In his hour of need, Richard Spalding turned to the other great love of his life: music.
He sat down at his grand piano and started playing “Vienna, the city of my dreams”, by composer Rudolf Sieczyński.
It was his way of thanking the two nurses from Treyton Oaks Towers in Louisville who came to announce the death of his wife and who took care of her in her last days. Through the piano, he found comfort in the harsh reality that his true love of 71 years had disappeared, being taken from him by the coronavirus.
Richard, 96, who survived a mild case of the virus, spent the last days of Cécile’s life with her but was left to cry alone without family or friends due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Music was the bond that brought them together and a passion they shared throughout their lives.
It all started when, as a US corporal, he was stationed at Toussus-le-Noble Airport near Versailles, France, occupying the control tower during the final stages of the Second World War. Cécile Jeunet, an artist in training, knew it was that of that fateful Sunday in April 1945 when in his limited French he mentioned that he was playing the piano.
His friend Jack Patterson persuaded him to spend the afternoon in the nearby village of Gif-sur-Yvette before going on duty that evening. The couple met in a café belonging to the parents of their friend Huguette Rouselle, enjoying a glass of white wine while they were trying to understand each other.
Shortly after, the men were on their way back to base.
Cécile and Huguette offered to walk with them during the 5-kilometer hike.
“When I mentioned that I was playing the piano, she suddenly pushed Huguette away and the next thing I know I was talking to Cécile,” recalls Richard. “” I love the piano, “she said. That’s what made him notice me. “
As their deadline approached, the men began to return to base.
“Do you only get Sunday passes?” Richard recalled that Cécile had shyly asked her that first night.
“The way she looked at me and smiled … no girl has ever looked at me like this before. It was love at first sight. It was like a thunderbolt, “said Richard of his late wife.
Back at the base, the week dragged on and Richard couldn’t get Cécile out of his mind. Using the few resources available, he asked a British military telephone operator to connect him to the cafe.
Her conversation with Huguette was going badly when she gave the phone to a man who spoke a little English.
From the conversation came these very distinct words: Cécile, Thursday evening, 6 p.m., in Paris, at the Arc de Triomphe.
“I understood everything very clearly, we had a date, but I wasn’t even sure I remembered what she looked like,” said Richard.
But he doesn’t have to worry.
“At the Arc, there were hundreds of soldiers and girls, all snacking. Finally, I saw it coming. She took my hand and said in French, “Let’s get out of here.” “
The new couple spent their first date walking and talking.
“She showed me all of the beautiful things the city has to offer,” he said. “I don’t remember saying I would see you again, but somehow we did it. After our third date, she took me home and I met her mother. We have seen each other maybe a dozen times in Paris. “
After the war ended, Richard was sent by the army to Frankfurt, Germany.
“I had the chance to go see her two or three times before leaving. I took a truck or jeep, hitchhiking, whatever was available. I just got there, “he said.
Before his departure, there was a last meeting with Cécile.
“I knocked on the door and it was there. I said I was coming to say goodbye to you. Cécile came back with me to the station on the other side of the Seine. We never said we loved each other – I never even kissed her – but we knew what we had was important.
“The last thing I said to him was ‘I’ll come back’ or I’ll come back. She kind of gulped because it was the strongest thing I ever said to her, “he said. “She did not want to marry an American and leave Paris and her family. “
With his service now over, Richard returned home and to school to complete his music degree at the University of Louisville while thinking about Cécile.
“I went back to finish my studies and I brought him a French dictionary by writing to him. I always thought of Cécile and she wrote these beautiful letters and they were affectionate, but not too much. She was very careful, “he said.
Richard remembers reading the Courier Journal one day and seeing a photo of local French war wife Josette Bouchet Kearns and her husband William.
“I thought if this guy could marry this French girl, why can’t I marry a French girl?” I’m going to ask Cécile to marry me! He remembered.
Despite his renewed determination, he struggled with the enormity of the idea.
“I was young, inexperienced and without money, I was a student. Who was I to ask a girl to leave her family, her country, the culture and all that she knew and come to live in the west of Louisville? It was almost out of the realm of possibility. “
But he couldn’t deny his feelings.
“It was in 1948 and I wrote him the letter, in which I said:” I want to marry you and I hope you will say yes. “I was very nervous about asking Cécile because I didn’t even know how I was going to France. I even asked my sister Pearl to come with me and make sure I put the letter in the box because I might not have the nerve to accept it, “he said. .
His response left him on pins and needles.
“Cecile replied and told me that she loved me, but she didn’t know if she could marry me, so I had to go there,” he said.
Desperate to be with the woman he loved, Richard made a plan. Using his GI Bill, he applied and was accepted to study the piano for the summer at the prestigious American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France.
“As soon as I arrived, I walked to Cécile’s house, but she worked in a design studio. His father was so excited that he ran across the street to a post office to call his workplace. He talks to his boss and announces that Richard has arrived. She is very excited and exclaims: “He is here” in a room full of designers. Everyone knew that Cécile was waiting for her boyfriend to return. They all said, come on, come on, go to him, ”he said.
At the end of his summer courses, Richard gave Cécile an ultimatum.
“I said in a few days that this place was going to be empty. I’m going to have to leave if you don’t say you’re going to marry me. She looked me in the eye and said. “Yes, yes, I will go. “It took me to death,” he said.
In order to extend his stay so that the couple could marry in France, Richard concluded an agreement with his music teacher.
“My teacher told me that if I wanted to stay, he would allow me to follow his courses at the Paris Conservatory. I would not be a regular student, I would not graduate, I would be his student, “he said.
The plan worked. Richard lived with Cécile’s parents during her studies at the conservatory.
The couple married on November 6, 1948 and returned to Louisville the following year. Richard will eventually become a music professor at the University of L. Cécile will immediately find tutoring work with students in French.
During their 71 years of marriage, the couple moved Cécile’s parents to Louisville, raised three children and, six years ago, moved to an apartment on the 10th floor of the Treyton Oaks towers. Cécile’s health began to decline with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
“She had several falls and eventually one fell sent her to the hospital, and she was unable to return to the 10th floor. We moved to the third floor of the personal care unit. She got worse and worse and eventually she was transferred to a qualified nurse on the second floor. “
Richard remembers the ordeal of living with the coronavirus while watching the love of his life fade.
“Our children were not allowed in the building. I had the disease, so they let me be with her. I spent many, many hours each day with her, “he said.
And the coronavirus did not forgive his wife.
“Overnight, she went from being in need of all kinds of help to what seemed like a coma. Soon she is close to death and lying there, breathing slowly. I have spent the last two days with her, “he said.
But not the last hours.
“It was the middle of the afternoon, and I was so tired that I couldn’t stay. I went to the apartment and about an hour later, two nurses came, dressed in protective clothing, yellow jackets, masks and gloves, and told me that she was dead. It broke my heart, “he said. “I wish I was there and I missed it by an hour.”
Just a week after Cécile’s death, French war companion Josette Kearns, the woman whose story prompted Richard to ask Cécile to marry her, who also suffered from coronavirus, would die.
Two French women, both swept by American soldiers. Their lives intertwined, becoming friends in a distant land and dying on the same floor at Treyton Oaks a few days apart.
Now Richard is left alone with his memories and the loneliness that accompanies the loss of your soul mate. He seeks comfort in a portrait of Cécile and her beloved piano.
“Every day, I play” La Vie en Rose “, the torchlight song made famous by French singer Edith Piaf,” he said. “I don’t let a day go by without playing. It was one of his favorites. “