Column: ‘I’m Gonna Learn How to Fly’

By Susan Parker
Tuesday December 12, 2006

For the first time in 12-plus years I’m allowing myself to think back to what life was like before Ralph’s accident. My musings began the day after he died when I started the process of planning Ralph’s memorial service. It has continued intermittently, everyday since.  

At first it was hard to look at old, pre-accident photographs of Ralph, when he was strong and fit, and could stand on two legs and swing a hammer with one hand while changing a light bulb with the other. I found shoeboxes full of snapshots of Ralph pursuing his favorite activities: biking, skiing, cooking, and brewing beer. I slid them into frames, tacked them onto bulletin boards, and prepared for the arrival of family and friends.  

During the service many people told stories about Ralph. Cal talked about working with him at the lab and a visit to England and Germany together during a business trip. Another co-worker recalled daily lunch-break bike rides with Ralph, over Patterson Pass and back, 35 miles without stopping—just a piece of cake.  

Colleen remembered meeting Ralph and his twin brother, Richard, in the Wine Country and being confused by who was who. Chris Giorni recollected running into Ralph at the local Safeway and Ralph chastising him for buying cheap beer.  

Sue Grieve told the sad story of borrowing Ralph’s windbreaker for our annual bike ride up Mt. Diablo. “Ralph’s coat got caught in the spokes of my rear wheel,” she said. “It ripped a hole in his expensive Patagonia jacket. When I told Ralph what had happened, he had only two words for me. ‘Replace it’ he’d said, and I did.” 

Kris Anderson recalled Ralph’s request to borrow her sewing machine. “I’m making a vest for myself out of an Oriental rug,” Ralph had told her. When Kris asked him if he knew how to sew, he’d answered, “No, but I’ll figure it out.” 

Our friend Aimee, who lived with Ralph and me years ago, was next to tell a story. “I wanted to make banana bread,” she said. “But Ralph informed me that I couldn’t make it unless I added nuts. I told him I didn’t like nuts. ‘So?’ Ralph had said.” 

“I volunteered to make two loaves, one with walnuts and one without. Ralph said no. He explained that if I made only one loaf with nuts, he’d be stuck with half a bag of walnuts and then the next time he wanted to make banana nut bread he wouldn’t have enough nuts for two loaves. Instead of baking,” Aimee said, “I went into my bedroom and had a good cry.” 

Lenore Waters spoke next. Unlike many of the others, she talked about knowing Ralph when he used a wheelchair. “I met Ralph at a party in Point Reyes,” she said. “My daughters and I were staying in a small cabin above Tomales Bay. It was a struggle to get Ralph and his big electric chair into the house, but eventually, with lots of pushing and shoving, and the help of several strong men, we were able to do so.” 

Lenore paused, and unfolded a piece of paper. “There was a player piano in the cabin,” she said. “We gathered around it and sang. Suzy wrote a story about that magical day. Here’s what she wrote.” 

I leaned in further in order to hear Lenore read.  

“Ralph harmonized with the group. He sang louder and louder and louder. I could hardly believe he was my husband, so strong was his voice, so clear his words, so joyous his tune. He belted out Rosemary Clooney, Fats Waller and anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein with an ease and spontaneity I did not know he possessed. When Arturo put in the roll from the musical Fame, Ralph let out a ritornello that stopped everyone cold. “FAME!’’ he shouted. “I’M GONNA LIVE FOREVER—I’M GONNA LEARN HOW TO FLY!’” 

There was a long silence after Lenore read. Some of us looked down at our feet, but many of us, including myself, looked up at the sky. It wasn’t scary anymore to think back and remember Ralph. It felt good.