I think of you often, Don Bowling.

An excerpt from my travel journal, one year ago on Easter Sunday in Florence, Italy.  Reflecting on the goals I set and the progress I’ve made (not much) is more than a little depressing. I haven’t kept my promise to myself and Don (yet) but I’m not giving up.

Easter 2009

I have just met the man who changed my life. I pray I do not lose the passion and optimism I feel in this moment.  I pray.  Last night I prayed in a church.  After sitting for hours in a piazza, taking in the beauty of Italy, of Florence, I wandered into a church.  A tiny church on a tiny street, I now regret I do not remember the name.  I sat and prayed that I find what it is I am looking for, and to the extent I believe in prayers, they were answered.  I’ll never know whether it was God or fate, but I am at peace with not knowing.

Don found me as I purchased postcards on my way out of the most beautiful city I’ve ever known.  He asked me about the day’s events at the Duomo, it is Easter Sunday and there is a parade.  We connected over shared ties to San Francisco and a mutual love of Florence.  My first of what shall be many visits to the city and his return after saying “goodbye” to his sweetheart, Ethel.  Don is 79, and despite his daughter’s protest he has returned to finish writing the book they started together.  He is writing about travel for elderly and handicapped people and has just begun his 3 month visit.  He lives in a studio apartment overlooking a piazza.
donIn what is likely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, I asked him to join me for coffee.  As a crowd gathered at the Duomo behind us, we chatted over lattes (and a croissant for him) about life and love.  In the hours that we sat, I saw the most beautiful soul I’ve ever had the great fortune of knowing.  He wore a beret and proudly told me the story of how he became a writer.

After the Korean war, he and his wife attended UCLA on the GI Bill.  He became a history teacher and later a school principle.  He realized he was a writer when he wrote scripts for a television broadcast at a school for the developmentally disabled in Sacramento.  He wrote them word for word, but always ad libbed his lectures – they were slightly different but better.  His wife was a speech pathologist who wrote a book about the first 6 words a person says.  You can tell almost everything you need to know about a person by their introduction: “Hi, my name is…”  You have a sense of where they’re from, their level of education, their confidence, and their personality.

She came across a publisher who had overcome a stutter, and he agreed to publish the book.  Don became her agent and set out to promote the book.  Not wanting to seem biased, he created the name “Steven Dash” for his correspondence related to the book.  Once, he forgot the name he’d created and though this caused suspicion a radio host in Salt Lake City agreed to a live interview.  Don was afraid it wouldn’t sound good, but was pleasantly surprised that a phone call from Sacramento sounded like she was sitting right there in the Utah studio.  His wife was always great at interviews.

She passed away when Don was 68.   A gay buddhist counselor from San Francisco helped him through the grief, and his belief in reincarnation gave Don hope.  Three years ago he was blessed to have found love again, “the luckiest man alive, to have two great loves in one short lifetime.”

Don thanks “the gays” for the introduction of the domestic partnership.  He could share his benefits with Ethel and neither would lose their social security.  More importantly, Ethel refused to marry him.  She had spent most of her life married to an alcoholic and had grown to despise the idea of marriage.  For Don, this was a blessing because it meant he could spend every day of their lives together trying to win her over, to convince her to keep him around for one more precious day.  Knowing she could kick him to the curb motivated him to be the best partner he could be every single day.

Ethel died of colon cancer with Don by her side, she left him as soon as he told her it was okay to go.  He sees her every once in a while around Florence, sometimes Venice.  He wears her ashes in a cross around his neck, the rest are hidden in a secret place until he scatters them throughout Italy.  Don believes she got cancer from pesticides, having grown up on a farm.

Don feels blessed to have had the opportunity to take care of these women and help them go.  His “Mormon tax guy” believes they chose him because they needed him.  And now another woman’s life has been changed by this man, likely one of many knowing how much love he has to share.

He excitedly told me of getting published through Amazon.com.  It is very scary though.  Somehow you have to send thousands of words and pictures through a tiny little telephone wire.  Who knows where they go or how they get there? For all he knows, all of his hard work is being beamed up into space.  But somehow an editor in South Carolina was able to get his book out of the telephone wire and mail it back to him as a good old fashioned book.  He just received his first royalty check in the amount of $52, we drank to that.

Don’s advice to me before we parted ways was:

1. Write every single day, at least 300 good words.

2. Your biological clock will start ticking, don’t let some jerk take advantage of that.  You’ve got plenty of time and if it runs out, the world has too many children that need to be adopted.

3. You don’t find love, it finds you.

I’ve decided to become a writer, for Don.

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