This piece is part of an ongoing series featuring real people's epic love stories. Each one is a poignant reminder of true love's power to conquer almost anything.
Everyone who knows Julie and Karl will tell you they had an amazingly close, passionate, harmonious marriage. It was the kind of relationship everyone wants. But it was a union that should never have worked in the first place.
When they met, Julie was a 20-year-old sheltered girl from a large, prominent Washington, D.C.-area family. Karl was an 18-year-old rebellious, pot-smoking biker from a middle class, emotionally abusive one. Both were gorgeous. But Julie was a happy young woman, while Karl was in a tremendous amount of pain. He struggled with severe depression and thoughts of suicide, and turned to drugs and alcohol to escape.
Not surprisingly, Julie's parents didn't approve of their relationship at first and were worried about their daughter.
Her dad was a doctor, her mother a stay-at-home mom and pillar of the community. They were concerned about Julie's involvement with a troubled young man whose future seemed so uncertain at the time. They wanted to see her dreams of a stable marriage with a husband who was more like her come true.
Instead, Julie chose a life of adventure with someone very different who had a lot of potential -- but also a lot of demons. And Karl had no real prospects for making a steady living when they met.
It didn't last -- but not for the reason you think.
Ultimately Julie and Karl fell madly in love, got engaged, got married -- and stayed married. They had children, and built a strong family together. Their love helped them overcome incredible odds. But then, the 42-year-old suburban mom and homemaker lost her husband to heart disease when he was just 40 years old.
Julie first met Karl on their college campus. "I saw this beautiful boy sitting under a tree," she recalls. They were instantly attracted to each other. Little did Julie know that Karl was pretty much failing his first semester of school, though. He wasn't exactly husband material.
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Karl had spent his teens smoking a lot of pot and struggling with depression and suicidal feelings. Just a few months before starting college, he'd quit smoking and found God -- but he was barely hanging onto his good intentions. He was still caught in what Julie calls a cosmic battle between his depression and his desire to live a full, happy life. He came from a poor, struggling family.
Despite all that, Julie could see that Karl seemed to have a heart of gold and great potential to make the people around him happy. "I knew early on there was this essence in him that was really good," she says now.
What drew Karl to Julie was that she was different from the other preppy girls he knew at school. She could be irreverent and a little rebellious herself. But she also wasn’t another one of the dark, toxic girls he’d dated before.
"He felt like there was a light that I had, that I was good," she says. "I was cool but not crazy."
This combination could have turned into one of those tragic, co-dependent relationships filled with relapses and betrayals. But it didn't. Julie loved Karl for who he was right then: an intelligent, imaginative, kind-hearted person with great promise. She knew he was trying to change himself for the better, to stay off drugs, and to get a more hopeful attitude toward life. But she didn't harbor any dreams of "reforming" Karl.
After an intense fall of dating and seeing each other nearly every day, Julie and Karl were separated for almost three years, with just a few visits in between. Julie studied abroad, and they both took time off college to volunteer for service projects in other countries (an important spiritual rite of passage for members of the Mormon church community). It was during this period of separation that Karl matured and became the well-adjusted, loving, mentally healthy man he would remain for the rest of his life.
He came out more whole than anyone else I’ve ever known. He did this transformation all on his own. Maybe I gave him a hook into something. But it was his own journey. He wasn’t doing it just for me. I didn’t know if he was going to figure it out.
Karl wanted to marry Julie right after they returned, but she was scared and so were her parents. Her mom had serious reservations about the match and desperately wanted her to marry someone more stable who could provide for her and her future children properly.
It didn't help that while in college, Karl wound up spending a night in jail over some unpaid traffic tickets. And Julie was well aware that Karl could relapse and go back to his substance abuse and dark moods. What had happend to her dreams of becoming the matriarch of a large, well-off family? Karl seemed to have so few prospects at the time -- just one failed year of college.
"I just prayed and cried and worried for months," she says. "Marriage is a big deal. You don’t want to get that wrong." Finally, Julie got to the point where felt right about tying the knot with Karl. "I had this feeling the life stuff would work itself out," she says. And it did. They finished school, had three children, and Karl took a teaching job (Julie taught as well until she had her third child). Julie's family came to adore Karl and appreciate his unique gifts. Karl and Julie gave a lot to their community, but they always put their family, and especially each other, first.
As a teacher, Karl came home from work when the kids came home from school. He took summers off and went on road trips with the family. He cooked a lot. And he turned down higher-profile jobs that would have taken him away from his wife and children.
"Everybody wanted a piece of Karl, but he saved the best parts of himself for me. He said no to a lot of things," Julie says, because "he wanted nothing more than to be here with us." It's like he knew he'd be leaving them early -- but of course he didn't know that at all.
Julie allowed me to see two scrapbooks she made after her husband's death. They're filled with photographs of them together, his poetry (so much heart-melting poetry!), journal entries, and notes he left her. What comes shining through is how besotted they were with each other through their entire marriage, and how deeply they supported each other. They were always rooting for each other to be their best possible selves, to find their respective life purpose. They were always fascinated with each other. Julie says:
At our core we cared about what we had. We didn’t want to do anything to get in the way of it. I could go out into the world and be vulnerable because I knew I could come home and plug into safety. He was my safe place. He would just love me. Neither of us had to be self-protective because we were protective of each other.
Here's a poem Karl wrote in 1996:
How I got here
from festooned confusion
turbulent motorcycle sadness --
is beyond me, is beyond you,
Wrapped now in caring
warm now in blistering love
We're aging well.
It was night and breathing
sweet sweat and velvet touching
a kiss to bind us in an
ocean of black uncertainties.
now we're more than two
more than we deserve
We've made a toasty shack,
in the shifting sands
Our beginning was a long good-bye
Now we wake each morning
a confusion of shared limbs,
in the deep and sleepy bed
of a shared life.
So -- you have all of that. You have this beautiful, exquisite, fulfilling marriage between a husband and wife from the opposite sides of the tracks. And then, just like that ... the husband is gone. Karl returned home from a camping trip with his family on a Saturday. He had no symptoms. The following Wednesday he suffered a heart arrhythmia and died. His family history of heart disease finally caught him.
Julie has no regrets. What she and Karl had for a brief time was worth the grief she feels now. She had the kind of love everyone wishes for but few are lucky enough to experience.
"We were just supposed to find each other," she says. "It’s the thing I know the most in the whole wide world. It was like we were touching souls."
What do you think made Julie and Karl's marriage work so well?
Images © Ron Levine/13/Digital Vision/Ocean/Corbis, courtesy of Julie Savage