Still strong, their love was just different by the end. Confused and unable to speak in sentences, 62-year-old Mary "Maggie" Depcik, dying in the family's Buffalo Grove home, no longer could be the funny, outspoken mom and wife taking care of others. In their 41st year of marriage, Dennis Depcik found himself as much caretaker as husband.
On the morning of Nov. 14, 2010, Dennis held Maggie's hand. Asked to answer questions about thirst and pain by squeezing his fingers, his wife didn't respond. Then he asked, "Do you love me?"
"And she squeezed back," Dennis says. "That was the last communication I had with her. She died a few hours after that."
Diagnosed in 1996 with cancer that had spread from a lung to her brain, Maggie overcame great odds to survive. But the removal of her left lung, brain surgery and heavy doses of chemo and radiation took its toll on her body and spirit. In 2009, she lost her balance carrying a basket of clothes up the stairs and hit her head during a horrific fall. She never recovered and died 15 months later.
Looking back on their life together, Dennis struggled at first.
"What really haunted me was how could she fall in love with me," he says.
The answer was hidden away in a box in Maggie's closet.
"I was missing her one day and wanted to be with her," Dennis says. He walked around the bedroom they shared, touching her stuffed animals, music boxes and jewelry. Grabbing her bottle of Moonlight Path, he sprayed a mist. He opened her closet, and ran his hands over her blouses, pants and dresses. He breathed in the scent of her. Then he noticed an unusual box in a stack on her closet shelf. It was from Neiman Marcus.
"The only time we stepped foot in Neiman Marcus was when we passed through on our way to Sears," Dennis says. Opening the lid, he found 119 yellowed letters, written during the infancy of their relationship, when he was a soldier and she was the teenage sister of his brother's wife.
"I was stunned. I could barely move. I can't tell you what this meant to me, to hold her letters in my hand," Dennis says. "As soon as I saw her handwriting, I had to put it down. I just could not do it."
During the emotional weeks that followed, he forced himself to read the letters. Most were ones she had written to him. Their words slowly revealed how the pair evolved from lighthearted pen pals into a loving couple.
"Wouldn't it be something if someday (2 centuries from now) someone discovered our letters to each other and wrote a novel about us ...," Maggie wrote in one letter.
That's why her widowed husband, now 72, chose "Wouldn't It Be Something" for the title of his recent book that tells their story.
"I just fell in love with her writing," says Dennis, who spent three years working on the book. "If we didn't get to know each other this way, we would have never gotten married."
Dennis doesn't remember the first time he laid eyes on Maggie, which would have been at her mother's funeral. Three weeks later, Dennis' big brother, Leo, married Maggie's older sister, Patsy.
Dennis picks up a black-and-white photograph of 13-year-old Maggie sitting at the wedding reception with his 12-year-old sister, Nancy. Now, after a life together, he sees the spark in Maggie's eyes. But he didn't then.
"I don't remember her," Dennis says of those early meetings.
The Depciks and the Browns lived a block apart in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, where the first Mayor Daley made his home. Maggie's dad worked for Acme Steel. Her mom worked as a waitress and later as a manager at a restaurant. Dennis' dad loaded trucks and trains by day. His mom worked nights on a punch press making pie pans.
Dennis graduated in 1959 from the all-boys Quigley Preparatory Seminary, three years before Maggie started at the all-girls St. Mary High School. Although his mother had her heart set on him becoming a priest, Dennis chose to became the first member of the family to attend college, graduating from Loyola University in June 1965.
He enlisted in the Army, which spelled Viet Nam as two words then, and regarded it simply as a far-off nation in need of a few U.S. advisers. Dennis trained at Ft. Benning, Ga.
Having turned 17 on July 3, 1965, and just finished with her junior year of high school, Maggie mailed her first letter to Dennis later that month. The 24-year-old soldier at Officer Candidate School regarded her as a child, the kid sister of his brother's wife, "a pleasant pen pal." He wondered why a girl busy caring for her widowed father would bother writing him.
"I write to you because I enjoy it, silly," Maggie responded.
"My letters were longer and very boring," Dennis remembers. Grateful to be getting mail, especially from a female who wasn't his mother, Dennis looked forward to Maggie's letters. He thought she was amusing.
