Winter Issue, 2011. Fine presentation of what I originally entitled "Undefeated."
by Douglas Winslow Cooper
“Please, God, don’t let her die,” I prayed and pleaded as I walked our dog around our little lake in early March of 2004. Tina Su Cooper, my beloved wife, had been in a medically induced coma for a week in the Critical Care Unit of the Orange Regional Medical Center. She had a severe case of aspiration pneumonia, part of an MS exacerbation. The infection had spread throughout her body. She was not expected to live.
I had called the 911 emergency number near midnight the week before. Tina’s temperature was rising alarmingly fast. The EMTs got her to the Emergency Room twenty minutes before I arrived. She told them that she did not want any invasive procedures, no tubes down her throat, etc. I countermanded that, having her power of attorney and knowing that this was no time for fuzzy thinking. Her MS, especially when she was feverish, had diminished her cognitive abilities, which had earned her honors at Cornell and Harvard and an editorial position at the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Do whatever you must to save her life,” I instructed the medical personnel. Thus began a one-hundred-day battle to keep Tina alive.
Later, when she was out of the coma but still near death, now quadriplegic, unable to speak due to an air tube that ran between her lips and down her throat, being fed intravenously, I asked her whether I had made the right choice, to take all steps needed to save her life. Yes, she nodded, emphatically, yes.
Our love story began in January 1963. Cornell University formed the beautiful backdrop for our romance. When Tina Su walked into the second semester of the language course I was taking, Chinese 102, I saw the incarnation of my feminine ideal: lovely, slender, soft-spoken, elegant without pretension, graceful. After a few “coffee dates,” I learned that this Chinese - American woman was also intelligent, learned, cheerful, talented, considerate, kind, and more than somewhat attracted to me, too. By Valentine’s Day, 1963, we were officially in love, “going steady.” That included going hand-in-hand together whenever and wherever we could. When it was cold, we would each shed one glove and share my coat pocket. We loved to walk and to talk, to hug and to kiss. Bliss.
She was a freshman and I was a junior. We had three glorious semesters left in which we fell even more deeply in love. Usually, a couple as old as we were would have become engaged to marry, perhaps soon after Tina had graduated. It had already become clear, however, that an interracial marriage would estrange Tina from her parents (as happened to her younger brother several years later). My own parents argued that such a marriage would bring added complications for ourselves and for any children we might have. Then, too, we were young, with little real experience in the adult world. Neither would want to have a wrong decision harm the other. We accepted parental persuasion and pressure and parted very sorrowfully when I graduated, in June of 1964. We each cried a lot that summer.
Tina’s parents arranged for her to take her junior year abroad in England, where her father, a professor of engineering, took his sabbatical year at the same time, and her mother accompanied him. That put the Atlantic Ocean between us, a large moat.
While Tina was in England, I was drafted into the army. She returned to finish at Cornell, went to Harvard, dated men of Chinese ancestry only, and married promising scientist from Taiwan, who took a faculty position in Chicago. She spent the next fifteen years under his thumb. He had expected a traditional Chinese woman, but she was an American girl with a Chinese flavor. Their marriage was rocky, but two fine sons were born. Her first MS exacerbation, with a temporary partial paralysis, came right after that second son’s birth. Her husband, more committed to career than to family, had little time for any of them.
After serving in the U.S. Army, I went on to graduate school at Penn State and Harvard. I married a Caucasian woman who reminded me of Tina, and steadily progressed professionally an associate professor of environmental physics at the Harvard School of Public Health. Unfortunately, eight years into my marriage, I found out my wife was having an affair. She was from a rich family and thought she could get away with it. Wrong. We divorced. Later on, I dated, even got engaged, then disengaged. None had been Tina’s equal.
On an academic business trip via Chicago, I called Tina. We had been separated nineteen years, but it was so comfortable to talk with her, it was more like we had been apart for weeks, not years. Before calling, I had suspected her marriage was in trouble. I told her I had to know whether we could ever be married. I planned to wait, if necessary.
“Nothing has changed for me in twenty years,” she stated circumspectly, meaning that she loved me as much as she ever had.
Soon after this, we talked via long-distance phone calls. She did a courageous thing, an honorable thing: she told me she had multiple sclerosis. I read about it, spent a very sad night imagining her some day to be quadriplegic, on a ventilator, fed through tubes. Could I handle that, if I had to? Yes. Could I bear to walk away and learn some day she had gone through that without me? No.
“Will you marry me?”
“Yes, yes, yes!”
I had yet to see her. When we did finally meet, I was thrilled. She was all I hoped she would be.
On June 2, 1984, a year later, we were married. Her father toasted us after the wedding, “Love conquered all.” As one of the conquered, he would know. Her parents had “surrendered” gracefully, after all. Our wedding rings were inscribed, “a dream come true.”
Near June 2, 2004, twenty years later, the decision had to be made: to a home or to a hospice for Tina? She was catching infections from the other patients in the hospital, a place of rescue had become dangerous. Would we fight to preserve her life at home, in a replica of the Critical Care Unit, or did she want to give up? “Be a brave soldier,” her father often told her in her youth. We fight on, my brave soldier and I, undefeated, so far.
The doctors estimated she would live only a few months. We’ve had seven years, precious, sometimes difficult, wonderful years.
I thank God daily for the miracle of another day that we are together. To life!
Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D., retired physicist, is a freelance writer who has written Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion, published this fall by Outskirts Press, available through amazon.com and tingandi.com .