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.