“Wow!” exclaimed my wife, Tina Su Cooper, from her wheelchair, at first sight of the framed wall-mounted portrait I gave her for our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary. Tina is quadriplegic, attached to a ventilator. She is our heroine. A local artist, Mike Jaroszko, painted the portrait from a photograph taken of Tina forty-four years earlier. That portrait also graces the cover of our book about our five-decades-long love, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion, my tribute to her.
Our love story began in January 1963, forty-eight years ago, at Cornell University’s introductory Chinese language class. A physics major, a junior, I took the Chinese course out of curiosity and to satisfy the University’s foreign language requirements. Tina Su was “pre-med,” a freshman, entering the Chinese course in its second semester because she had already learned some Chinese at home.
Tina’s parents, Professor and Mrs. G.J. Su, were highly educated immigrants from mainland China who came to America right after World War II. “Tina Han Su,” her American citizenship name, was born “Su Ting-ting,” in Kunming, south-western China, in 1944. The Su family soon settled in Rochester, NY, where they flourished. Eventually, there were three little Sus, who later became, respectively, an orthodontist, an editor, a rheumatologist.
From the beginning, Tina epitomized femininity for me. Lovely, slender and graceful yet strong, soft-spoken, self-confident without airs, intelligent and considerate, a gifted pianist– she was all these and more. Her middle name, “Han,” means “quiet or reserved” in Chinese, quite apt. A quiet person who listens well; Tina thinks carefully before she speaks. “Still waters run deep.” She is reserved, yet receptive, friendly. After being interviewed by the Cornell sororities, all who had met her invited her to join them. She declined. Instead, she formed close friendships with young women in her dorm, friendships that have lasted decades.
Our Chinese language course met Monday through Saturday from 8AM to 9AM. Tina and I were immediately attracted to each other. If our schedules allowed, we would walk over to Willard Straight Hall’s “Ivy Room” and spend another hour together chatting over tea or coffee. We would plan to meet again as soon as possible.
We quickly fell in love and officially started “going steady” on Valentine’s Day 1963. We walked hand-in-hand all over Cornell’s campus. We were in a dreamland, almost oblivious to our surroundings. When the air was cold, we would each shed one glove and hold hands inside my coat pocket. At night, we would chat and kiss outside her dorm building until a minute before her curfew, and then I would call her on the lobby telephone to continue to talk with her. I worked at the Cornell cyclotron overnight on Saturdays. We enjoyed many a Sunday breakfast at Noyes Lodge, overlooking scenic Beebe Lake. I had little money, but Tina never wanted anything extravagant. She was generous, truly appreciative, rarely critical of anyone, “pretty to walk with and witty to talk with.” We have been in love ever since, almost fifty years.
Although in dreamland, we did awaken. Both sets of parents opposed our getting married, an interracial marriage. Before our last semester together, Tina wrote to me over Christmas vacation.
You asked me what I would think of these sixteen months a few years from now. My reply –now, after one year, after fifty years:
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined
That ourselves know not what it is,
Interassured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss.”
Happy birthday, darling.
It was a special poem, by one of my favorite poets, from my most beloved person. It promised that a love like ours would survive separation Twenty years later, June 1984, I recited the same poem to her, at our wedding.
We parted, tearfully, when the semester ended in June 1964. Her parents had arranged for her to be in England for a “junior year abroad” program. I graduated with a degree in physics, obtained a technical job with IBM, and within six months was drafted into the army.
Before we parted, I had told Tina that I hoped we would eventually get married, once we were better established as adults, and if we had not fallen in love with others by then. Tina thought I was just being polite. I really meant it.
Tina graduated from Cornell and then Harvard, both times with distinction. She felt a strong family obligation to marry a man of Chinese ancestry, as she soon did. He was a talented scientist who had grown up in Taiwan, earned a Princeton University Ph.D, and had bright prospects for a fine academic career. They moved to Chicago, where Tina spent the next fifteen years under his domination: going to work, at first on the editorial staff of the Encyclopedia Britannica; coming home to cook, to clean, and to revise his manuscripts. Eventually, she gave birth to two healthy, beloved sons. It was a marriage in the traditional Chinese patriarchal mode, but she was a modern American woman, not a traditional Chinese wife. It did not go well– – for her.
