After the mission trip, we decided to officially date. Living several hours apart made traditional courting a difficult task. We quickly began to use the phone more than email, and that was in the days of “long distance” charges. We had some bills!
We began planning times and places to get together. Our first date was in St. Louis. We met, more or less, in the middle and planned out a day of activities. The St. Louis Zoo, a lunch at Houlihan’s, and much walking and talking in Forest Park.
The day was warm and sunny. We must have walked many miles throughout the course of the day. Neither one of us would have registered any pain in our feet, the flutter of our hearts were making too much noise to notice much else. I can remember the various sights and sounds of places we visited that day.
Our cars were parked at Forest Park, and that is where the date ended as the sun, ever-so-slightly, began it’s decent. Standing by her car, we visited for a few minutes. We talked about what this all seemed to be adding up to. We discussed the next possibility of getting together. Then, what came as a surprise to both of us, I looked from her feet quickly up toward her face, moved in close and gave her a short kiss. Everything changed…in a good way.
In August of 1997, the weekend of the 18th, her birthday, I went to Springfield, Illinois and stayed at Jana and her mother’s home. We visited her brother and his family, had a cookout, and walked and talked. We walked all over the neighborhoods, up and down the streets. We would stop and take a few minutes to kiss along the way, but mostly it was talking, talking, talking. Each of us could not get enough of the other. So much to learn!
For her birthday that weekend, I took her out to the Hilton in downtown Springfield. At 30 stories tall, it’s the tallest building around with a restaurant on it’s top floor. We enjoyed a nice dinner and I gave her a necklace. Of course, she kept all of these things and attached her memories to each item from those dates we had, including the shirt* I wore atop that building where we ate and looked out over the twinkling lights of downtown Springfield. She turned 25 years old on that day.
When the weekend was over, I got back into my 1996 Ford Ranger and began my drive out of Springfield, back to the west. Interstate 55 takes a driver towards St. Louis, and that was my route…one I got to know well. On this particular afternoon, after spending the birthday evening with Jana, I noticed that as I was heading out, I could see the Hilton tower in my rear-view mirror.
I could see where we had just enjoyed an evening of connection, warmth, and excitement over a wonderful dinner. I thought of this new person in my life, our weekend, and how I felt. I began to cry. Wiping the tears away, I adjusted the truck in my lane to be sure to catch glimpses of the tower for as long as I could, until I could see it no more.
I realized that I was leaving someone that I loved. It was that moment that my heart was officially Jana’s. Leaving her was almost unbearable. Replaying all that had happened, all of our conversations, and feeling the lingering sense of her kiss was all I had until the next time we could get together. I wanted to live my life with this woman, love her as long as I was able, and never leave her side.
God, you blessed me with the most precious person I may ever know.
*About 2 weeks before Jana went into the hospital, we sorted through some bags of clothes. Jana held up various items that had a lot of meaning to her. One item, in particular, was the shirt that I wore on her 25th birthday date. For 22 years she held onto this shirt. She remembered the event vividly, I think we even talked about the necklace that I gave her…