‘Absolute Love’ endures, couple adopts 61-year-old

Published 7:49 pm Tuesday, November 5, 2019

By Rich Manieri

“What do you do with the sands of time…when they carve out lines around your eyes?”

It’s a line from a sad Willie Nelson song called, “You remain.” I heard the song this week and thought of someone.

Nelson sings about regret and pieces of the past that now haunt him. He simply can’t let go. There are too many reminders, too many memories. “What do you do with old regrets?” he asks.

The someone I thought of when I heard the song was Merrilee Hancock.

Merrilee is 61 now. She’s watched the years streak by but something has remained in her life, something more than memories, something real that all of us would be blessed to experience, though not enough of us do. She calls it “absolute love,” the kind of love that endures, the kind that comes without explanations or conditions.

I first heard about Merrilee’s story from her husband, Dave, then from Merrilee herself.

Merrilee grew up just off a country road in Napa, California. The property is now a vineyard. But 47 years ago, Merrilee lived there, with her stepfather, when Jim and Cookie Rustice moved in across the street.

The Rustices had four children of their own. One day, in April, 1973, Merrilee knocked on the Rustices’ door and introduced herself.

Merrilee began babysitting the Rustice children when she was 15 and she became close with the family, who treated her more as a daughter than a neighbor. In 1980, Merrilee’s stepfather died.

When Merrilee was 26, she met Dave Hancock, whom she would eventually marry. When she introduced him to the Rustices, something strange happened. At least Dave thought it was strange. She introduced Jim and Cookie as her parents, their children as her brothers and sisters. Dave knew Merrilee had biological parents.

“I thought it was a little strange,” Dave Hancock told me.

Eventually, everything would make sense.

It seemed Merrilee and the Rustices had informally adopted each other. It was a relationship that would survive almost five decades.

“She’s always been a part of our family from the beginning,” Cookie Rustice said, in an interview with CBS 8 in San Diego.

Cookie Rustice is now 79. Jim is 80. Recently, Cookie had some health problems and decided she wanted to do something that hadn’t seemed necessary, at least not until she realized, as Nelson sang, “You can close your fist up good and tight,” but you can’t hold back the sands of time.

“She says, ‘We always have thought of her as a daughter, why don’t we adopt her?'” Jim Rustice said.

Because Merrilee’s parents have passed away, the Rustices would need Dave Hancock’s permission to adopt his wife.

Dave said he cried when the Rustices told him the news.

“There’s no sweeter thing,” he said. “What 80-year-old adopts a 61-year-old?”

Dave then told Merrilee.

“The adoption was a total and delightful surprise; actually made me cry,” she told me.

When she was actually able to process what was happening, as adoption day drew closer, Merrilee juggled a variety of emotions.

“Excitement, love, nervous, happy, and most of all, grateful for the blessing these people have brought to my life,” she said last week.

The adoption was finalized Oct. 18 in, of all places, juvenile court. After all, that’s where adoptions typically take place and there’s no provision — nor has there been any need — for the adoption of a 61-year old.

But absolute love pays no attention to age and it transcends convention.

Jim and Cookie Rustice recently celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. Their four adult children now have an older sister, officially.

“She is just really special. We love her. A good girl,” Cookie said.

There are a number of things that strike me about this story. But perhaps more than anything, it’s the intentional nature of absolute love — the kind Merrilee is talking about.

There was no practical reason for the Rustices to adopt Merrilee and their relationship won’t change. But the highly unusual step of two senior citizens adopting someone in her sixties is simply an expression of love — uncommon, bold, unusual and absolute.

Willie was right. We can either watch the sand slip through and mourn yesterday or we can embrace today, because that’s the day we’ve been given.

Merrilee Hancock understands this. So do her mom and dad.

RICH MANIERI is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. His book, “We Burn on Friday: A Memoir of My Father and Me” is available at amazon.com. You can reach him at manieri2@gmail.com.