After just 4 dates I proposed marriage to Sandy. Somehow I knew right away she was the one I wanted to share my life with.
In 1969 Woodstock happened, we landed on the moon, the Vietnam War ended and Dan and Sandy were married in New York City on December 27th. In those early years, we loved each other and we loved being married. Kids came quickly. Ali was born in 1973 and Debbie was born in 1974.
I had a good job and we were blissfully happy. Then one day Debbie crawled over to her mom and kept touching a mole on her calf drawing our attention to it. When I looked at it closely I became concerned so off we went to a dermatologist. It seems like an instant later she was diagnosed with a grade 3 melanoma, had surgery to remove a wide area of her calf and some of her lymph nodes and was on chemotherapy for a year. Understandably, Sandy became depressed. Tough times for a young family. Sandy was 25 and I was 29. I felt scared, protective of this family that I loved so much.
Well, we got through it. We had a loving supportive family, beautiful kids, many friends and a good social life. And we had lots of fun together.
A couple of years later, we all went to Florida because I was doing the residency requirement for my PhD. Sandy woke up one morning and told me she had lost vision in one eye but that it only lasted a couple of hours. When we got home, our doctor sent us to a neuro ophthalmologist. After he examined her he told us not to worry about it unless it happened again. Despite his recommendation, I worried about it anyway and went to a medical library to learn about what happened. I learned it was a condition called optic neuritis. I also learned that is often the first symptom MS. Tough times for a young family. Sandy was 28 and I was 32.
I loved her dearly, but I didn’t trust her body. After all, that body betrayed us on two occasions. I had a great deal of anxiety about her body and was probably overprotective. For example, she used a lot of artificial sweetener in her coffee, and we were just learning that it could be carcinogenic. Every time she opened the packet, I got anxious and asked her not to use it. Despite the fact that my anxiety was understandable I was probably a pain in the ass.
Despite the dark times, we still loved each other and we loved being married. We celebrated every anniversary. Everyone who knows me knows that I have a terrible memory. But that’s not just because I’m 75, it’s because I’ve always had a bad memory. On one anniversary I got her a beautiful pair of earrings with her birth stone. On the next anniversary I got her the same beautiful pair of earrings with her birthstone! If there is a heaven, she’s probably still laughing at me.
Late in the year of 1979 we began talking about how we would celebrate our 10th anniversary as we wanted to do something special. Ever since I was in high school, my dream car was a Thunderbird. Sandy loved that car also so we decided to get a Thunderbird to celebrate our anniversary. My uncle was a car dealer near State College and he found us a lime green Thunderbird. Sandy and I plan to drive up there together shortly after our anniversary.
I loved Sandy, I love loving her and I loved to surprise her. So unbeknownst to Sandy, I called my uncle and made arrangements to meet him in Harrisburg the week before our anniversary to pick up the Thunderbird. I was so excited driving there as all I could do was picture Sandy’s face when I pulled into the driveway with our new car.
I never pulled in to the driveway again. On my way to Harrisburg I was in an accident and became a quadriplegic. More tough times for a young family. Sandy was 29 and I was 33.
I was either in the hospital or in a rehab for the next 9 months. For the first 3 months, Sandy was there with me all day every day. She was my angel, my protector and my hero. When I returned home, we had an extra family member. Quadriplegia. For much of the next decade our family revolved around my disability. I felt helpless, useless and nothing more than a burden for the people I loved. I knew that my quadriplegia was a terrible burden for Sandy. What I didn’t and couldn’t realize was how much my depression was affecting her.
Many couples survive this kind of catastrophic accident. We didn’t. Sandy felt abandoned when I had my accident and left her. After all, my body betrayed both of us in the same way her body did. We lost the marriage and future we thought we would have together. And in the wake of that we lost each other. So in 1989 she asked if we could meet at a Dunkin’ Donuts on Kings Highway in Cherry Hill. She had moved out a couple of months earlier saying she needed time to think. When she said she wanted to meet me, I hoped it was to say she wanted to come back to the marriage and work on it with me. But I knew that’s not why she wanted to talk to me. We both got our coffees and when we sat down she told me she wanted a divorce. I cried. I cried over so many losses we both had experienced over those last 10 years. By the way, that was over 30 years ago and I have not been in a Dunkin’ Donuts since!
Always a baseball fan, that summer I went to a Phillies game with Debbie. Sandy and I were in the middle of an ugly divorce. But when Debbie visited her mother and told her we were going to a baseball game Sandy said: “make sure daddy drinks enough water when you are there.” She still loved me and I still loved her.
A year or 2 after the divorce, her MS and gotten worse and she was using a walker. I drove to Conshohocken to meet her at the garden apartment she was living in with her caretaker. She had a little porch, but I could not get to it as it had steps. I wanted to get close, to look in her eyes. I wanted to see Sandy again as I missed her.
She died several months after that visit due to a reaction to an antibiotic she had been prescribed. I went to her funeral even though an ex spouse is not welcome with open arms. I sat in the background as my daughters were at the grave site weeping. I felt many emotions, but I remember feeling and ache inside. An ache for something missing. I feel that ache as I write this sentence.
I often tell my patients who are in mourning that the greater the love, the deeper the pain. I also tell them that over time the pain diminishes but the love remains.