Rose and Andy Bingham didn't have much of a wedding.
They took off to Vegas one summer and got married in front of two paid witnesses. They're not ones to celebrate anniversaries, either. One of them might remember a few days later, but there's always too much going on to make much of a fuss. The St. Louis-area couple have been busy raising their four children, along with a few they've taken in over the years. Their grandson also lives with them now.
For much of her life, Rose, 52, has been the one who takes care of people. She worked as an oncology nurse for 25 years, tending to cancer patients and their families; Andy teaches social studies.
About nine years ago, she had an excruciating headache. Her husband asked if he should call 911.
"Yes, call 911," she said. "I'm dying."
In fact, an artery had burst in her brain. It was a random incident that required surgery and left her in a coma for three weeks. When she woke up, she was almost completely blind. She had another surgery, and remembers putting on her glasses, starting to cry and shouting, "I can read!" The aneurysm left her balance a bit off, but Rose returned to work.
A year after her first surgery, she needed a cerebral bypass. She had a stroke during that surgery, but after rehab, she went back to work. Not long after that, increased dizziness and vomiting led doctors to suspect more brain problems. She had another surgery in January 2011 to drain the fluid around her brain stem, and woke up paralyzed from the neck down.
She recalled being in rehab and asking her doctor if she would be walking by the end of the year.
"I was just floored when he told me it was permanent."
She felt gut-punched. "I walked fast, everywhere. Now I'm in a chair," she said. "I was a tall 5'9"; now I'm 4 feet."
A life-changing injury changes more than the individual's life. It changes the lives of everyone else around them.
When we become parents, we're constant caretakers. It's hard to imagine we could be the ones needing help, especially in the prime of our lives.
One of Rose's sons, who is 24, lives with them and helps Andy take care of her. Some of their son's friends who had lived with them helped, as well. Rose says she probably hasn't been very gracious about going from being a caregiver to needing a caretaker. Nurses are in the habit of giving. There have been times when she struggled with deep depression. But most of the time, she considers herself lucky.
"My life is certainly better than a lot of people's," she said recently.
The nurses she worked with have stood by her. They bring snacks to their regular get-togethers, tell stories and laugh like lifelong friends.
"Rose is still Rose," one of them said.
Earlier this year, Rose confided a secret wish to her friends. This summer was going to be her and Andy's 25th wedding anniversary, and she wanted to renew their vows. Would they help her?
Her friends started making lists. One of them volunteered her backyard garden for the ceremony. They divided up the food. They made invitations. Someone ordered a cake; someone else got champagne. A spouse offered to play his guitar, and another offered to take photos. Someone hired a makeup artist.
Rose bought a $77 wedding dress online.
"I wanted my husband to think I was beautiful so that he would remember why he married me," she said, thinking of all the unglamourous daily tasks he does for her. "I wanted him to look at me as his wife again. Not as his patient."
Worried about standing long enough to say her vows, Rose worked on her strength in physical therapy, but still can only stand for a few minutes with her walker. When the celebration on June 25 arrived, Andy chose to sit in a chair. He wanted to look into her eyes while he read the vows he had written.
"The struggles we have had could do one of two things to a couple: push them apart or bring them closer together. And in our case, it has bonded us together for life," Andy said. "... Being with you has taught me the meaning of true love, responsibility and commitment ... You have held this family together for the past 25 years, and we will always need the love and support that you give us all ... I renew my vows to you, pledging my undying love to you, and ready to embark on the next 25 years of our journey together."
The party was a few days after their real anniversary, but it's a day neither will ever forget.