I have had a few occasions to officiate at wedding ceremonies for family and close friends. It is always a special treat for me, especially because the couple being married are important to me.
I try to make each ceremony a little different. But they all include the wording “in sickness and in health … until death do us part.”
Most of the people being married are very young, and I’m guessing don’t give these words much thought. But, as couples get older, those words have considerable meaning.
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She first met him when she was only 14 years old, a freshman at St. Peter-Marian High School working a part-time job at O’Coins Furniture on Mill Street. He was a bit older and did not pay much attention to her. Years later he did, and when she was 21 they got married.
Steve Raffa was a handsome Worcester firefighter – a hero who rushed into burning buildings to help others. And he was the love of Lynn’s life.
Steve, the tough firefighter, was also a romantic. “My husband used to sing ‘What a Wonderful World’ to me all the time and dance with me while he was singing. He would be washing the dishes and stop, wipe his hands and start singing to me,” Lynn remembered. “He had a beautiful voice.”
The couple was blessed with two children; first Gianna then Joseph. “He was the most incredible husband and father,” Lynn said. “He was perfect!”
One day, Lynn started to notice that Steve was having language problems. They checked with various doctors, but the problems continued. Then, at age 49, he was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia, a precursor to early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Lynn remembers her husband’s disorientation and confusion. She remembers a summer spent chasing after Steve with her son when he would wander off. Then Lynn had a back surgery, then another.
Unable to care for her husband at home, Lynn placed Steve in a nursing facility. Each day, after dropping her son off at school, she went and spent the day with Steve. They would watch old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. She would clean him, trim his nails, whatever was needed. From time to time, she brought a friend with her to cut Steve’s hair.
Over time, Steve lost the ability to walk and then to talk. But even at the very end, he always seemed to recognize his loving wife. “He was scared of anyone touching him,” Lynn recalled. “But, he always loved when I touched him.”
Toward the end of Steve’s life, Gianna was graduating from college. When Lynn told Steve about the graduation, she saw a tear roll down his cheek. She begged officials at the nursing facility to let Steve leave to attend the graduation.
“I told them that he will never live to walk his daughter down the aisle. Please let him attend her graduation.” With permission granted, Lynn had to hire a private ambulance to take Steve to the ceremony and then back.
With a name like Raffa, Gianna was going to be near the end of a long line of graduates. Arrangements were made for Gianna to get out of line to greet her father. When she did, Steve was crying.
In April 2014, at the age of 57, Steve passed away.
Of her years spent taking care of her husband, Lynn said: “It was an honor to take care of my husband. Some people never find the love of their life. I was so blessed to find mine.”
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They met when he was a college student at UMass Amherst and she was a nursing student in Springfield. They married in 1960, and 58 years later they have six children and 13 grandchildren.
A well-known name throughout Worcester, Tom Taylor was the commissioner of Parks and Recreation for more than 20 years. In those days, he worked seven days a week and was out at least four evenings every week. On Sundays, when most families were resting, Tom was out visiting each of the Worcester parks and athletic fields.
Even during the summer, when families take time for vacation, Tom typically only took Fridays off for long weekends.
While he was out, Judith was at home raising six active children. When Tom rushed through the door, she took care of him. “She never complained,” he said. “Not once.”
After Tom stopped working, he and Judith were just starting to settle into a comfortable retirement. But in 2002, things changed. Judith had a stroke that left her with partial paralysis on her right side. Now, Tom had to take care of Judith.
Over the last six years, Judith’s problems have intensified. Her diabetes led to kidney problems that require dialysis three days a week. On those days, they both get up at 3:30 in the morning for what amounts to five hours of exhausting treatments.
Diabetes then caused Judith’s hip to disintegrate. Four years ago, she had to have a titanium rod put in her hip. That was followed by stays in the hospital and rehab.
There have been other medical complications. Through it all, Tom is there helping and caring for Judith just the way she helped and cared for him all of those years. Along with Judith’s medical and personal needs, now it’s Tom’s turn to prepare the meals, do laundry and clean the house.
“I don’t do as good a job as she did taking care of me,” he said. “But it means a lot to me to be there for her, like she was there for me, to keep her spirits up.” With his voice starting to quiver he said, “She’s my whole life.”
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Frank and Beverly Savage met when she was a young student nurse at St. Vincent Hospital and he was her patient. Before long, they were married and starting a family.
I first met Frank and Beverly in 1975. At that time, the couple had four small children. They were model parents. The family did everything together. When Frank became the director of athletics for the Worcester Public Schools, you could always find one or two of the children at Foley Stadium with their dad selling tickets, cleaning up, whatever was needed.
Beverly left nursing to raise her family. Then she became a teacher in the Worcester Public Schools. When she turned 45 and her children were grown, she took up running. Before long she was running marathons, completing 11 Boston marathons, the last when she was 70 years old.
A few years ago, Frank began complaining about not feeling well. An avid softball player, he had trouble hitting and running. He started to get depressed and lost his appetite, losing 20 pounds. Test after test seemed to indicate that everything was fine. They thought that Frank was just getting older.
Then, a year later, on their 55th wedding anniversary, Frank was diagnosed with ALS. Better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
As the disease worsened, Frank was placed in a rehabilitation center for treatment. Each day, Beverly was at his side. The family that had grown up doing everything together would face this challenge the same way – together.
When the doctors said she would not be able to care for Frank at home, Beverly was adamant: “I made a vow 55 years ago and he is coming home,” she said. “I can take care of him.”
Care at home has been arduous and constant. Frank requires oxygen, which Beverly monitors, and has tracheal and feeding tubes, which she has to use six times each day. Whenever Frank sleeps, he is on a ventilator. She has to suction him regularly. It is an exhausting regimen for both of them.
“Frank always supported me and the children,” Beverly said. He supported her when she changed careers. He supported and encouraged her when she began long-distance running. Now, Frank has become totally dependent on Beverly – the young student nurse he met and fell in love with so many years ago.
A trained nurse and an accomplished marathon runner, Beverly has had to employ all of her training and endurance skills as she and Frank battle ALS – together.
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Not all marriages go the distance. Sometimes when things get difficult, marriages fall apart. But many unions, facing unimaginable hardship, persevere. The vows that they took, vows of love, have lasted for a lifetime.
Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every week in the Worcester Sun. His column appears weekly in the Sun’s print edition, on newsstands Saturdays.