Cook: A true love story, again

Cook: A true love story, again

February 14th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

I got my wife a card. It cost $2.95 at the grocery store and has a picture of two cats cuddling by the fire. The inside reads: "Thoughts of you make me feel warm and fuzzy all over."

Not bad, huh?

Then I met Mary and Phil Wooten, a couple living in Cleveland, Tenn. Saw the way they held hands. Noticed howmuch she hugged him. Got a good look at what he built for her in the backyard.

Suddenly, my fuzzy cat card seemed about as romantic as trichinosis.

"When you get to our age, you really appreciate love," Mary said.

The Wootens are madly in love. Head over heels, Barry White singing, Nicholas Sparks taking notes kind of love. They are Romeo and Juliet, in retirement.

Several years ago, they were both alone. Mary, 71, had lost her beloved husband of 50 years. Phil, 65, had buried his wife of three decades after a battle with breast cancer. Mary lived in Cleveland, Tenn.; Phil in Chattanooga. They were lost, rudderless, spouseless.

"It is the most lonely thing in the world," said Mary.

"I was dying from a broken heart," Phil said. "She saved me."

The house painter kept asking Mary out. She kept turning him down. Well then, the painter said, would you consider my foster dad?

It was Phil.

The next day, he called.

"We stayed on the phone for hours, just talking," Mary said.

He kept calling. Five, sometimes six times a day. They finally met for dinner at J. Alexander's. Closed the place down. Then they sat in the parking lot, talking into the wee morning.

"The night I met him, I knew then I was madly in love," Mary said.

Three months later, Phil proposed.

"Of course," Mary said.

They got married in a Georgia courthouse. Then they got married again -- repeating their vows -- in Gatlinburg, Tenn.. Then, on their honeymoon, they traveled to Europe and repeated their vows again. Guess where.

"The Sistine Chapel," Mary said.

"I wanted to make sure you don't get away from me," Phil told her, laughing.

They cuddle. They share the love seat. They kiss in the morning and again in the evening. They say "I love you" -- "every hour, on the hour," Mary says -- more than Peyton says "Omaha."

Last summer, Phil cooked up his best Don Juan yet. He rang up the local landscaper. Whispered his plan. And one morning, the backhoes pulled up and start digging in the field behind their house.

Mary woke up, looked out her kitchen window and saw ...

"A heart," Phil said.

Phil hired a landscaping crew to dig a lake that is precisely, perfectly and poetically in the shape of a heart. Maybe 1/3 of an acre wide, 15 feet deep, stocked with catfish and bass, the heart-lake is undoubtedly in the Top 10 greatest gestures in marriage history.

"Every morning when you look out that window you're going to know how much I love you," Phil told her.

Strangers knock on their door, asking to see it. Neighbors peer over the fence.

"Isn't it gorgeous?" Mary says.

Phil and Mary are not flaky, flighty teenagers. They have walked through the fire that life can bring, felt their hearts crack like the Liberty Bell as their spouses were put in the ground.

They are wise, and flirtatious. To witness their heart-lake-marriage is to be reminded that our love for one another should be big and bold, like Mount Rushmore or William Howard Taft. It is to relish the fact that life can still seem as sweet as a big fat kiss. Somehow, love makes its way back home.

"It is the most wonderful thing," Mary said.

"And to find it a second time?" said Phil, who held track records at Chattanooga City High and later became a teacher and coach. "It's one in a million. No, a zillion."

People call Phil to play golf; he won't go unless Mary can. One never leaves the other, an affection born out of their grief. When each lost their spouses, they made a silent promise: If love ever came their way again, they'd never take it for granted.

"Appreciate your spouse," Mary said.

Outside, the snow began to fall on the heart-shaped lake. Phil smiled. Mary smiled back. I quietly swore to myself never to buy another fuzzy cat card again. And to maybe call this landscaper I know.

"God has given me a second chance," said Mary.

"You don't want to mess it up. You want it to be perfect," said Phil.

"It is," Mary said, tears in her eyes. "It really is."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.