A life in tandem

September 15, 2007 12:00 am
Rena and Jim at their Sept. 8, 2007 wedding. (Submitted photo).
Rena and Jim at their Sept. 8, 2007 wedding. (Submitted photo).

By Jennifer Davis

Special to the Triplicate

When we're told from the outset that half of our faithful attempts at lifetime romantic partnerships will—despite our best intentions and initial promises to the contrary—end before death do us part, it can be tough to remain optimistic about love and marriage.

Anyone who's studied either statistics or economics would tell us to question the value of an institution that fails 50 percent of the time. Anyone with any experience on Wall Street or in Vegas would agree that only a fool or rebel would be daring enough to invest in something that had marriage's purported bleak prospects and poor rate of return.

But Jim Cradler and Rena Davis of Gasquet, both 79 years of age and both veterans of marriage, would beg the opposite. Rena was married for 52 happy years and Jim for 50 before each lost their spouses to Parkinson's and breast cancer, respectively, in 2000. The likelihood of finding a second life partner at close to 80 years of age was slight, but six years later, Jim and Rena serendipitously found each other.

A second chance

A blind date engineered by Jim's daughter Karen Davis, a swimming buddy Rena knew from her morning laps at the Fred Endert Pool, marked the beginning of a somewhat unlikely romance. Neither half of the pair was excited by the prospect of a set-up, but both now admit they agreed to the potentially awkward situation because they trusted Karen and felt they had nothing to lose.

"Neither one of us were looking," Jim said. "After six years you finally get adjusted to the single lifestyle and think that's the way it's always going to be."

But upon meeting Rena, something changed.

"It just felt good," he said, smiling.

"He was so happy," Karen added. "Just more alive and excited. He said he felt like a teenager again."

The couple has been inseparable ever since they were introduced, and after only six months of courting, they were married on Sept. 8, 2006. The impromptu ceremony was in Armenia during a Habitat for Humanity build project. To honor their first anniversary, the couple decided to conduct a local wedding in Smith River that would include their friends and family and would serve to legalize their marriage within the United States.

On the big day, wedding guests came from as far away as Russia to witness the vows. The bride was beaming in a yellow gown and the groom looked proud in a tweed jacket and brown slacks. As it is with most newlyweds, the excitement in the air between them was palpable.

"This past year has been the best of our lives since we lost our spouses," Rena said.

"Without a doubt," Jim agreed.

A bump in the road

No one who knows either half of the pair would argue, but tough times certainly lie ahead. Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July, and the couple now faces the challenge of coping with the categorically aggressive disease. But for both Jim and Rena, loving a spouse with a serious illness is familiar territory.

"At first, I admit I was tempted to run," Rena said. "The hardest part of the Armenian vows was the pledge to love ‘in sickness and in health.' I told Jim then that I just couldn't do it again. But when you love somebody like that you just ... do it."

Rena cited the importance of her many support groups, including friends from the pool, her Methodist church, and the Crescent City Women's Club, in helping her survive the sickness of her first husband. She says she will call upon them for aid again. In turn, Jim's daughter Karen acknowledges how lucky both she and her father are to have Rena aboard.

"He will live longer because of her," she said. "He has the desire to live longer because of her."

In spite of Jim's prognosis, the couple is looking forward to their future. For them, marriage was never a question, but simply a necessary step in the natural progression of their relationship.

"In some sense," Jim said, "we look on this relationship as a continuation of the previous marriages."

They are together because they want to be; they are together because they love each other. And with one hundred and two years of combined marital experience, if anyone should know how to make a marriage last, it is Jim and Rena.

"You have to be really committed," Rena advised. "Once you make that promise, you stick with it. But you've got to work at it a little bit. And love is so important. Love and communication."

Seeing the husband and wife together, especially when one knows their separate but similar histories, one can't help but be inspired. The fact that Jim is sick (what he refers to as a "bump in the road") seems to be no match for their elation at having found each other and their eagerness to share a life in tandem. Perhaps unlike as many as half of younger married couples, Jim and Rena know how to love each other.

When asked about their philosophy for the future, Rena answered, "We're going to enjoy every single minute of every single day we have together." She asked Jim, who sat beside her, holding her hand, for confirmation.

"Yep," he said. "That expresses it."