Neither death nor Alzheimer's can dim the passion of 29 years of love poems

Posted: April 01, 2013

Carleen Hamilton wrote the first poem on a napkin, sitting in a coffee shop in Bermuda, on their honeymoon, Oct. 29, 1974.

Oh, how I glowe

 and grew

to inconceivable brilliance in his loving fire.

And we were called Sun and Moon.

Complete life.

Virtually every workday for the next 29 years, she wrote a poem on a napkin and packed it in her husband's lunch.

And George Hamilton, director of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute, inspired by his new wife, her poetry, her devotion, and his own happiness, returned the kindness.

Every morning, perhaps when she was fixing his lunch, he wrote his own poem, and taped it to the mirror in the master bath.

Four children grew up in that Cherry Hill house, and knew, vaguely, that this was going on. But they never knew the extent.

Until the last few weeks.

George died in July at 87. Carleen, 77, suffers from advanced Alzheimer's and was moved into assisted living in September.

A son, Brandon Hamilton, was cleaning out the house, getting it ready for an estate sale April 10, when he found 16 binders of napkins, saved by his father, stored in boxes in the back of his workbench area.

Then he discovered three much thicker binders of poems, saved by his mother, stacked on a closet shelf in a spare bedroom.

"I find what they did so incredible," said Brandon, 45, who lives in Haddon Township. "Not only the discipline of doing it every day, but the closeness that they had in their marriage because of sharing your innermost feelings every day. That fire that you have on your honeymoon, they kept it alive."

In the summer of 1974, George Hamilton had just buried his first wife, who died from cancer after years of suffering. A mutual friend fixed him up with a recent divorcee, a mother of four, whose husband suffered mental illness.

George drove to Upstate New York, where Carleen lived, and the first thing he noticed, being an astronomer and director of a planetarium, was her medallion, depicting a moon.

He often wore one himself - of a radiant sun.

He said he simply had to borrow hers for a planetarium show, but would drive back the following weekend and return it - an excuse to see her again.

The date was Aug. 17, 1974, because in one poem he writes:

Time had a beginning, August 17 1974.

And with it I was born.

They fell deeply and passionately in love. By late September, according to their son, George told Carleen, "snows are coming, and these back roads will be impassable. I can come back in spring, or you can marry me now and move to Cherry Hill."

George was 47. Carleen was 37. They had no children together. But he adopted her four children. He had three of his own, who were grown, and whom Carleen embraced.

In their poetry, she was the moon, and he the sun. And so many expressions of their love focused on space and sky.

She wrote in 1974:

My moon stood wanting in his warmth

He took my darker side and fired it through the racing stars to hold me still.

She wrote mostly on white napkins, but occasionally on a green, yellow, or even pink one. His canvas alternated between lined paper - abundant, since she became a Cherry Hill teacher for 27 years - and stationery.

While each poem was dated, the authors rarely referenced daily events - other than weather, as in hers:

Snowfalls warm me.

Like in your arms,

they hold me safe.

Poems often were more universal and timeless.

Him, on 3/18/82:

All things considered,

it's a perfect life.

You're mine. I'm yours.

And we soar above the world.

Happy, hand in hand.

In love.

They tried their best never to miss a day.

On 3/16/82, he wrote:

No Time

Only Love.

I really love you.

You're beautiful.

Each of his has the piece of tape on the top.

Carleen wrote her last poem on Dec. 16, 2003, the day he retired.

Last day of work

First day of us

how sweet it is, planning dreams, planning us

I'll catch up in a month

freedom to be us.

The sun and the moon again.

She retired weeks later.

Life was good for a while.

"The last years were tough on him, taking care of Mom," Brandon said. "She would think he was a stranger. I'd have to talk her down. It was sad. I saw my dad get frustrated."

George had congestive heart failure and died at home of a heart attack.

"The Alzheimer's lessened the blow of his death," Brandon said. "Fairly quickly she forgot about George.

"What is interesting is how she'll react today."

Brandon brings a binder of napkins with him for the first time on a recent visit to his mother.

She lives in an Alzheimer's unit at Spring Hills Cherry Hill, in the old Sheraton Post Hotel on Route 70.

She was up and dressed, sitting on her bed.

He sat beside her. It was a sunny room.

He showed her the book.

"I didn't realize that you saved all these poems," he said. "Did you know that?"

She nodded slightly.

"You remember writing all these?"

"Yep."

He pointed to one.

"Do you remember writing this poem?"

Silence.

He read one to her.

I'm proud you're my love.

I'm proud of the way you make me feel ...

When he finished, she said: "And that was me."

"Did you know you wrote these?" he asked.

"I used to brag about them all the time," Carleen said.

They put down the binder, and looked out the sunny window into the courtyard. Then Brandon walked with her slowly, holding her hand, down the hall to a group activity in a common area. He sat her down, kissed her. "I've got to go to work, Mom. I'll be back on Sunday."

Leaving, he was pleased.

"I could see that she got it, that she actually realized it," he said. "I could tell from her expression, and the way she smiled, that she definitely remembered."

Driving home, he was quiet for a bit, reflecting.

"The experience with the poems has brought me lots of closure," he said. "The last couple years, seeing them both deteriorate, was very painful.

"But now I've been able to see them as they were before, and not as they were at the end."


Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639, mvitez@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @michaelvitez.  

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