“Like a Plaintive Melody”
by Douglas Winslow Cooper
Most mornings I sing to my beloved wife, as she lies immobile in the hospital bed we have at our home:
You were meant for me. I was meant for you.
Nature patterned you and when she was done,
You were all the sweet things rolled up in one.
You’re like a plaintive melody
That never lets me free,
For I’m content the angels must have sent you
And they meant you just for me.*
This song captures the bitter-sweet nature of our current situation, happy to be together, sometimes sad that Tina’s ill-health has limited her so greatly. She has been quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent, fed and medicated through a gastric tube, for the past ten years, and she will be so for as long as she lives.
Meant for Each Other
Our love story began in January 1963. Cornell University formed a 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.
Tina and I like to think we were “fated to be mated.” It seems amazing that this girl from Kunming, China, and this boy from Manhattan could have found each other. How lucky is that? There were about a billion folk in China. We had then in the U.S. less than a few million Chinese. That’s roughly 1000 to 1 odds of being in the U.S., not China. I was accepted by M.I.T., but my scholarship application was a few days late, leaving Cornell as my best option. Less than one student in a thousand at Cornell was in Chinese 102, so the probability of a randomly picked pair of students being in that eight-person class was less than one in a hundred thousand. The random nature of genetic combination means that she could have been born a very different person than she was, the same being true for me. I would not have married her sister, nor she any of my brothers.
Nature Patterned You
Actually, nature patterned each of us. Scientists generally agree now that much of our abilities and personalities are strongly influenced by genetics. A decade or two ago, Tina and I took the Briggs-Myers personality inventory test and found ourselves remarkably alike: more introvert than extrovert, equally intuitive vs. sensing, much more rational than emotional, more judgmental than passively perceiving.
In making us well matched for each other, nurture played a significant role, too. Both grew up in homes that valued education and thrift. The Chinese Taoist tradition favors compassion, modesty, and humility – virtues that my religion also supported.
All the Sweet Things
Tina was very popular and justly so. She had been senior class president in her high school. All the Cornell sororities she visited asked her to join. She made life-long friends at Cornell, always giving more than she got and tending to see the best in others. Warm, friendly, sympathetic, helpful, trustworthy…exceptionally nice, Tina was special.
Like a Plaintive Melody
She was a freshman and I was a junior. We had three glorious semesters left to be together, and we fell even more deeply in love. Usually, a couple our ages would have become engaged to marry, perhaps soon after Tina had graduated. It quickly had become clear, however, that an interracial marriage would estrange Tina from her parents (as did happen 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 of us would want to have a wrong decision harm the other. We accepted parental persuasion and pressure and parted very sorrowfully when I graduated, June 1964. We each cried a lot about our separation that summer…and occasionally thereafter.
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, an enormous moat.
While Tina was in England, I was drafted. She returned to finish at Cornell, went to Harvard, dated men of Chinese ancestry only, and married a 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 multiple sclerosis exacerbation, and with it 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 his wife and children.
After serving in the U.S. Army, I went on to graduate school at Penn State and Harvard. I married a Caucasian woman who strongly reminded me of Tina, and I steadily progressed professionally, becoming 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.
That Never Lets Me Free
I had never forgotten my precious Tina, but we seemed doomed to be apart.
Nineteen years after we parted, while I was on an academic business trip through Chicago, I called Tina there. Before calling, I had reason to suspect her marriage was in trouble. As we chatted, I was so comfortable talking with her, it seemed we had been apart for weeks, not years. I told her in my call I still loved her and I had to know whether we could ever be married.
“Nothing has changed for me in twenty years,” she stated circumspectly because she might be overheard. She meant she loved me as much as she ever had.
Soon after this, we talked several times via long-distance phone calls and we corresponded. She did a courageous thing, an honorable thing: she told me she had multiple sclerosis. I read a lot about it, spent a very sad night (that’s plaintive!) imagining her someday 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 someday she had gone through that without me? No.
“Will you marry me?” I asked her over the telephone that next day.
“Yes, yes, yes!”
I had yet to see her. When we did finally meet, weeks later, I was thrilled. She was all I hoped she would be.
On June 2, 1984, about 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.”
For ten years, multiple sclerosis was minimal. Then she had an exacerbation, a severe attack. For the next ten years, Tina could no longer walk but retained the use of her hands and arms. Then, in 2004, we nearly lost her altogether.
