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Always, Ed

Love lives eternal in a husband's Valentine's Day notes.

By KELLEY BENHAM
Published February 13, 2005


In what manner can I describe our love? Are there enough words in all languages and dialects to do so? (1994)

He knows how the letter will end. Every letter has ended the same way since their letters were high-school locker notes.

Always,

Ed

What comes before that is just a fumbling attempt. Ed Barber is 65, and he has loved Judy for 48 years. For more than three decades, he has written her a love letter for Valentine's Day. In his mind, he has never gotten one right.

He's a logical man, and he has tried, in other years, to explain in these letters what can't be explained. He has described love using science and mathematics, compared her to music, wind and water.

But this defies logic. He is just a man. These are just words.

JUDY, it begins.

He plucks softly at the keys. He misses the clattering of manual typewriters. It is so quiet in the house. He stops every so often and puts his chin in his hands, wipes his eyes. Any minute he imagines he might feel her hand on his shoulder. But he is alone in his wingback chair by the big window. Outside the birds are pecking under the tall pine. The humming of the air conditioner is the only sound.

The antique Regulator on the wall has not ticked in almost a year. It is frozen at 9:45. Last March, Ed rewound the hands, a reminder he does not need.

He knows he can't stop time, but he wishes he could. If he could, maybe he could make it go back.

From chaos you flew to me,

On beauty's butterfly wings. (2004)

When he tells it, and he loves to tell it, he always lingers on the moment he saw her.

She was barely 15, coming back from majorette practice. She was carrying a pile of books, her baton and her crinolines through the empty halls of Hialeah High School. He was a senior, almost 17. He can't say why she stunned him the way she did, why he still remembers the way her curls stuck to her forehead, the way her cheeks flushed pink. She wasn't the girl every guy wanted, but after he saw her, he never wanted anyone else.

He stole her baton to get her to walk with him. The next day he hung around her locker and was late to class. She wouldn't give him her phone number, so his friend Jack spied on her in the phone booth as she dialed her house, copied down the number and auctioned it on the spot. Ed's bid was highest. He asked her out that weekend.

He was her first real date. They saw The Unguarded Moment at the theater on Miracle Mile. It was a titillating movie for its time, featuring degenerate youths and a teacher's bra strap.

Ed turned to Judy in the dark and kissed her, a brazen move for a first date in 1956.

"I can't believe it to this day," he says. Just as surprising, she kissed him back.

On their second date, in a backseat at a drive-in, they kissed so much that the front-seat couple fled the car. When they were alone, he told her he loved her. "Because I felt it," he says. Judy said nothing. Ed repeated himself. Still nothing. He tried not to worry.

On their third date, a chilly fall night, she snuggled beside him and whispered "I love you" into his ear.

From then on they were Ed and Judy, Judy and Ed.

For me, it was love at first sight. Like a bolt of lightning! You didn't believe me in the beginning. But I persisted, and eventually you returned my love. Then, adults said we were too young to know what real love was. That angered us. Now I have to admit that in one sense they were right. Because our love has grown so tremendously through the years, swelling and bursting forth in marvelous and complicated ways. Our love then . . . as true and real as it was . . . holds no measure to today's or tomorrow's, or our thousands of tomorrows. (1993)

After graduation he went into the Coast Guard. She wrote him every day for three years. He wrote her back almost as often. He still has the letters, somewhere, and he's a little nervous about their children finding them. "Let's just say there was a lot of wishful thinking in those letters," he says.

He'd come home in his uniform and meet her at school. One night over dinner, he asked her to marry him, and, believing he did not deserve her, said, "Please."

Their daughter Janet was born 10 months after the wedding. They moved to Gainesville in 1962 so he could attend the University of Florida. He majored in journalism but spent most of his time at the student newspaper, the Florida Alligator. He worked his way from reporter to executive editor. He earned next to nothing and sold his blood for extra money. Judy worked, but he couldn't stand to see her go without, so he quit school to work at the Alligator full time.

The newspaper, which eventually moved off campus and became the Independent Florida Alligator, became his second great love. He has never left it.

Now he is its general manager, with a cluttered little office upstairs. Students run the paper downstairs. He is also the publisher of the High Springs Herald, a community paper 25 miles north.

