As comedian John Fugelsang recalls, all in life was dandy until one fateful day, at age 6, he noticed an odd motif in some photos: "In every family picture ... my mother was wearing a habit."
Last August, he tweeted his parents' unusual love story — with photos — on the first anniversary of his father's death. In a series of blurbs 140 characters or less, he tells it better than I ever could:
Fugelsang, who has hosted America's Funniest Home Videos and consulted for Rosie O'Donnell, among other things, explained more in an interview.
Not only had his mother, Peggy, joined a convent after an abusive childhood, taking the name Sister Damien. But his father, Jack, had become a Franciscan monk after high school. The two met in Brooklyn when Jack — or Brother Boniface — had become ill with tuberculosis.
"From all accounts I heard, he fell madly, desperately, insanely in love with this Southern nurse in a nun's habit that he knew he could never have, and had sworn to God he would never want to have," Fugelsang says.
Brother Boniface did the only thing he could do. He held a secret torch for Sister Damien for some 10 years. During that time, he expressed his love through platonic letters. She had been sent to Malawi to care for people with leprosy. And every week, he would write. He kept her — and all of the sisters — apprised of the latest: of LBJ and MLK and everything else U.S.A.
Then, her father died. When she returned home to take care of her family, Brother Boniface found out and intercepted her — showing up at the hospital where she was working and professing his love. "She was appalled," says Fugelsang.
But eventually, Boniface won her over. They broke their religious vows and made new ones — to each other. As Fugelsang says, it was their first love and second marriage, the first being a marriage to God. They dropped their names and became Jack and Peggy again. They had kids and lived happily married for decades, from what Fugelsang recalls.
"I can honestly say that my father's love only grew as he got older and as they aged," says Fugelsang. "The romance didn't slow down for him at all. He was someone who was completely unable to separate his devotion to God from his devotion to his wife."
Well into his 60s, Jack's heart thumped at full force — emotionally and spiritually. But then, two heart attacks had doctors shaking their heads, saying there was nothing they could do.
"So he just began telling everyone that he wasn't going to die," says Fugelsang, "that he was going to live on because he was too in love. And he held on longer than any of the doctors thought he could."
A risky stem-cell treatment in Thailand afforded him a few more years.
"It was amazing seeing how even in the last days of his life, the love just got deeper and deeper. I have photos of him in his hospital bed looking at her with a kind of naked, calm love that I've seldom seen on a man's face."
Jack died in August 2010.
"You know, we live in a culture where men are not really celebrated for love," says Fugelsang. "And so for me, the most defining personal dynamic in my life has been watching a man madly in love with his wife."
"And now I'm going to be a dad for the first time," he continues. "[And] the fact of the matter is, my kid gets to grow up in this beautiful, complicated world because many years ago, some guy in Brooklyn chose love."
Last year, Fugelsang retold the story in tweets. Today, he's telling the unabridged version in a solo performance, Guilt: A Love Story, currently touring the country.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Last year, the comedian John Fugelsang retold his parents' love story in tweets on the one-year anniversary of his father's death. And with every tweet there was a photo. One of the photo editors of our website just discovered that story and shares it on this Valentine's Day. Here's NPR's Claire O'Neill.
CLAIRE O'NEILL, BYLINE: John Fugelsang grew up Catholic. Today, he's a comedian.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAND-UP SHOW)
JOHN FUGELSANG: You know how guilt works, right? Do you understand what Catholic guilt is, how Catholic guilt is different? Here's how it works: If you feel bad about something you did, that's guilt. And that can be good. If you feel bad about who you are as a person, that's shame. But if you feel shame because you really think God wants you feeling more guilt, that's Catholic.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
O'NEILL: He's written for the "Rosie O'Donnell Show," hosted "America's Funniest Home Videos," goes on political talk shows, but he also has his own solo act to tell the much more personal story of his parents.
From what John could tell, everything seemed normal enough. His parents were in love, especially his father.
FUGELSANG: I guess the clinical term would be that my dad was a real horndog. He was just madly in love. And she tolerated this. You know, I just - I have no memory of my father not grabbing my mother, hugging my mother, kissing my mother, groping my mother, just telling her he loved her constantly. And it drove her up the wall.
O'NEILL: His parents were also very religious. His dad was a school principal, taught Sunday school. His mother was a nurse. But little hints suggested something odd.
FUGELSANG: You know, it was very strange. My mother wound up going to work as a head nurse at a convent. And there were always nuns in my house - like I can't remember a time when there weren't nuns around, just socially.
O'NEILL: Then one day, John makes a huge discovery. He's six years old. He's hanging out with his grandmother.
FUGELSANG: She was showing me pictures, and I began noticing in every family picture from the 1960s, my mother was wearing a habit.
O'NEILL: And it gets weirder. John later finds out that his dad had been a Franciscan friar. He'd been living in Brooklyn and got sick with tuberculosis.
FUGELSANG: And he had sworn to never know love. But from all accounts I heard, he fell madly, desperately, insanely in love with this Southern nurse in a nun's habit that he knew he could never have and had sworn to God he would never want to have.
O'NEILL: So they became friends, writing letters for 10 years. She'd been in Malawi caring for people with leprosy. When her father died, she went home to take care of her family. Jack caught wind of this and did something totally crazy.
FUGELSANG: He found the hospital where she was working an overnight shift and talked with her until the sun came up, and then told her he was in love with her and always had been. And she threw him out of the hospital.
O'NEILL: But Jack eventually won Peggy's heart. They broke their vows and made new ones to each other.
FUGELSANG: I can honestly say that my father's love only grew as he got older and as they aged. It was just uncanny to see how the romance didn't slow down for him at all. He was someone who was completely unable to separate his devotion to God and his devotion to his wife.
O'NEILL: They were married for decades, and Jack's heart was at full steam emotionally and spiritually. But then he suffered a heart attack, and doctors told him there was nothing they could do. When Jack saw a late-night TV spot for a stem cell treatment in Thailand, he hopped a plane. They sent his blood to Israel, where they harvested his own stem cells.
FUGELSANG: And the Thai doctors put these stem cells on his heart in the hopes they would create new arteries. So my Catholic dad put his faith in the Buddhists and the Jews. And he went to Thailand in a wheelchair and, you know, pretty soon, he was taking my mother on their very first cruise. So he just began telling everyone he wasn't going to die. He was going to live on because he was too in love. And he held on longer than any of the doctors thought he could. And it was amazing seeing how, in the last days of his life, the love just got deeper and deeper. I have photos of him in his hospital bed looking at her with a kind of naked, calm love that I've seldom seen on a man's face.
And my mother has had a tough time since then. I think that she realized that her love was every bit as deep as his. And she used to complain to me about how she would say, you know, oh, he won't stop telling me he loves me. I'm so sick of it. I don't know what to say. He just says I love you all day long. It drives me crazy. And then she said to me last month: I would give anything to hear him say it again.
And now, you know, I'm going to be a dad for the first time, which is rather appalling. But the fact of the matter is, my kid gets to grow up in this beautiful, complicated world because many years ago, some guy in Brooklyn chose love.
O'NEILL: Happy Valentine's Day. Claire O'Neill, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: And you can see this love story, as told in tweets and photos, by going to our website, npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.