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In Life and Love

Richard Koeneman has been taking care of his wife of over 50 years Sandy Koeneman for the last 10 years. Their love for each other is still as strong as on the day they met. Video by Swikar Patel.

Photos by Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Heading home for a nap, Richard Koeneman says goodbye to his wife, Sandy, who's recovering from a coma.

4 brushes with death, but husband won't give up

Richard checks Facebook, which he uses to keep in touch with family, friends and former students and to keep them updated on his wife’s recovery. Sandy, 71, has suffered from multiple sclerosis for 40 years.
Richard, 79, a retired high school art teacher, has prayed repeatedly for his wife to live. But he says he’ll be ready to let her go when it’s time.
Photos by Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Richard Koeneman sits next to his wife, Sandy, at Summit City Nursing & Rehabilitation, where she was admitted recently after slipping into a coma. It was her fourth brush with death in the last two years.

– Four times, doctors said Sandy Koeneman was dying. Four times, they tried to tell her husband, Richard, that this was the end.

Richard wasn't ready to let go.

"When you love somebody so much, they're your whole life," Richard explains. "Without her, I'd have nothing."

Four times, Richard asked the doctors to do everything they could to save her, and each time, they did.

By now – after all they've been through, after all the close calls in the last few years – you might think Richard would be prepared to say goodbye to his wife of 51 years.

But he's not. Not at the north-side home they've shared for decades, not at the nursing home where she gets 24-hour care.

"When we get her home, we'll get her up in the wheelchair every day and get her out in the backyard where there's lots of flowers and sunshine," Richard says over the wave-like sound of the ventilator that breathes for Sandy. "The main thing is we'll be together all the time."

How does he find hope in the face of such odds?

Easy – Sandy, 71, has been dying for 40 years.

Love at first sight

They met in 1959 at the Rollerdome. Richard was 26, and his nephews had asked him to take them skating. Sandy was 18 and was there only because her girlfriend had insisted on it – insisted to the point that she went out and bought Sandy an outfit to wear, said she needed to get out.

Sandy went, despite what she thought was a terrible secret that would make meeting anyone pointless.

"Most of the people out there were just kids," Richard, now 79, says. "But there was Sandy, standing out in the middle of the floor all alone. So I asked her to dance."

He was immediately smitten but didn't think she liked him since she didn't say anything. So when the song was over, he retreated to the wall to lick his wounds. Then Sandy's girlfriend appeared and said Sandy – who is very shy – was hoping he'd ask her out.

"I was shocked," Richard says. "I went back over and we sat down on a bench. We talked and talked and talked – we just hit it off."

Today, Sandy lies in a hospital bed, unable to speak because of the ventilator, unable to move because of multiple sclerosis. But ask her if it was love at first sight and she beams. "Yep," she mouths.

"Later, she said 'I would have married you that night if you had asked,' " Richard says. "I said, 'You should have told me. I would have married you.' "

But first, Sandy needed to break some news to him, news she figured would send him running: She hadn't been going out because she was home taking care of her 6-month-old daughter, Julie.

"I said, 'Great! I get two for the price of one!' " Richard said.

There were other issues standing in their way. Richard was a chemist at the city's Water Filtration Plant, but he hated it. He had a pre-med degree from Purdue and was thinking about going to med school. Getting married didn't seem to be in the cards.

Forget med school

A trip to California changed everything.

On the Santa Monica Pier, Richard and the friend he was traveling with visited a booth where artists painted tourists' portraits for $5. Having done some painting, Richard took a job there, working noon to midnight, painting portraits nonstop.

"I'm right-handed, but I got so tired I would have to change and use my left," he says. He left after four days with years' worth of experience, and a sense that something had been ripped out of him.

"I missed Sandy so much when I was out there," Richard says. So much that when he got back to Fort Wayne, he bought a house on Buell Drive, then took Sandy there.

"You see this house, honey?" he asked her. "I bought it today, and we're gonna move in. We're gonna get married."

That was 1962. Richard adopted Sandy's daughter, Julie, and later they had Christy, then Mark.

In the meantime, Richard continued to paint, working out of the window at Sears. At some point, a friend's wife had won a contest where the prize was a family portrait by Norman Rockwell. When Rockwell arrived, the friend told him all about Richard's portrait work, and Rockwell asked to meet him.

"He looked real stern and said 'I've got a bone to pick with you,' " Richard says. "He said, 'You're not charging enough for your work. Five dollars? If you don't charge more than that, people won't think you're any good.' "

That night, after dinner with Norman Rockwell, Richard decided to forget med school and get a master's degree in art education.

'We're both happy'

No sooner had his classes started than a boy at the mall where Richard was doing portraits told him that the high school in Butler desperately needed an art teacher. Soon the superintendent was on the phone, saying he wanted to talk to him.

Richard told him he didn't feel qualified, but he was offered the job anyway. He observed classes for a day, and the job was his.

"I felt like I had died and gone to heaven," Richard says. "Going to work felt like a guy going on a fishing trip. Teaching art was like recreation."

As much as he loved teaching, his students loved him. He has 1,500 former students as Facebook friends who still keep in touch, though he retired in 1997.

Though Richard had his art and he and Sandy had each other and their children, things weren't always easy. In the early 1970s, Sandy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an often-disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. Its effects can range from numbness in the limbs to paralysis or loss of vision.

She had double vision and pain in her limbs, and would fall down when one of her legs would collapse beneath her without warning.

