An elderly woman sat quietly at a small desk in the corner of the room. She had just finished putting her feelings down on paper, and she was lost in thought about the person she’d written to when there was a gentle knock on the door.
Sarah looked up and called out, “Come in. The door is open.”
A tall dignified-looking woman in her late forties stuck her head in.
“Is this a bad time? Are you busy?”
“No, it’s fine. Please, come in and sit down.” Sarah thought she had met everyone at the assisted living facility, but she did not know this person. She was curious about who this individual was.
The woman stepped into the room, and Sarah could see that she was nicely dressed in business attire. The woman smiled warmly and said, “Hello, my name is Jill Harrison. I’m the Director of the facility. Today is my first day back from a six-week leave of absence, so, because you just joined us a month ago, I have not had the opportunity to meet you and welcome you into our family.”
“Oh, well thank you! I’m sure you already know, but I’m Sarah Fleming.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please call me Jill. Is it alright if I call you Sarah?”
“Of course! It is so nice to meet you, Jill.”
Smiling warmly, the director said, “I hope you’ve gotten settled in. I must say, you’ve done a wonderful job decorating your apartment.”
“Thank you. It has taken a little while, but it’s starting to feel like home.”
Jill looked around the room. On one wall there was a collection of framed cross-stitch samplers. Pointing to them, she said, “Oh, my! Those are lovely.”
“It’s been my hobby for many years, but my eyes aren’t what they used to be, and each one gets a little more challenging.”
Jill walked over to them. “They are beautiful and so intricate.”
“Once I retired, I had more time to devote to it, and it was a good way to pass the time. Most of them I give away as gifts, but I do keep a few.”
Looking at the desk, Jill said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt what you were doing.”
“Actually, you didn’t. I had just finished writing an important letter.”
Jill was impressed. “That is a rare thing. Unfortunately, letter writing seems to be a lost art in this day and age. The young folks all email or text each other on their phones.”
Sarah knew Jill was right. “I’ve never really learned how to use a computer. Just not interested, I guess. But it doesn’t matter anyway. I’m not going to mail the letter.”
Jill was caught off guard. Innocently she asked, “After going to all the trouble to write it, you don’t want to mail it?”
Sarah smiled in a way that made it clear she had deep feelings for whoever the letter was for. “I write to this person once a year, on the same date, but I never mail them.”
Jill was curious. “I know that it’s none of my business, but if you don’t mind me asking, why don’t you mail them?”
Sarah hesitated and then softly said, “I don’t mail them because the recipient is deceased.”
The director was both surprised and confused by her answer.
Sarah looked down at the letter in her hands. “The person I write to has been dead for fifty-two years.”
Jill was stunned and without realizing it, she dropped into a chair across from Sarah. She studied the petite woman in front of her and gently said, “I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. You have just finished writing a letter to a person who has been deceased for decades, and you’ve written to them before?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Jill had never heard of such a thing. “Sarah, I know this is personal, and I don’t want you to feel obligated to engage in a conversation that makes you uncomfortable, but if this is something you’d like to talk about, I would like to hear the story behind this.”
Sarah was touched. “I appreciate your interest, but you’re in charge here. Don’t you have things you need to do? Aren’t you too busy to sit here with me?”
Jill shook her head. “Absolutely not. In all honesty, I can’t think of anything else I would rather do right now.”
Sarah thought for a moment. “It’s difficult to talk about because it brings back so many painful memories, but I’ll try. I just hope you’ll be able to understand why I do it.” She reached into the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a small key, which she used to unlock a narrow desk drawer. Carefully she lifted out a beautifully framed picture and handed it to Jill.
It was a large photo of a couple obviously in love. It only took Jill a moment to realize that she was looking at a young Sarah.
“That is a very handsome gentleman you’re with.”
Sarah smiled. “That is Ron Masters, my fiancée. And yes, he was very good-looking.”
Although she didn’t say anything, Jill knew for a fact that Sarah Fleming had never married. The director had studied her background file before coming to visit, primarily to get an overview of Sarah’s physical health. The new resident had moved into assisted living because of advanced osteoporosis which had led to multiple falls and required her to have both hips replaced. Because of her balance issues, she now depended on a walker to assist with her mobility.
