Today I am celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Best Day Of My Life. On Jan. 19, 2002 I met the most extraordinary, fascinating, person I have ever known. Two years, two months and two days later, I married her, in the same place I met her. Her name is Lillian Crook. I love her.
In early January 2002, I was deep in the throes of grief after losing my lovely wife, Rita, to cancer just three months earlier. Grief manifests itself in many different ways for each of us. I was suffering panic/anxiety attacks, feeling like the walls were closing in on me, and I had to rush to get out of doors. I couldn’t sleep without strong sleep medicine. I tried hard to be cheerful, which is my nature, around other people, but at home, alone, on evenings and weekends, I sank pretty deep into depression.
Then one day a letter arrived from an old friend, Clay Jenkinson, inviting me to join him for a winter weekend adventure, a Lewis and Clark-themed winter campout at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, which was being staged by the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the adventure organization Outward Bound. Learning about history, eating around a campfire, sleeping in a tent on a North Dakota winter night.
Clay and I had been talking and corresponding since Rita’s death, and he knew how hard weekends were for me. He was going to be part of the program, recounting the time Lewis and Clark spent in that very place a couple of hundred years earlier. We were coming up on the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and this was one of those commemorative events.
Well, what the heck, why not? I was certainly interested in the history of Lewis and Clark and their time in North Dakota, and if Clay could sleep outside on a winter night, I guess I could. He was just a Plains-raised English major like me, no rough-and-tumble trapper from the mountains. Besides, I had done that a couple of times, although I was wise enough not to sleep in a tent, because tents collect a lot of moisture in the winter. Better to just crash out on the ground beside some shelter from the wind. I had done that, using two sleeping bags, one inside the other, a couple of times.
I crossed paths with Lillian not long after we arrived at Knife River, as we walked across the prairie toward our first event of the day. She started the conversation with, “You have a history at Dickinson State University, right?” Yes, I replied, I was there in the ’60s and ’70s. Turns out she worked there, as director of Library Services, and she had been a student there in the ’80s with two of my sisters. That was enough of a conversation starter.
We became casual friends that day, and she, like me, knew better than to crawl into a tent when it was time for bed. We slept under the stars on a January night when the temperatures dipped into the low teens, as did Clay, who knew Lillian from visits to her library (and had a few books, she later pointed out to him, which he had never returned). The Outward Bound folks had provided nice warm sleeping bags, and we weren’t cold until we had to crawl out in the morning.
Let me tell you, if you’ve never crawled out of a warm sleeping bag in the dark of a winter morning when the thermometer reads 12 degrees, it is quite an experience. We dashed quickly inside the visitor center for coffee and a warm breakfast, and that’s when both of us, I think, started pondering possibilities. The day before, I had learned her name was Lillian but not much else about her.
Over breakfast, I learned that her last name was Crook and that she had grown up in Rhame, North Dakota. “Oh,” I asked, “is Garland Crook your uncle?”
“No, he’s my dad,” she replied.
“Well, he was a friend of my dad’s,” I said. “We used to hunt grouse at your place. I probably knew you when you were a little girl in pigtails.”
“I never wore pigtails.”
Well, those four words, and the semi-haughty tone in which she said them, have been cemented in my brain ever since, now exactly 20 years. I’m going to get to know this woman, I said to myself.
It didn’t take long. By spring, we were madly in love, courting from a hundred miles apart, she in Dickinson, me in Bismarck, spending time together on weekends and most nights in long phone conversations.
The courtship lasted those two years, two months and two days. We were married in the Earth Lodge at Knife River by Judge Ronald Hilden, a lifelong friend of mine, who brought along his wife, Rhoda, a longtime friend of Lillian’s, who had been a special teacher to her daughter, Rachel, at Dickinson High School. Over the years, there have been many karmic events like that. We were meant for each other. It just took a long time for our paths to cross. But boy, when they did, it was magic.
Twenty years. I’m not going to suggest we sleep outside in the snow tonight, although we’ve done our share of winter camping together since that night. We both have warm gear, but I have an old man’s back now and haven’t slept on the ground since we bought a camper last year. And probably won’t any time soon. This morning, in a warm bed, I awoke to find her holding my hand. Ah, I thought, she remembered, too. We might just hold hands all day.