TAMPA — Fred Hearns wanted to bring his mother and step-father together one last time.
His mother, Grace Clark, was in intensive care at Tampa General Hospital after suffering a heart attack.
Hearns' stepfather, John Clark, was in an assisted living facility. Mr. Clark's condition left him unable to speak clearly. He could push out a word here and there, but never a full sentence.
For days, Mr. Clark did not know his wife was in the hospital, that she was getting worse each day.
Hearns finally told him on July 22, then drove him to the hospital and wheeled him to her room.
Mr. Clark looked upon his wife of more than 40 years. A ventilator breathed for her. He held her hand.
And then he spoke.
Much of the Clarks' lives revolved around Allen Temple A.M.E. Church, where Mr. Clark served as a trustee.
"He was the custodian, the chef, the painter and the plumber," said Hearns, 63, a retired director of the Tampa Department of Community Affairs.
Mrs. Clark was a fearless enforcer of rules, and once closed the sanctuary doors on her son when he arrived to church a few seconds late.
"She gave me that look that said, 'You know you're late. Now just wait until the singing starts,' " Hearns said.
Mrs. Clark traveled the state on behalf of the Women's Missionary Society and trained ushers at Allen Temple.
"They had a marriage that was grounded by their faith," said the Rev. David Green, Allen Temple's pastor.
Mrs. Clark also was a founding member of the Belmont Heights/Jackson Heights Civic Association (now the East Tampa Business and Civic Association) and volunteered at Meals on Wheels and with her voting precinct.
"She was very involved in trying to clean up our neighborhood, to get the city of Tampa to take down drug houses and build affordable housing," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, the first president of the Belmont Heights group. "She played a very, very active role."
Mr. Clark preferred fishing, watching his favorite television shows and fixing anything that broke down at home or at the church.
Together they helped found a Doug Williams fan club, which met weekly with the Buccaneers quarterback in a Wag's restaurant, and a senior ministry at their church.
Earlier in life, John Clark had attended public schools in Tampa, then joined the Navy. He worked as a chef for many years, and "could cook better than anybody," Hearns said.
He married Grace around 1970 after each had been married previously. For a number of years they summered in Maryland, where he worked as a chef in resort hotels. Mr. Clark also worked as an equipment operator at the Gardiner phosphate plant.
Grace Tillman graduated from Middleton High School and earned an associate's degree at Gibbs Junior College. She worked at the segregated Clara Frye Memorial Hospital, then began a 35-year career in data processing with Hillsborough County.
About six years ago, Mr. Clark began to slow down. He could no longer attend Rays games with his stepson. He had a stroke. His wife cared for him at home until she no longer could.
Two months ago he entered an assisted living facility. His wife was there to feed him each spoonful of food.
He understood what was said to him, but only those closest could understand him.
"If he really wanted to express himself he could emit words, almost whispering sounds," said Angie de la Rosa, the administrator of Amrose Care.
About three weeks ago, Mrs. Clark stopped visiting her husband. Hearns told his stepfather she was sick, but spared him from the whole story.
But as Mrs. Clark's condition declined, Hearns knew he had to tell him.
• • •
Inside Mrs. Clark's hospital room, Hearns took his mother's hand and placed it in his stepfather's palm.
Mr. Clark then, for the first time in months, spoke loud and clear.
"Grace, I love you. Grace, I love you. I love you."
And that was it.
Hearns drove Mr. Clark to the assisted living facility, then returned to the hospital.
Just four hours later, he got a phone call from the facility. Mr. Clark had been found unresponsive and was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital.
He was pronounced dead there. He was 86.
The next morning, doctors removed Mrs. Clark's ventilator. She died at noon, 16 hours after her husband.
Mrs. Clark was 81.
"In my mind," Hearns said, "I could hear her telling him, 'John, I'll see you at 12 noon sharp.' "
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.