I didn’t appreciate how odd our courtship was until Virginia gave me up for Lent. We were both 16.
“I can’t see you for a while,” she told me on the phone.
“Why?” I said, alarmed.
“I’m giving you up for Lent.”
“Why?” I repeated.
“My mother recommended it,” she said. “You’re supposed to give up something you really like.”
To this day, I’m not sure Virginia’s motive was entirely religious. She may just have wanted a break. But, after 40 days of hellish separation, she was back in my life, and I in hers. Three years later, we were married. I was 19; she was a month past 20. The odds are against young matrimony, but we never looked back.
What makes a marriage work? What keeps two people together for over 40 years?
My first date with Virginia took place at the ninth-grade prom at Jim Bridger Junior High School in North Las Vegas in 1967. She and I were both 14. I’d bought a 20-dollar sport coat for the occasion and had my prom invitation rebuffed by another girl. My cousin Esther told me to ask her best friend, Virginia, instead. I think I fell in love with Virginia that night. She was gorgeous and dainty. She had beautiful eyes, a magical smile, and a laugh so ringing and appealing that it made other people laugh. For decades afterwards, Virginia liked to tease that she’d been my second choice.
A week or two after the prom, my younger brother and I were ushers at Virginia’s Quinceañera, the coming-out party that traditionally marks a Mexican girl’s 15th birthday. That day I was going to have to dance a waltz, and preparations had gone badly. “What’s wrong with you?” Mrs. Jiménez, our teacher, had yelled at me in a panic. “All Latins have dancing in their blood!” Perhaps my blood had misplaced it. Still, that day, I didn’t mess up the waltz. And I spent the entire evening dancing with Virginia. Maybe her tolerance for my dancing demonstrated one ingredient of a successful marriage: you don’t expect perfection.
María Virginia Eugenia Vela Lara was born in 1952 in Apizaco, a small town about 65 miles east of Mexico City. She was the third child and the oldest daughter of Sixto Vela and Virginia Lara de Vela. Life in Mexico was comfortable for the Vela family. They lived in a large house with servants, and Virginia was surrounded by extended family. But when her father, Don Sixto, a railway man, began making noise about corruption within his labor union, someone tried to kill him, and he left Mexico for safety in the United States. Don Sixto eventually went to work at an automotive plating plant in Las Vegas. In May 1959, Mrs. Vela and her six children caught a northbound train and moved into a small house in North Las Vegas. Virginia was seven.
The homes in Virginia’s new neighborhood were tidy and well kept, but life in this new world was harder. Gone was the balmy climate of central Mexico, replaced by the scorching desert of Southern Nevada. Living quarters consisted of three bedrooms and one bath to accommodate what soon became a family of nine children and two adults. F-105s from Nellis Air Force Base streaked across the sky and rattled neighborhood windows with sonic booms. Staples of Mexican daily life, like tortillas, were nowhere to be found, at least not unless you made them yourself.
Dating Virginia was not like dating other girls. Don Sixto and Doña Virginia intended to protect their daughters from the looser mores of American culture, and that meant chaperones. When I finally got my driver’s license, Virginia’s parents allowed me to take the wheel—but not alone with their daughter. We knew to expect a younger brother or sister or a visiting aunt to join us.
At the time, we chafed at the oversight, and I wouldn’t advise a return to chaperoning as a means to strengthening marriage. But after we were married we looked back at it as part of what made our relationship special. This old-fashioned insistence on chaperones conveyed the importance of respect for a woman. Virginia relished telling people that, as she put it, “José had to put up with a lot” to win her hand. She knew my love was deep and serious. I suspect many other couples would benefit from such an effective filter.
Of the two of us, Virginia was probably the “fancier,” despite the crowded living quarters. My neighborhood, Vegas Heights, was much rougher than hers. Cabbies avoided the area, and the gas company often refused to deliver the propane tanks we needed for our stove. My father, a Mexican immigrant, was as macho as they come. He liked to gamble and to fight, which often made life chaotic. He died in a work accident when I was fifteen, but Virginia, unfailingly kind, was a great comfort to me.
Virginia and I enrolled at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and, in 1971, after our first year there, I asked her to marry me. She said yes, of course.
When the day came to deliver the news to our families, I dressed in a gray suit and wore my finest shirt: a pink number with ruffles down the middle. First we told my mom. Once we had assured her that Virginia was not pregnant, she took it well. Virginia’s parents took it harder. Her mother, unprepared to have her first and favorite daughter given away so soon, burst into tears. Still, we got permission. At stake was more than mere sentiment, because, at that time, a male under 21 in Nevada required written parental consent in order to marry.
On June 10, 1972, at St. Christopher’s Catholic Church in North Las Vegas, Virginia and I were wed. The ceremony included popular songs of the time—”Sunrise, Sunset,” from Fiddler on the Roof and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” by The Carpenters—alongside elements of a traditional Mexican wedding. A large white lasso was draped over our shoulders, and I gave my bride a small gold box containing the arras, the 13 coins symbolizing Christ and his apostles.
Our first dance at the reception got off to a rocky start. We’d asked the band to play “Going Out of My Head,” a slow song by Little Anthony and the Imperials, but they jazzed it up, and my pathetic bouncing would have confirmed every suspicion of Mrs. Jiménez that I was an adopted child of non-Latin descent. Being the good Catholic kids that we were, we’d spent no time alone together in our new apartment except to put in a few basic furnishings, and it was nearly empty. The next morning, we realized we had no household supplies, and the only clothes we had were my tuxedo and her wedding gown. It was a formally dressed pair that walked into a nearby 7-11 to buy toothbrushes and soap.
