Even as my heart was breaking, I had to acknowledge the magnificent irony of the room where Phyllis lay dying: the Willie Nelson suite. That’s what I called Room 11 at Christopher House, the beautiful, serene care center operated by Hospice Austin. Plaques outside the front door and the door leading to the small private patio explain that the room was adopted by Willie when he played a benefit for Christopher House at the Austin Music Hall in December 1994. Phyllis was in severe pain and heavily medicated, but I was told she could hear me. I bent down, kissed her cheek, and whispered, “Angel, you’re not going to believe this, but we landed in the Willie Nelson suite. Isn’t that neat?” If she heard me, and I believe she did, a smile stirred in her heart one last time.
Willie had been hovering over Phyllis and me like a guardian angel ever since our fateful meeting outside the press room of his Fourth of July Picnic in 1976. That’s when we began falling in love. We had known each other slightly since a chance introduction at the Cowboy Club tent outside the Cotton Bowl in the early sixties, but one or both of us had always been married. Her second husband was a Dallas jazz musician, and at the time I was married to my first wife, Barbara, and working as a sportswriter at the Dallas Morning News. I ran into her again in 1970 while on assignment for Esquire. She was divorced, working as an assistant to a photographer friend, Shel Hershorn, who was based in Dallas and was helping me on the story. Though I had remarried, we flirted a little, knowing it would go nowhere.
After that, I lost track of her until the picnic in ’76. Freshly divorced for a second time, I had moved back to Austin from New York to take custody of my ten-year-old, Shea. Phyllis had divorced her third husband and was living at Point Venture, on Lake Travis, with her eleven-year-old, Michael. (A second son, Robbie, lived with his grandmother in Grand Prairie.) We saw each other a lot that week, and by the end of the summer, we had set up house together. On the morning of October 20 we took out a marriage license, good for thirty days. Late that night, as we were drinking at the Texas Chili Parlor, near Fifteenth and Lavaca, our friend Doatsy Shrake pestered us to tie the knot then and there. I remember thinking, “Why the hell not?” As it happened, Doatsy’s husband at the time, Bud Shrake, had purchased a certificate for $50 from the Universal Life Church that authorized him, as “doctor of metaphysics,” to perform weddings and such. Our chapel was the Chili Parlor’s back room. The Right Reverend Bud quickly scribbled the words of the marriage ceremony on a cocktail napkin, while Doatsy drove out to Rollingwood to gather up our kids and bring back a bouquet of Texas wildflowers.
Vows repeated and multiple tequila toasts made, the movable feast ended at the Bull Creek Party Barn, where Willie and his band were playing. Willie and I were casual friends by then. Without hesitation I pushed my way to the front of the room and asked him if I could join the band and sing a song for my new bride. He agreed instantly, pulling me onstage. He handed me a spare guitar, which of course I couldn’t play, not that that was the slightest obstacle to a scheme that had taken on a life of its own. Instructing the band to play in C, the only key I could think of, I moved to the microphone and waved to the audience, who had no idea what the hell was happening. Guided by one of those spiritual muses that Willie tells me float around us like invisible fireflies, I began to compose and sing a song. My pet name for Phyllis was Main Squeeze, and the song was “Main Squeeze Blues.” Though the words, alas, are lost—and have been since they escaped my lips—the audience seemed to enjoy them. I’m still amazed how easy all this came about, and how gracious Willie was. It was a magic night.
So that was our start, Phyllis and me. Neither of us had the slightest notion where we were headed. Our combined marital track record had hardly inspired confidence, and yet after three decades together, we were more in love than ever, the envy of friends, married or single. At Phyllis’s memorial service, on June 30, our friend Bill Broyles told the mourners that he was reminded of that line in When Harry Met Sally, after Meg Ryan simulates an orgasm in the middle of a crowded diner. As her last moan dies down, the old woman at the next table turns to the waitress and says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” That’s how Bill felt when he looked at us, he said: “Could any two people have had so much fun, shared so much heartache, lived so fully, loved so much?”
Ecstatically happy, we were going to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary on a trip to Istanbul with our great friends Jan Reid and Dorothy Browne. But our plans came crashing down in March when we learned that Phyllis had cancer. Two months later I was told that it was terminal. A month after that she died.
WHEN I FIRST HEARD THAT WORD, “TERMINAL,” I thought, “This can’t be happening.” Not to us. Not to Phyllis. She had always been so strong, so vital, so unstoppable. She was my anchor, my soul mate, the love of my life. It couldn’t end like this. We know that life is temporary, a gift we’re not meant to understand, but death is much more complex, a poorly defined state for which there is no preparation and to which God is a bystander. At 71, I’d struggled with heart disease for nearly twenty years; she