Never too late for love: Couple receiving hospice care gets married

From the Jacksonville Florida Times Union (original article posted here) :

 

GREEN COVE SPRINGS | They met in the smoking room while they were in hospice care. It was love at first sight for her, though it took him, he says, a full two or three days to figure out that that’s where his heart was also headed.

She doesn’t try to be anybody else, he says. She’s funny. He likes that.

He’s got a good head on his shoulders, she says. He’s nice to her. She likes that.

John Whaley and Debbie Rivera don’t have many days left. They know that.

So within weeks of meeting, he proposed. She took a couple of days to accept. And three weeks after the proposal, they were married, in the courtyard of the nursing home where they met this spring.

She’s been married twice before, he once, and neither thought they’d do it again.

But every day is precious now, Whaley says, and life has come down to this: “I want to be happy, and I’m tired of being alone.”

Saturday was a pretty day for a wedding in this riverfront town. A northeast wind that whipped up whitecaps on the St. Johns was strong enough to find its way down Oak Street into the courtyard of the nursing home, where there was a wooden gazebo for the ceremony and plenty of shade for family and friends.

Whaley, 58, and Rivera, 54, both of whom have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, have been in hospice care at Governors Creek Health and Rehabilitation center since earlier this year. He arrived in late March, not too long after she was placed there.

A half hour before the 11 a.m. wedding, the bride-to-be was ready in a white dress, with a pearl necklace and bracelet, white flowers in her hair. Her legs moved vigorously up and down. Nervous energy.

Patricia Meeks, a chaplain for Vitas Healthcare, which provides hospice services for certain patients at Governors Creek, would perform the service. She tried to assure Rivera that all the details had been taken care of.

“All you have to do is …”

Rivera looked up. “Breathe?”

Whaley arrived in his electric wheelchair. He wore a black vest over a neat collarless shirt. He looked calm, but perhaps not. “Do you have the ring?” someone asked him.

Oops.

He sped away to his room, where he’d left the ring on a nightstand.

Rivera laughed. “I knew he’d forget it,” she said. “I’ve been through two marriages before. I knew it.”

She was raised on a farm in Kentucky’s Boyd County, and moved to Florida off and on some 20 years ago. She has two children and four grandchildren. “I’m just simple,” she said. “I’m just a simple lady. I’m a housekeeper. Nothing special. Raised my kids.”

Whaley was a heavy equipment operator from Delaware who moved to Jacksonville about four years ago. He has two children and eight grandchildren. Until he came to hospice, he was living in his camper in a trailer park off Philips Highway.

Anthony Hempel, a neighbor, took off work and drove to Green Cove Springs to see his friend get married. He got a little choked up talking about him.

“It’s good to see something good happening to him,” Hempel said, “instead of the same-old same-old.”

That same-old same-old involves a lot of doctors. Whaley’s right hand was amputated two weeks ago. Blood clots, Whaley said. Blood clots also cost him his legs two years ago. He has lung cancer as well.

He figures that life hasn’t been easy for him, or for his bride, which is something they had in common. “She’s been through a lot. I’ve been through a lot.” At that, he laughed and pointed where his legs would have been. “You can tell.”

This day, though, was a good day.

They had checked out of the nursing home already, and would spend their wedding night at his camper in Jacksonville. They’ll live there, too, and that’s where they’ll get their hospice care for now.

“We are going home,” she said.

Meeks, the chaplain, had talked with the couple beforehand about the step they were about to take. Their time left, she said, won’t be just about dying, but about living. Which is as it should be.

“His actual proposal was, ‘If I’m going to go out, I want to do it with you.’ They just decided they wanted to take this part of the journey together. I think that’s pretty special,” she said.

Meeks has performed many weddings as an ordained pastor, though none, she said, under these circumstances. But the words she chose were still those familiar, traditional ones.

In sickness and in health . . .

To love and to cherish . . .

Until death do us part . . .

When the ceremony was over — after a big kiss, after Meeks introduced Mr. and Mrs. John Whaley to those in attendance — the bride thanked everyone for coming. Then she and her husband took their wheelchairs down a short path to a nearby room where a big Publix cake, some snacks and some sodas, provided by Vitas, were waiting.

They posed for pictures there as her two hands helped his one hand cut a big slice of wedding cake.

She plopped a big handful of cake in his mouth, then playfully smeared some on his cheeks.

People chuckled, and the groom smiled. “That’s all right,” he said.

His turn now.

So he took a small handful of cake and — to a rising, anticipatory chorus of laughs — placed it neatly in her mouth, not a crumb out of place. Just like that, the laughs turned to satisfied sighs, all the way around.

 

Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082

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