In 1972, when he was assistant general manager, the Alligator started a Valentine's Day tradition called Love Lines. They are mostly silly messages between infatuated classmates, loaded with lust and sickening nicknames. Last year, J-Dogg wrote to H-Money and a Mongolian Horse Princess wrote to her hairy barbarian.

Somewhere in that first edition was the first of Ed's public letters to Judy. Just 21 words.

"JUDY, my love and best friend. Our love is earth and air and FIRE . . . and wonderfully crystal-caved. Your husband . . . Always, Ed."

They'd settled into a comfortable life by then. She worked for the school system. Janet was 10 and their son Chris was 3. Ed still felt he didn't deserve Judy, but she built his confidence by being steady, never complaining about the things they could not afford.

They had a little starter house in a shady neighborhood. He built a tree house in the live oak in the back yard. They liked to feed the birds out there. They made dinners for friends and worked on a screenplay together on Sunday mornings. The Love Lines, just a couple of sentences each, became their yearly gift to each other.

In 1980, he appealed to her affection for Kermit the Frog: "You are my rainbow connection! I'm glad you love green because I'm weird!"

And she wrote back: "Ed, You put flowers in my life just by being there."

When the newspaper came out, he'd grab a copy, read her letter first, then check his for typos. He'd cut it out and paste it on a piece of paper and try to tape it to her door at work when she was out.

Often Ed would come home and show the letters to Chris, who loved to read them but couldn't do it in front of his dad. He'd take them off somewhere by himself. Even the embarrassing ones made him happy.

He noticed the way his parents looked at each other. Their eyes would lock across the room and his heart would jump. Then he'd feel a little sad, because he knew by then how rare that was.

Upon reading this, the sophisticated may chuckle, or even sneer, at what I have said. But that's okay. A thousand, thousand years from now when their cynicism is less than dust, our union will still be joyously winging through the time and space of endless love. (1991)

Something must have happened in 1991, but if so, no one can remember what it was.

When Ed sat down at the computer to write his annual Love Line, something took hold of him.

"Surely no others have ever known anything like the love and intimacy we have shared for more than three decades," he wrote. "We enjoy the passion and freshness of romance. But also we have the rich comfort and wonderful warmth of our true friendship."

For 266 words, he described the way their hands unconsciously slipped together when they walked, how he could read her mind in a glance, the bond they felt after 30 years of births and deaths and joy and sorrow. And her: her voice, her spirit, her laugh, on and on.

He doesn't remember how she reacted, except that she thanked him, as always. She usually called him from her office and cooed with gratitude.

He remembers that Trish Carey, the Alligator's assistant general manager, asked him about his love letter in advance the next year. She told him the people in production were asking for it. He hadn't busted deadline yet, as he was inclined to do. They just wanted to read it.

That year, he wrote more than 300 words: "Over decades the fabric of our lives has been woven one small thread at a time. Those strands of shared moments, anguished or ecstatic, quiet or electric, were interlaced in such a way that nothing can cut, tear or rip apart."

By then they were grandparents. He'd grown out his beard, twisted and waxed his mustache into curls. She had the same laugh she had when they met. They looked a little like Santa and Mrs. Claus. Everywhere they went, they stood close and held hands, and people noticed something about them.

The letters became legend at the little newspaper. Whoever had the job of guiding them to publication without errors sweated over the task. It was Trish Carey's job for several years. "I was so nervous," she said. And she couldn't help but think, as countless readers no doubt did, that if her husband ever wrote her something so beautiful she'd fall over dead.

Janet wrote Love Lines to her husband when they dated. Chris never had the nerve. He was waiting for a girl who inspired him the way his mom inspired his dad.

Ed doesn't know how many people noticed. But from time to time he'd hear that, for people he didn't even know, the letters had become annual evidence of what is possible.

I have heard your heart. For more than 40 years, its rhythm beneath my cheek has been soft, murmured comfort. . . . Your heart surges with the strength of virtue. It has thundered with our passion. Your heart has soared with joy and laughter, and has been shattered in sorrow. . . . Recently, my darling, you have been ill and doctors say your heart is physically weak. I am greatly afraid. But as I sat silently by your hospital bed, within mine your silken hand pulsed its familiar, sweet whispers . . . forever . . . together . . . forever . . . together . . . forever . . . together. (1997)

She had heart trouble in 1997. He imagined losing her, and wrote that he felt as if he were inside a dark cave, in a darkness so intense his eyes strained until they hurt.

