Adventures in Marriage

Published 11:09 am Thursday, January 20, 2022

I meet a lot of happily married senior couples in my line of work.

Most have been married for a very long time. I find it fascinating to learn their stories: where they met, why they fell in love, what kind of wedding they had. When I ask questions to seniors visiting our community, I almost always get a smile when it comes to their marriage. There is something about the loves of our lives that perk us up, that make us proud, that remind us of the good in ourselves and in others.

When I talk with couples who have been married for multiple decades, multiple eras, multiple presidents, multiple wars, through multiple technological advances, I sense pride through their body language. They’ll usually give each other a look like, “We made it baby!”

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When I ask specific questions about their marriage, they almost always smile at each other. The gift before my very eyes, playing out right in front of me is empathy.

These two people have experienced life together; decades of changes, decades of love, loss, heartache, celebrations, parties, and holidays. They’ve experienced these events together as one, through sickness
and good health. This bond between a husband and wife is sacred and precious.

When I first met Gary and Donna Bilyeu, (pronounced Ba-lou) I noticed laughter. These two were genuinely happy together and wanted a cottage to live in among peers. When I called them months later with the news that they were next in line for a cottage, I remember them showing up to the tour happy and laughing again. The joy they found in turning over a new page in their story was an honor to witness. Donna made me chuckle as she told me, “Gary and I are just going to have to drive up the road to the Mexican restaurant and have margaritas and discuss this like adults!” The next day, I got a call that they were taking the cottage.

Fast forward to February 2022: Valentine’s Day is among us so I go and check in with the Bilyeus’ at their cottage. They are moved and settled in. Their house is warm, charming, and inviting. There is blue and white china pieces popping up in the living room, dining room and bedrooms, and a cat named Chelsea who hangs out in the master bathroom cabinet. A stationary exercise bike is situated in the back bedroom, looking outside through large patio glass doors. It reminds Donna of Florida.

They have a nice open view on a corner lot at Brooks Place. Before I sit down with some valentine’s day marriage questions for them, Donna stops and asks Alexa about the status of a package.

In a fast moving, complicated world, empathy always slows us down and simplifies life. We are connected through stories, moments, and life events.

In honor of Valentine’s Day and because I know you will enjoy learning about this couple as much as I do, here is their story: Gary and Donna Bilyeu married 41 years ago. This was their second marriage for both of them, and something certainly clicked this time. While Donna was currently living single with 3 young boys and two dogs, her middle son was diagnosed with cancer. Donna needed support. Gary stepped up to watch her 2 dogs while she was in the hospital with her sick son.

They fell in love, got married in a small family wedding, and moved the next day to Bowling Green for Gary’s next line of work. Gary and Donna would move a lot over the next several years for his career in electrical, metal, and all things construction.

One of their favorite past times: spending 20 years traveling back and forth on their motor home, spending the winter months in Florida. They have traveled to every state in the US except for Hawaii, Gary says they couldn’t quite figure out how to get a pontoon there. They laugh, I laugh. I asked them what their most memorable trip was. Donna said the trip to Milan, Italy was at the top of the list.

They traveled there for a job Gary was working on. Donna got to do a lot of site seeing and adventuring while Gary was working. Gary was impressed by their industrial craftsmanship. “To be in Venice, and see this portion of a bridge that the Romans had built…it just got to me!”
Gary and Donna love to dance. They love country music of the 60s and 70s. They particularly love to “Tennessee Waltz.” They once won a dance contest in Bowling Green. Donna says, “he just picked me up and bounced me off his hip all night!” Gary said, “we won because a drunk put up $100 for this contest and we just outlasted him!” We laugh again.

In talking with this couple, I learn that Gary has a lot of hobbies and Donna is proud and supportive of them! She smiles with patience as he shows off his beautiful artwork that she’s seen a time or two. He owns a 27 Essex roadster hot rod. What is fascinating about this: he built it from scratch. He started this project 50 years ago (1971), with some “body parts a fellow had given up on” and when I ask him how long it took to complete, he says,

“It’s STILL not done!” It is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship! Sharp, black, tan leather interior. The drive and perseverance to complete a project like this through life’s happenings is noteworthy. He’s driven about 10,000 miles on it. Donna prefers her adorable 1984 Mercedes Coupe convertible to leisurely stroll in. I’ll take her up on a ride in it one day!

As we switch gears back to Valentine’s Day and their love story, I ask them, “Define marital argument. What does that look like for you?” Gary quickly responds with, “a normal day!” and we all bust into laughter again. Donna goes on to polish his answer, “We laugh and argue a lot. I would say about 50/50. We don’t watch the news, tv, we still do a lot of fun stuff! We argue and laugh a lot!”

“What would you tell a young and engaged couple?” I ask. Donna brings it back to the simplicity that life can be when we practice: “Have patience and have fun!” This 82 and 84 year old still have a lot of adventures left to take. They will take them, they will laugh and they will argue. They will go home at night loving and respecting each other and their hobbies and their interests.

I wrap things up because they’re ready to go out on the town for some lunch. They’ll pick Woody’s local pub. After their travels, adventures, construction jobs for Gary, realty jobs for Donna, love, loss, heartache, and celebrations: they are laughing together.

Being with couples like this everyday at work is a gift. The lessons, the stories, the reminders of what living a good life is all about. Empathy, that connection to one another. You hurt, I hurt. You laugh, I laugh. We all connect through these lifetime moments, events, loss, heartache, celebrations.

We all know what heartache feels like. We all know what happiness feels like. Some have more
experience than others in life’s turbulence, but we can all listen and learn from each other’s
experiences. Stories like these are simple but need to be recognized, honored and celebrated!

Happy 41 years of marriage, Donna and Gary Bilyeu! May you always “have patience, have fun, and laugh!”

Chelsea Reese is marketing director for Rose Mary C. Brooks Place.