She wasn’t thrilled when I told her I had been invited to write an occasional column for a local publication. After more than three decades in the Bell System and three arduous years as part of the staging of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, she thought it time to enjoy a long-awaited retirement. But if I did choose to embark on this new venture, there was one non-negotiable condition. I was never to use her name in print. She wanted anonymity.
The occasional column in one paper soon became weekly. The one paper turned into some four dozen newspapers across Georgia and at last count some 1,500-plus columns. True to my word, I never revealed her name. Instead, she became The Woman Who Shares My Name. Her efforts to feed me broccoli and my creative ways of avoiding it became the stuff of legends. So much for anonymity.
Today, I break that long-ago pledge. Jane Yarbrough was her name and as I write these words she is with the angels, having succumbed to a relatively brief illness and a merciful passing the week before Christmas.
Ours was a romance that began in high school. It started innocently enough. We were good friends who shared a few classes together. I needed a date for our school’s Valentine Ball and she agreed to go with me. That was it. Or so I thought. Who would have guessed this would be the start of a partnership that would span six decades.
To say it was all hearts and flowers would be incorrect. I can’t imagine two more different personalities being joined together in holy matrimony. I was aggressive. She was passive. I was ambitious. She was practical. I was a risk-taker. She avoided risks. I was all about career. She was all about home and hearth. Then God did one of His miracles. She managed to eventually tame my wild side. I brought her out of her shell and watched her blossom into a graceful, confident woman.
I’ve told the story often but it bears repeating. In high school, she was a member of the National Honor Society and definite college material but because of the times in which we lived, most young women didn’t go to college then. They were expected to become secretaries and/or housewives. She did both and did them well but there was something missing in her life.
Years later, with two children in college, the family decided it was time for Mom to scratch the itch she had always had for all things medical. We sent her off to Kennesaw State University to obtain her nursing degree.
It was a struggle for her hitting the books some 25 years after high school. That meant my taking over the household chores which was an education in itself. (Do you know how many settings there are on a washing machine? And that if you put red clothes in the wash with white clothes you end up with pink clothes?)
But she persevered. The stay-at-home mom became Jane Yarbrough, registered nurse, with a proud and rewarding career as an occupational nurse at Delta Air Lines until hanging it up to join me on my Olympic travels. While at Kennesaw State, she also introduced her young lab partner to our son. That resulted in a marriage that now numbers some 35 years, two grandsons and four great-grandchildren.
Somehow, I had always assumed she would outlive me and my pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle. God had other plans.
Her sharp-as-a-tack mind began to fade. Always a detail person, she became noticeably forgetful. That, coupled with chronic health issues, began a downward spiral that culminated in hospital stays, skilled nursing facilities and hospice. And then peace.
I have heard from so many people who talk about the impact she had on their lives. They talk about her kindness and generosity. They talk about her genuineness. She had the opportunity to meet U.S. presidents and first ladies, politicians of all stripes, CEOs and celebrities. She dealt with them as she did with the person checking her out at the grocery store. Kindly and with no pretensions. What you saw with her is what you got.
These have been difficult days but I am comforted in the fact that Jane Yarbrough has left this a much better world than she found it. She was the Woman Who Shared My Name. She was and always will be the wind beneath my wings. I thank God we shared this journey.