Ron Webb pulls on a sweater, then a coat, then gloves.
He dons his trusty Stetson cowboy straw hat, the one with the little gold salmon pinned to it.
Finally, he puts on his dark glasses.
He is set.
Webb grabs the tire of his wheelchair with his left hand, his good one.
And he starts rolling.
At no small peril, he is off to visit Lavern, 84, his best friend, his wife, the love of his life.
He is 85, bound to the wheelchair, slowed a bit by a stroke several years back.
But nothing will stop him.
He will roll frontwards and backwards. He will navigate bumpy sidewalks and cars that slash rudely in front of him. He will endure wind and chill.
It will be worth it.
“When I see Lavern, I feel like I am 19 years old,” he said.
Their love began nearly 40 years ago in the Bay Area. Ron, a painting contractor, was divorced. Lavern, a bookkeeper, was widowed. They each had children.
They had the magic, the chemistry. As with many relationships, it was yin complementing yang. Ron with an outgoing, strong-willed personality, Lavern quieter, more patient.
“Our first date, I asked her to go fishing. If I was going to date someone, they had to like fishing,” Ron said. “We went to Rio Vista. Didn’t catch anything, but I found a wife.”
Lavern remembers that date a little differently.
“We went to Tahoe for a country-western act,” she said.
They were compatible and, whether fishing or visiting casinos or traveling to see friends and family, they simply enjoyed each other.
They married in Carson City.
“I asked her if she wanted to go get married, and she said yes, so we just up and eloped,” Ron said.
Together, and then apart
They settled in San Jose, continued their careers, Ron working long hours painting everything from houses to hospitals, Lavern working for the County of Santa Clara in bookkeeping and administration.
Their marriage was good, their lives were good. They retired and moved to Valley Springs.
Then, about 10 years ago, Ron suffered a stroke. Lavern doted on him, took care of him. Gradually, he made progress. Later, he went through a bout of cancer and major surgery. Lavern was by his side.
But several years ago, Lavern suffered a series of falls. She became unsteady, and her family decided she needed a new home.
The caregiver needed care herself.
She moved into Fairmont Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Lodi, into a room with a large picture window that looks out over Fairmont Avenue.
Ron moved in with a sister in Ceres.
“We got him up to Lodi to see Lavern a few times a week,” said his nephew, Jeff Hilbert. “But that wasn’t enough. He wanted to be with her every day.”
Ron puts it bluntly: “I missed her so much. I was miserable.”
There were no rooms available at the time at Fairmont, so a room was found for Ron at the Vienna Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Ham Lane, about three blocks away from Lavern.
Not exactly next door, but close enough.
After breakfast, the journey begins
It’s possible Ron could move into Fairmont, or Lavern could move to Vienna, but things are OK as they are.
“Ron seems happy here, and I hear Lavern is happy at Fairmont, and it all just works out,” said Corey Wright, administrator at Vienna.
So Ron’s journey has become a daily ritual. He finishes his breakfast of eggs and cereal. He receives a shot to combat diabetes. Then he rolls out of the room, the one with the framed photo next to his bed of himself and Lavern dressed to the nines at a banquet some years ago.
He threads through the traffic in Vienna’s long hallways, and then into the sunlight.
At first, he rolls forward, his legs shuffling along to help with his progress.
Back at Campbell High School, he was a strapping athlete and later a bodybuilder.
“Heck, this is good exercise,” he said, “keeps me in shape.”
He’s made this trip so many times, he knows every bump and crevice.
He tried public transit for a while, but the logistics and scheduling didn’t work out.
So now he rolls. Past medical offices, past the parked Nissans and Jeeps and across driveways.
On one straightaway stretch, he deftly turns his chair and begins rolling backwards, and picks up speed.
How does he know where he is going?
“Well, I look,” he says, simply.
At the frantic intersection of Fairmont and Vine, next to Lodi Adventist hospital, he pauses. A truck stops, and Ron waves a gloved hand, ordering the driver through.
But as Ron continues through the crosswalk, another driver pulls a California stop, slipping into the intersection and within a few feet of the fellow with the cowboy hat in the wheelchair.
“Oh, come on,” Ron mutters to the driver.
“You know, I’ve come close to being hit 17 times at this intersection. People just don’t pay attention.”
Then, after a trip of 20 minutes, he is there, at last, with his bride.
Secrets to a lasting love
Ron rolls into Lavern’s room and the two smile at each other. They sit, each in wheelchairs, below the sunlit window, and talk a little. As they sit together, they are asked: What is the attraction?
“Well, she was the only one who would put up with me,” Ron said.
“He always stood up for us. And he’s always happy,” Lavern said.
And the secret to an enduring marriage?
“Don’t argue,” Ron said. “Life is too short.”
“Don’t hold a grudge,” Lavern said, and then echoed: “Life is too short.”
In years past, they’d celebrate Valentine’s Day with a little trip, maybe to a casino or a restaurant.
This Valentine’s Day, there are no grand plans. With the help of a friend, Lavern has crafted a card for her husband.
Asked what he’ll give Lavern, Ron doesn’t hesitate.
“Me,” he said, chuckling.
After their interview, they will go to the activity room and Ron will have a mocha and Lavern will have coffee. Afterwards, they will roll over to the big glass doors facing Fairmont and sit together, just watching the world go by. Ron will begin the journey back to Vienna after lunch.
He will be back to Fairmont and Lavern the next day, even if it is windy or cold.
And the next, and the next.
After all, she is the love of his life.