Love Conquers Death
Twenty years after his wife left him in grief, a grandfather learns to love again.
Thursday, February 14, 2002
Manuel Aragon was devastated by his wife''s death. He withdrew from the world for a long time after Rachel passed. But he''s held on to life, to their life, though at times he''s unsure why or how. She comes to him in his dreams, he says, and often greets him at the foot of his bed in the morning. It is not an apparition he sees, but instead the spirit that drove her through life and guided his.
He was a 22-year-old storeowner the day he met Rachel Burns in Douglas, Arizona, 75 years ago. The years that would follow brought more euphoria and sorrow to Manuel than he ever knew existed.
Rachel lived with her grandmother, Elena, who introduced the couple. And soon there was more to the relationship than a mere courtship. This quickly became obvious to everyone, including Rachel''s mother, Julia, who lived in California. In 1929, Manuel dropped to one knee and asked Rachel to spend her life with him.
Upon hearing the news of Manuel''s proposal, Julia immediately sent for Rachel, and Rachel was forced to go to her mother in Los Angeles. Though he had no idea where she''d been sent, Manuel was unwilling to let the miles separate them. In the summer of 1930, more than a year after he''d proposed, he finally got word. Manuel immediately left his life behind and went to her.
On Nov. 9, 1930, just weeks after they reunited, Manuel and Rachel married in a formal ceremony in Los Angeles.
By their first anniversary, Manuel and Rachel had already welcomed their first child into the world. And as if by clockwork every other year for the next 14 years, they would welcome a new baby into their family: six boys and two girls. Years later, my Uncle Luis joined the brood. Their fifth child was my mother, also named Rachel.
Manuel worked for a while as a teacher, did a stint at the Brown Derby, one at Ford Motor Company, and finally at a manufacturing plant where he retired. Rachel stayed home to raise the youngsters, teaching them about the things she loved most: opera, literature and life.
Manuel and Rachel vowed to make their children their life''s success story. And succeed they did. Without much money they raised four lawyers, a Superior Court judge, a deputy mayor, a White House advisor and a university professor. Each believes he or she was the "favorite" child.
Somehow Manuel and Rachel also managed to make a romantic marriage. They listened to music, played cards until dawn, took long walks and talked endlessly. An intensely private couple, they became each other''s best friend. Manuel did not socialize. His long days of work ended with his coming home to his wife and only companion. The years of hard work and a large family to provide for took their toll, and he became reclusive. Rachel was his refuge.
Rachel, the spirited one, was always the dreamer; Manuel the grounded one. With the voice of an opera singer, Rachel could drown out Manuel''s end-of-day gruff moods. Manuel, ever the serious card player (he still can''t lose a game of Conquian), was a stickler for uniformity. Dinner was always at six, the menu rarely changing. He has donned a favorite hat, day in and day out, for most of his life. But never indoors. Manners are not an option with Manuel. The same was expected of his children.
But Rachel put the life into him. She rarely took him seriously. She laughed him off with a sing-songy voice: "Oh, Manuel," she said a million times as she went about her business. Try as he might, Manuel couldn''t keep the stoic mood for long. Her nature would overpower, and the bitterness would give way to her content. He counted on her for every minute detail of life: holidays, birthdays, the familial social calendar--he wouldn''t even answer the phone.
Twenty-five years later, the couple''s grandchildren began to come around. Rachel would take them on treasure hunts in their backyard for buried jewels (from the five-and-dime). Rachel was the only grandmother in town with a gum tree--Juicy Fruit grew right there on the branches. Not a one of them was the wiser. It was her chance to make them believe in the impossible--just as she''d done for her own children a generation before.
Rachel often flipped on the tape recorder amidst idle conversation with Manuel or her children and grandchildren. She once explored the intricacies of Santa Claus with a four-year-old granddaughter on a tape that plays at random times of the year to this day, at my house.
It''s the recitation of stories like these, day in and day out over the 20 years since Rachel''s death, after 50 years of marriage, that keep Manuel alive today on the eve of his 97th birthday.
On February 10, 1980, with a house full of their grown children, only Manuel was in the bedroom with Rachel when she died. His best friend lying before him in their bed, lifeless, overwhelmed him. He felt regret. He mourned over lost opportunities: the days he let work bring him down and didn''t give her a kiss; the countless hugs he never initiated because there was something else to do; the times he stared at her for hours and never told her how much she meant or how beautiful she was; the way her laugh could make all his insurmountable troubles seem so insignificant. He had no idea how to go on; he''d never had to without her.
And he couldn''t, not for years. He moved around from place to place, aimlessly seeking out the contentment he had with his soul mate but could never get back, even for a fleeting moment, though he wished for it a million times a day. He gave up, and he gave in. All purpose for him passed. He lived alone in his aloneness and became frail, quiet, distant, willing himself to die.
But his children wouldn''t let him. In 1999, my mother took Manuel away from death and into her home, where, even at the age of 94, he began again. He once again plays cards every day. And still no one can beat him. He shares a century''s worth of stories with all of us who long to know so much more. His great-grandchildren have renewed his life and have reminded him of its perpetual circle. He plays hide and seek with toddlers who run by him at lightning speed. He stuffs their pockets with candy and dollar bills that their mothers always sneak back into his drawer. Their child''s play sends him into fits of laughter, and now it is his spirit that can turn their frowns into ear-to-ear grins. Their pictures adorn his bedroom walls and overstuff his wallet.
And dutifully, as if Rachel gave her life to him, he has done the family''s bidding since her death. "He not only answers the phone," my mother says, "he even calls everyone now."
As his empty marked plot lies next to hers under a tree in Palm Springs, he keeps her legacy alive, attending the countless weddings, baptisms and graduations. In 1997, he attended the funeral of their oldest daughter, Alicia.
Rachel had the chance to know most of the couple''s 36 grandchildren. But of their 27 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild, Rachel knew none. For them there is no gum tree and no pirate''s treasure to be found in the backyard. But there is a legacy of a love so deep, so true, that it lasted beyond the day death parted their great-grandparents. And there is a man who now embraces the life he''s lived and who still recites the stories he''s lived so long to tell.