.

Pat told me the only other girl he ever kissed was named Traci, and at Wintler Park! The right place, the wrong Traci!

— Traci M. Hymas, Marrion

Back porch action

I met Barry in summer 2010 in a dementia caregivers’ support group. It was a small group that met once a week at a memory care facility. Barry’s wife and my husband both had Alzheimer’s.

My husband passed away in February 2011, but I continued going to the group and the memory care facility to help out. Every Friday evening, six of us had a happy hour with snacks, plus wine for the caregivers and grape juice for the residents. But it became evident that the residents were not doing well with this arrangement — the noise would agitate them and cause confusion. We decided the best thing to do was meet at one another’s homes.

The first time we did this we had a great meal and drinks, and were like kids on spring break. That’s where I first fell for Barry. We were on the back deck getting some air and talking when all of a sudden he kissed me. Wow, that was it.

I was attempting to put a new sink in my guest bathroom and needed to turn the water off. I couldn’t do it so I called Barry, who had said to call him if I needed anything.

He was there shortly, turned off the water and installed the new sink. I invited him over a few days later for drinks and snacks to show him my appreciation. We sat on my patio and it seemed that we just didn’t want to stop talking, so he took me out to dinner. After that we talked on the phone regularly and he would take me out to dinner and movies. We just seemed to be a perfect match.

I never dreamed of ever falling in love again, especially at my age and what I had gone through caring for my husband. Barry and I were married in March 2016. One never knows how life will turn out, even when you’re older.

—Darlene Peterson, Fairway Village

Flickering flame

So you dare to wonder about meeting up with your old high school flame! Me too, but I actually did it!

We had both been married twice, and our last mates had both passed. We spoke by phone for about a year’s time, then decided to meet in Palm Springs.

You find yourself not being sure how much enthusiasm to put into your greeting. And you find yourself looking to find bits and pieces of that former flame in the face of this aged person you are greeting — all the while watching for signs of disappointment or disapproval on their part.

Our meeting was comfortable and familiar. He drove me around town, showing me the sights. Conversation never stopped and covered many a shared memory. We looked for his grandparents’ old homestead. They had been part of the growth of this popular tourist destination, having built a long-surviving golf course there.

As luck would have it, we got to tour the course and even his grandparents’ old house, now serving as a clubhouse. Photos of his parents were even on the walls. There was a flood of memories for him of his childhood and his family, including his summers spent raking rattlers out of sand traps.

We headed back to the hotel with him full of tousled memories of life, both good and sorrowful. His late wife had died of cancer only about a year prior, with him as her devoted and loving caregiver. So it was no real surprise when he sadly looked at me and said, “I can’t do this.” He wasn’t ready to give himself to a new relationship. It was hard for me to look beyond what I wanted out of this reunion and see that in him.

He apologized sincerely, but I told him it showed how deeply he had loved his late wife and how blessed she was. I guess I will always wish I had been her, and known that kind of love in this admirable man.

—Jean Stammet, Landover-Sharmel

Long love

I wear an eagle pendant around my neck. It is the last gift my husband gave me. He often told me and others that I was the wind beneath his wings. The eagle wings were the best illustration of “his wings” that he found on a 2016 Christmas shopping trip.

Our love story began when my family moved into the neighborhood where his family lived. I was 11 and he was 13. We became special friends. At 17 and 19 we fell in love. At 18 and 20 we were married. And we stayed that way until we were 79 and 81. That is 61 years of marriage and better than average, according to my husband, who died in 2017.

—Beverly Olson, Hazel Dell    

Cosmic bond

My heart broke when realizing my beloved girl, Aspen, an Australian shepherd, was succumbing to the tumor in her lung. She was 10 and an inheritance from my beloved partner, who died unexpectedly a Christmas before. Aspen and I made it through his death together. We took the steps through grief with each other. How could a bond like that not be enough for the universe, or God, or the energy that envelops us all, to realize we both needed more love, more time together?

I reluctantly made the call and the vet came. Aspen laid peacefully in my arms in our living room, where she and I had rebuilt ourselves slowly, ever so slowly, together. She looked up at me through my tears, and I knew she needed me to let her go. I kissed her and smoothed her fur while I thanked her for being my girl. Thanked her for all the kisses and snuggles. For letting me sob into her fur as we healed together.

I said she had someone waiting for her, and promised I would be strong and keep going. With that my beautiful girl took her last breath. Peacefully, surrounded by the love in this world and the world beyond, she let me go and I let her go.

She’s around me still, showing love in every new dog I meet.

—Jennifer Eckels, Venersborg

Bus-ted in love

Riding the bus to and from work is a joy. Actually, not so much. But random encounters between riders can lead to unexpected, lifelong relationships.

My daily trips back and forth between the Barber Transit Center and downtown Portland were routine and often annoying, mainly due to rude and less-than-hygienically acceptable people. I really hated their perp walk to find seats after I’d already found mine.

But one day, a lovely woman with a killer smile walked down the aisle and sat in front of me. It was difficult to concentrate on my reading material, so I just stared. That’s probably not appropriate to admit these days, but that’s what I did.

Each day I anticipated her arrival and it became obvious that she had noticed me also. We locked eyes and I always got that big smile of hers, but rarely was there an opportunity to sit next to each other. When we disembarked at the transit center, I noticed the car she drove, but didn’t have the nerve to approach her. I wasn’t sure if the attraction was mutual.

Valentine’s Day presented an opportunity. A nonthreatening, amusing card might do the trick, but how and when to deliver it? I had plans to be out of town Valentine’s weekend.

I decided to take the coward’s way out. Before leaving town I purchased a benign, pseudo-Valentine’s Day card and wrote a simple message. I also included my business card, which I hoped would ease her mind. (I worked as a civilian for the Portland Police Bureau.) I drove to the transit center and put the card on her windshield, confident this was a great idea and I would soon meet this lovely lady. 

Then I had second thoughts. This really seemed sophomoric and “unmanly.” I should just walk up to her and introduce myself. After all, we were both making goo-goo eyes at each other on the bus, so something was going on here. I drove back to the transit center, took the card off her windshield, went home and burned the card in the fireplace.

About an hour later, I regretted doing that. But what was my plan now? In retrospect, the original plan actually seemed pretty good.

I returned to the store and bought the same card again. There was only one left, which I took as a sign. I wrote the same message, inserted my business card, drove to the transit center and replaced the card on her windshield, barely in time to beat her arriving bus.

It was done. No more going back. I drove off for the weekend, worried that I had made a fool of myself. Oh well. Nothing ventured …

I returned to work Monday to a nice voicemail from my bus buddy with the killer smile. My card was a hit. We met for coffee and then for lunch and then, four years later, we married in a beautiful backyard ceremony with friends and family.

I’m so glad I decided (eventually) to trust my instincts. Turns out riding the bus really isn’t so bad.

—Scott Forbes, Harmony

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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