Linked in life and in death

William and Carlyn Gray, together 60 years, companions as well in their parting

July 30, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER

He liked Seinfeld; she watched 7th Heaven. She was petite; he towered. She was the only Orioles fan who could match his fervor.

She favored Liz Claiborne and Oleg Cassini; he wore whatever she told him to. On their wedding day nearly 60 years ago, that was a silky ascot beneath a dark tuxedo. Her gown glowed like a pearl, and she carried white roses.

There were more white roses Thursday, when William and Carlyn Gray of Towson were laid to rest at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. They were buried in the Field of Honor, in the same grave. Her ashes were tucked inside his casket. They died within 36 hours of each other.

He had cancer; her kidneys went.

At a luncheon after the funeral, mourners remarked that death was a fitting end to a lifelong love.

"They were made for each other, and they died together," said Fred Schroter of Lutherville, the couple's longtime friend. "This was providence."

Their relationship was simple but symbiotic. He could barely boil water, and she never learned to drive. She made him sour beef with dumplings. He made her laugh. She called him "hon" and "knucklehead." He called her Carlyn.

Growing up in Waverly, he was a flirt, an old friend said; she, raised on Cecil Avenue, was too pretty to need to be. He waited tables and stole french fries from young women. She charmed the Naval Academy cadets that her girlfriends socialized with. There were plenty of tea dances and taffeta dresses, yet nobody caught her eye. Or his. Their friends knew each other, but they had not yet met.

After high school, she went to work at a downtown bank. He went to Washington College in Chestertown, and then to war.

He still wore his Army boots the day he knocked on her parents' door, in search of a friend who was painting their kitchen. After the introductions, a few words were exchanged. There was nothing to suggest that she would someday comb his hair like a child's, or that he would clutch her hand as if it were sculpted gold.

That was early in 1945. By their wedding in 1946, he was already changing. "Big Bill" had a reputation for practical jokes and impatience. He once left his best friend in the dust when the boy was late to catch a ride.

For Carlyn, though, Bill would wait in the driver's seat for hours, as she finished up at the beauty parlor or the grocery store.

Her friend once gave him a plaque that said, "World's Most Patient Man."

She watched his diet like a hawk. Her specialty was hot milk cake; she locked the recipe in her safe. Friends joked that if food wasn't from Carlyn's kitchen or on the menu at the Peppermill in Lutherville, Bill wouldn't eat it.

They had no children, but many nieces and nephews. He walked a niece down the aisle. Carlyn stayed at the back of the church, to supervise the dress train.

He worked most of his life in finance, and so did she. Thanksgiving was always at their rowhouse in Idlewylde. They vacationed in Ocean City rentals with friends. They were invited to family reunions of people they weren't really related to.

Near the time they retired, they moved to an apartment in Towson. Their schedule was crammed with baseball games and bridge and morning constitutionals at the Towson Town Center. On Sundays, they went to church and on long drives. Three nights a week, they dined at the Peppermill with widowed friends.

On May 8, they rode together in an ambulance to St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. They had seemed fairly well until the winter, even celebrating the New Year at the Peppermill. But then their health failed suddenly, simultaneously. Both were suffering.

They stayed in adjoining rooms in the emergency unit, waving at each other through an open door. But soon they were transferred to different floors, then different facilities.

He went to the Brightwood nursing home in Lutherville. She went home to the apartment, briefly, before returning to a hospice in Timonium.

Where's my sweetie? she often asked.

She would call to remind him when the Orioles game was on, but he could barely lift the phone, relatives said. She visited several times in her wheelchair, propelled by a niece and bearing gifts of soda and potato chips. He wasn't eating, maybe because she wasn't cooking.

They would hold hands, and talk a little. She despaired over his stubble.

Fix that blanket! she'd say. Don't you think he needs another pillow?

Carlyn, don't worry about it, he'd say. There's nothing we can do.

He died last Saturday night, at the age of 84.

She died Monday, at 81. Her eyes were closed when the nieces broke the news about Bill.

Knowing they spent their last days apart makes everyone feel sad. Family members had looked into getting an ambulance to transport one to the other, but neither was strong enough to be moved.

"It almost brings me to tears to think about it," said Norman Tarr, a retired physician from Belleair, Fla., who painted the kitchen where they met so long ago. "Bill and Carlyn, who loved each other and were so loyal and faithful to each other, didn't have the opportunity to care for and comfort each other."

But Carlyn would say that wasn't so. Bill, though bedridden, visited her a few days before his death -- at least, that's what she said. She claimed he left only when the nurses shooed him out; her memories were so vivid that the nieces half believed her. She wondered aloud how he would make it home.

She wanted to go home, too, she said later that day, in one of her last conversations with a niece, Deborah Green of Bel Air.

Home to your apartment? Deborah asked.

No, she said. There are too many stairs.

Home to heaven?

She didn't answer. She only said:

Tell Bill to pull the car around.

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