Sarah admired the photo for a second and then said, “It’s my most valuable possession, so I don’t like to leave it out for fear that something will happen to it. The picture is from 1966. Ron and I met in college, and we dated for two years. After we graduated, he joined the Marines, and that was the last photo taken of us before he shipped out to Vietnam. We had gotten engaged the week before.”
She paused for a moment to collect herself before continuing. “Ron was killed with just six weeks remaining on his tour of duty – but his body was never recovered, and he was classified as MIA. We had a memorial service for him, but there is no grave for me to visit.”
With a catch in her voice, Sarah explained, “Each year since Ron died, I’ve written a letter to him on what would’ve been our wedding date. That is tomorrow. We were to be married one month after his return on Saturday, September 10th, 1967.
“After I found out that he would never be coming home, one of the most difficult issues to deal with was the lack of information regarding Ron’s death. Because his body was never recovered, the Marine Corps. could tell me very little regarding the circumstances of how he was killed. There just weren’t any details available.”
Jill studied the face of the seventy-four-year-old woman. and it was evident that Sarah, even after all of this time, was still very much in love with this person.
Sarah reached across the desk and opened a large folder containing the previous fifty-one letters. “I was just about to add this one to the others when you arrived. I know it might not make sense to some people but taking the time once a year to pour out my heart to him makes me feel like we are still connected, at least in spirit.”
“If it makes you feel better than that is all that matters.”
Sarah smiled. “I still feel such devotion to him because Ron was my first love – but, more importantly, he was my only love.”
Trying to control her emotion, Jill said, “Sarah this is just about the most heartbreaking and yet beautiful thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“It’s funny, I haven’t seen Ron in fifty-two years, and yet I still dream about him in great detail. And in my dreams, we are always young, with our futures ahead of us……But then I wake up and realize that my life has gone by without him and, even after all this time, it still hurts so bad.”
Through the years, Jill had heard many touching stories from the residents, but nothing like this. The love this woman had for a person who had been gone for so long was breathtaking.
Sarah offered more personal details. “Ron had a difficult childhood. He never knew who his parents were, and he was moved around from one foster home to another. The night before he shipped out, he told me I was the first person who had ever loved him, and hearing that broke my heart. I promised that no matter how long it took, I would wait for him until we could be together again, and I have kept my promise. He was the love of my life – and that means all of my life.
“Even though our engagement ended in 1967, our commitment to each other has no end. We both believed that as long as one of us was alive, that commitment should be honored……You don’t stop loving someone because they’re gone. I gave Ron my heart forever, and I meant it.”
Jill wanted Sarah to know that she understood, so, although it was difficult, she decided to share her own pain. Slowly, she said, “When I walked in here, I just assumed it would be a brief visit, admittedly on a superficial level, but now I want to assure you that I truly appreciate your story.”
She took a deep breath and continued. “My leave of absence was because I had to care for my husband with terminal cancer.”
Sarah gasped. “Oh no. I am so sorry.”
“The only reason I mention it now is that I want you to know that I completely understand what it’s like to lose the one person you love more than any other.”
Sarah reached over and patted Jill’s hand. “It is the most difficult thing in life, but until someone experiences it like we have, they can’t really appreciate just how devastating it is.”
“You’re right,” Jill said. “But as you mentioned earlier, at least I have a grave to visit, a place to grieve. Something you’ve been denied.”
The two women, who had discovered they shared the pain of enduring a heartbreaking loss, chatted for a few more minutes about love and life, then they hugged, and the director returned to her office.
The next morning, Jill Harrison sat at her desk nervously drumming her fingers. She had not been able to stop thinking about her visit with Sarah. The story was so unusual it had preoccupied her to the point that every time she closed her eyes, she clearly saw the photo of the young couple in her mind.
But earlier, during her commute to work, she had an idea. It was improbable at best, but it was worth a try.
In the afternoon, Jill was going to participate in an important conference call that involved directors from all over the country. Her location was just one in a large national network of assisted living facilities.
Because so many directors would be involved, she thought it would be an excellent opportunity to tell Sarah’s story, in the hope that it would generate some ideas on how to find information about an individual who had been MIA for so long.
