This is a true Christmas story that took place over a decade ago, not long after I found that my own mother had terminal cancer. I sensed that this story was a bit of a foreshadowing of what was going to happen in my family's future. I hope this telling blesses you.
An 8"x10" silver photo frame held a black and white picture of a woman. Suspended by a string, the frame hung like an enormous locket around his neck. He gestured to the picture proclaiming, "That’s my little wife."
A few days before Christmas, I visited LouAnne in Virginia. The two of us were Christmas shopping at a mall. We were making our way to the escalator and stopped to look at picture frames. That's when he appeared, donning his locket.
We sniggered and smiled nervously as he told the story about the love of his life. He began unpacking the story stating she had lost her six-year battle with cancer. He was visibly shaken that he had uttered the words. His voice quivered as he went on to commend the kindness of the folks at the cancer center.
"I never left her side in all that time," he bragged. "I took care of her." He openly shared of the chemotherapy and its cruelty to his wife. "The chemotherapy helped for a while, but I don't think they got nothing that can cure that stuff…" he lamented as his voice trailed off.
"I am Mr. Carbaugh. What are your names, ladies?" he piped up. He was buying another frame for the portrait he found under the one he had reframed. He had met his wife 53 years earlier. As a young man with a new job, he moved to the town where she ran a beauty shop. He was still smitten as he reminisced, "She’s purdy, isn't she?"
The photo revealed why he was attracted. A quintessential 1940's beauty, her curls were coiffed and placed. Her velvet skin was flawless. Her eyes and warm smile upstaged her coordinating hat and accessories.
"I never left her side the whole time she was sick… you just have to take care of 'em. If you love 'em you do! Every man should take care of his little wife…"
He spoke deliberately with well placed pauses. He was not simply telling, but reliving his memories. He was a soft-spoken man. His smiling face barely hid the purposeful sadness in his eyes.
LouAnne questioned specifically about his life and his family. Spina bifida claimed their only daughter when she was nine months old. "It grieved this lady so much," he lamented, pointing to the picture. Then his voice proudly rose, boasting of his adult son who followed him in the railroad business.
Retired from the railroad, Mr. Carbaugh served for 30 years. He was recently commended at a ceremony at the company headquarters. He was awarded a gold company watch for serving faithfully those years.
He seemed beyond lonely. I believe he would have talked as long as we would listen. Somewhere in the course of the conversation, he answered the hard question. "Is this your first Christmas without her?" my friend asked.
He uttered a deep sigh. "Yes…" he confessed, followed by a deeper pause.
"I lost her in May." This was the first of several times I saw pools well up in his eyes, and I had to wipe my own.
"I am doing everything just like she showed me." Betty knew her illness was taking her life. She spent two years teaching him everything he needed to know to get along and live alone.
"She took care of me… and I took care of her."
He described the particulars of his last vacation with Betty. Betty did not want to go to Florida, like they usually did. Each year, the couple traveled over two days and stayed in a place owned by his railroad company. The last vacation, she preferred to visit her two brothers. The trip was shorter, she could see her family and they took everyone out to dinner with the money they saved by not going to Florida.
Then he detailed how the locket came to be. His son had two children: a son and a daughter. "Our granddaughter was like a daughter to this lady," he smiled again pointing to his wife. The girl was named Beth--he did not say so, but I felt certain she was Betty's namesake.
Beth was now fourteen years old. For her first six years, Betty gave Beth $500 every year for her birthday. For each year from age six and until her current birthday her grandmother gave Beth $1000 for her education. He joked about the granddaughter checking her bank statement.
He bragged how Betty looked out for others. Betty worked to save money, and she had started the tradition with Beth’s younger brother. He grinned and laughed that he guessed he would have to keep it up. “Beth was just like a daughter to my wife.”
In recent days, Beth had been chiding Mr. Carbaugh to visit her and her family "now"--he implied that he meant since Betty's passing. He did not say much directly about her being dead. I don't think he could.
Beth wanted granddad to visit at least every two weeks. Mr. Carbaugh made excuses, "I can't come. I have lost my navigator."
Beth would not take no for an answer. She designed the locket and necklace of string. She told him how to make it. She could not make the hook herself, but Beth took him to the workshop, explaining exactly what she wanted. She went out to her grandmother's car and measured something.
As he spoke, I had a little trouble following what happened. Then he explained. The "necklace" was not originally made for his neck, but fit over the headrest in his car so that Betty could "see" to help him navigate. "When I hang it around the back of the seat, she can see right over the dashboard," he said with a big smile.
Her picture had been in an ugly, dated frame. "A pretty lady like that should have a pretty frame." To his surprise, when he removed her picture, he found a picture of himself. His own picture had been made at the same time as Betty’s.
“How do you like this frame for my picture?” he queried. Working on the project caused him to yearn for Betty. Mr. Carbaugh chose to carry this torch (or locket) for one he had loved for so long.
How much time had passed? I guessed we’d talked for more than an hour. It wasn’t right or fair to leave as long as he felt the need to talk. He asked about our lives, continuing on about his years at the railroad and his life with Betty.
Soon he started saying good-bye. He wished us a good day and Merry Christmas. We left wishing we could (feeling we should) do more. We returned the same salutations. Gesturing once more to his locket, Mr. Carbaugh admonished us to take care of our spouses. After half a century, this marked his first Christmas without his own.
In two days, this was the second time we talked to people who would spend Christmas alone for the first time in many years. LouAnne said she didn't think she could ever forget Mr. Carbaugh and his locket. We simply never know how many lonely people are close by; perhaps standing right beside us.