Through death and grief, a couple finds love late in life

Something inexplicable happened the first time Judy Wilson and Gene Humphrey sang next to each other.

A long-standing practice at the Encinitas chapter of Tremble Clefs — a choir for people with Parkinson’s disease and their loved ones — places the sopranos and tenors on one side of the room, with the altos and baritones on the other. The two had rarely interacted in the two years they had both been members.

But then chance — or was it fate? — put them side by side to sing “Love Can Build a Bridge” that day three years ago.

“The hairs on our arms were going snap, crackle, pop,” Judy recalled one recent afternoon in Gene’s Del Mar home. “I was moving away and it didn’t matter because my little hairs were still trying to reach out for his. It was so ridiculous and I’m going, ‘What is this?’”

Maybe it was the inscrutable will of the cosmos. Maybe it was just simple biology. Whatever was going on that day, their chemistry is palpable in the way they look at each other as they reflected on their late-in-life love story after a practice session with Tremble Clefs. The group, for them, has offered far more than a social outlet and the chance to perform at high schools and senior facilities. Tremble Clefs is a community, they say, that helped them grow forward into new lives after catastrophic loss, learning from and building on the pain of losing a loved one to the pernicious affliction.

“For anyone whose spouse is dying slowly, you’re losing them all the time,” Gene said. “Years before they’ve died, they’re dying for you. Your love for them is still there but the relationship is so different.”

Gene’s previous marriage had lasted 40 years and spanned his reinvention from a purveyor of fine furniture into a clinical psychologist devoted to a spiritually-based doctrine of personal growth. He had joined Tremble Clefs with his then-wife not long after her diagnosis in 2002. For years they soldiered on, bracing for the inevitable. By the time her final days arrived, he was ready to endure the loss, devastated as he sang to her at her bedside yet overcome by a gratitude he couldn’t possibly contain.

“As my wife was dying, I realized that I had, over the course of my marriage, developed a profound capacity to love,” he said. “I could feel that pouring out of my chest and onto her as she was lying there. I realized that with her death I didn’t lose that capacity; I had gained it.”

In a sense, Judy’s husband died the day he tried to strangle her in their kitchen. A violent nature had been growing in him the deeper he slipped into his dementia, she said, darker and darker until the day he wrapped his hands around her throat, a grip from which she barely broke free long enough to call neighbors. They took him to the hospital that day, and he never came home again, spending a year and a half in secured care until his death.

She had by then started counseling through Elizabeth Hospice, and a year after his death, a friend convinced her to join Tremble Clefs — never mind that she hadn’t the faintest notion of the voice that had gone a lifetime untapped inside her.

“I had to come up with a new life,” she said. “I had to work a lot on that, to get on with getting on.”

Even from the onset of their whirlwind romance, Gene and Judy refused to shy away from the sorrow they had each endured. Instead, they embraced it, finding solace and common ground in the struggles they went through.

For all its triumphs, their courtship hasn’t been free of problems of its own, whether that be their initial doubts or the long work they’ve faced in dealing with Gene’s hoarding problem. But the duo would not be deterred, and on March 14 they got engaged on the bluffs south of town, which she reciprocated a few weeks later, on the same spot, also on bended knee.

In June, Gene put his home of 26 years up for sale. The moment it sells, they’ll trade in the life they’ve known for an RV and the open road — heading north if it’s warm and south if it’s cold, knowing that enough family and friends are strewn across the continent that they’ll never have to stop.

As they mused about riding off into the twilight of their lives, their answers intertwined in the seamless harmony of people more deeply in love than they ever knew possible.

Maybe they’ll sing and write together along the way, they said. Maybe they’ll sow the seeds of new Tremble Clefs chapters. But no matter what, they’ll carry their message to anyone who’ll listen that it’s never too late to find love.

“Something I want people to know is that I’m in my late 70s and this is the most passionate relationship I’ve had in my life,” Gene said.

“And I just turned 75,” Judy says. “Most people feel like it’s over. But what I would love to tell people at this age is that you can find out things about yourself, you can learn to sing, you can fall in love. I’ve been given these gifts all at an older age. I think people lose hope sometimes. We’ve found what we’ve found because we have such an enthusiasm for life and living it to the best of our abilities. It’s a wonderful thing. People should never lose hope.”