Multiple sclerosis proved no obstacle to her life’s great romance.
As most women over 40 know, love and romance can be pretty mysterious; when you least expect them to appear in your life, there they are. I had been divorced—for the second time—for well over a decade when we met. Due to health reasons (the nasty manifestations of multiple sclerosis), my career as a journalist in London had evaporated. I no longer hopped on the Concord, the Queen Elizabeth II, or flew to France or Italy to satisfy an editor’s lust for the latest celebrity interview. Instead I lived alone in Florida, spent my days in a wheelchair, and , in place of quizzing the rich and famous, I scrambled for local freelance writing and editing work to pay the bills.
Fortunately, there was almost always someone who wanted help with a book project, be it memoir, cookbook, travel guide. It was a long way from the buzz of meeting Audrey Hepburn at the Savoy, Kirk Douglas at the Berkeley or Jackie Collins at The Ritz, but it helped keep my editing skills up to par, and it allowed me to feel just a little less disabled.
During those transitional illness years, I trained myself to stop thinking about love and I’d essentially convinced myself that people with a happy marriage simply had access to a different, enviable “skill set” that was somehow out of my grasp. I was so estranged from the thought of happily-ever-after that I consciously went out of my way to avoid watching a single episode of Mad About You.
When my physical therapist, Steve, asked me whether I had time to help his friend, Tony, work on a book project, I automatically said, “Sure.” Not surprisingly, the book project that brought us together never did get finished, but within six months of his first homework assignment, Tony had managed quietly and persistently to make himself an indispensable part of my new, restructured life.
Tony wasn’t the type of man I’d normally consider for a romantic relationship. In fact, our differences were so pronounced that eHarmony might have even questioned the likelihood of a workable friendship. I have a college degree, he has a high school diploma. I like Kenny Loggins, The Eagles and Vivaldi, while he likes (the louder the better) Chopin, Italian operas and Beethoven symphonies. I’m borderline OCD and hyper-organized, he’s que sera sera disorganized. I have to fly three or more hours to visit any of the few family members I have; he comes from a (redundancy alert) really close Italian family — at least 15 relatives are a 45-minute-or-less drive from his front door.
I could go on and on, but I’ve learned that those differences don’t seem to be what’s important. Besides, I’ve had half a dozen romances that didn’t work —despite our surface similarities seeming like a perfect fit.
When it came to “types,” Tony wasn’t a member of Mensa, a business tycoon or a matinee idol. But he did possess a brilliant smile, his own small company and the calmest, kindest temperament I’d ever seen. He loved to cook, play the piano, see me smile, and he never —ever! — criticized a single thing about me. Although divorced (after 30-plus years of marriage), Tony was (and is) free of the unattractive aura of bitterness that clings to so many former spouses
How did my “book client” morph into my boyfriend? Well, the difference between this “friendship first” relationship and my other romances had as much to do with my medically rearranged priorities as it did with the remarkable qualities that made Tony unique.
Tony’s elderly mother —like me — was a wheelchair user. (It’s politically incorrect to say “confined to a wheelchair” anymore, even though we both were.) And twice a week or more Tony would drop by her nursing home. Soon we were both regular visitors, and watching how he cared for and related to his mom soon mattered far more to me than either his diplomas or the dollar amount of his investments.
If our love story has an X-factor, it would probably be that, long before Tony and I met, MS had changed almost everything about me, from my finances to my appearance to my self-esteem. Not surprisingly, after the neurologist’s diagnosis and my subsequent loss of mobility, the concerns and priorities and goals that had turbocharged my life for decades shifted in a big , big way. Since MS came to stay, my life had become a continual struggle to get my body to do what my mind asked of it. The me who used to agonize over the perfect pirouette or my showjumping rank in a Saturday horse show, now just wished.
I could cut my food or button my own blouse without asking for help. Whereas “perfect” was once my favorite adjective, the words I now called upon most often were resiliency, courage, fortitude. I began to long for and fantasize about (as Dr. Phil calls it) “a soft place to land.”
And without even looking — MS and its challenges be damned — I found one. Tony’s pleasant phone calls and cheerful visits increased with each passing week. A wheelchair can create feelings of separation and isolation — especially for a formerly athletic and extroverted woman like me. Tony seemed to intuitively know when I needed a cabin fever-induced change of scenery. Our outings — we were, after all, only “friends” —didn’t involve romantic restaurants or expensive getaways. Instead, bookstores, movies and coffee shops were where we’d more and more often spend our evenings and slowly paced Saturdays.
As Tony and I began to spend bigger chunks of time together, it became apparent that my well-disguised anxiety and fear levels were being quietly overshadowed by feelings of well being and (gasp) happiness. My loneliness level plummeted because my new book-project friend made no secret about the fact that his favorite thing to do was to simply spend time with me. If I needed help, or just wanted to have a cozy conversation, he made it clear that he hoped I’d call him first. In his words, “If it’s important to you, it’s important to me.”
Tony brought me roses often just because he knew he’d make me smile, or I’d like the color, or because I’d had trouble sleeping the night before, or just because. Here was a man who orchestrated celebrations (birthdays, holidays, even the anniversary of the day we met) without obvious hints. And although he proposed long before I felt comfortable with the idea of giving marriage a third try; within a year of meeting this kind, gentle, creative man I was wearing his engagement ring.
Getting used to this level of attentiveness and support wasn’t easy. I’d had more than a few men say goodbye when I’d been younger, thinner, prettier, healthier — at what I thought was my best. And now here was someone cherishing me, without wanting to change or improve a single thing, when I couldn’t help but feel that I was at my worst. Talk about mysterious!