MADEIRA BEACH — Ken Singleton always sat in the same seat at Church by the Sea. Eleventh pew, second seat in.
His wife had always sat beside him. But after 54 years of marriage, after the cancer took her, Ken sat alone. He was heartbroken, missed the feel of his wife's hand in his. Before she died, they'd talked about him loving again. Ken should try to be happy. He should be open to someone new if she ever came along. But would she?
Ken was not the type to be alone. He was tall with a broad smile and a penchant to bear hug. He had friends in the choir, he served on boards. He could always spot visitors, especially the beautiful woman who sat down one Sunday in the 11th pew, seventh seat in.
Ardis Shields hadn't been to Church by the Sea in years. It was her childhood church, the church where she married the man she was with for more than 40 years before the cancer took him. When he died, she plunged herself into work as a home health nurse and dental assistant. She'd considered moving in with her mother. She never thought she would marry again.
She worked most Sundays. When her schedule changed, she decided to check out her old church. In the pew, Ken said hello. She immediately liked his smile, how everyone seemed to greet him in the aisle.
Two weeks later, she came back. She saw Ken. She sat beside him.
After church they talked. Ken decided to be bold and ask for her phone number. Ardis was flabbergasted. A man hadn't done that in decades. She was so nervous, she wrote it down wrong the first time. They made an afternoon date at a pub on the beach.
Ken showed up with miniature red roses. Over lunch they learned that they drove the same kind of car, got it serviced at the same shop, had people in their families with the same names. They learned Ardis' best friend lived three doors down from Ken in Redington Beach. The similarities were so many that Ken felt something else was at play, something bigger, and that he should be even bolder than before.
He invited her for dinner. He cooked a mean fish. She invited him for dinner the next time. She cooked a mean chicken.
They squeezed in their dates between their schedules. Ken, retired owner of a sign company, played tennis and umpired Little League games. Ardis worked, cared for her family and played golf. They both had grandchildren. They were like two CEOs, laying out their schedules and working out the time.
Ken didn't know why God took his wife. He didn't know why God took Ardis' husband. He was 76 and she was 66, and although they had lost so much, maybe happiness was still possible.
Ken took Ardis to Bonefish Grill. She gave him a card. She was thankful for the past six months, it said, and she couldn't wait for the next. He looked out the window and felt antsy as the sun started to sink. He wanted to make it to the beach before sunset.
When they got there, they saw an old couple sitting in chairs on the sand.
"We should have brought some chairs and sat down like those old people," Ardis said.
"I am old," said Ken. "I'm old, set in my ways, picky. I'm OCD. But sometimes I can be a good guy. All that being said . . . Ardis Belle Ford Shields, will you marry me?"
He took out a ring.
They married Dec. 1 at Church by the Sea, in front of their children and grandchildren, and the next day they went to church and sat together in the 11th pew.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.