But she recovered and he felt safe again. His heart was more troublesome than hers. Sometimes he'd try to talk to her about what she would do after he died. She never wanted to discuss it. In March 2004, driving back from the annual Alligator picnic, he brought up the subject again. She brushed him off.

"Babe," she said, "we're going to go together."

The next morning, Sunday, she slept late. He made her coffee as always - with cream, two sugars - and took it to her in bed, but could not wake her.

He doesn't know how long he stayed with her, but he knows he screamed. It was 9:45 a.m.

Love through a mirror darkly, through a crystal clearly, through a prism brightly. The brilliance that is your beauty faints the sky's silvered stepping stones. Your hair is rippled light and your aroma is sunned roses. To hold you is to meld with the passion of the sun and the gentleness of the moon. . . . Our love has viewed more than fifteen thousand sunrises and one less sunset. You are the first flush of the new horizon and the dazzling of each day's last flash. There will never be a setting of our love. You are my fixed star. You guide my way. (1999)

He is in that cave he imagined eight years ago.

"A hole in the universe," he says.

He reads, but his mind drifts. He listens to music, but it doesn't sound the same. He gets up and puts on a suit and goes to work at the newspaper, but even that is a duller joy.

He is surrounded by her face in photographs, but he doesn't have to look at them. He doesn't have to think of her to see her. She's just with him in a way he can't explain.

She's nursing a child. She's teasing him after one of his smarty-pants jokes. She's leaning into him, and her scent is like the soft wrinkles of a baby's neck. She's in his arms in a dark school gym, they're swaying to the Platters, he's out of step and she's whispering, "Slow down, slow down."

People tell him he'll feel better. He doesn't believe that. He doesn't even want it.

It has been almost a year. "It gets harder," he says. "The longer she's gone . . . the longer she's gone."

She had retired from her job as an auditor for the school system so they could travel. They were finally going to sell their starter house. He won't do either without her. She deserves to be grieved.

He tends the flowers at her grave: pink roses, pansies, wild violets, creeping fig. He takes water there in his car when he's feeling well enough. Sometimes he sings. The song is called Always.

People say he should move on, see Europe, publish his book, that she would want that. He believes she would.

But she was half of every plan he ever made. He wonders, when people say these things, didn't they read the valentines?

I may feebly string words together as an attempt to translate all that you are . . . and all that you mean to me. But no matter what I write . . . you are the true author. It is only because of the wonder of your being that our love exists. (1994)

He is still at his keyboard, her letter before him. Writing it is harder than it has ever been. He types with her wedding ring on his pinky, next to his. The rings are inscribed "Always." He keeps lifting his glasses so he can wipe his eyes.

Maybe it's not even logical for him to write it if she can't read it. But it's Valentine's Day, so how can he not? He feels compelled to remind people who she was, what she meant.

"I just wish with all my heart I could truly express it," he says. "If I was able to write a whole book, I couldn't do it."

He confronts the hole in the room in every line. He feels left behind.

He is recovering from heart surgery. He can't help but wonder why she died so unexpectedly while he and his rickety heart keep living. Death is no more easily understood than love.

Did he lose her because he was too proud? Did he put her before God?

He doesn't believe those things. But he thinks them. He believes he lost her to a virus that weakened her heart, and nothing more.

The letter is too stiff. He has been redundant. The words should be stronger. It should be lyrical and emotional and magnificent and worthy of her. He'll keep trying. All he has is time.

He fantasized once that he might write the Great American Novel or win the Pulitzer Prize. But his greatest efforts have gone into these little tributes, paid for by the letter. She is his richest material. She is epic.

He is just a rational man, with a patched heart, writing a letter about things that are not rational.

He gets to the bottom and he signs it the usual way.

Always.

Sometimes he thinks it turned out not to be. In another way, it is the truest thing he ever wrote.

When I die, I don't care what may be carved on my tombstone. Or what is said over me. Or even how I am remembered. Except. Except I hope someone of those gathered may turn to another and softly whisper something like, "You know . . . Judy and Ed. Now that was a great love story!" (1993)

Ed Barber's 2005 letter to Judy will appear in Floridian on Monday, Valentine's Day, the same day it is published in the Love Lines edition of the Independent Florida Alligator.

Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or benham@sptimes.com