Mark and Mary Keller

Mark and Mary Keller on Christmas Day 2012.

Mary Hodges was a junior at Anniston High School when she caught the eye of young Mark Keller. By his own admission, Mark was a “bad boy” — always in trouble, frequently waiting outside the principal’s office for punishments or lectures.

Mary, on the other hand, was a near straight-A student who had a steady boyfriend and came from an affluent family. Her father, Norwood Hodges, had served two terms as the mayor of Anniston.

Although Mark and Mary knew of each other’s existence, they had never exchanged words until the day he approached her after school to ask for a ride home. It was a calculated move on his part, and it worked. He and Mary began seeing each other, and that’s when he learned she was not the person he thought she was.

“She was a perfect blend of Tom Sawyer and Cinderella,” he said. As Mark told it, Mary had a true appreciation for the power of a fast car, but at the same time, no one was allowed to curse in her presence.

With Mary at his side, Mark was forced to reassess his own life. “She expected you to treat her and yourself with dignity and respect,” he said. “Not for her sake, but for your own.”

Three years after that ride home, Mark and Mary would become husband and wife. As the years passed, their family would expand with the birth of four children. Two boys and two girls: Skyler, Alex, Katherine and Anna.

Mary was delighted to be a stay-at-home mom, tending to the Keller brood while Mark worked as a buyer for Kitchin’s Department Store. He later took a job as a construction supervisor with Habitat for Humanity, where he discovered a passion for building and launched his own remodeling business: Keller Properties.

Mark describes his relationship with Mary as “a happy state of independent co-dependency.”

But in 2007, after 22 years of marriage, the couple’s world was turned upside down. That was when Mary was diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer.

Mark is the one who got the call from the doctor’s office when they couldn’t reach Mary. He knew she was off shopping or seeing a movie with their youngest daughter, Anna, and he couldn’t bring himself to pass along the news. He let a couple of hours go by. “I wanted Mary to have as much time being cancer-free as possible,” he said.

In the years that followed, Mary endured countless surgeries, sessions of strong chemotherapy and aggressive radiation, doctor visits, blood tests and body scans. In the fall of 2010, Mary thought she was on the road to recovery. As she wrote in an email to a friend: “I’m happy to say two PET scans have shown the tumor gone. … I feel great and am thankful for my good health today.”

Mary’s brother, Tim Hodges, remembers when she called him with the good news about the scans. “I told her she was my angel and that we had too many things left to finish in life,” he said. Mary and Tim were the youngest of seven siblings and were especially close. Tim and his wife even named one of their daughters after Mary.

Two years passed before the cancer returned. Mary was admitted for more surgery. The doctor found Mark in the waiting room and took him into a private office. He remembers how his heart was pounding when the doctor said, “Mark, it isn’t good for her.”

Mark asked what kind of time they had left. The doctor’s response was grim. Six to 12 months.

Mark was at Mary’s bedside when she woke from the surgery. She shook off her grogginess and faced him. “How did it go?” she asked.

Mark was stunned to realize that, once again, he was to be the bearer of bad news. He repeated the doctor’s words and then burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably.

It was the first time he had let Mary see him cry throughout their entire cancer journey. He remembers how she reached out for him and said, “I’m not scared. I’ve had a great life. I have a great marriage and four beautiful children. I’m not scared.”

Mary was offered additional chemotherapy, but she turned it down without hesitation. “We were heading into Christmas and the last thing she could imagine was pointless treatments,” Mark said.

With Mary back home, Mark sat the children down and told them the truth. Their reaction made him feel like an “awful monster,” but he couldn’t allow them to harbor false hopes. They rushed to their mother’s side and Mark recalls her words to them — “We will be together again one day,” she said. “And we will never remember the time we were apart.”

Tim Hodges stopped by after work every night to visit with his sister. “I learned a lot from her about finding peace in our lives,” he said. “Especially knowing we will meet again in heaven.”

The holiday season was approaching. Mark and Mary knew it would be their last Christmas together. The family gathered around the tree for pictures — keepsakes they would treasure forever.

Mary died four months later, and a grand silence entered Mark’s life. “I spent hundreds of days mourning her death,” he said. He sat quietly in the same spot, watching the sun rise each morning and set each night, day after day. “I cried often and wrote daily letters to her.”

He still has those letters.

All 246 of them.

With his deep, abiding faith in God — and the help of a grief counselor — Mark began the slow process of healing.

Today, five years after Mary’s death, he understands that his sadness and despair is equally balanced by the desire to keep Mary safe from the tragedies of this world. “It’s become the source of strength I use to endure another minute of life without her,” he said.

He ticked off a list.

“She will never be sick again. She will never be hungry again. She will never be hassled by the temporal conditions of this life,” he said. “She will never know hurt or disappointment and, most importantly, she will never die again.”

Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at donnabarton@cableone.net.

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