Tina Han Su and I fell in love in February 1963 at Cornell University.
I met her when she joined the half-dozen of us in the introductory Chinese class. Tina had started the class mid-academic-year because– as you might guess from her name– she is Chinese-American and had already learned some of her parents’ native language at home. I was taking Chinese to fulfill my language requirement with something more interesting than the French and Latin I took in high school.
Tina and I enjoyed our Chinese class together six mornings a week, at 8 a.m. Often she and I then went for tea at the student union. I found her to be not only beautiful but intriguing, considerate, thoughtful, artistic…. She was a pre-med freshman and I was a junior majoring in physics. Each been “stars” in our small-town high schools, but each had to work hard to do well in this much more competitive Ivy League milieu.
Cornell was scenic and challenging, though a somewhat cold place. We provided our own warmth. We went hand-in-hand wherever and whenever we could…around campus, down to Ithaca and back, over the bridges across the gorges, sharing breakfast while looking at Beebe Lake, attending an occasional concert or lecture.
There were few Asian students on campus. Inter-racial couples were rare, but we experienced no hostility…at most an occasional stare. We had many mutual friends.
Apart that summer, we returned for my senior year, Tina’s sophomore year, knowing we might have only our three semesters at Cornell in which to be together. For my birthday in December 1963, she wrote:
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:
She then quoted much of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” one of my favorite poems, the poem that I later read to Tina at our wedding in June 1984.
In it, Donne likens the connection between separated lovers to a draftsman’s circle-drawing compass, its moving foot representing the lover who must travel away, while the central “fixed foot” always leans and “hearkens after it.” The poem ends, in our case prophetically,
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
Why didn’t Tina and I get engaged, in 1964, or even get married? In 1964 such marriages were much rarer than now. In the 1960s, some states still had laws against interracial marriage, “anti-miscegenation” statutes. We feared that our mixed-race children would not be accepted fully by many members of either race.
We were 20 and 21 years of age, too young to marry with confidence. A long engagement might have been feasible.
Both sets of parents were against our pairing, for reasons ranging from the practical to the ethnocentric. Tina was an obedient Chinese daughter. I was less obedient, but I did value my parents’ greater experience. Our marrying would have caused much family dissention.
If marriage to a successful Chinese professional who loved her would be better for Tina and eventually better for any children she would have, it seemed selfish of me to stand in the way. Tina felt the same about me and my best interests.
I had been Tina’s first love. We parted in June 1964, still in love, but afraid to marry.
Where’s the “gutsy” part of our story? By February 1983, nineteen years after we parted, I had been married and divorced, engaged and disengaged. I had reason to believe that Tina’s marriage of fifteen years to a university professor of Chinese extraction had not been going well. Passing through Chicago, where they lived, I called Tina. I had to know whether she still felt for me the love I still felt for her. “Nothing has changed for me in twenty years,” she replied.
We were ecstatic. We communicated by telephone and mail. Soon, Tina told me she was afflicted with multiple sclerosis, though her symptoms were then minimal. I read about MS and was shocked: there was a substantial probability that she would become quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent. My poor, dear Tina! I spent a sleepless night considering whether I could handle such an outcome, decided I could, determined I would, and the next day– by telephone, not having seen her in sixteen years– I asked Tina to marry me, and she accepted.
Gutsy? “Love casteth out fear.“
When we met a month later, we were both delighted with the person each had become, both glad we had made our commitment.
We married in June 1984, twenty years after having parted. Our wedding rings were inscribed, “A dream come true.” Even our parents now approved. Tina’s father’s wedding toast was: “Love conquers all.”
We have had twenty-eight wonderful years of love-filled marriage. The mixed-race aspect has not caused significant trouble. Step-parenting has gone very well.
Health? For the first decade, Tina could walk slowly, drive adequately, enjoy life fully. Then, in 1994, breast cancer struck, treated successfully with a mastectomy and some chemotherapy. Later that year, MS finally took away Tina’s ability to walk. With some help, I cared for her at home.
Twenty years into our marriage, in 2004, Tina nearly died from an MS exacerbation that led to a raging systemic infection. After 100 days in the critical care unit of our local hospital, Tina was dangerously weak, quadriplegic, permanently dependent on a ventilator, not expected to live more than a few months, given the choice of “home or hospice.”
We chose home, with around-the-clock skilled nursing care, and we have had the gift so far of eight additional very happy years.
Engraved on the gold heart charm I gave Tina for her bracelet in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary is our motto: “Together forever!”
We have never regretted our “gutsy” choice, to pledge to marry…sight unseen.
For illustrated version, see http://soniamarsh.com/2013/02/an-everlasting-love-story-douglas-cooper.html