In the fall of 1981,when I still young in the business, I took my girlfriend – soon to be my wife – to Skelly Stadium in Tulsa for a football game between Wichita State and the Golden Hurricane.
We were young and in love.Marilyn King.When I went down from the press box into the stands to find her an hour or so before the game, she had disappeared. I was worried. There were no cell phones in those days, so I couldn’t text her. I couldn’t call her.
Finally, I found Marilyn smoking a cigarette in the concourse. She had been trying to quit that bad habit, which she ultimately did. But her smoking in that instance led to a big fight. We had too many big fights and our marriage lasted only five years. We did have some glorious moments, though; none more glorious than the birth of our son, Jeff, on Dec. 21, 1982. It was a Tuesday night and I begged out of covering a high school basketball game.
Jeff was only 3 when we divorced. They say both husband and wife are culpable in a split and I do believe that. In this case, though, I’ll take 80 percent of the blame.
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Marilyn would go on to find the love of her life, Greg, and they’re still married today. But times are difficult because she is dying from a rare form of cancer. She’s only 56.
My concern has been centered around Jeff, his half-sister Sarah and the rest of Marilyn’s family. But I also have thought a great deal about my former wife and our relationship in the year and a half since her diagnosis. Thankfully, Marilyn was able to make it back to Kansas in October for Jeff’s wedding. That’s a blessing.
She was beaten down by her brutal disease. Healthy, she would have been the life of that wedding weekend, chipping in to decorate and cook and do whatever else needed to be done. Marilyn was not a wallflower; she was one of the most outgoing, fun and intelligent people I have known.
A few years ago, long after our divorce, she was in Wichita visiting her husband’s family. She came to The Eagle’s newsroom to visit Jeff and ended up attending the afternoon news meeting, even making a few comments. The woman isn’t shy.
Jeff is as close to his mother as any son. She moved to Ohio in 1991, when her husband received a job promotion. Jeff stayed in Wichita with me, although he visited his mom on holidays and for a part of every summer, the part in which he wasn’t playing baseball. It was always so hard to put him on an airplane, but I was content in where he was going.
He spent his junior year of high school in Ohio. That’s the year, by the way, that his former school, North, played in the Class 6A state championship game in Lawrence. Jeff had been the team’s starting center fielder as a sophomore and missed out on the state tournament experience.
No regrets, though, because he was able to experience a full year living with his mom. He did return to Wichita the following year and graduated from North in 2001.
The process of raising a kid was a shared one. And I’m not telling parents anything they don’t already know when I say it’s not always easy.
Jeff, now 30, was always a great kid, but not always so devoted to the things I thought he should be devoted to.
I was the upright parent, I suppose. Marilyn was more relaxed. Perhaps that’s not a good way to put it. Perhaps she was just the most assured parent. She always knew Jeff would be fine and that he would ultimately become a good young man.
More than once, Marilyn had to talk me off the ledge during one of our phone conversations. Most of the time, we were civil to one another. But when it came to discussing our son, there were times when Ma Bell had to cover her ears.
It was always reassuring to me that Marilyn was such a good mother. I know it was hard for her to be far away, but she and Jeff talked every day.
When she was back for Jeff’s wedding, I was asked to say a little something during the ceremony. I’m not sure why, but I obliged. I thanked everyone who was there and I made special mention of Marilyn, who was wheelchair-bound and struggled to speak.
I praised her on being a wonderful mother and gave her most of the credit for making Jeff the fine man he is today. She took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes, which caused me to break down to the point that I had to stop speaking.
So many thoughts went through my mind on that day, and during the time since. I have regrets, but they are soothed in the knowledge that Marilyn went on to have a great marriage to Greg and that I finally found the woman I was meant to be with, Debbie.
Greg reached out to me on Facebook the other day to tell me what a help Jeff had been during his visit to Ohio last week, how he had comforted his mom during the scariest time of her life. He also mentioned that Marilyn held no grudges toward me about our past and was happy that I, too, had found marital bliss after a few tries. I really appreciated hearing that.
Debbie has given me the freedom to process the emotions I’m feeling as Marilyn struggles. That’s just the kind of woman Debbie is. Ironically, Debbie, then a student at Friends, was a worker at the day care center that Marilyn and I used for Jeff and Sarah back in the early-1980s. After we met and Debbie learned that Marilyn and I had been married, she had vivid memories of not only Marilyn, but of the two kids.
I hope for the best for Marilyn’s family. Her parents live near her in Ohio, as does her daughter and one of her two brothers. She is a dynamic person who has been robbed of her energy by a terrible disease that is neither fair nor understandable. But Marilyn’s spirit will live on.
Remembering our years together has made me laugh and it has made me cry. Godspeed, Marilyn. You’re one of a kind.