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'Shirley Will Always Be With Me'

Johnny Nelson talks about his wife.

Shirley and Johnny Nelson were married 40 years, and their love was evident to all who knew them. So it's with deep sadness for both of them that their friends are mourning her death.

"Most of us husbands depend on our wives more than we will admit, so we fake our independence," said Roy Lipsey, Board of Deacons chairman at the Nelsons' church, Chantilly Baptist. "Johnny didn't even try to fake it. He knew, she knew and everyone else knew they were a team. So we can only imagine his pain as we try to deal with our own."

The Nelsons were vacationing in Europe when Shirley succumbed to a heart attack, March 27, at age 62. "The trip was to celebrate both of our retirements," said Johnny. "She'd retired from IBM after 25 years, and I'd retired from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after 33 years. We'd never taken three weeks' vacation before."

They left their Chantilly home March 4 and were due to return April 1. They did, but it wasn't how they'd planned it.

The Nelsons first visited friends in the military, stationed in Stuttgard, Germany, and then took a train to Paris, where they spent a week. Shirley especially enjoyed having dinner at Altitude 95, a restaurant on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. In Versailles, they saw the Hall of 100 Mirrors and the huge, reflecting pool on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles.

Next, the couple journeyed to Rome, Italy, sightseeing at the Roman Coliseum and Vatican City. "We were there when 15 new cardinals were being inducted," said Johnny. He said Shirley was having a good time and felt fine and would rest and relax whenever she felt like it.

Last Monday, March 27, they were at a table inside a train terminal, having dinner around 7 p.m., before catching the train back to their hotel outside Rome. "We were reflecting on the highlights of our trip, and she told me to see whether the train had arrived to start boarding," said Johnny. "I returned to the table and beckoned for her to come on."

They walked toward the train and, just before reaching the boarding platform, he stopped briefly to confirm with a train attendant that this was, indeed, the right train. "And when I turned again, Shirley was laying face down on the pavement," he said.

"I ran over to see what happened, thinking she'd slipped and fell," continued Johnny. "As I held her, she was gasping for breath. People gathered, took her pulse and tried to do CPR. Some people hugged me and prayed with me while they tried to revive her."

Paramedics rushed to the scene, but their efforts were also unsuccessful, so they rushed her by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Emergency room doctors couldn't revive Shirley, either, and an English-speaking attendant stayed with Johnny during the duration, keeping him apprised of what was happening.

"She did not regain consciousness," he said. About a half hour later, she was gone, and doctors asked if Johnny wanted to see Shirley one last time. "I went in and gave her a final kiss," he said. "Then I called the American Embassy; I wasn't coming back to the U.S. without Shirley."

He couldn't get a flight home for several days, and it was from Paris. So he got a tiny room in a small hotel in Rome until he could leave. "The most difficult job was telling my children and friends," he said. "They were all devastated." Then someone from a funeral home there helped him make arrangements for his wife's trip home.

Afterward, said Johnny, "I just lay in that room, without windows, and it was almost like a tomb, itself. I was in despair, my heart breaking, but never questioning God. I knew what was happening, but I was in denial."

Next day, he walked eight miles to the American Embassy. "I wanted to feel closer to the U.S. and get some solace," he explained. "I prayed and agonized and then walked back to my hotel."

Then, said Johnny, "On the third day, like the Resurrection, a miraculous calm came over me, and I wrote down everything that had happened since Shirley's death. I was strengthened by God's purity to do whatever I had to do."

At the same time, the world brightened for him. "They moved me to another room, with windows, and phone calls and prayers started coming from family and friends," he said. Reading the Bible passage about when Christ wept with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus, he said "that helped me to cry for the first time."

"He was in sorrow with me," explained Johnny. "And just as with Lazarus, Shirley will arise on the last day. All this came to me on the flight back, up 36,000 miles in the sky. And I recalled that she'd read her Bible more on this trip than she had in a long time, and she was enjoying herself, so all of that helps my heart."

Noting her just-completed evangelism course, he said he hopes not just her legacy to minority students, but her spiritual life, too, "will always be demonstrated far beyond her years here on earth." What especially comforted him, that third day, said Johnny, was reading that "death can't divide us; love is of the spirit and not of the body."

"So when you love someone, they can be oceans away, but still just a step away from you, enfolding you in their love," he said. "So Shirley will always be with me and, as loved ones, we will one day be reunited."

Perhaps, said Johnny, it's God's way of giving him an even-stronger faith: "Now, if I do cry, I welcome my tears because they're not tears of despair and sorrow. They're tears of refreshment and hope of seeing her again."

Besides her husband, she is survived by daughter and son-in-law Meka and Michael Sales of Raleigh, N.C.; son and daughter-in-law Mark and Lori Nelson of Springfield; and grandchildren Kevin, 5, and Justin, 4, Nelson.

Funeral services were held Wednesday afternoon at Chantilly Baptist Church, with burial in the church cemetery. Contributions to the Shirley O. Nelson CPMSAC Scholarship Fund may be sent to: CMPSAC, 13459 Marble Rock Drive, Chantilly, VA 20151.