Several years ago on Monday nights at the Bootlegger Bistro, I got to know the couple at the next table, Bob Randolph and Darla Kern. Darla was a naturally attractive friendly gal, clearly, I thought, much younger than me. Turns out, she was just about my age but looked 20 (or more) years younger. Also turns out she was ending her new career as a flight attendant, a job she had gotten at age 65! I don’t think Bob and Darla were married when I first met them, but later, clearly very much in love, they did marry.
Week after week, Darla and I would talk and laugh. Darla would excuse herself from time to time to hug friends or some entertainer she knew, and I later would see Bob, with Darla at his side, manning the CD table after Clint Holmes concerts.
Darla was a dog lover. After she and I became Facebook friends, she would occasionally write about cancer fundraisers or appearances by Clint Holmes, Kelly Clinton and other favorite entertainers, but more likely her Facebook posts were pictures of dogs needing homes. I learned she also would bring dogs across several states to be reunited with new forever homes, a volunteer task I admired.
Darla had a dog she loved, Beau, a companion that had seen her through some lonely times. She adored that dog. After she and Bob married, they traveled a good deal and when they did, Beau went to stay with friends. Occasionally when the first choice of dog sitters wasm’t available, Beau stayed with me and my three dogs. Darla would arrive with a big bag full of Beau’s special foods, treats and instructions.
Time passes. Darla starts reading my Sunday column and makes written comments. Darla invites me and a neighbor to some of her and Bob’s “soirees” and Thanksgiving dinners. All is well. At the Bootlegger, we begin to exchange private gifts. Darla’s purse was hung on the back of her chair and it was just too tempting not to add a knife or fork to her purse when she wasn’t looking. I soon found surprise gifts in my purse as well.
Then we heard that Darla was ill with early cancer. We heard about Bob saving years of her life, first, by forwarding some Las Vegas test results to Mayo Clinic in Arizona and then driving Darla for chemo treatments in Arizona. Months of trips were involved.
When treatments had ended, a friend and I attended a Thanksgiving dinner at the Randolphs’ home where all of us were so grateful to see an alive and well Darla, albeit with short hair. She was grateful and smiling broadly. Brave Darla had won…and she hosted and traveled and applauded and laughed and read. (Darla and I occasionally exchanged books.)
Years go on and Beau gets older. His hearing and eyesight were bad so I knew that when Beau went outside at my house, I had to use a leash to make sure he didn’t take a wrong turn.
During one of Darla’s and Bob’s trips to Mayo Clinic for a checkup I think, while I sat in our family room, her dear 18-year-old Beau somehow secretly found his way out of my house through a small open doggie door in the family room. He then stumbled into the pool and drowned. I needn’t tell you one of the lowest points in my life was my call to Darla in Arizona to tell her about Beau.
And yet…Darla was unfailingly kind. If she wept or screamed, she did it in private. She built a small tribute to Beau in her home and proudly showed it to me. I still felt terrible about the whole situation, but Darla never showed her own disappointment in me.
Some time later, Darla announced she was getting a new dog, a dog a friend said was needing a new home. I couldn’t have been happier. Darla and a dog belonged together. The newcomer, Gracie, was rambunctious but loving. When Darla later called and asked if Gracie could come stay with me while she and Bob were out of town I almost cried.
This was during the pandemic. I was so happy to see them, I dressed up in a wig and all my jewelry and greeted their arrival as if I were Auntie Mame. I was so glad to see the Randolphs (and dog) again.
And yes, ultimately, Darla’s cancer came back. She kept us all aware of her condition through Facebook, but not in a cloying or complaining way. She just gave us the facts. She also told us about her and Bob’s activities between doses of chemo. The couple made sure not a minute was wasted.
Last Thanksgiving, Darla was feeling well enough that she invited the “spares” to Thanksgiving dinner. My gentleman friend and I had dinner with Darla, Bob and Lannie Counts at the Randolph home. The group was small, but we were able to listen to many of Bob’s fun stories, add our own and enjoy a quite delicious meal.
I kept in touch with Darla as the weeks and her treatments wore on. The dog Gracie was with Darla every step along the way, Bob says, never leaving her side. Occasional telephone calls followed, always with such an enthusiastic hello from Darla. At the end, Darla said she wanted no more chemo and opted for hospice care, a choice I would have made as well. Then a couple weeks ago I called Darla, left a message and didn’t receive a return call. Bob later called and told me Darla’s condition had worsened and she had been taken to the hospital. Darla passed away April 23.
A lovely celebration of Darla’s life was held a week ago at University United Methodist Church where Darla had been a member. Her nephew, Jim Franz, talked of a fun-loving aunt he adored. Clint Holmes spoke of Darla as a remarkable woman he and his wife also loved. A pastor read a loving tribute to Darla from her husband. At the end of the ceremony, with the accompaniment of Bill Fayne on piano, Clint Holmes sang “Over the Rainbow,” one of the most powerful and lovely performances I have ever heard.
Following the ceremony, a gathering of friends was held at Bob and Darla’s house. Gracie missed that gathering, instead staying out of the way by visiting at my house. My gentleman friend and I missed the post-church gathering so we’d be home with my dogs and Gracie.
When Bob later came to pick up Gracie, she ran to Bob enthusiastically, tail wagging.
Somewhere, Darla was smiling.