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A Valentine story

I thought something romantic and sad was required for Valentine’s day and thinking about it, up popped the saddest love story I remember. A story that if it wasn’t true would be pure schmaltz.

This all happened when I was a little kid.  My stepfather was a doctor of musicology with a masters in psychology and was a pioneer in using musical therapy in the treatment of the mentally ill. He worked at a huge Veteran’s Administration hospital on Chicago’s North Shore. Those were fat days in the USA and the hospital had a huge orchestra and choirs and a “big band”, all of this was my stepfather’s turf…. He was the musical director of an insane asylum.

In those days there were none of the marvelous drugs they have today, which make it possible for people with severe bi-polar disorders, epilepsy or schizophrenia to live “normal” lives without needing to be confined to a hospital. I’ve heard that the hospital where my stepfather worked no longer exists, but in those days it had hundreds of patients. Among them was a man,  named Don, who certainly wouldn’t be hospitalized today, because his particular cross in life was acute gran mal epilepsy, contracted while in military service, and he often suffered several seizures a day. Today this sort of thing is treatable, but in those days he had to under constant care, impossible then for him to be outside on his own.

He must have come into the world with strange karma, because aside from his illness, he had movie star good looks and a voice of operatic quality, all the way from baritone to lyric tenor. I remember that he was very charming and very sad.

Among the volunteers who worked at the hospital was a girl named Jesse, also beautiful and also with an enormous soprano voice of operatic quality. She gave voice lessons at the hospital. She was confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down from an automobile accident.

Don and Jesse were hopelessly in love. “Hopelessly” was the operative word.

I was a little kid, so I have had to figure a lot of this out later, at the time though I was aware that they were in love and this was all very sad.

I knew them quite well and not from hearsay because every so often my stepfather would check Don out under his responsibility and bring him home for dinner and to spend the night at our house, a huge three story Victorian pile near the Northwestern campus. On the way home he would pick up Jesse too.

I remember that after dinner, they would sing duets, while my stepfather played the piano, Italian and German opera mostly, but occasionally an old chestnut like “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life at Last I’ve Found You”, where at least I could understand the words. I still remember the tableaux, my stepfather at the piano, Jesse in her wheelchair, Don standing beside her. They used to look into each others eyes while they sang.

Soon it was my bedtime and I had to go upstairs to my bedroom way up on the third floor, the beautiful, powerful, voices followed me all the way up there and sang me to sleep.

What Don and Jesse did after I went to sleep, nobody ever told me, but there were lots of spare bedrooms in our house and I hope they got to be happy for a while.

My Valentine’s wish is that all my readers should have love as rich and beautiful as Don and Jesse’s, but less complicated.


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David Seaton

David Seaton