About an hour before the call was to take place, Jill went to Sarah’s room and asked for her permission to discreetly tell her story to the other directors. The director explained that she would not give out any specific details to ensure that Sarah’s privacy would be maintained. Jill admitted it was a long shot, but she wanted to see if someone might know how to get information about Ron or at least be able to point her toward a person or organization that could help.
Because the story was so personal, Sarah was initially hesitant, but realizing this might be her last opportunity to learn something about her fiancée, she decided to give Jill her permission.
Two hours later, near the close of the conference call, the director took the opportunity to mention the soldier who never came home. Everyone was touched by what they heard, and many said they would do what they could to help.
Once the call concluded, Jill went straight to Sarah’s apartment and told her that at least some people expressed interest in their story. She told Sarah she’d let her know immediately if anything turned up, and then she headed back to her office.
Jill was buried in paperwork when fifteen minutes later her phone rang. It was Robert McCarty, a director from a facility on the other side of the state. She didn’t know him well, but they were acquaintances. Bob told her he was intrigued by Sarah’s story, and being a former marine, he would like to do some investigating on his end to see if he could uncover any facts.
Jill thanked him, hung up, and doubting there was any reason to be optimistic, quickly forgot about the call. An hour later she finished her work and left for the day.
That evening at home, she continued to be fascinated by the love story that had lasted for more than fifty years. She wished someone could provide Sarah with at least a bit of information about her fiancée, but she knew in her heart that, after this much time had elapsed, there was little hope that anyone would be able to help them.
The next morning, Jill had an early staff meeting so it was a little later than usual before she settled in behind her desk. As always, the first thing she wanted to do was check her email. As she scrolled through the dozens of messages, one, in particular, caught her eye. It was from Robert McCarty. She immediately clicked on it, and when it opened, what she saw made her gasp in disbelief. With her heart pounding, she stared at the email for several seconds trying to make sense of what she knew was impossible.
Bob McCarty had sent her the image of a man who appeared to be in his mid to late seventies sitting in a wheelchair with a blanket covering his lap. But it was the item he held in his hands that made Jill’s eyes begin to blur with tears.
The gentleman was holding the edges of a picture frame that contained the exact same photo that Sarah had shown her. Unconsciously holding her breath, Jill studied the image, and she could see that there was no doubt that the man in the wheelchair was Sarah’s fiancée, Ronald Masters.
She sat frozen in shock until it suddenly dawned on her what to do. Frustrated with herself that she hadn’t thought of it before, Jill did a quick search on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and discovered that Ronald Masters was not listed on the Memorial Wall. He was alive – and he was less than one hundred miles away.
Bob had included only one sentence with the photo. It read: Please call me ASAP!
Jill did not hesitate. For the next hour, they excitedly talked about the unbelievable coincidence of a lifetime. He told her that it took a little while for him to connect the dots and realize that the resident in his facility was actually the man she was looking for.
Bob told her that the gentleman was eager for the email to be sent so he could find out if the person Jill was talking about was indeed the love of his life. Furthermore, Bob stated that the man had never married and that if Sarah was indeed Ron’s fiancée, he was intensely interested in meeting with her – if she was willing.
The phone call concluded with Jill saying that she would carefully break the news to Sarah. Then, once she got her response, she would get back to him about any plans for the future.
After she hung up, Jill allowed the tears to flow as she thought about how such a short distance separated two souls who had made a commitment to spend their lives together but instead had suffered alone.
Realizing that she had a delicate task ahead of her, Jill began to wonder how she should tell Sarah the stunning news. It would be such a shock that she wanted to do it in the most sensitive way possible. She ran several different scenarios through her mind, but she finally realized she would just have to play it by ear based on Sarah’s reaction. Jill knew that you didn’t often have the opportunity to change someone’s life in such a profound way, and she hoped she was up to it.
She printed off the email, and after taking a few seconds to compose herself, she headed off to break the news to the person who had waited more than five decades for this day to arrive.
When she got to Sarah’s apartment, the door was ajar, and Jill could see her sitting in the same comfortable chair working on a cross-stitch.
The Director peeked in. “Good morning, Sarah. Have you got a minute to talk?”
Sarah was always happy to have a visitor. “Good morning, Jill! Please, come on in.”
Jill walked in, holding the folder with the photo behind her back. She stepped over to Sarah and admired the cross-stitch. “Oh, that is beautiful.”