The Angels Must Have Sent You
“Please, God, don’t let her die,” I prayed and pleaded as I walked our dog around a little lake in early March of 2004, almost twenty years after we wed.
Tina Su Cooper, my beloved wife, had already 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 M.S. exacerbation. The resulting 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 had 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 M.S., especially when she was feverish, had diminished her cognitive abilities, which previously had earned her honors at Cornell and Harvard and then 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.
Near June 2, 2004, our twentieth wedding anniversary, the decision had to be made: go home to fight vigorously to live or go to a hospice to go gently to the grave? She was catching infections from the other patients in the hospital. This place of rescue had become dangerous to her.
Would we fight to preserve her life at home, in a replica of the hospital’s Critical Care Unit, or did she want to give up?
We would persevere.
“Be a brave soldier,” her father had often told her in her youth. We fight on, my brave soldier and I.
The doctors estimated she would live only a few months. We’ve had ten years, precious, sometimes difficult, wonderful years.
I thank God daily for the miracle of another day that we are together.
And They Meant You Just for Me
“Together forever,” we hope. That’s inscribed on a charm I gave Tina for our 25th anniversary 2009, five years after her near-death experience. We say it to each other daily.
A retired physicist, I put much stock in evidence and reason, less on faith. When I pray, I pray for Tina to be healed or at least be comforted. Perhaps asking for healing is reaching too far, but Robert Browning wrote that one’s “reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a Heaven for?” In Heaven, Tina would be healed. On Earth, if healing is not in the works, then consolation, or better, joy, may be possible. Love certainly is.
The cosmic Big Bang, fourteen billion years ago, certainly seems like the act of creation. Creation implies Creator, though it leaves open His origin and purposes.
We know there are billions of galaxies, each with millions or billions of stars. So far, however, we find that the chemistry and physics of these stars are the same as we have here. That leads to another observation: there are a dozen or so fundamental properties of the forces and of the matter that make up our world that need to be within a percent or less of their value on Earth for life to exist, even for the universe to resemble what it does. The probability of getting these properties all to be within the proper limits just by chance is infinitesimal. Cannot happen. Had to be designed by a Designer.
Unfortunately, there is no consensus on what the Creator/ Designer/God intends with all this. Various religions have various beliefs. If there are humanlike entities on other worlds, they are likely to have multitudinous religions, too. We are left to come to our best understanding in the limited time we have alive.
I believe Christ was divine. He told us we are to love one another. He said that his Father, God, had a place for us after we die, depending on our faith. It is inconceivable to me that other good people of different faiths will be excluded, though I know it is Christian dogma. We’ll see.
Tina and I will be buried side by side, though not likely simultaneously. If we are resurrected, wonderful. If not, so be it. Either way, “Together forever.” This will be engraved at the bottom of our shared headstone.
The pessimist is said to see the glass as half-empty and the optimist to see it as half-full. We are optimists and are enjoying what is left in our glass of life.
We have had to “play the hand we’re dealt,” with good cards and bad. Life is something like a card game, where playing more skillfully improves your odds without guaranteeing you will win. Tina and I feel we have been lucky and prudent and have won.
As we sat on our porch on a recent autumn afternoon, we agreed: if that were our last day on Earth, it had all been worth it.
Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D., a retired physicist, is a freelance writer who has written Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion, published in 2011 by Outskirts Press, available through amazon.com and tingandi.com. He has co-authored Ava Gardner’s Daughter? and The Shield of Gold, and edited High Shoes and Bloomers, three other memoirs also published by Outskirts Press and available from amazon.com and other Internet vendors. This article is an adaptation and extension of a shorter piece, “Ting and I,” published in the Winter 2011 Momentum - The National Multiple Sclerosis Society Magazine.
*“You Were Meant for Me (Broadway Melody of 1940)” by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed; lyrics © EMI Music Publishing Co.
Published in an anthology edited by Michelle Tupy (2015), Love Alters: A Love for All Seasons, pp. 56-61.
After an eighteen-year courageous battle at home with multiple sclerosis, Tina died of the complications of a severe respiratory infection at Westchester Medical Center, on the evening of April 25. Her death has left a hole in our lives, with a memory of this beloved, loving, and talented woman.