After my U.S. Army stint, mostly in a laboratory, I studied at Penn State and Harvard, getting my own M.S. and Ph.D. I married a woman, Caucasian, who reminded me of Tina, and I pursued a career that included another research position, then faculty appointments at the Harvard School of Public Health. I enjoyed my married life, in Boston’s Back Bay, until I learned that my wife of eight years was having an affair with her flying instructor. She was from a rich family and thought I would have to put up with it. She misjudged.
I spent another two years in Boston, getting divorced, dating, getting engaged, getting disengaged. I never forgot Tina.
Traveling through Chicago on academic business, I called Tina. I told her that I still loved her and that I needed to know how she felt. She said, “Nothing has changed for me in twenty years.” She was still very much in love with me, too.
After I returned to Boston, she and I had several long telephone conversations. Tina had felt oppressed for years. She had been considering divorce. She said that she had learned, two years before this, that she has multiple sclerosis [MS}, a currently incurable immune system malfunction that was impairing her only slightly then but could be crippling in the future. I looked into the literature on MS and spent a sleepless night imagining Tina as she in fact has become: quadriplegic, constrained by various wires and tubes, wholly dependent. Could I handle that? Yes. Could I let her endure without me? No.
During our next phone call, I asked her to marry me. “Yes, yes, yes!” she replied. Note that we had not yet seen each other in over sixteen years. Faith, hope, trust, and love combined to produce that long-distance, sight-unseen commitment. Within a month, we met. Both were very pleased with the person we would be marrying. More than pleased, we were ecstatic.
We married June 2,1984, with parental blessings. Tina’s father’s toast was, “Love conquers all.“ As one conquered, he knew. Our wedding rings are inscribed, “a dream come true.” Soon after we wed, Tina chose to be called “Christina Cooper” to signify a complete change from her old life. A decade later, the point having been made, she returned to “Tina Su Cooper.”
We started in northern Westchester, NY The friendly, white-collar neighbors, predominantly Caucasian, showed us no racial animosity. I worked at IBM’s Yorktown Heights T. J. Watson Research Center for ten years, the best job of my career. During these ten years, Tina’s younger son, our younger son, Phil, who had come with her when she left Chicago, grew up from 3 to 13 years of age. He had no race-related trouble in any of the schools, except once. A friend stood up for him, and the two prevailed. Phil was and is a cheerful, charming, athletic, intelligent, considerate son, and I have loved him as much as I could any son. Ted, Tina’s elder son, stayed with his father in Chicago and was estranged from us for much of that ten-year period, reconciling with us once he became seriously Christian at, surprisingly, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he later graduated as a computer systems engineer.
In 1993, after a lackluster year, IBM announced a “buy-out.” If you were 50 years of age or older, and if you had been with the company at least 10 years, they had a deal for you. Of the thousands of scientists and technicians at the research center, I was among the first who signed up for it. Why? Tina was having progressively greater difficulty in walking. Getting to our second-floor bedrooms had become a real challenge, destined to worsen. We would soon have to move somewhere. I barely qualified for the buy-out in age and number of years served. To me, the crucial element was that we would keep IBM medical benefits. They later proved extremely valuable. We took the buy-out, sold our home, and moved to Ramsey in northern New Jersey.
In 1994, the year after we moved to Ramsey, Tina discovered a small lump, soon confirmed to be breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, underwent chemotherapy, and suffered another MS attack, an “exacerbation” that left her unable to walk. Using our long-term-care insurance from John Hancock Company that we purchased during an “open enrollment period” while I was at IBM, we obtained a home health aide to assist me in caring for the now-bedridden Tina.
Our first aide was Ukrainian, straight from Poland. Kasia had won her green card in a lottery. We found her through a placement agency specializing in bringing Polish women to America to work. She had some nursing training, but knew no English. We started with pantomimes and a Polish-English dictionary. Tina enjoyed teaching her English, which Kasia spoke passably well within half a year. There was, coincidentally, a Ukrainian Orthodox church in Ramsey. Kasia made friends there, giving her a social life on her week-ends. Her Ukrainian American friends kindly drove her various places This did not turn out well. On one such trip, they had a car accident that left her collar bone cracked. Many painful weeks ensued before the problem was correctly diagnosed. Kasia could no longer safely work for us, but she stayed until she had found a job with lighter duty.
Tina’s care at that time was “custodial,” what you would need for an infant, although this “infant” was an alert woman of middle age, weighing about 125 pounds. Tina was bathed and dressed in bed, given frequent disposable diaper changes, and gotten up for every meal, which she could eat on her own. She was transferred to and from her bed with a hand-pumped Hoyer hydraulic lift, a real back-saver. Our aides generally slept in our spare bedroom, though some commuted daily. I handled week-end duty.
