Affirming life and lovePosted: February 15, 2013
As readers of our blog may know, Becca and I were married standing beneath the Tree of Life, a Live Oak Tree in Audubon Park, NOLA. Our blog about that tree receives the most hits among all of our writings.
As a symbol of life and love, great is the power of those trees. Dr. William Waring has drawn upon that power in a deeply moving testimony to his love for his deceased wife. We are posting this story, written by Claire Galofaro, as published on 14 February in The Times-Picayune.
‘Kissing trees’ at Audubon Park pay tribute to 60-year love affair
He started out just planting a tree, a tribute to a beloved wife buried too soon. He sat beneath it and read to the tree, like he had for his wife in their 60 years together.
He tied ribbons around its trunk, and installed a plaque at its roots: “In memory of Nell-Pape Waring,” it read. “Beloved wife, mother, physician and friend.”
But 89-year-old Dr. William Waring still thought his memorial in Audubon Park inadequate to honor the woman he loved so madly.
“Look at her. How did I ever get this girl?” he asks now, genuinely astonished, while admiring their 60-year-old wedding photo. “Wasn’t I a lucky duck?”
What was wrong with the oak tree, her husband figured, was that it stood there alone in the park, where they had spent so many hours together.
Waring decided to plant a second tree close enough to the first that, in time, their branches could grow together. So they might be a pair once more.
“They’ll be known as the kissing oaks,” said Dianne Weber, director of horticulture for the Audubon Institute. “He lost his life-long love and he came up with this. It brings a smile to your face. That’s love.”
His wife was funny — she liked dirty jokes just as much as great literature, he said. She was bold and strong, a doctor before the medical profession welcomed women.
They lived near the park and walked there, read there, together for decades.
When she died in October, he donated the first live oak in her honor and had it planted near the Magazine Street entrance, where a 90-year-old water oak had been lost to termites.
Months later, when he began to worry that that tree might be lonely, he returned to the Audubon Nature Institute with his idea for the second.
Weber helped him pick one the same age and height as the first, around 10 years old and 20 feet tall. They found a tree with a branch arching off, in a pattern that could, with luck and sunlight, touch the tree already planted.
An 18-wheeler hauled the second tree into the park last week, and a crane buried it in the ground, far enough away that the two trees wouldn’t compete for sun or rain, but close enough that their branches might mingle one day.
Waring tied a matching red ribbon around its trunk.
It will take the trees two decades to connect, then another three to fully intertwine. But then the pair might last for hundreds of years, Weber said.
She’s already spotted squirrels running between them.
“My father is an extraordinarily romantic guy,” said their son, Peter Waring, an architect in town. “And there’s no question, they had a life-long love affair. I think he feels fortunate to have had her for 60 years.”
Dr. Waring recalls the date he met her – July 1, 1951 – as easily as he remembers his own birthday.
He was 29 years old and the chief of residents at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. His father was a doctor in Savannah, Ga. His father’s father was a doctor; the family line of doctors went back some 200 years.
That morning, he walked into the office of the chief of pediatrics.
He saw only the back of her head at first, and the look on his boss’ face, utterly charmed by the woman across his desk.
“He couldn’t resist her, and neither could I,” he says.
Nell-Pape was 24 years old, a New Orleans native and fresh graduate of Tulane University’s School of Medicine, where she was one of just a few women in her class. It was the first day of her internship at Johns Hopkins. She was beautiful, like a movie star, and smart enough to be a doctor, he thought.
He had a habit of going to the hospital cafeteria for breakfast before the sun came up. He started seeing her there every day and, when he asked why she’d come so early, he suspected she was making up excuses. He thought, just maybe, he saw a glimmer in her eye.
So he asked her out for a picnic. She said yes.
A year later, they were married. He still carries a photo in his wallet of her on the day he proposed.
“She was infinitely wonderful to be with; we never had a spat,” he says. “I don’t know what the secret is. It might be a different generation now, something just changed in expectation.”
The Warings had five sons, and she quit her residency to raise them.
They lived in Japan while he was a battalion surgeon for the Army. They moved to Florida, then her parents died and left them their house near Audubon Park. So they moved to New Orleans and began their walks together.
“They existed pretty much for each other,” said their youngest son, Dr. Patrick Waring.
The couple prayed aloud together in bed each night. And they read to one another, often for hours on end.
Once they read a play about an old couple riding on a train, who’d been together for so long they could read each other’s thoughts. The Warings began signing their notes to each other with just OMOT and OWOT – for old man on train, and old woman on train.
After a 22-year hiatus from medicine, as her children got older, Nell-Pape Waring finished her residency in 1974 at Charity Hospital. She specialized in allergies and practiced for more than 30 years.
Two of their boys, meanwhile, became doctors, like their parents. Two others are lawyers; the other is an architect.
Late in life, Nell-Pape Waring had a form of Parkinson’s disease that made her shaky and prone to fall.
She was hit by a bicycle in the park and fell down, broke her hip and required replacement surgery and months of rehabilitation. She took another bad spill down the stairs and cracked her head open.
In the last months of her life, she could barely get out of bed.
Her husband would help her to the table so they could have lunch together. Then he’d help her back into bed. He read to her, like he always had.
William Waring knew he didn’t have much time left with her. And he worried.
As a doctor, he’s watched many people die.
Some cry, some thrash in last-minute agony or regret.
But on Oct. 20, a Saturday, he tucked her back into bed after lunch. He told her good night, that he loved her and he held her hand.
She died peacefully in her sleep several hours later, at 6 p.m., just as the sun began to set.
“There’s an emptiness now, a grief that you can’t imagine unless you’ve loved someone so immensely,” the doctor says. “I always felt lucky to be associated with her. And I am so sorry she decided to leave me.”
On nice days, he plans to haul a folding chair to their trees in the park to sit beneath them and read her books like he did for a half-century.
He might try, he said, to live 30 more years just to see their branches touch.