I suspect one trait of a healthy marriage is unpredictability—or at least unexpected moments. Life with Virginia was full of surprises. I was reserved, shy, and maybe a little square. She was warm, welcoming, outspoken, and impish. Her laugh was always the loudest in the house. I didn’t expect—but neither did I find it out of character—when she did things like turn a whipped cream canister from her strawberry shortcake onto my face instead, or drive off to church without the kids and me because she felt we were taking too long to get ready.
Javier, our first son, was born in 1975. José Luis came next in 1979, followed by Sergio in 1980. I completed law school at Stanford and joined the Phoenix law firm of Lewis and Roca, where I worked for the next 30 years.
Like every marriage, ours had its challenges. When I was younger, I spent too much time on my law practice and too little with Virginia and our sons. She bore most of the parenting responsibility, and she was frustrated. Such conflicts have destroyed other marriages—so why not ours? Part of it may be that we listened to each other’s concerns. And while we expressed disagreement or hurt or disappointment, we never used loud or deliberately cruel words. Yes, sometimes one of us might say or do something hurtful, but it always got resolved with mutual apologies.
The comfort and the traditions of religion also helped. We knew that we would be in church on Sundays, that our kids would go to religion classes, and that they would be baptized and confirmed. We also knew that both of us took our marriage vows seriously.
Not that my wife was above some non-church-sanctioned reminders. The actor Jeff Bridges once said that the secret to staying married is not getting a divorce. You could say that was Virginia’s philosophy, too. “There will never be a divorce,” she liked to say. “There may be a death, but there will never be a divorce.” It was not a romantic notion. Long before Lorena Bobbitt became a household name, Virginia made it clear that Bobbitt-like consequences would ensue if I ever strayed. “I’ll put it in a box and mail it to the other woman,” she added for emphasis, as if further emphasis were needed.
None of this means that a marriage can’t accommodate people with tempers. Virginia, it should be admitted, had one. Not for nothing did her father call her a cabeza de cohete, or firecracker head.
She was an aggressive driver, even when she wasn’t driving. “Why did you let that person cut in front of you?” she’d chide. Confronted with slow drivers, she’d lapse into her best imitation of Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady and yell, “Move your blooming arse!” One time, when four jaywalking sailors brought traffic to a slowdown on Fremont Street in Las Vegas, Virginia leaned over and honked the horn on my behalf. I pointed out to her that I was the one they were going to beat up.
Virginia loved the United States and the opportunities it provided her, but she was also proud of her mexicanidad. It showed in her choice of art, literature, and entertainment (she took a guilty pleasure in following telenovelas), and it showed in her job choices: working with young immigrants, mostly Mexican girls, to prepare them for college. News reports about immigration raids upset her deeply. She would curse at the television when she heard about new roundups, and she once insisted we both go to a supermarket that we heard was being targeted to try to get ourselves arrested. (We didn’t succeed.)
Virginia was ladylike in most things, and she didn’t often curse, but she did have a weakness for use of the middle finger. As our son Javier once observed, people who said Virginia didn’t have a mean bone in her body failed to notice that she had two mean bones, one on each hand. Most of the time, the birds were teasingly directed at me. But not always. Javier found that out as a teenager when he joked that our Volvo’s Mars symbol, which is also the standard gender symbol for males, meant that only a man could drive it properly. “Here’s my symbol for what I think of that,” replied Virginia, with a genuinely angry bird. (She later apologized profusely.)
In early 2012, Virginia began to suffer stomach and back pain that wouldn’t go away. After a series of medical appointments, we got a grim diagnosis: kidney cancer, stage four metastatic. It was Valentine’s Day.
Life expectancy for someone in her condition ranges from a few months to a few years. Virginia didn’t want to discuss the prognosis, but she knew things were serious, and she was frightened.
For all that, she maintained her sense of humor. After she underwent surgery to remove a cancerous kidney, I gauged her recovery by how many raised middle fingers per hour I got in response to my exhortations to her to wake up or to breathe more deeply. This was how she would communicate that she was feeling better, except when her mother was around.
On July 1st, 2012, Virginia died.
I do not agree with those who tell me that she is in a better place, although I’m certain they mean well. Anna Quindlen, discussing mortality in her latest book, best expresses how I feel. “There is no better place,” she writes. “This is the best place, here, now, alive.” Virginia and I had so much more to do together. We wanted to welcome our fifth grandchild. We wanted, years from now, to dance at our granddaughter’s wedding.
I do find solace in the many acknowledgements of the deep love Virginia and I had—what some have told me was a model marriage, a marriage that I can try to explain to others without knowing for sure if it can be explained. Many things, after all, have no explanation. I cannot, for instance, understand why God chose to take her from me at such a young age.
But I no longer view it just as cruel irony that the final chapter of our love story began on Valentine’s Day. In the months that followed her diagnosis, Virginia and I spent a lot of time together, time that I treasured. It reminded me of our dating days, when the only thing either of us wanted was to be with each other and to make each other as happy as possible. You can, I learned, fall in love with someone twice.
José Cárdenas is senior vice president and general counsel of Arizona State University.
*Photos courtesy of José Cárdenas.