Jack Kernan and Kate Schwaighart start a new life. (Photo by Frank LaPlante)

The last time Jack Kernan got married was January of 1949. That worked out well. He and Patsy lived in Oak Park and raised their family in St. Catherine Parish. They were a devoted couple. Even as Patsy slid toward senility, Jack brought her everywhere, including visiting my folks as they came to the end of their lives. 

Six years after Patsy died, 10 days after Valentine’s Day, and a week after he turned 94, “Muddy” (as we’ve known him all our lives — something about an affinity for infield puddles during his softball days) decided to give matrimony another try. 

Isn’t that romantic?

Especially considering we feared the worst. 

He was invited to a family reunion in January and didn’t respond. I emailed him. No response. At the reunion, I looked up and there he was.

“Muddy,” I said, “we were afraid you died!”

“No,” he said. “I’m getting married!”

If we were floored, imagine how his family felt. At 94, you expect to be taking care of an aging parent, not struggling to keep up with him.

“Muddy, that’s fantastic,” I said after my jaw bounced back from the floor. “I’m so happy for you!”

He was already happy enough for the both of us.

“I feel like a kid,” he said, and proceeded to talk about Kate Schwaighart in glowing terms, how they lived in the same retirement facility, Casa San Carlo in Northlake, and had long conversations, mostly on that obsolete social instrument known as “the telephone.” They got to know each other and to know Muddy is to love him. The same apparently applies to Kate.

They live in the same building. They could see each other as often as they want.

They wanted more.

Which is how I came to be at Casa San Carlo on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 24, for the wedding of the century in St. Joseph’s Chapel. 

Getting off the elevator, a sign directed us to the left (“The vows are here”), to the right (“The party’s there”) and an arrow underneath pointing in both directions (“Love is everywhere”).

The Casa San Carlo staff was thrilled and pulled out all the stops. They even delayed dinner, and in a facility like this, that’s a big deal. Balloons proclaimed “Love is in the air!” and spelled out “I DO.” 

St. Joseph’s Chapel had to be the happiest place in the entire metro area that day. Smiles, kisses and hugs were epidemic among the 250 or so in attendance. Staff members stood in the adjacent hallways, beaming.

The groom wore a suitcoat and tie. The bride looked elegant in a white top streaked with silver lamae. Jokes about Jack “robbing the cradle” aside (Kate is a young-looking 84), they made quite a handsome couple. A friend of the Schwaighart family, Rev. John Clemens, presided over Mass. Of all the words that might apply to Fr. Clemens, “excessive formality” would not be among them. He served notice that we would not be standing on ceremony. In fact, he told us to remain seated, walkers and wheelchairs being much in evidence.

“The important thing today is not the rubric,” he said. “It’s that we’re celebrating.” 

The Song of Ruth and St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians set the tone. Everyone was patient and kind.

Beginning his homily, Clemens said, “This is silly. I’m the most single person in the place. I’ve never been married. If you don’t know what it’s like, there’s nothing I can say that will help you.”

But he did find a few things to say:

“Married love is the greatest reflection of God in the world. When I see people in love, I see God in their eyes.

“All this happiness, and even you aren’t the happiest. I think Patsy and Al are the happiest, wherever they are. You’ve found someone else to love, to complete that love. Now you start again, backed by the love that came from the people you were married to before.

“Look at these people in love. God is love. All of us owe a debt of gratitude to Jack and Kate.”

Then he led them through the vows, slightly edited. “The part about wanting children,” he said, “I’ll take that out.” Then again, he said smiling, “Maybe you do. I don’t know.” 

After each sentence, Jack said, “I do,” but following “Do you promise to love, honor and cherish her all the days of your life?” he responded with a firm, “You bet.”

Then the rings and finally the kiss. 

And what a kiss it was. A kiss to remind us that our capacity to love is never extinguished and can flame up again as easily as shining from shook foil, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote. A kiss to teach us that no matter how many years of living our aging hearts carry, the wellspring of joy never runs dry and remains within reach of the open-hearted. A kiss to prove it’s never too late to fall in love again.

A kiss to begin building a life together, one precious new day at a time.

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