Every Wednesday, Ellen Hecker unwraps her Christmas gift, a weekly lunch date with her husband, Tim. They share a simple meal and a quiet talk, just the two of them, alone together with no kids.
''We don't want anything coming between us at lunch,'' Ellen says. ''Want to tag along?''
You bet. And I'm buying as it's another episode in the ''Lunch with Cliff'' saga. After I extended the invitation last week, 355 readers clipped coupons and asked to do lunch. It's my treat in exchange for them saying what's on their minds.
The Heckers settle into a corner booth at the Ruby Tuesday restaurant in the Tri-County Mall.
Tim sells insurance. Ellen runs exercise sessions for senior citizens at the Franciscan Hospital-Mount Airy Campus.
Tim gave his wife the gift of a weekly lunch because ''it's better than a toaster,'' he deadpans. ''And, she can't take it back.''
She gives him a playful poke in the ribs.
They laugh and gently touch hands.
They know that the best present of all is being together. So, they cling to each other at lunch and revisit their youth. For this hour each week, they become the couple who met in college 20 years ago and fell in love.
''I don't want to talk about what's on the front page of the newspaper,'' Tim says of their weekly lunch topics. ''Not that I don't care. I just want to look her in the eye and say, 'What's going on with you?' ''
Tim's gift gives them a chance to forget and remember.
For an hour, they go over the crazy things their three kids - Joel, 16, Rachel, 12, and Jacob, 7 - did the day before at their Greenhills home. A package for Joel arrived in the mail. Rachel opened the box first. World War III broke out.
''They're good kids,'' Tim says. ''And they're mostly human.''
Ellen remembers the conversation Jacob, the family clown and philosopher, recently had with his grandmother. She asked him what he was grateful for. He could have said Beanie Babies or baseball.
Instead, the wise 7-year-old said: ''I'm glad I have two parents and a family who loves me.''
The Heckers' weekly lunch is a time to collect their thoughts and hearts as parents. ''We discuss presenting a united front for the kids,'' Ellen says. ''We don't want them to hear one thing from their father and another thing from their mother.''
''My job is mostly doom and gloom,'' Tim adds. ''These kids show us what life is all about.''
For one hour a week, lunch also helps the Heckers forget that Ellen suffers from fibromyalgia syndrome.
''That's crazy ladies disease,'' she says, making a joke out of this nagging ailment of the body's bones and muscles. The chronic pain and chronic fatigue it causes can create chronic stress in a family.
''Doctors used to think it didn't exist. They couldn't find anything physically wrong with you,'' Ellen says. ''So, you were just a crazy lady.''
Ellen has had this condition since she was pregnant with Joel. That's 16 years of pain. But she tries to forget about it.
''Our Wednesday lunch makes me feel like I'm on a date,'' she says. ''I get to put on some makeup and be the old Ellen.''
The old Ellen met the old Tim at Miami University in 1977. They were known as ''the dancing couple'' at parties. He says he was ''dashing in my bib overalls.'' She was outgoing and ''always ready to play tennis. Now, I can barely lift the racket.''
So, they sit at lunch, talking about what happened yesterday and hoping for what might happen tomorrow.
''There's no cure today for fibromyalgia,'' Ellen says. ''But I hope the future brings one. Until then, I'm trying to be at peace with what has happened.''
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.