"I haven't decided if I should go into a career or get married," Maggie wrote. "Should I go out and earn a man's salary, or stay home and take it away from him?"
The letters grew less frequent by the summer of 1966, and Dennis didn't give it much thought when a letter from his sister-in-law casually noted that Maggie had graduated from high school and was engaged. Maggie studied nursing. Her fiance joined the Army and soon would be shipped off to Vietnam. The engagement didn't concern Dennis, who had his own worries about the escalating war.
"I got a lucky break," says Dennis, who was assigned to the Armed Forces Courier Service and ended up delivering classified military documents from his station in Heidelberg, Germany. That September, Dennis got a letter from Maggie, in which she jokingly referred to herself as the "Beauty of Bridgeport."
Attempting to "have some fun with her," Dennis addressed his reply to "Miss Magathie Brown III."
"I really didn't care that much about her. I was just trying to be funny, but it became our pet name," says Dennis, who remembers how Maggie soon sent him her photo signed "Magathie."
When he came home on leave for Christmas 1966, his older brother asked if Dennis could give Maggie a ride home from St. Vincent's, the orphanage where she worked. Seeing her cradle babies and appear so grown up began to change the way Dennis regarded her. An award-winning pianist, Maggie played Christmas carols that night, and Dennis walked her home. For the next 13 months, they communicated only by letter. They wrote poems for each other and shared their dreams of what they wanted in life.
When he next came home in January 1968, "I came to see Maggie," Dennis says. Still, the feelings they had for each other hadn't reached full bloom.
"I miss you. Now, isn't that silly?" Maggie wrote. Having ended her engagement with that other soldier, Maggie got engaged to a second man, and called off that relationship, too.
Often funny in her letters, Maggie was quick to sign them with "love." A guarded Dennis slowly evolved from closing letters with just his name, to "affectionately," to "very affectionately" to "more than very affectionately."
Maggie sent her last letter in April 1968, knowing Dennis was coming home for good. "I wonder," she said in closing, "if I'll miss writing you."
The first time Dennis said "I love you" to any woman was when he proposed to Maggie that summer. They married on August 24, 1969. Getting a master's degree in social work, Dennis went on to a career as associate executive director with OMNI Youth Services, building the child-abuse program for the suburban agency. Maggie stayed home with four children, the oldest with special needs. A tumor on Michael's optic nerve left him blind as a toddler and led to his death at age 22.
The surviving children say they are happy to see their parents' love story told in their dad's book.
"To read her letters is still difficult for me, to hear her voice in that way," says Paul Depcik, 38, who lives in Mount Prospect with his wife, Rachel, two young daughters and a son. A high school math teacher, Paul sees couples flirting through the ethereal Snapchat, the fleeting photo-messaging app. He and his wife fell in love just as emails were becoming common. "Everything we have is all email, and all gone," he says.
"An email is like a poke. A letter is like a caress," says Dennis, who spent a long time selecting the right print font in his book to illustrate the playful spirit of Maggie's handwriting.
"I'm in awe of how mature she was," Erica Kronke, 39, says of her mom as a teenager. With her husband, Phil, and two sons, ages 9 and 7, Erica says she is grateful for the loving example her parents set. Seeing the history of how that relationship grew "is like getting a piece of my mom back," Erica says.
"Growing up, we heard a lot of those stories," says Jennifer Sauck, 42, who lives with her husband, Jeff, and sons ages 12 and 8, in the same Crystal Lake neighborhood as her sister. Having a book that reminds them how funny and lively their mom was before her illness "is such a nice thing to have for us," Jennifer says.
"Going through the letters was such a therapeutic thing," says Dennis, who has been speaking about grief and his book at Rotary Club meetings throughout the suburbs. "It was like sitting next to her. It was like being on a date. It brought her back to me. It was like falling in love all over again."
Those letters rekindled emotions buried by decades of love. "I had discovered a Maggie I had forgotten," he says. After sharing a life together, he could see things in those letters he never noticed at the time. It gave him a new perspective on their love, their lives and even her death.
"I'm not sad for what I lost," Dennis says. "I'm glad for what I had."