Bobby Harper wasn't looking for another relationship, and then his phone rang.
Kelly Hart told him she had been eavesdropping on his Facebook page and accidentally connected to his number on her mobile phone. She seemed embarrassed, but they kept talking. They had known each other since childhood, but Bobby was three years older and had a different set of friends.
"She was so easy to talk to,'' Bobby recalled later. "We just hit it off right away.''
They met at an Applebee's and shared a table for three hours. She wore a sunflower dress and Bobby couldn't help thinking how she still resembled the happy little girl he had known more than 30 years earlier. She stood 4-feet-10 and weighed about 90 pounds. Bobby, a 220-pound former football and baseball player, placed her hand in his and smiled. "It was so tiny,'' he said.
They talked about music and old teachers and classmates from their days at Pasco High. They shared their love of Jesus and country music and pro wrestling. Bobby laughed over her fascination with John Cena of the World Wrestling Federation.
They touched on failed relationships. Kelly beamed about her 18-year-old daughter, Kayla. And when Applebee's closed, they talked some more in the parking lot. Kelly invited him to attend her 20th high school reunion.
Bobby Harper hadn't been looking for love, but now it was slapping him in the face. He spent hours building custom decks and driveways at the business he started in 1999 and then raced home to take her out. Dinner didn't cost much. Kelly preferred grilled hot dogs and egg salad sandwiches. She called herself a "simple girl.''
On the day Bobby got up the nerve to say "I love you,'' Kelly hesitated. "I've got something to tell you,'' she said, pulling him closer and removing a towel from her wet hair. She showed him a spot where 10 years earlier surgeons had removed a cancerous brain tumor. She thought he should know before moving ahead with their relationship.
Bobby dropped the towel. He kissed her head.
Doctors had examined Kelly's brain every three months since the surgery and recently had detected some suspicious specks. Kelly prayed they were just scar tissue, but doctors soon discovered new tumors. For months they drove each week to Shands hospital in Gainesville where she received medicine to control seizures. Then, last July, she underwent surgery again at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. Bobby recorded with his iPhone as nurses took her away.
"I'll be okay,'' she said with a broad smile.
Doctors gave her six months. Bobby promised to devote every minute to giving her comfort, "but I was the one who kept needing comforting,'' he said. "I'd be crying and she would say, 'I know where I'm going, and I know you'll join me there someday.' "
When Kelly turned 40 on Oct. 22, Bobby gave her 40 roses. His sister, Christina Harper, set up a Facebook page so Kelly could communicate with hundreds of friends. On Dec. 14 she wrote, "If for some reason I don't wake tomorrow, I love you. Either way, I'm okay.''
Bobby, a bachelor at 43, badly wanted to marry Kelly, to make official the bond he felt in his heart. But they feared a legal union might jeopardize her Medicaid and other benefits.
On Dec. 29, they found another way.
Kelly wore a black dress with flowers to the Church of God on 21st Street in Dade City. She reached up from her wheelchair to hold Bobby's hand as the Rev. Mark Frier asked them traditional questions of love and devotion, of sickness and health. Bobby kissed the bride and everyone enjoyed Italian food. On Facebook that night, Kelly changed her status to "married.''
"We didn't get married in the eyes of Florida,'' Bobby explained. "We got married in the eyes of God.''
Kelly enjoyed fireworks, so on New Year's Eve, Bobby arranged for a spectacular show. Her friends planned a "Cinderella Day'' for her because she had been feeling bloated from drugs. She would get her hair and nails done, a much-needed pampering. But just four days after the wedding, she woke Bobby at 4:30 a.m. complaining of tremendous pain in her head.
He drove her to Florida Hospital in Tampa. As she lay in bed waiting for a morphine injection, Bobby rubbed her feet. "Don't be scared,'' he said. "Don't be scared. I love you.''
Kelly slipped into a coma. She died at 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 4 at the hospice center in Zephyrhills.
Three days later, mourners packed the same church where Kelly and Bobby had married. They testified to her courage and took comfort knowing their friend had found true love at the end. They took her to be buried at Chapel Hill Gardens. When everyone left, Bobby remained. In the fresh dirt, next to bright flowers, he wrote "I ♥ U.'' He posted it on Facebook.