Sarah sighed. “It is pretty, but it’s taking a long time to finish it.”
“Mind if I sit down?”
“Of course not. I love it when people stop by.”
Jill pulled a chair up close to Sarah and laid the folder on the desk. “My visit has a purpose.”
The serious tone of her voice caught Sarah by surprise. “Is everything all right? Is there some kind of problem?”
“No, it’s not a problem, but it’s something I need to discuss with you.”
Sarah could tell this was important, so she set the cross stitch on the desk and gave the director her full attention. “What is it?”
Jill struggled to find the right words. “As I promised – without giving away any personal details – I relayed your story to some other directors at various facilities.”
Sarah’s eyes widened, and her voice filled with excitement. “Did you find out something? Did someone have some information?”
Jill took a deep breath. “Yes, I have something. You need to see this.” She opened the folder and handed the paper to Sarah.
Sarah took it and leaned down close to see. It only took a moment for tears to begin to stream down her face. Shaking, she looked up at Jill and asked, “Oh my God. Is it true? Is this really true?”
Jill smiled. “Yes, it is.”
Her chest heaved with emotion. “Oh, I want it to be true so bad – but how can it be?”
Sarah leaned over and took Sarah’s hand in hers. “Ron is living in this state, not that far away. He’s been in that assisted living facility for the last three years. The director there is an ex-marine, and he did some investigating and was shocked when he realized that the man we were looking for was right there. Someone he actually knew.”
Jill watched as Sarah’s tears turned into sobs. “Are you okay, darling?”
Sarah took a second to get her breath. “I have never been so happy in my life. I am so thankful……but……I don’t understand why Ron never reached out to me. Why didn’t he try to find me?” She paused and then her face contorted with pain. “He must have fallen out of love with me. He didn’t want to be together. He didn’t even want to see me.”
Jill knew from her discussion with Bob that the truth was something else. “Sarah, I had a long conversation with the director at that facility. He knows Ron very well. And I know for a fact that Ron desperately wanted to see you when he came back from Vietnam – and just as importantly, he would like to see you now so he can explain why he never contacted you. But he said he would understand if you didn’t want to see him after all these years. He said he didn’t blame you if……if you couldn’t find it in your heart to forgive him.”
Sarah’s shoulders slumped. “How could he possibly think that?”
“Just like you, Ron never married, and, of course, he has no family. He is not able to drive, but the director said he would be happy to bring him here so you two could spend some time together. Would you like that?”
Sarah’s entire face lit up, and she rose from her chair. “Yes! Oh, yes! Please make that happen. As soon as possible!”
Smiling, Jill said, “I will go make the call.”
As she stood up to leave, Sarah wrapped her arms around Jill in a warm hug and said, “I cannot repay you for what you’ve done for me. No matter how this turns out, you have given me a gift that I never thought was possible. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Jill stepped back and said, “Well, now you’re making me cry.” She brushed away a tear. “I am thrilled that you get to see the person you love.”
Bursting with gratitude, Sarah said, “I owe it all to you!”
She turned to leave, and when she got to the door, Jill said, “We’ll get you two together as soon as possible.”
Walking back to her office, the director had never been so happy to make a phone call. The two directors, realizing that this was a highly emotional situation, discussed what the possible repercussions might be when two people met again after fifty years, but it was something both parties wanted so they were determined to see it through. It was decided that Bob would drive Ron over on Saturday afternoon.
Sarah was so excited she could hardly stand it, but as the reunion got closer, her excitement slowly began to fade, and she became sick with worry. Would Ron even recognize her after so many years? Would he be shocked by the way she had aged? And, even worse, would he decide that seeing her again was a terrible mistake?
But although she was afraid of how he might react, she was still eternally grateful to have the opportunity to be together. It would be such an enormous relief to finally see him and at least know that he was alive and well.
After enduring days of fear and doubt, the weekend finally arrived. All Sarah could do now was hope for the best.
Jill nervously waited behind the sliding glass doors at the front of the facility to greet Ron and Bob. She didn’t have to wait long. After only a few minutes, a large van with the name of the assisted living center on it pulled up to the door. She watched as Bob got out and used a lift to lower Ron’s wheelchair down to the pavement.
