The Passing of the Pope
About twenty-six years ago, when I was living in Waco, Texas and finishing my English Literature studies at Baylor University, a girlfriend and I baked a cake for the pope. If I recall, it was a chocolate cake with white frosting. On top, we had written in sweet cherry syrup:
"Long Live The Pope!"
The pope didn't show up, but we celebrated as if he had. I no longer recall why we did this. Neither of us was Catholic. Perhaps we somehow felt that he symbolized hope for Eastern Europe.
Some fourteen years with a lot of history passed in which I seldom thought about Pope John Paul II . . . .
In 1993, I was in Rome on Christmas Eve to propose marriage to Sun-Ae. We were the only patrons to show up at the pre-arranged restaurant on this most family-oriented of Italian holidays. The courteous waiter greeted me as "Mr. Jeff." That's better than "Googly Bear," but I did briefly wonder why our Polish friends who had made the reservation hadn't used my family name.
We were soon seated and supplied with a menu. To initiate matters, I ordered a very fine, very dry, very dangerous champagne.
Let me explain.
For Sun-Ae, imbibing alcohol is ever a risky endeavor. On the first anniversary of our meeting, we visited the Austrian town of Mittenwald, celebrating with a glass of fine, dry white wine before beginning our meal in an Italian restaurant there. Sun-Ae had finished only half of her glass, when she suddenly began to fan her face, turn red, and grow faint. Then, she passed out. I had to grab her to prevent her falling to the floor. Every other patron was staring at us, probably wondering, "What's that ugly lug doing to that poor Asian girl? Has he drugged her? Look, he's carrying her out of the restaurant!"
Well, I didn't want that to happen again . . .
So, I opened the champagne to pour a careful amount for her but a healthy glass for me. Sun-Ae was just preparing to raise hers in a toast, when I said:
From my pocket, I drew a small, tastefully wrapped gift, handing it to her with a smile. Surprised but assuming that I was giving her a Christmas present, she accepted what I offered, carefully unwrapped it, and found a small box. Not immediately recognizing this for what it was, she began trying to pry the top off by force. It didn't loosen.
I was about to intervene, when her fingers inadvertently tripped the mechanism, the box sprang open, and the ring nearly flew across the room -- but she caught it just in time, then gasped in surprise to see what glittered in her hands.
"Sun-Ae," I asked, "will you marry me?"
At first, whether from astonishment or uncertainty, she didn't know what to say:
"Oh . . . I don't know."
I waited, patient and still confident but a bit tense from anticipation.
"It's really nice," she observed, turning it around to better see the brilliant diamond. "Can I keep it even if I say no?"
"No," I told her, adding, "I come with it."
"I really want the ring," she joked, "so . . . okay."
With that ringing endorsement, I -- and she -- toasted our love and future in various sentimental and increasingly tipsy ways . . . but she didn't faint, either from the champagne or before her looming future with me.
After a long, romantic meal, we left for midnight mass at the Santa Maria Maggiori. Next day, we visited a nearby Irish bar, The Fiddler's Elbow, for more celebrating and for Sun-Ae to get in touch with her Celtic roots.
One week later, we stood in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican and waved to the pope as he waved and greeted the world in dozens of languages, including Korean.
Twelve more years have passed, and so has the pope. I haven't thought of him much in this time either, I must confess. For now, however, I think of him and remember that obscure cake from a different, distant time and place.
And wave farewell . . .