Madeleine Walker and Robert Gamblain Sr. have four and a half marriages between them, nine children, 20 grandchildren, and 125 years of combined life experiences. She’s 65, he’s 60. You’d think they’ve had enough of the tussle and rumble of conjugal jaunts.
They haven’t. Warning signs be damned. “She’s Cancer, I’m Aquarius,” Robert says of their astrological signs, which suggest the two should stay away from each other (though great things can happen when they don’t. Charles Lindbergh was an Aquarius and Anne Morrow a Cancer). Then again the first time they met, about a year and a half ago, Madeleine baked Bob something that could have killed him: a chocolate cake piled high with walnuts. Bob is allergic to any kind of nut. Not that he’d have been able to eat anyway. He was speechless at the sight of Madeleine, who was his son’s landlord at the time. He mumbled so much that she worried something was wrong with him. Something was, in the best sense. “I was so thunderstruck,” Bob says. “For me that’s way beyond belief because I can talk to anybody.”
He didn’t yet know what he’d find out on their first date at a barbecue joint in Daytona Beach that, as Madeleine remembered, wasn’t very good, though the two of them spoke for four hours that evening. “Don’t ask me about what,” Madeleine recalls. “Everything and anything. Children, jobs, marriages. You name it, we talked.”
Ah. The marriages. Madeleine’s two previous husbands died. A third would-be husband, she left at the altar in an Annapolis, Md., ceremony 18 years ago. Her son Charles, who was giving her away and wasn’t sure about that one, whispered in her ear as she was walking up to the altar that he had her car keys in case she changed her mind. She took him up on it. She apologized to the stranded man and went for a spin, though she couldn’t resist the officer’s club and the fun with 150 invited guests later. “We had the party and the reception and it was wonderful,” Madeleine says of that near-miss, her smoker’s laugh filling the room, as it does often when you’re in conversation with her. She has the stand-up comic’s facility of finding the humorous in every circumstance in life.
The quality is about to come in handy.
Here’s something else neither she nor Bob knew on their first date, or their first year, together. Back in June, Madeleine was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She was given six months. Ever since it’s been a weekly ordeal for Madeleine and Bob, who’s turned into Madeleine’s caretaker, back and forth to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for three hours of chemotherapy once a week and radiation therapy five days a week. The couple had talked of marriage for the past year. The diagnosis was the tipping point.
Madeleine and Bob are getting married on Sept. 15—at Strathmore, the New York deli they describe in terms fit for “Cheers” (Madeleine is from Boston, Bob from Minnesota) with Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts officiating. He’s a friend of Gail Wilson’s, of The Bridal Connection, who’s planning the wedding. There they were Sunday around Gail’s dining room table, which doubles up as planning central for all her weddings, going over their expectations for the ceremony and the guests, the vows, the mayor’s recital, and hearing Netts—who’s performed a few of these—remind them of the essential: “There is nothing that can go wrong other than one of you two not showing up for this wedding.”
Naturally, Bob and Madeleine punctuated every few moments with a big laugh—be it about Botox, the word “obey,” or the facial rings and blue hair they won’t accept from guests. You’d never think either of them was old enough to remember the Eisenhower era, or that one of them had a terminal diagnosis. But if their hearts are beating with teenage fervor, there’s a temperance to the beat that marks the rhythms of acquired wisdom.
Listen to “Till,” Bob and Madeleine’s Wedding Song[media id=85 width=250 height=100]
“I live by an old adage,” Madeleine says. “It is what it is, and you deal with it as best you can, with a smile. That’s my philosophy.” She credits her strength and humor to her mother and grandmother, two strong women who had their local fame in Boston: her grandmother owned Lena’s Italian Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue and another Lena’s later for a combined 55 years. “I’ve decided I want to live now. So we’re going to fight. I have a good attitude, I was raised by two strong women. You fight. You do what you have to do in life.” Her mother died of the same cancer. She’d been given six months. She lived two years, after refusing all treatments, and died at 80. There’s a precedent for hope.
Then there’s Bob.
“We had discussed marriage but it was way into the future. We weren’t in a hurry, we had no desire to rush into anything. And suddenly the future seemed very near,” Bob says. “She’s weak, she’s tired, she’s ill, but she has one of the best attitudes, and as far as handling the news that she had cancer, she taught me how to be brave. Now, I was a firefighter for 18 years, and I learned a lot about bravery and the desire to make it in life. And this lady taught me how to be brave, because I can’t put it into words as to how much bravery it takes to face cancer and say, you know what, it is what it is, and we’ll have to deal with it from then on. I’ve dealt with many things in my life, and I never thought that I’d have to take lessons on how to be brave. It just never occurred to me. But she’s a wonderful person, and no matter how long we have, no matter how much time we have, whether it’s a year or five years, whatever, we want to spend it together because we love each other so very much, and we feel that we are so lucky to have each other.”
To Karyn Phillips, owner of Strathmore, there’s something of a double coup in hosting the wedding in the deli. Bob and Madeleine are her patients, too: Phillips is a hypnosis therapist who specializes in smoking cessation. The wedding will be the first held at Strathmore, though likely not the last (Phillips, who’s broadening Strathmore’s range beyond its 4 p.m. closing time, is holding a murder-mystery dinner the evening of Oct. 30). The wedding will be to Madeleine’s specifications: A big trellis, sweetheart table, centerpieces, pink and white tablecloths, with an isle between the tables, a big buffet—and a singer: Andre Maybin Jr., a busboy at the restaurant and an actor and singer at the Flagler Playhouse, where Phillips is a board member and Madeleine is also a regular.
Maybin (a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts and a reservist in the military who’ll be playing Caiaphas in the Playhouse’s October adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar”) won’t stop at “Till.” He has a medley planned, and who knows what else: he radiates the actor’s irrepressible urge for improv. Maybe a tune or two by Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville, another Cancer-Aquarius duo.
It’s not in Bob and Madeleine to pretend that a mist of apprehension isn’t there. Madeleine even speaks of cold feet once in a while, calling herself “the black widow” and worrying that the whole thing isn’t fair to Bob. He won’t hear of it. “We have both adapted the philosophy that there’s nothing that we can control ourselves,” Bob says. “We have to wait for the man upstairs to make his decision and we have to accept that even though it’s sad and it’s hard to deal with at times, at the end of the day, we still hold each other and talk and relax and just we’re together—and we both love to laugh. Oh my god, we laugh 90 percent of the day. No matter what, we can find humor in everything around us. Both of us have a wonderful sense of humor, and it’s so much fun because there’s so many things in life that you can just sit back and look at and just enjoy a good laugh about it.”
Till the rivers flow upstream and the tropical sun grows cold, anyway.
“Doctors can predict all they want. You never know what’s coming up in the future,” Madeleine says. “We’re just going to handle it, and that’s that. I think I’m happy for the first time in my life, and I think Bob is, and we’re going to do this. I’m still amazed that we’re going to do this. We’re going to live together in happiness, hopefully.” After so many marriages, she says, you learn. “In all honesty, we know how to live at this point. I can’t explain it any other way. It’s a miracle. If there is such a thing, it’s a miracle. We fell deeply in love for the first time in our lives, and I like it.”