That was the heartbreaking moment when Jill clearly saw the horrific ravages of war. In the photo, there was a blanket covering his lap, but now she could clearly see that Ron had lost his right leg above the knee and his left leg just below the knee. She couldn’t help but wonder if that explained some of his reluctance to reach out to Sarah.
When the two men entered the building, Jill introduced herself and then smiled at Ron. “Mr. Masters, you have no idea how glad I am to meet you. Sarah has told me so much about you I feel like I already know you.”
Ron looked up at her, his eyes filled with anxiety. “Thank you so much for helping us. I just hope that Sarah is not expecting me to be the person I once was. I don’t want to disappoint her.”
The director smiled reassuringly. “You have nothing to worry about. She simply cannot wait to see you, so let’s go meet her.” She led them through several long hallways to the apartment. Not surprisingly, the door was wide open, and Sarah sat facing the entryway.
Jill looked in and winked at her. “I have a gentleman visitor for you.”
Bob pushed Ron into the room and rolled his chair next to Sarah who was trembling as she gazed into the eyes of the man she had never stopped loving.
In a voice choked with emotion, Ron said, “My dear Sarah, you are even more beautiful than I remember.”
Slowly she leaned over, put her head on his shoulder, and began to softly cry.
Having done everything they could to make this moment possible, Jill and Bob now wanted to give them their privacy, so they quietly slipped out and closed the door.
For a short time, the reunited couple held each other in silence until finally Sarah gently took his face in her hands and kissed him. “For so many years, I have dreamed about this moment – but I never thought it would happen.”
Gently he stroked her hair and said, “When Bob told me you were here, I couldn’t believe it.”
Sarah whispered, “We’ve waited so long for this moment that it seems too good to be true. I’m afraid I’ll wake up and realize it was just another dream.”
Ron looked away and said, “I bet I didn’t look like this in your dreams.”
Sarah kissed his forehead. “No dream can compare to the real you. I’m just so very thankful you survived such horrible injuries.”
Ron hesitated for a few seconds and then said, “It was a landmine……In an instant, the world exploded. I remember looking down at my legs and thinking I was going to bleed to death, but the medevac helicopter got there just in time.”
Sarah closed her eyes to try to block out the image. When she opened them, she tenderly said, “You will never know how much I missed you. Every single day my heart ached to think that you had violently died so far away.”
Ron tried to keep his composure. “Sarah, I am so sorry. I am ashamed that I let you believe all those years that I was not alive. It is unforgivable. You have every right to hate me, but you must try to understand that I am no longer the man you thought I was.”
“Please don’t say that.”
“But it’s true.”
“What do you mean? You’re here. We’re together. You are the man I’ve loved all of my life.”
“I wish I was. I’d give anything if I was.” Ron’s face showed the weariness of the struggles he had waged through the decades. “When I came home from Vietnam, I wasn’t the same. Of course, the physical wounds were hard to deal with, but being over there changed me. I didn’t think the same way or believe the same things, and I was afraid that you wouldn’t recognize me anymore because I didn’t recognize myself.”
Sarah was trying to understand what he was telling her, but it was difficult.
“I saw terrible things during the war, and I had to do terrible things. And when I got back, I just couldn’t forget what had happened.
“Between my physical and mental challenges, I didn’t think it would be fair to let you see the person I had become. I wanted you to remember me the way I was when you fell in love with me. Because, in my heart, I knew I could no longer measure up to that memory.”
Hearing those words made her realize that Ron did not believe that she still loved him, and Sarah knew she had to make him understand that, as far as she was concerned, nothing had changed. “I made a promise to love you forever, and I meant it with all my heart. I loved you then, and I love you now.”
Ron shook his head. “But I don’t think anyone could’ve loved me when I came back. I couldn’t function. My personality had totally changed. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and it took years for me to regain control of my life. I had severe mental health issues, and I struggled to cope as a civilian……And of course, my disability affected everything.
“But each time I made some progress and started feeling better about myself, I would think about getting in touch with you, but then I would have some kind of relapse, and I knew I couldn’t face you.”
Ron tried to convey how he felt during that time. “Sarah, you’ve got to understand, that when I came home from Vietnam, I hated everyone – except you. No matter how bad my life became, it was comforting to know that you once loved me. I felt so blessed to have met you and been with you for even a short amount of time.”
