Love is love: How do you go on without your ‘little darling’?
It’s been just over a year since Pat Henschel’s wife died. She still lives in the apartment they shared at a Canadian assisted living facility, where a large headshot of her spouse rests on the kitchen counter.
“You know, it’s just like half of my heart has gone away,” Henschel, 91, said. “It’s very lonesome without her. People here are so nice, and they try to fill my life with their presence. I’m getting along just fine. But I miss her terribly.”
She’s felt the absence more acutely this spring, as the pandemic has forced her to isolate from other residents. Especially because the way she’s been filling most of her time — aside from reading and watching television — is by talking about her late love, Terry Donahue.
Their 70-year relationship is at the center of the documentary “A Secret Love,” which debuted on Netflix late last month. The film — directed by Donahue’s grand-nephew, Chris Bolan — finds the couple in their late 80s, when after decades of hiding their homosexuality they decide to publicly come out and get married.
It wasn’t that long ago that Henschel even learned what Netflix was. But since the film went up on the streaming platform, some intrepid viewers have tracked down the telephone number of her elder care home and left her fan messages.
“It’s a little overwhelming. It really is. It knocks me out,” Henschel said from her living room, where an attendant had been granted access to help her set up Zoom on an iPad.
Henschel isn’t used to attention. Donahue, who died at 93 from Parkinson’s disease, was always the one more comfortable in the limelight. In the 1940s, she was one of the first members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — the organization that the 1992 film “A League of Their Own” was based on. Donahue served as a consultant on the hit movie, bonding with Madonna over the fact that they had the same astrological sign — Leo.
As a professional athlete, Donahue became accustomed to doing interviews. So when Bolan asked if she and her wife would be open to telling their love story on-camera, she didn’t hesitate: “Oh, we love you, Christopher! Anything I can do,” the director recalled.
It was 2009, and Henschel and Donahue had only just revealed to their family that they were gay. For years, they’d hid their relationship, afraid that their relatives would disown them if they knew the women were lesbians. Instead, they lied, insisting that rent in their adopted city of Chicago was so high that they couldn’t afford to live alone and that they were strictly platonic roommates with boyfriends.
In fact, they had fallen in love in their early 20s after meeting at an ice rink. Henschel was so besotted with Donahue that one night, on the back of an ice hockey ticket, she confessed: “I’m a reader of books, but I’ve never read anywhere where a woman loves another woman. I hope you feel the same way, too.”
But growing up, Bolan was none the wiser to their hidden relationship.
“Everyone keeps asking me: ‘How in the world can your family not have thought they were gay?’” the filmmaker recalled from his home in suburban New York. “But we took them at their word. And you have to remember that Pat was engaged to three men, and Terry had boyfriends. After they had been asked, we just kind of let it go. I never thought about their sexuality.”
That changed during a 2009 visit to Chicago, when, over rum and Cokes, the couple confessed their secret to Bolan. He embraced them, told them he was proud of them, and listened as they began to share years of stories about their relationship. He was so moved by their tales that soon he was mulling how to bring their journey to the masses. But Bolan — whose background is as an actor and theater director — had never made a film.
So he approached different producers, eventually connecting with a casting director he’d met during his graduate studies at NYU, Alexa L. Fogel. But by the time she’d agreed to help him make the documentary, it was 2013, and Donahue’s health was rapidly declining.
When he returned to Illinois to begin filming, she had thinned dramatically and her hand had developed a tremor. The story — which he’d initially envisioned as an inspiring tale of a love that defied the odds — had shifted. “We had to follow that thread. We had no choice, because it started to take over,” he said.
Which is how the director’s mother, Diana Bolan, inadvertently became one of the film’s stars. Growing up, she had been particularly close with Donahue. When Bolan’s parents were struggling financially, Donahue sent the family $20 a month so they could purchase a washer and dryer. And when she was 13 and her father’s alcoholism began to impact the family, Bolan was invited by her aunt to stay with her in Chicago for two weeks to escape the stressful environment.
“She offered to pay for my wedding. We were just so close. I can’t even explain it. It was a bond that was so strong,” said the elder Bolan. “I just adored my Auntie Terry. When she died, you know — I have her picture on my fridge, and I know she’s watching over me. But oh God, I just loved that woman.”
So when she saw her aunt’s health failing, Diana Bolan encouraged Donahue to sell the home she shared with Henschel and move into an assisted living facility. But Henschel resisted, causing Bolan to break down in tears as her son was filming on his iPhone.
Ultimately, Henschel relented, and the couple agreed to move into a home where they later held an impromptu wedding on Donahue’s 90th birthday. The filmmaker — who had never so much as seen his great-aunts hug before they came out — found himself shuddering with joy from behind the camera as he documented the nuptials.
“Seeing Terry and Pat stealing kisses here and there, or sitting on the couch and actually holding hands or hugging goodnight or tucking each other in — all those beautiful moments I had never seen before,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever seen our grandmothers up on the screen in their late 80s and 90s, kissing each other and saying they love each other and still having that giddiness when they met 70 years before.”
Getting married didn’t change anything for the couple, Henschel said. Most of the time, she forgot to refer to Donahue as her wife at all, instead opting for her favorite pet name: “My little darling.”
In the year since Donahue’s passing, Henschel has started to adjust to life on her own — thanks largely to Diana Bolan. While the two were always somewhat distant when Donahue was alive, her death allowed them to bond in a way they’d been unable to before.
“When Auntie Terry died, I was in Auntie Pat’s arms, and I swear to God, it was like holding a little piece of Auntie Terry there,” said Diana Bolan. “She’d told me she wanted to go because she was in such pain but she didn’t want to to leave Patty. I told her not to worry — that I’d take care of Patty. And I am. But it’s not because I promised Auntie Terry. It’s because I want to take care of Patty.”
Now, Henschel and Bolan live only two blocks away from one another. Bolan makes daily visits to the facility to drop off surprises “like smoothies,” take Henschel to the doctor or go out for hamburgers.
“We are ever so close. It’s amazing how close we are,” Henschel said. “We weren’t connected before, and she was closer to Terry. I was just sort of in the background at that point. But it changed.”
As for “A Secret Love,” Henschel said she hopes the film allows people to “see how marvelous love can be.” But Diana Bolan, who served for years as a school principal, said she thinks the movie could have an even deeper impact.
“I used to see little kids struggling with their identity at school, and not all kids are lucky enough to have a family that says, ‘That’s OK, that doesn’t matter,’” she said. “So maybe this will help those people understand it a little bit more. I really hope this documentary shows that love is love. I can hear Auntie Terry in heaven chuckling, just being so happy that she’s helping people.”
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