by Michael Gallagher from Hope, Maine
Sep 15, 12
In movies and television, whenever someone meets a married couple, it seems the question “How did he propose?” comes up. At least that’s how it seems to me. Fifteen years ago I proposed to the woman I loved. But in fifteen years, not one person has ever asked the story of how I popped the question. Being a good and somewhat typical American, despite not being asked, I am going to tell the story anyway: not because I am full of myself, but because I think it’s a good story.
In September of 1996, my lovely girlfriend, Kim, and I had just graduated from college. We had both studied Biology and were both setting out a plan for graduate study. We had the world at our feet. Our grand plans came to an abrupt and unpleasant halt when Kim, who couldn’t seem to shake a nasty sore throat, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. I don’t think I need to elaborate on what a diagnosis like that can do to a 22 year-old who thinks she is just beginning her life as an adult.
Kim immediately began receiving treatment for the disease, treatment which at times felt more dangerous than the disease itself. For the next six months, Kim spent over half of her time in the hospital, stuck on the “cancer floor”. For a month at a time, or more, she wasn’t allowed to leave the corridor - not even to go outside to breathe fresh air. Anyone who has ever had the rotten misfortune of receiving chemotherapy doesn’t need to be told what it does to your body. Somehow, she very rarely complained about her condition or her circumstances. She was the doctors’ and nurses’ most favorite, and most heart-breaking, patient.
I spent that six months driving to the hospital, sitting by her bed, watching television with her, and pacing the halls with her. And worrying about her. Whether it was denial or stubbornness or pigheadedness, I will never know, but I had a deep belief that she would be alright. I believed to the center of my being that she would make it through. That belief kept me sane during the one-hour drives to and from the hospital, during the lonely nights when I was not allowed to stay with her, and during all those moments that snap you back to reality after you’ve allowed yourself the luxury of thinking of something else.
Unfortunately, that belief was not shared by her physicians or by the disease itself. After three aggressive rounds of chemotherapy, the leukemia kept coming back. The treatment was not working. Kim needed a bone marrow transplant, but a donor had not been found yet. Time was running out.
After the disease came back for the fourth time, Kim was hospitalized for more chemotherapy. Her father caught me on my way into the hospital one day and took me to a waiting room. Looking utterly exhausted and defeated, he shared with me some dire news: Kim’s physician believed she needed a transplant now and that she would not survive this fourth round of chemotherapy. He suggested we all prepare for the worst.
I sat back against the chair, stunned. My deep belief that Kim would be fine did not jive with this news. I looked at Kim’s father and repeated that time-worn phrase that many men uttered before me: “Sir, I would like to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
Kim’s father, being the big, strong, macho man that he is, immediately began to cry...tears of joy. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I can only assume he felt some relief that his daughter would at least get to have a bit of happiness in all of the gloom. It didn’t take him long to agree with the idea and offer any help I needed in doing the deed.
The next morning, my mother took me to the jeweler where she and my father had purchased their wedding rings. My mother, the jeweler, and the jeweler’s wife spent hours with me finding just the right ring. Whether my mother had shared with them the circumstances, I don’t know: either way, they were incredibly kind, generous, and genuinely happy for me. After all, I was about to propose to my lady.
That afternoon, I drove the hour-long drive to the hospital, practicing the perfect speech. I kept my hand on the ring box in my pocket for the entire walk from the parking garage up to the fourth floor where Kim was staying. My heart was racing and my hands were shaky. When I entered Kim’s room, my heart fell. She was sitting by the window, crying. This was not something she did often.
When I asked her what was wrong, she said that the case manager had just left. The case manager shared with her the opinion of the medical staff: that time was running out and that a bone marrow donor had not materialized. The end was near.
Not knowing what else to do, I said, “I have something for you.” Kim looked up, puzzled. There was a faint look in her eyes that said, “Did you hear me, you doofus?” I went over to my jacket and pulled the small box from my pocket. I walked back to the chair she was sitting in, knelt down beside her, and gave her the little box. She said, “What is it?” I didn’t answer. She hadn’t yet opened it, but simply looked at me.
I took off the surgical mask I was wearing, that was meant to protect her from me and my germs. I looked deeply into her eyes and said, “I believe in you.”
So much for my practiced oratory.
Upon opening the box, Kim began crying all over again. But this time, just like her father, the tears were mingled with smiles and laughter. For the first time in what felt like ages, we kissed. The nursing staff found out what happened within about a nanosecond. Joy, which was not a common emotion on their floor, spread through the unit.
I would like to be able to tell you that everything worked out okay. That a donor for Kim was found. That she got her transplant. That she got better. That we married, went to graduate school, bought a house, and started a family.
So I will. Because that’s exactly what happened.
When looking back at that time in our lives, some folks like to say that Kim’s survival and recovery was due to divine intervention, a result of some unimaginable number of prayers said and whispered on her behalf. I mean no disrespect to anyone, divine or otherwise, but I politely disagree.
I believe the turning point had more to do with that modest, pretty ring than just about anything else. Not because of me or what I did or didn’t do, but because of what that little ring represented: hope.