Sarah, in turn, wanted Ron to understand her truth. “It’s not that I once loved you. I never stopped loving you. If only you would’ve reached out to me, I could have helped you. I could’ve been there for you. We could have gone through all the difficult times together.”
“No. I couldn’t do that to you. I was ashamed of who I had become, and I knew you deserved a better person than I was at that time.”
“But none of it was your fault. You went to war and were forced to experience horrors that no one should have to live through. You can’t help the way it affected you.”
Ron knew she was right, but he didn’t believe it excused his behavior toward the woman he loved. “That’s true. But it is my fault that we spent our lives apart when we could’ve been together. And I can’t forgive myself for that.”
Anguish filled his voice as he pleaded, “You’ve got to believe me when I say that I never stopped loving you either. Not for a single moment. There were so many times I wanted to reach out to you, but I was just too ashamed. I was weak.”
“No, no. You weren’t weak. You were in pain.”
Ron sat quietly for a few moments, thinking about how soothing it was to hear Sarah’s voice. It made him wish he could go back in time and have her by his side as he faced his struggles. But, tragically, all the intervening decades were lost forever.
Trying to explain his inexcusable behavior, he said, “Years later, when I’d recovered to the point where I felt like I was someone you could love; I was sure it was too late. I assumed you had gotten married, settled down, and started a family. I didn’t believe I had the right to intrude into the life you had made for yourself.”
Sarah responded honestly, “I didn’t get married because you are the only person I could ever love.”
“I felt the same way. I never stopped thinking about you, worrying about you and I couldn’t stop loving you – so, I lived alone. My life has been one filled with constant regret because I didn’t get to spend it with you.”
Sarah looked at him with a burning intensity. “You underestimated how much I loved you then and how much I love you now.”
Ron shook his head. “But look at me. I’m a stranger to you.”
Sarah leaned in close to him. “When I look into your eyes, I see no difference. Even though it’s been more than fifty years, you are the person I gave my heart to, and you are the person I will always love.”
Ron didn’t know what else to say. He had accepted responsibility for his behavior, but even after the way he’d treated her, she still loved him.
Finally, he said, “Sarah, we have lost so many years, and I can never begin to make it up to you – but I want you to know that I love you just as much today as I did the day our photo was taken. And for the rest of my life, I will never stop loving you……I beg you to please forgive me.”
Sarah smiled at him in the same way that had touched his heart the day they met. “There is nothing to forgive. You made the decision not to reach out to me because at the time you believed you were protecting me from what you were going through. I understand why you did it. However, I believe you were mistaken. I think it would’ve been better for you if I had been by your side.”
She thought for a moment before reaching into a desk drawer and retrieving a folder. “I want to show you something.”
“What is it?”
Carefully, Sarah pulled out all of the letters. “I’ve written to you on our wedding date every year we’ve been apart.”
Ron was stunned. “You wrote to me even though you thought we could never be together?”
“That’s right. I would have given anything to be with you – if I had only known the truth. But that is all in the past and cannot be changed. However, we are miraculously together again. So, the question is, how do we go forward? What do we do with this second chance we’ve been given?”
Ron put his head down, afraid to look her in the eyes. “I know what I want to happen, but I also know that I don’t deserve it.”
With her heart pounding she asked, “What? What is it you want to happen?”
He lifted his head and despite being racked with guilt and shame, he said, “I have been alone all of my life, and I don’t want to be alone at the end of it……Sarah, if you’ll have me, I want to marry you.”
One month later, on Thursday, October 10th, 2019, Sarah Jane Fleming and Ronald Franklin Masters were joined together in Holy Matrimony. Their wedding took place exactly fifty-two years and one month after the original date.
The beautiful ceremony was attended by many friends who were deeply touched when the bride and groom lovingly recited vows they had written themselves. Jill Harrison was thrilled to be the maid of honor, and Robert McCarty proudly served as the best man. Both of them felt a special joy at having played a part in bringing the adoring couple together, and in having the opportunity to witness firsthand the undeniable power of the human heart.
Now husband and wife forever, Ron and Sarah’s total commitment to each other had proven beyond all doubt that their enduring devotion was truly a love without end.