By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, April 21, 2021 – Happy 30th wedding anniversary, dear Carla!
We really celebrated it this year, didn’t we? Fresh flowers, lots of cards, peach ice cream and a surprise serenade last evening in our farmhouse living room from 10 members of the Chancel Choir at our Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ from Des Moines.
We’ve never been big on celebrating our wedding anniversaries, mostly because our life together has been one big celebration after another, starting 30 years ago and continuing even now.
Let’s recall some of those celebrations, and how we often took crowds of Iowans along with us.
A much younger Carla and Chuck Offenburger, on our honeymoon in April, 1991 — which was going to an “Adult Prom” the night after the regular prom at Iowa Falls High School.
We went to France with a tour group of World War II veterans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. We organized and led 308 people riding bicycles across America in celebration of Iowa’s 150 years of statehood. We’ve gone on other bike rides with other groups across Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Montana and many times across Iowa on RAGBRAI. We led bus tours all over Iowa, and beyond. We followed Iowa’s opera great Simon Estes in concerts in South Africa, Washington, D.C., and all across Iowa. We helped organize community celebrations, adult proms, concerts, informational forums, quilt shows and more. We’ve been actively involved in politics, actually in both parties. I tagged along as you organized work parties on Habitat for Humanity houses. We’ve had great thrills rallying with our Vanderbilt University friends as we all followed our Commodores baseball team to two national championships in baseball’s College World Series. We’ve been to countless family graduations, marriages, birthdays and funerals.
And, oh yes, there were those nervous times apart, back in 1990 and ’91. We were actually just going together, not yet married, when the Des Moines Register sent me away on two long trips to cover the Persian Gulf War in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. You took over my parenting duties, ran the Offenburger household and became like a den mother for the sophomore boys from Johnston High School. Back home at Christmastime, I proposed, kneeling with a carrot – representing the “full carat” you’d joked would be required if you were to marry again. I went back to Saudi for six weeks more war coverage, came home as spring was breaking, and the late Rev. Faith Ferre married us at Plymouth Church’s Lane Chapel on April 20, 1991.
And that’s just a quick synopsis of a much longer list of fun and inspiration.
Taking a brake on RAGBRAI in 2011 — on the front porch of the home of Kyle Munson and Anne Sobiech-Munson in Slater.
It’s really been something, you know?
“No wonder we’re always tired,” you’ve often observed.
But this 30th wedding anniversary is indeed special. We know it probably is our last together.
Since 2009 – more than a third of our marriage – we’ve been dealing with cancer.
I had a couple kinds of lymphoma before a rugged stem cells transplant saved me. You’ve battled the slow, steady, incurable, awful adenoid cystic carcinoma. You had a radical neck surgery in 2010 to remove a tumor and a month of radiation, then five good years with only check-ups. But from 2015, there’ve been three major surgeries, four or five long-needle ablations on tumors, and a lot more radiation. There’s been chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
And by last August, we had to agree with our doctors and nurses that further aggressive treatment would result only in misery and death. The alternative you chose, with my full support, was in-home hospice care, emphasizing comfort while enabling as much activity as you feel like having.
We are both surprised we have lived as long as we have, with the serious health challenges we’ve had. We are both convinced that our love and marriage have been as important to our survival as the outstanding medical care we’ve received.
Dressed up for Easter Sunday this spring — even though we were staying home for “virtual church,” dinner and naps.
I’ve loved these past eight months, during which we’ve spent more time together than ever before. We’ve had wonderful visits from family and friends. Being strict about precautions, and getting vaccinations at our first opportunities, we’ve avoided COVID.
We’ve had great conversations about serious topics – including death.
Then we had one, right in front of us.
Your mother Sue Burt, a grand character who had lived with us the past three years and had become a light in our lives during that time, had a heart attack and died on Feb. 23. She was 85.
We learned so much – about life and about death – in Suesy’s time with us. We both have had this weird feeling that it was supposed to be that way, your mother teaching us by example, about approaching and reaching life’s end. And so we talk about that.
“I never thought I’d out-live you,” I told you the other night.
“I never thought you would, either,” you answered.
“Well, I still haven’t, and might not,” I reminded you – and reminded myself, too. “I’m 73 years old and have out-lived every male in my family. I’m not a good bet for longevity.”
“Yeah, and I’m just 62 and I’m the one in hospice care,” you said. “Now, I’m not going to get stuck on this for more than a minute here, but sometimes this really pisses me off.”
“It should,” I said.
But then we got right back to two other things that have sustained us – gratitude for all we’ve had together and acceptance for what’s to come.
Ten members of the Plymouth Church Chancel Choir, from Des Moines, serenading us in our farmhouse living room on our 30th wedding anniversary, April 20, 2021. The serenade was a surprise gift to us from members of our family — a total surprise that left us in happy tears.
For 30 years, we’ve been a pretty good team when big things happen.
It’s been like that from the moment we met. Can I tell my favorite old story about that again here?
On a hot afternoon in the summer of 1990, my RAGBRAI pal Jim “Greenie” Green – who was soon to become RAGBRAI director – and I were riding our bicycles from Waukee toward Adel on the Raccoon River Valley Trail. We were yacking away, solving our kids’ problems, and syncing our RAGBRAI plans. Suddenly, two young women on their bikes, also heading west, passed us. Greenie and I were continuing our conversation as the women went around us, but I glanced and noticed that one of the women had shoulders turning red in the beating sun. “Hey, lady!” I said, apparently sounding much gruffer than I realized. “You better get a T-shirt on. You’re getting sunburned.”
Greenie exploded – at me.
“Jesus Larry Christ!” he roared, as only he could. “Can’t you be a little nicer to people than that? That sweet young thing is riding along, minding her own business, and here you are barking at her!”
Fifteen minutes later, Greenie and I were ordering ice cream at Barney’s Dairy Stripe, trailside in Adel. We went outside and sat on a curb to enjoy the treats. And there were the two young women we’d just seen on the trail – you and your sister Chris Burt – also sitting on the curb.
At Greenie’s urging, I apologized to you for barking at you about your sunburn. You and I started talking, and it so happened that both of us had ordered peach malts. It was a match made at Barney’s! It was a great omen, maybe a sign from God, or perhaps from Jesus Larry Christ! This could be the relationship with a woman I’d always wanted.
Ever after, Greenie quit referring to you as “that sweet young thing” and instead would tell me “Carla Offenburger is the best decision you ever made.” Amen.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.