Phil finished middle school and high school in Ramsey, graduating near the top of his class and having been elected senior class president. He enrolled at Boston College, where he subsequently succeeded yet again.
When Phil graduated from Ramsey High School in 2000, I retired. I was only 58. I had not expected to retire so young, but finding another position nearby in my technical specialty was difficult. We needed to live in a less expensive area, preferably close to my mother and sister. Walden, NY, where I had gone to high school, met those requirements. We preferred a spot near water, a stream or a river or a lake, and we found one at Lake Osiris, two miles outside of Walden, in a country-club setting. It is like living in a park, our “year-round lake-side vacation home.”
We knew from the beginning of our marriage that we might need substantial savings to handle later, advanced stages of Tina’s MS, so we watched our spending carefully.
Tina nearly died in late February 2004. Her temperature rocketed upward. I called 911. The ambulance took her to Orange County (NY) Regional Medical Center, twenty miles away. She arrived ahead of me and told them she did not want invasive treatment. When I arrived shortly thereafter, I told them to do everything they could to keep her alive. Multiple sclerosis causes many if its victims to have difficulty thinking clearly, especially when over-heated or feverish. I had Tina’s Power of Attorney and was able to make my decision stick. They put her in a medically induced coma and treated her infections aggressively. Not religious back then, I prayed nonetheless. It might help, and it could not hurt. In war, that’s been called a “foxhole conversion.”
Tina awoke from her coma unable to move from her neck down. A breathing tube obstructed her vocal cords, so she could not speak. I cannot imagine her shock. She was not there alone, though. We had supplemented the hospital staff. Our home health aide, Ms. Terry Bush, a devoted semi-retired nurse, agreed to stay with Tina in the hospital during the mornings. I came for the afternoons and some evenings. We reassured Tina. Most importantly, Tina and I told each other, “I love you.”
Terry and I monitored Tina’s treatment. We interpreted to others what she wanted. We had a list of Tina’s usual needs and would have her blink once for “yes” and twice for “no,” as we went through that list. Sometimes, we would guess, and she would respond to the guesses that same way. When that failed, we would go through the alphabet with her, often in the order of the frequency of the letters’ use in the English language.
While still in the Critical Care Unit, Tina was visited by her former college mates, friends who had stayed in touch ever since they graduated together four decades previously. They brought her a stunningly beautiful silk robe, in the Chinese fashion. I feared we might soon be burying her in it.
Tina was alternately recovering and getting re-infected at the hospital. She was released to go home or to a hospice, meaning they gave her only a few months of life expectancy. She chose, we chose, home. We have had seven precious years here since then, with a few emergency trips and week-long hospitalizations.
Tina never regretted leaving that first, oppressive marriage and marrying me. She has never regretted choosing to live as a quadriplegic rather than accepting death. If she can stay strong mentally, the rest of us will handle whatever else is needed. I call her the “Secretary of the Interior,” to emphasize the importance of her morale. When, rarely, she is depressed, so are we. When, as usual, she is cheerful, so are we.
For our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, I gave her a gold, heart-shaped charm, inscribed, “Together Forever.”
Tina and I have told our love story to many people. Often they have responded that we ought to write a book about it. I had written over a hundred technical articles and one book-length dissertation. I knew writing that a book was a major challenge. “Some day, we may,” I would reply.
This February, Tina asked me to write our book. At first, I said “No,” then I relented. I would do almost anything for our “brave soldier,” even this. Several months later, sixty thousand words later, over three hundred standard printed pages later, the book was written, in time to show her a draft for her April 3rd birthday gift. I found an unexpected pleasure in writing it. My gift to Tina had become a gift to us both. Tina and I enjoyed discussing the memoir. It spiced our conversations and brought back memories. I had enlisted friends and family and staff members to write about their interactions with Tina, and I collected these in a final “Tributes” section, which I read to her.
I had a photograph of Tina that was taken when she was twenty-three, three years after we parted. I wanted it for the book cover. A painting based on the photograph was needed. What painter Mike Jaroszko created was stunning. I had it framed and mounted on the wall in time for our twenty-seventh anniversary, then we wheeled Tina to it, eyes closed. When she opened her eyes, she exulted, “Wow!”
About our enduring love and our special marriage, I echo Tina, “Wow!”