Finding Love Again, This Time With a Man
By HARRIS WOFFORD | APRIL 23, 2016
AT age 70, I did not imagine that I would fall in love again and remarry. But the past 20 years have made my life a story of two great loves.
On Jan. 3, 1996, the telephone rang just before midnight, interrupting the silence of the hospital room. From the bedside of my wife, Clare, I lifted the receiver. “Please hold for the president.” Bill Clinton had heard that Clare, struck by acute leukemia, was fading. She listened and smiled but was too weak to speak.
Some hours later, I held her hands in mine as she died. During 48 years of marriage, we had spent a lifetime together.
In the cold spring that followed, I felt grateful to be alive, lucky to have many friends and family members, and glad for a challenging assignment from President Clinton involving national service. But I also wondered what it would be like living by myself for the rest of my life. I was sure I would never again feel the kind of love Clare and I shared.
Clare and I fell in love trying to save the world during World War II. I had founded a student organization to promote a postwar union of democracies to keep the peace. When I left to serve in the Army Air Corps, Clare became national president, guiding the Student Federalists as the group grew across the country.
Our romance and adventure continued for five decades. When I was running for election to the Senate in 1991, Clare gave up her job to become an all-out campaigner, helping us win in a landslide. In my narrow losing re-election campaign of 1994, astute Pennsylvanians observed that if Clare had been the candidate, she would have won.
We spent a happy half-century together with different perspectives on life. Growing up during the Depression, in which her father suffered while my family prospered, she became a skeptic while I emerged an optimist.
In 1963, we enjoyed visiting the philosopher Martin Buber in his quiet Jerusalem study. In his “Paths in Utopia,” Buber says a good and great idea will rise again when idea and fate meet in a creative hour. Hopefully, I asked him if he saw that creative hour coming soon to achieve peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Before he could answer, Clare laughed skeptically, saying, “From what I’ve seen, it will be a long time coming.”
Buber said to Clare, “You are right, that the time between creative hours can be very long, but they do come, and I hope that when one comes, your realism will not make you miss it.” And as we parted, he told me, “You are obviously a romantic, my friend, and I hope you recognize that a romantic needs a realist like Clare.”
For our three children and me, Clare was at the heart of our family. When I told her, “You’re my best friend,” she would reply, “and your best critic.” And when I said, “You’re my best critic,” she responded, “and your best friend.”
We were both about to turn 70 when she died. I assumed that I was too old to seek or expect another romance. But five years later, standing on a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., I sensed a creative hour and did not want to miss it.
It was afternoon, and the tanning beachgoers faced west, toward the wall of concrete buildings lining the boulevard, to catch the sun, ignoring the beautiful sea. I swam alone in the water, attracting the attention of two bystanders near the shore. They came over to say hello, which is how I met Matthew Charlton.
As we talked, I was struck by Matthew’s inquisitive and thoughtful manner and his charm. I knew he was somebody I would enjoy getting to know. We were decades apart in age with far different professional interests, yet we clicked.
I admired Matthew’s adventurous 25-year-old spirit. When he told me that I was “young at heart,” I liked the idea, until I saw a picture of him on a snowboard upside down executing a daring back flip. The Jackson Hole newspaper carried the caption, “Charlton landed the jump without mishap.”
We took trips around the country and later to Europe together, becoming great friends. We both felt the immediate spark, and as time went on, we realized that our bond had grown into love. Other than with Clare, I had never felt love blossom this way before.
It was three years before I got the nerve to tell my sons and daughter about Matthew. I brought a scrapbook of photographs, showing Matthew and me on our travels, to a large family wedding. It was not the direct discussion the subject deserved. Yet over time my children have welcomed Matthew as a member of the family, while Matthew’s parents have accepted me warmly.
To some, our bond is entirely natural, to others it comes as a strange surprise, but most soon see the strength of our feelings and our devotion to each other. We have now been together for 15 years.
Too often, our society seeks to label people by pinning them on the wall — straight, gay or in between. I don’t categorize myself based on the gender of those I love. I had a half-century of marriage with a wonderful woman, and now am lucky for a second time to have found happiness.
For a long time, I did not suspect that idea and fate might meet in my lifetime to produce same-sex marriage equality. My focus was on other issues facing our nation, especially advancing national service for all. Seeking to change something as deeply ingrained in law and public opinion as the definition of marriage seemed impossible.
I was wrong, and should not have been so pessimistic. I had seen firsthand — working and walking with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — that when the time was right, major change for civil rights came to pass in a single creative decade. It is right to expand our conception of marriage to include all Americans who love each other.
Matthew is very different from Clare. The political causes that continue to move me do not preoccupy him, nor have I turned my priorities to design, the focus of his driving talent. Still, the same force of love is at work bringing two people together.
That instinctive emotion gives me new appreciation for these words from Robert Frost:
And yet for all this help of head and brain
How happily instinctive we remain,
Our best guide upward further to the light,
Passionate preference such as love at sight.
Twice in my life, I’ve felt the pull of such passionate preference. At age 90, I am lucky to be in an era where the Supreme Court has strengthened what President Obama calls “the dignity of marriage” by recognizing that matrimony is not based on anyone’s sexual nature, choices or dreams. It is based on love.
All this is on my mind as Matthew and I prepare for our marriage ceremony. On April 30, at ages 90 and 40, we will join hands, vowing to be bound together: to have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.