"There's slow-progressing MS and rapid-progressing MS, and we didn't know which one she had," Richard says. "She thought she was going to die right away."

But she didn't, though the MS progressed to the point where Richard had to retire early to take care of her. Soon, she was paralyzed.

Richard points to the book-lined living room, dominated by the now-empty hospital bed, awaiting Sandy's return from the nursing home.

"I've taken care of her for 10 years in that bed," Richard said. "They talk about hospice and palliative care, and they always talk about quality of life. But she can lie in the bed and look at the TV. She'll watch 'Andy Griffith,' 'Little House on the Prairie' and '7th Heaven' and she'll just laugh and laugh. … She's happy and smiling – she knows she's loved and loves in return. We're both happy."

In 2006, however, there was more bad news. Sandy was in the hospital, and when Richard returned home from visiting her, he discovered their son, Mark, had fatally overdosed on Sandy's pain medication. He was 39.

"I cried until I couldn't cry anymore," Richard says. "I went back to the hospital and told Sandy, 'Mark is not feeling well at all. He's very sick.' "

He told her Mark was at St. Joseph Hospital, but didn't tell her he was in the morgue there.

"Is he going to be OK?" Sandy asked. "I said I don't know, then told her the next day. She cried, but she was just so sick … "

As Richard tells the story, he leans forward over Sandy's hospital bed and rubs her foot, the light from the window lighting his white beard the way it lights her face.

"We just have to look at the bright side of things, don't we, honey?" Richard says to her. "You're going to be coming home and things are gonna be happy."

'But I wasn't ready'

But in the last two years, things haven't gotten easier.

First, Sandy developed an abscess on her bowel. Doctors feared she was too weak to survive surgery but knew that if it burst, it would fill her abdomen with infection and she would die. Instead of preparing to say goodbye, Richard asked his Facebook friends to pray for Sandy.

Then another doctor suggested draining the abscess with a tube. The procedure worked, and Sandy's first brush with death was averted.

"When you love somebody so much, you just don't want to accept it when they tell you you're going to lose them, because that's the worst thing in the world," Richard says.

Three or four months later, she developed peritonitis, the deadly infection that doctors had feared before. The doctor said he was sorry but that Richard should prepare for the worst. Instead, he prayed, because once again, he just wasn't ready to say goodbye.

It was close for a few days, but gradually Sandy began to improve.

"I just have a lot of faith in God and believe God made her better," Richard says.

Then about six months ago, Sandy started having trouble breathing. Knowing that the MS was weakening the muscles she needs to breathe, the hospital suggested hospice and palliative care.

"I knew what that meant," Richard says. "But I wasn't ready to give her up."

That night, the doctor called and said he didn't think Sandy was going to make it through the night. He could give her morphine to make sure she was comfortable, but Richard needed to prepare for the worst.

"I said I'm coming right in," Richard says. "Just give her a shot and let her go? I couldn't do that. I said, 'You've got to do something.' "

So Sandy went on a ventilator, and lived. With the machine breathing for her, she built up her strength, got better and returned home to Richard.

Then in mid-March, it happened again. Only this time, she kept getting worse until she went into a coma.

"I shook her and yelled, 'Sandy! Wake up!' and she wouldn't wake up," Richard says. "At that time, it did look hopeless. They said her breathing muscles, because of the MS, are going to get weaker and weaker and she's going to die. 'You need to face up to that,' they said. … If it ever seemed hopeless before, this time it really seemed hopeless."

Richard says he understands quality-of-life issues. He understands there is a time to let go. He would never let Sandy be in pain.

"If that were the case, I would say pull the plug," Richard says. "But she's not in pain. I don't want people to think I'm saying that at the end stages, when they're suffering or terrible pain, that you should just keep trying to extend their life. I think hospice and palliative care is a good thing."

But there is a time for those.

"Three other times I heard this, and she got better," he says.

And the fourth time? On Monday, though she still can't speak because of the ventilator tube going into her throat, she can mouth words silently, and the machine is only taking six out of every 15 breaths for her. She could be going home in two or three weeks.

"That long?" she mouths, looking sad. Then Richard pats her shoulder, and she beams. "Soon," she mouths.

'Made me happiest'

It would be easy to look only at the troubles Richard and Sandy have been through, especially in the last 10 years.

But they don't look at the bad times. They choose to look back on the good times, and look forward to what's to come: Sandy will come home, and they'll be together. And when the end comes, well, that's just another beginning.

When Sandy was first diagnosed with MS and thought she was dying, she wrote a song. Ask Richard to sing it to you, and he will, his voice soft and high, his eyes looking some place you can't see, some place only he and Sandy – together more than half a century now – have seen.

" … I will see Jesus/

my Lord and Savior/

one of these days/

one of these days … "

Richard says something in every interview and sometimes more than once, because it's important, and he wants you to understand.

"I think the most important thing in life is that we really love somebody and we feel that love in return," he says. "That's the way it's been with Sandy and me. We've been married 51 years, and that's what's made me happiest."

Ask Sandy, her long brown hair spread over the nursing home pillow, to describe her life. The ventilator hums, the monitors display their digital readouts, and across the nursing home hallway, another resident's TV blares. She can't move, can't talk, and can't go home. Can't be with Richard.

But she looks at him and smiles, and the word her mouth forms is unmistakable:

"Lucky," she says.

dstockman@jg.net

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