Monday, January 2, 2012
LOVE CONQUERED RELATIONSHIP CHALLENGES
Tina Han Su and I, Doug Cooper, fell in love at Cornell University in February 1963. That love has lasted almost half a century so far, despite a series of obstacles we have had to overcome, the subject of this article. More information is presented in my recent book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion, available through amazon.com.
Tina Han Su was born in China in 1944 as “Su Ting-ting.” As our names suggest, ours is an interracial romance. The first challenge, then, is to see past the distraction of race or ethnicity to be able to love the underlying person. Tina grew up, from the age of two, in America, so my being Caucasian was not strange to her. She was my first non-white girlfriend, but I had liked the looks of some Asian women, such as the actress Nancy Kwan, and Tina’s slender figure and delicate facial features epitomized feminine beauty to me. We found we had much in common, a rational rather than emotional outlook on life, a love of music, and a shared idealism that competed with our rationalism.
Next challenge: interracial couples were rare on campus in 1963. No one made a fuss, though some stared. Solution: do not care a lot about what other people think of you. Be inner-directed, rather than other-directed.
Biggest hurdle of 1964: parental disapproval. I was graduating. Both sets of parents thought that an interracial marriage was a risky proposition. We understood, even agreed. If we had been older; if we had been willing to move to Hawaii where interracial couples were common; if; if; if…. We were too young. We did not want to be estranged from our parents nor cause the other to be estranged. Solution: tearfully separate, hoping that perhaps some day we could reunite and marry.
Wait nineteen years.
In February of 1983, I called Tina while I was passing through Chicago on business. I knew she was married, suspected her marriage was a bad one, needed to know if we could ever be married to each other. She told me she had been considering divorce, had two boys [2 and 9 years old] and had recently been diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis, a disorder that could leave her --- as she is now --- quadriplegic, attached to a ventilator, fed through a gastric tube. We were still deeply in love. After a sleepless night’s deliberation, I asked her to marry me, not having seen her in sixteen years. She said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Each showed courage and a trust in the other. We met soon after, and each was what the other had hoped for. Dissolving her marriage was, of course, difficult, especially hard on the elder son, who elected to stay with his father. It took a decade for him to be reconciled with Tina. Our parents were no longer opposed to our marrying: Tina’s parents knew of her difficulties in the first marriage, and my first marriage’s failure was not of my doing, either. We would have to hope that, as her father said after the wedding, “Love conquers all.” He had been one of those conquered. It was almost twenty years to the day since we had parted.
Enough background, let us enumerate our problems and solutions:
1. A mixed-race couple is attractive to some and unattractive to others. People will sort themselves out. Friends will be found, often of other mixed-marriage types, racial, ethnic, religious. Don’t worry about those who do not choose to know you.
2. Step-parenting is tricky. Tina did not get between Phil and me, trusted my judgment. I was careful not to be over-bearing. “Tough love” was my style, with emphasis on both. Phil was much loved, deservedly so.
3. Add another child? We decided not to: in our early 40s, we were more likely to have a child with a birth defect; we would need our energy and resources if Tina’s MS progressed; we did not want any perceived distinction between such a child and the two existing sons.
4. Spend or save? Money is high on the list of causes for disagreements in marriage. We both tended to be savers, especially with the possibility that Tina’s MS might become more serious, quite expensive. I chose a job with IBM over some other possibilities partly considering IBM’s financial health and employee benefits. I took an early retirement package from IBM because it included continuing IBM’s health plan coverage, and Tina was showing some trouble walking at the time the buy-out was offered. IBM subsequently has spent millions of dollars on Tina’s nursing care, for which we are very grateful. We helped meet the challenge of Tina’s impending disability by prior planning.
5. Sex? Yes, of course. Tina volunteered for tubal ligation, sparing me a vasectomy, partly because she wanted me to have the option of having a child if this marriage did not work out. That is the kind of person she is.
6. Have Tina stop driving? We failed. She did not stop until she had plowed into a neighbors garage, while backing up, having mistaken the gas pedal for the brake pedal. She then surrendered her keys.
7. Maintain our love? Yes. Each values the other’s well-being more than his own. Each respects, even admires the other. Each still sees the person originally adored still present, little changed, in the person here now. Tina lets me lead, and I watch to see that I am going where she wants us to go … or at least where she is willing to go.
8. Managing the wounded partnership. We married for better or worse, in sickness and in health, etc. We knew race could be an issue. It was manageable. We knew Tina might be severely disabled. We accepted and prepared for that. The opportunity to be “together forever” [our motto] outweighed the opportunities lost. We viewed Tina’s disability as happening to both of us rather than to Tina alone, and we have faced it as a team. It is chance to be heroic in an often un-heroic world. That one unlucky element in our lives has been outweighed by the good fortune of being together in America. Tina was born bright and beautiful, and I was born bright. Our parents were educated and saw to it that we were also. To have met, fallen in love, remained in love, reunited in love ---all is fate or great good luck. We have felt the power of love and know the value of life, even with severe disabilities.
There are daily challenges, but we are meeting them with around-the-clock skilled nursing care at home. Our memoir gives information about how we handle that, as does our Web site, http://quadriplegiccaresite.com .
A key to our success: “Tina comes first, but everybody counts.”
An abridged version of this is to appear at http://tokii.com.